TRIBUTE TO DAVID SIMPSON
I wish to thank Mike Northen and Wordgathering for making a place to honor the life and work of my brother, David Simpson, who died of ALS on December 1, 2015. While Dave focused most of his creative energy on writing, he also ventured into organ performance, singing, acting, and composing. As a starting point in understanding Dave's breadth of interests and his depth of commitment to art, I have included an overview of Dave's life and work, written by Philip Jones, Ona Gritz and me.
Start on the north side of Philadelphia's City Hall and walk north on Broad Street. As you reach the Race Street intersection, look up at the Hahnemann Hospital building across the parking lot. There, you will see a mural titled Independence Starts Here. Find the tall man in a plaid shirt and blue jeans in the right half of the painting and you will have found a portrait of David L. Simpson.
Simpson, a resident of Glenside, died on December 1, 2015 of ALS. He was 63. Because he was born blind he never saw the mural, but he loved the idea that, in this picture, he was more than 70 feet tall. Each person in the painting has a disability of some sort and, in the words of artist Donald Gensler, "is an engaged contributor to the various communities he/she represents." Simpson was certainly an engaged contributor to his communities.
Dave and his twin brother Dan, also blind since birth, attended the Overbrook School for the Blind as residential students, starting at age 4 in 1956. Their family moved from Williamsport to Berwyn to make it possible for the twins to spend weekends at home. Dave and Dan attended Overbrook until 1966, when they became the first blind students to be mainstreamed in the Great Valley School District. They graduated from Great Valley High School in 1970.
Dave graduated from Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, in 1974 with a B.A. in Spanish and music. For the next two years, both Dave and Dan attended Westminster Choir College, Princeton, NJ, earning B.Mus. degrees in organ performance. After graduation, the twins traveled to France to study organ with the world-renowned French organist Andr� Marchal, who was also blind. After returning to the US, Dave worked briefly as a church organist, but found that having to memorize all the ephemeral music necessary for Sunday services left little time to memorize and practice organ literature.
From 1982 to 2003, Dave served as a computer programmer, database administrator, and mainframe database designer for Bell Atlantic/Verizon. To accomplish this, he had to master a variety of technologies for making computers accessible to blind users. This would serve him well in later pursuits.
Upon retiring from Verizon, Dave worked as a contractor for Dancing Dots, Inc. and the Braille Music Institute, teaching blind teenagers to use adaptive software to read and write music. To sustain his own life as a musician, Dave joined the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and sang with them for over twenty years. Early on, in the mid-1990's, he recruited his brother and another Overbrook classmate and worked with them, as well as others in the chorus, to produce braille scores of newly commissioned works. Mendelssohn Club has long offered braille copies of its concert programs to visually impaired audience members who came to these concerts as a result of their connection to these three singers.
In addition to singing in the chorus, Simpson greatly enjoyed his role as a dancer in Urban ECHO: Circle Told, the earliest collaboration between Mendelssohn Club, the Leah Stein Dance Company, and composer Pauline Oliveros. The chorus of 70 remained in motion throughout the piece as 7 dancers from Stein's company moved among them. Dave's electrifying dance duet with dancer Jumatatu Poe was a highlight of the piece.
But Simpson's main artistic focus was writing. In the mid 1990's, while still working for Verizon, he earned a Master's degree in creative writing at New York University where he studied with poets Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Gerald Stern, and Marie Howe. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cortland Review, River Styx, and Verse Daily. He read at such venues as The Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia's First-Person Festival, WXPN World Caf�, and was interviewed, along with his brother, on Whyy's Radio Times with Marty Moss Coane. Simpson was the 2007 Montgomery County Poet Laureate and the recipient of the 2007 Ted Kooser fellowship, awarded by the Nebraska Summer Writers' Conference. He also received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, The Hambidge Foundation for Creative Arts and Sciences, The Independence Foundation, The Vermont Studio Center, and The National Endowment for the Arts. His poetry collection, The Way Love Comes to Me, was published by Mutual Muse Press in 2014. The National Braille Press now offers it, together with his brother's poetry collection, School for the Blind, in a single braille volume.
Dave's culminating artistic achievement came last June. In Crossing the Threshold into the House of Bach, an autobiographical one-person show, the sole character, a blind man named Dave, struggles to learn a difficult Bach organ chorale prelude while wrestling with questions about religion, art, and death. Simpson had hoped to perform the play himself, but the swift progress of his ALS soon made that impossible. Friends active in the Philadelphia drama scene mobilized to mount a production of Crossing the Threshold into the House of Bach directed by Mimi Kenney Smith and acted by Michael Toner. Performances took place in two Philadelphia area churches, with the actor often seated at an organ console. Toner is not an organist, so Simpson, along with sound designer John Stovicek, recorded all of the organ snippets required in the course of the play. Moreover, since Dave was no longer physically able to perform the entire piece, which the actor "plays" at the end of the show, he and Stovicek devised a plan in which Simpson played the piece one melodic line at a time and Stovicek mixed the separate tracks into a seamless rendition of Bach's chorale prelude.
(After the first two performances of Crossing, Toner was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. Playwright Michael Hollinger, mentor and friend with whom Dave conferred during the writing of the play, stepped in to offer a staged reading. Dave was able to attend all three performances.)
The first three of Dave's poems presented here appear in his book The Way Love Comes to Me, published by MutualMuse Press. The recordings of Dave reading them are taken from Audio Chapbook, a CD he and I produced in 2007. The reading of the final two poems "To My Terminal Disease" and "The Cruise to Nowhere" come from the service celebrating Dave's life and work, held in Philadelphia on April 24, 2016.
A basketball bounces by the pharmacy as I go in.
* * *
The Way Love Comes to Me
The engine cut a gully through the sleeping world
* * *
Why I Never Married
Of course, I meant to, having been raised
but then I took Physics and found out
with Miss Caisley, my Physics teacher.
and something about mystery:
made me think of gravity
and that I couldn't help but be orbiting Miss Caisley
* * *
To My Terminal Disease
* * *
The Cruise to Nowehere
It was something we talked of doing for several months,
But with one thing and another,
Sometimes, after the fact,
Of course, our cruise ship, over a thousand feet long,
How could I help but think this might be my only cruise,
In the last few years of his life, Dave became enthralled with the theatre. It began with an opportunity to act in a play produced by Mimi Kenney Smith for Amaryllis Theatre and steadily progressed to the completion and production of his one-person show, Crossing the Threshold into the House of Bach, also produced by Mimi Smith in June, 2016. Although Michael Toner did a fabulous job of premiering the role of Dave, we're including here an excerpt of the play, read by my brother at the Vermont Studio Center, while he was at work on the manuscript.
"Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit," an organ piece which, legend has, Bach composed on his death bed, figures prominently in Crossing the Threshold. The character of Dave, a middle-aged man, absent for decades from playing the organ, returns to a church with the hope of learning to play this piece. When a new youth minister comes into the church to pray, the protagonist finds himself opening up to her. Through this chance encounter, the play weaves together and explores themes of family, mortality, theology, failure and reaffirmation. Dave plays every note in this recording, but since he no longer had the physical stamina or coordination to play the piece from start to finish, he had to rely on the technical genius of John Stovicec, the play's sound designer, to make the recording. John and Dave recorded the piece, fragment by fragment and voice part by voice part, then tweaked it through sound editing, to construct this remarkable performance.
Music always played a key role in Dave's life, from performing organ recitals and singing in choirs to giving concerts with me, where we played four-hand piano and sang our own arrangements of the music we grew up with. He was an avid listener, on the lookout for new discoveries that challenged the mind or touched the heart. Dave didn't compose a lot of music, but when you hear his Two Lullabies, you can't help but wonder where he would have gone with it had he decided to turn more energy and time in that direction. The performances of "Cradle Song" and "Lullaby" heard here also come from the service celebrating Dave. Deepest thanks to Jennifer Beattie (mezzo soprano), Jean-Bernard Cerin (baritone) and Donald Saint-Pierre (piano) for these beautiful renderings.
I conclude this celebration of Dave with tributes: poems by me, Shirley Brewer, Elizabeth Rivers, Scott Edward Anderson, Michael Northen and Rocky Wilson, a review by fellow poet Stephen Kuusisto of Dave's final poetry reading, and an essay by Ona Gritz. We are fortunate indeed to have had Dave here, living, thinking and creating with us and fortunate indeed to have a place like Wordgathering where we can continue to enjoy some of his gifts.
In deep appreciation,
* * *
Letter to My Twin Brother
I had to.
We make up stories
Still, I'd like to think
The doctor smacked me,
Sometimes, as you well know,
* * *
Manet's The Dead Toreador
Dressed in finery, the fallen
Among the gallery's scenic treasures,
Next morning, a message relays
In Cape May, at a poetry workshop,
I want to emblazon those words in red
* * *
Taking the curves blind
For supper, he broils
train whistle, dog’s whine,
bilities, he plays
arrests his flesh, knots
* * *
App to the Stars
by Scott Edward Anderson
I can't see the stars tonight
Virgo hiding behind the corner
Moving my iPhone to the left
Back down from ceiling to floor,
But it’s a series of random names
Now panning with my phone facing me,
* * *
Cento for David Simpson
If I could see, would I have known that this winter
A tree in some distant woods,
There's no room to explain.
* * *
Show and Tell
Last weekend I saw Dave as big as life, actually way bigger than life, with his black lab guide dog, in the mural on the side of Hannamen Hospital.
Hey Dave, Thanks for your most wonderful parting gift…you told your brother, Dan, just before you died that of all the things your friends and family might have wished they had done for you and didn't—all the cards that didn't get sent, the extra prayers that were never uttered, the phone call that for some forgotten reason we didn't make…that all of the energy of these things we think we should have done somehow got to you anyway, Dave, and that everything is really OK and just the way it is supposed to be.
I start to type this with my eyes shut because that is, at least a little bit like the way you composed, Dave. Now my closed eyes are wet like the world outside on this April morning. The tears fell in church too, the first Sunday I was there after finding out you had passed and so I didn't put you on the list of prayers for the sick. When your name did not hang in the air in Sacred Heart I kept my eyes closed for a while and then very slowly opened them, the wetness making the flowers on the altar and the stained glass blurry at first. I imagine you up in heaven doing the same thing, Dave, opening your own eyes for the first time in your dark and wonderful life, a life that has brought so many parachutes of light into the lives of everyone who knew you.
And is there someone there at the heavenly gates like that young woman in the store, years ago, who seeing you come in with your dog, closed her cash register and took you around to find everything you needed? After toilet paper and tooth paste comes in perfect ABC order… Trojans! And the two of you stood there in front of the big display of contraceptives of all colors sizes, forms textures and she offered her own expertise in the field and you yours and finally you agreed on we;;.semi colon semi colon… With my eyes still closed the fingers on my right hand, all excited, I guess, at the subject matter slipped off j, k, l, semi-colon on to k, l, ;, apostrophe, resulting in a bunch of gibberish.
O, mpt sire bit pme pf the, amd pr a dpzem pf the, a, mpt sire amd tjem upi wrpte a great great [pe, abpit ot amd read ot fpr is atfergoes [ib amd tp pir great kpu amd tp;d is tjat ;ater the gor;. abpi
Finally I opened my own eyes and what I meant to say was something like I'm not sure, Dave, if you got three or a dozen or maybe the best deal, the 36 pack special. Anyway you wrote a great poem about the whole adventure and read it to us at Fergies Pub and made us all laugh, filling us all with a magical joy.
Later I heard that young woman wrote a poem from her own perspective of that unforgettable day. We are still waiting to hear that one.
Here's a brief poem I wrote…
Dave, have you met Lou yet up there, once the luckiest man alive? Or was he too famous for you to see in the very beginning. Maybe you had to start with Wally Pipp* at first. Get the double meaning, Dave. I know you do. You were so good with words. I feel so blessed to have known you. I can't seem to stop the tears. I have heard that even the hardened photographers wept when Mr. Gehrig made that speech in Yankee stadium.
Maybe one of your old dogs, who you could finally see, was there at the gate, off leash, waiting patiently for his old master along with, your father, Dave, only this time he is not asking you to feel things like a butterfly's wing or a snail shell or a magnolia blossom. He is showing them to you.
The green pastures will be saved for a special guide…
"…Now the grass seems to be the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
"The spotted hawk swoops by
I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable
You and Walt, scare a bunch of crows out of a heavenly cornfield, Dave, and the "caw-caws" and flapping of wings that you have heard before are now happily joined by the sight of those feathered forms ascending into the blue. All this is accompanied by the sounds of an old spiritual, "His eye is on the sparrow…" and so, at last, is your eye, Dave.
At the edge of the field is a red bearded man with a floppy straw hat and an easel, busy dabbing black birds into his painted field. Feast your eyes, Dave, on a pallet of colors you have spent a lifetime imagining. Feast your eyes on Van Gogh, himself.
And so I, the sighted one, imagine it goes. For me who has a weak to non-existent sense of smell, I imagine the focus in heaven will be on smelling lilacs and roses and fresh cut hay. But I think God has so much more in store for us.
While we are in imagining mode, Dave, I look way ahead into the future when that young woman who guided you through the store that day, finally cashes out her register for the last time. Maybe you'll be the one to meet her at the gate, Dave, to show her around this time and your combined laughter will echoes through the aisles of heaven. Perhaps, then, Dave, you and the rest of the Mendelssohn Hallelujah Choir will begin to sing for her
"Amazing grace how sweet the sound
All my love to you Dave and best of luck in whatever new adventure awaits you…
* * *
Poet David Simpson: The Way Love Comes to Me
I don't know how many poetry readings I've attended over the past forty years. The actual number would be pretty high. I went to a poetry-centric liberal arts college and the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. The number doesn't matter. Its enough to say I've heard some great poets read their poems so movingly I've walked into the nights filled with milk and iodine; feeling wide and tall with stars for a cloak; windswept and in love with love; frightened and rich. But last night in New York City, at the NYU Creative Writing Center on West 10th Street I heard the poet David Simpson read from his newly published book to a room filled with poetry admirers and friends and I believe he gave the finest reading I've ever heard. I do not say this lightly. I will remember last night's reading for the rest of my days. David Simpson is a complex man: he's a musician, poet, playwright, classical organist, and he's performed with numerous symphony orchestras, including The Boston, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta symphonies, as well as The New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. But last night he was a poet. He was a poet who gave a reading so pure and lyrical I wanted to cry. Poetry can do that to me–perhaps to you as well–usually when the tears are about to come its because the poems are driven by emotional candor with a compassionate softness of tone, an urgent softness, the kind that only a clear spirit can obtain and communicate. Enough to say that after David Simpson read last night, a young man in the audience said to me: "Man! That was the real thing! Old School!" I said, "yeah, not ideas about the thing but the thing itself" and he said, " " That's it!" I didn't tell him the phrase came from Wallace Stevens–enough that Simpson's poems had reached so many in the room. The night would be different for everyone. Poetry can do that.
Listening to David I felt the cusp of tears and tenderness I associate with Hart Crane's famous poem about finding his grandmother's letters in the attic. I get this feeling also from Whitman's 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.
How many poets do you know who have a twin brother or sister who also writes poetry? David's brother Dan Simpson was also in attendance.
How many twin poets do you know who are also blind? And as I say, have so much talent one suspects they could move furniture by means of telekinesis.
Here's an ars poetica if ever there was one, a poem in which David Simpson recalls riding a ferris wheel with Dan when they were around ten years old:
The bond of our wildest cooperation–
The poet Molly Peacock writes of David Simpson's book The Way Love Comes to Me:
Poetry to turn to on a sleepless night, poetry to open with breakfast on a snow day, poetry to seek when stabbed by memory: this is the work of David Simpson in The Way Love Comes to Me. Here are poems lucid and many-layered, at once cold fathoms deep and warm as skin. From line to line they sort their way through the jumbled paradoxes of existence. With music at once sacred and sassy the poet captivates, comforts, and makes us feel wiser. The brilliance of Simpson's poems is that they answer a call we did not realize we had uttered.
The poet Kuusisto says:
Buy this collection.
* * *
It was nearly a year and a half ago that Dave told me he was probably dying. I sat on the porch swing on my terrace, phone pressed to my ear, the leaves on the one visible tree in the courtyard below me trembling in the breeze. As Dan's brother—my not-quite-legal brother-in-law, my good friend—talked evenly and scientifically about his neurons separating from his muscles, I felt, strangely, as though I knew what he would say milliseconds before he said it. This let me take in the news with a calm that matched the way he told it. I listened, asked questions, and didn't cry.
"I'm sorry," Dave said. "I didn't mean to talk about all this. This was supposed to be a happy birthday call."
"I asked," I reminded him. Of course I'd asked about his health when he called me on that particular birthday. He'd been going for tests for months, trying to find the cause of his shortness of breath, the weakness in his legs, his sudden drop in weight. The doctors had ruled out lupus, Lyme disease, and HIV. They had, it seemed, ruled out everything for which there was a test. This left us here, facing the most ruthless of possibilities: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It's the speed demon serial killer of motor neurons also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"I feel," Dave told me a few weeks later, diagnosis confirmed, "as though I've been found guilty and given a life sentence, though I've done nothing wrong."
That time, both of us cried.
* * *
Dan and Dave are identical twins, and as much as those words imply closeness and affinity, I can't think of any words that truly describe the deep interconnectedness these two men share. Born blind in the early 1950s, they were sent together, at age four, to boarding school. Think about that. Picture your own child at four, not merely toddling through the door of a classroom for a few short hours of preschool, but leaving home to sleep in an open dorm five days a week. They were cared for by overworked, underpaid strangers, and weren't allowed a single phone call from home. Such calls, the theory ran, would only serve to make the students homesick and slow their process of adjustment. It's nearly impossible to imagine, but if you or I had a sight-impaired child at that point in history, we'd be assured by the top educators and doctors of the day that sending our little one to an institution like this was the one right thing to do.
The School for the Blind was a harsh place but it wasn't entirely without pleasures. There was playtime with friends. A library filled with Braille books. A kind teacher who took the time to tenderly apply lotion to each of her students' hands at the end of the school day. But what really made it livable for the twins, of course, was that they had each other. In the crowded dorm, their beds were side by side, so that at night, after a day when the housemother had been particularly short-tempered, or Dan or Dave had squabbled with a friend, or they simply missed home more acutely than usual, they could reach over and clasp hands.
Recently, a friend of mine, at seeing a photo of the twins at age three, marveled at the way they sat shoulder to shoulder, Dave's fingers resting on Dan's.
"At that age," she laughed "I'd have expected them to be chasing each other and clobbering each other over the head."
But from what I know, Dan and Dave have always been loving toward each other. As small boys, home for the summer, they taught themselves four-handed piano so as to never wind up arguing for a turn. In high school, when pitted against one another for a wrestling match in gym class, they stayed up late the night before, figuring out how to stage a tie.
* * *
These days, 16 months post-diagnosis, the wrestling match is between Dave and ALS, and the disease has no interest in an even score. It's whittled him from 208 pounds to 128, robbed him of the ability to walk or stand independently, and to use even a thick-handled utensil for eating. Dave's lung capacity is now down to 23 percent so that talking can exhaust him. Thankfully, though, Dave has not given up on talking. He's always been a wonderful conversationalist. We discuss the books he's reading—poetry, science, and theology. He troubleshoots technology glitches with us; recites the remarkable poems he composes in his head; and describes his most recent losses, sometimes matter-of-factly, sometimes with unabashed grief.
Dave has said that if any good has come of his illness it's that he can really feel how much love there is in his life. It's easy to see what he means. He's adored by so many, besides Dan and me. His wife Emily, his mother, stepfather, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and countless friends. Everyone has pitched in where they can—assistance with personal care, rides to doctors' appointments, homemade dinners dropped at their door. Dan and I each spend a day a week with Dave while Emily is at work. I love my Dave days. I stretch out on Emily's side of the bed and we talk quietly or I read to him, then help him type something or make a call, and bring up our lunch on a tray, feeding him if it's difficult for him to manage on his own.
Years back, Dan taught me a phrase for the tangible, day-to-day ways we care for the people in our lives. Practical love, he calls it. I think of my dad who always showed up at my door with his tools in case anything needed fixing; my friend Dawn who called to warn me when the sidewalks were especially slippery last winter; my friend Julia who helped me pack my books, then drove me and my belongings across state lines to the house Dan and I now share, though she hated to see me move. And, of course, I think of the thousands of small tasks we do as we parent. Lately though, when the term practical love comes to mind, what I picture is Dan walking behind Dave, hands tucked beneath his twin's skinny arms as he steadies him and guides him toward the bathroom or to bed.
"I've got you, Brother," he assures Dave, and I think about how that fact has been true for the whole of their existence. How enviable. How heartbreaking. Everyone any of us has ever loved is mortal, and there's not a damn thing we can do about that other than keep on loving each other, as reckless and impractical as that may seem.