By Hap of Happy Hap (Al Stephens Notes)

by jkatejohnston

Three more things about Al Stephens.

1. I love the way he looked.

2. He was readily amused.

3. He was interested in something I don’t know how to name. Luck, chance, hap, the awesome power (wrong word!) of what happens to happen. I remember him mentioning with approval the bumper sticker: Shit Happens.

1. I love the way he looked.

Tall, impossibly thin, white straight hair, bright brown eyes, and what a glance. As Max Schott said, even the way he looked at a book was arresting. (And what a family for brown eyes. Fran’s were beautiful. You have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the photos.) The way he looked was an accurate index of the man. He was made of the same stuff all the way through, out onto the surface, instantly recognizable as distinguished. (I guess that’s what integrity means, but I don’t like that word.)

I remember the first time I saw him. I was a reader (like a teaching assistant) for a class John Ridland was teaching in the English department. I was having office hours, sitting in John’s office at his desk, eighteen years old and so many wise things to say, but nobody came. A man appeared in the doorway. I explained my presence and added, “But no one is coming to see me!” He laughed. And looking back, I’m grateful that I had just enough sense to make fun of my own self-importance and grateful to him for laughing. He left a book that he’d borrowed from John. When John came back I said that no students had come, but a gentleman came by and returned a book. John looked at the book and said, “That was Al Stephens. And gentleman is the word, isn’t it?” John told me to take classes from Al, advice I took a long time to follow, so that I almost missed him. But I caught up with him in the end.

2. He was readily (not easily) amused.

His laughter reminds me of Johnson’s remark that you can laugh stupidly or intelligently. His amusement was wonderfully intelligent, discerning and also whole-hearted. It was all about noticing. As he wrote of Fran “Her gaiety at any flash of wit confirms its quality.” I remember someone (Kia possibly) telling a story about a guy throwing a loaf of bread at someone (why?), and Al’s remark, “I hope he put a good spiral on it.”

Here’s a poem that I find wonderfully amusing. And it’s on a big subject. And now I have to back-pedal. It’s not what you’d call a funny poem. But it has these sparks of amusing detail that bring it back from being too Big. If you have to write about Truth, it had better be with a light touch.

The White Dog Truth

I make out the white bulk in the dark —
the dog approaches at a quick pace
and goes by showing no interest in me,
and such is the quiet of the street
I hear the clicking of his toenails
on the blacktop, quick, business-like,
even half a block away, the sound
growing fainter very gradually
and already, while I keep an eye
on the wire-thin half rim of light
the moon shows in a sky jagged
with trees along the bottom —
already this encounter, the white bulk passing
in the dark, the diminishing click
of the toenails along the stretch
of silence back there, cannot be forced
not to have been, the lords of creation
themselves will have to submit to
its having been, if they should find it
some day blocking the way of a desire.

(Alan Stephens, Collected Poems, 220,

3.  Luck. Chance. Hap. The awesome power of ordinary happenings (see poem above). I don’t know how to write about that. But I want to put in some poems that make me think about his interest in that. Of course there’s a lot more going on in each poem that just that subject. These three poems are together in his sonnet sequence about running at Hendry’s.

Running With My Sons

Two of them home by chance the same weekend!
I fight a fear that’s like Ben Jonson’s fear,
Of being too glad of having them down here
Running abreast with me on the hard smooth sand.
And all the better it is for being unplanned:
I have no heed for shorebirds, or the clear
Sunlight inside the wavelets rippling near,
Or other runners, or the familiar blend
Of surf- and gull-noise. — One of them sprints away
Spattering through the shallows like a pup,
I say to the other “Don’t let me hold you up,”
And off he spurts. I watch them happily.
How they shine! across the difference of years,
And will shine in my day fears and night fears.

Running With My Sons

Fifty-one runs with nineteen and twenty-three
Thinking “by hap of happy hap,” the phrase
Cast by the crude old Tudor well displays
The kinship of happiness and luck … I see
From the corner of my eye how springily
The boys are striding, how their breathing stays
Easy and light. Not so with them always,
Both once rode crutches after surgery.
We round the second point and they run on
Into the haze, down beach I’ve never run,
While I turn back, and think of how that stretch
They’re running is like the years I’ll never reach;
And think helplessly, how will it be for them?
It’ll be the same and sharply not the same.

More Hap

Bad omen in the morning and once more
Late in the day, encountering face to face
Two sons of bitches, each at a time and place
I’d never seen either one of them before.
And the day, picketed by this polluting pair,
Went wrong; running in the dusk I now retrace
The slight brain-lurches that put me off my pace …
The slippages of heed that are my despair!
So I run along full of my latest blunder —
And everything’s still, but a distant simmering
From the sea, the light rakes low, the tide is neap,
In the strange peace I nearly halt in wonder
At water in thin clear layers wavering
On the flat sand — a kind of shining sleep.

(Alan Stephens, Running at Hendry’s, 17-21