Edna Vincent Millay wrote this poem in 1866
The bustle in the house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon this earth, --
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
I was reminded of this poem when visiting the home of a musician, Tim Belk, who outlasted his friends from the 80’s, they all having died of aids, he the last, at 72, to slip away. He was a musician first and a literary person second, his Russian Hill apartment in San Francisco an orderly outpost of a taste for music, literature and art, his walls decorated, his shelves full, his books both signposts of interest in various European haunts and non-fiction generally. His upright piano, this piano his way to communicate, was both a source of communication and income. He was a regular performer at the Curtain Call and Etoile in San Francisco for many years. He was, to quote his brother/cousin, Joe Belk “beyond all other things a special human being, a signal presence in the lives of many, his influence lasting, his wit and humor incandescent.” He was an acquirer more than a collector but seems to have been reluctant to part with those things that had, at some point, interested him. I was asked by Joe to cast an eye over his printed material for the stray object of value.
He was a character straight out of a novel, actually, straight out of three, all of them by the highly regarded Pat Conroy that knew him growing up in the late 1960’s in the sandy pines area of South Carolina. Pat, then a teacher and later a novelist, based characters on him in at least three of his books, all of which went onto acclaim and in two cases, into movies. He was a gay man on paper and in life. Recently, in his funeral eulogy for a friendship that lasted thirty years, Pat reminded us that distance and time do not, when the spirit is strong, always diminish friendship. The distance grew to 2,800 miles and the years became decades but Tim‘s spirit remained close enough for him to make continuing appearances in Conroy novels that have since been read and seen in movies by perhaps ten million people.
And he was also a real person who had taste and eclectic interests that in his apartment were discernible, the man gone but his foot and fingerprints everywhere to see. On the day I visited he was gone, gone to where the memories of those who knew and loved him are stored and cherished. But he was also present, his Wurlitzer-Kurtzmann piano like him, silent but still in tune. And this left, to his brother and friends the less than work but nevertheless obligation to clear the place out timely. And I had a very small role in this, just to look over his printed accumulations.
In his case the material was more sentimental than valuable and so the options more about eBay and Goodwill than PBA or Bonhams.
But I was also struck by the complexity of the material and it reminded me that collectors of the complex and occasionally expensive have an obligation to provide at least the picture on the puzzle box to help those who pick up the pieces to know if and how they may fit together because, once the main player is gone, there is usually a short-hand scramble to free up the real estate – because those who sort the debris have their own lives and interests, and can not spend a year or two to unearth the logic and value of the often obscure pieces of a collection.
This is why I suggest to collectors, when I know them well enough, that they map their course to the finish line and it is why, however difficult it is to see the day coming when no more books or maps or ephemera or manuscripts will be purchased, they nevertheless plan for it. That is a difficult idea to accept. For myself I face open-heart surgery in December to correct some inherited defects and even so, am knee-deep in fresh purchases, an exceptional painting of Rondout and an irreplaceable Sanborn atlas of the D and H railroad - mapping every inch of the line from deep into the soul of upstate New York right down to the waterfront in Albany.
I suppose I am not ready to die either but neither are most others who have died with their books on their shelves. We cannot clean house because our love affair with life is expressed in part by our connection and recollection of the past. But, while I’m continuing to collect I recognize that my collections of the Hudson Valley must be as orderly and understandable as Tim’s turned out to be. Part of collecting turns out to be preparation for the inevitably unexpected.
And of course I hope to get started soon, just as soon as my upcoming surgery has moved from prospective into the rear view mirror. As for Tim Belk, he has reminded me that even when life has been well lived it still ends.
Pat Conroy delivered a eulogy for Tim and I link to it here. Men build monuments that quickly fall silent. Mr. Conroy’s words I expect will live longer and so they should. Here is a link to them:
The words are sweet but the greatest gift he gave Tim was to have included him in his books. Readers, in the years ahead, may not recognize the once flesh and blood character but he’ll be out there, in conversations and in quotes. If there is an after-life this is it.