By Gary Schwartz.
John Rodriguez, an extraordinary natural and studied poet who wrote about his life in an open book, died this summer by his own hand.
There is no short list of poets dying young, but this one was ours.
John could place a physician’s finger on the pulse of the Bronx, its rise and fall, its quirks, irregular regularities, and exquisite ethnicities, with a specialist’s eye and ear for Latino and particularly Borinquen life and heritage.
He was renowned in poetry circles in the city. I knew him very well in the closing years of the last and dawn of this century as my advisee and student in the Lehman Scholars Program. He won a Magnet Fellowship from the Graduate Center, their highest award, in 2002, enabling him to complete a PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, with full support for five years.
John was a joy in the classroom, a shrewd and gifted observer and analyst of narrative and character in texts, whose uncannily acute insights made me wonder how he got there and realize that he could have been Dante’s Vergil, a guide with intricate knowledge of his terrain and its landscape. John could take your mind unanticipated places , and he was the rare sort of student you craved because he elevated you. I always read his essays last, like the Cyclops keeping Odysseus for dessert.
We talk about “demons” in our lives, but John was pursued by what bluesman Robert Johnson called “Hell Hounds On My Trail,” whose provenance was John’s hellish childhood and adolescence, a heartache and source of fulminating anger emerging beyond his control sin aviso.
John was at his very best as a student in class. It was a protected precinct for him, where he knew his status, and could withdraw from the pain of his quotidian life to enter literature and film and gain some distance from himself in the lives of others. And he was at his most brilliant when he read his poetry before a public audience. John took the light of life from himself because like a hero in a Greek tragedy, his gifts failed to console him or let him console himself. What an artist the world has lost!