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11.04.09

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Phaedra

Morton Marcus

1936–2009

By Stephen Kessler


MORTON MARCUS, whose outsize presence animated and at times dominated Santa Cruz County's literary culture for most of the last 40 years, died peacefully at home after a long illness early in the morning of Oct. 28. He was 73, and seemed both younger and older—younger because his attitude toward everything was one of boyish enthusiasm, and older because the amount of living he jammed into his years would have taken several lifetimes for anyone less charged with creative energy. To fellow writers, Marcus was best known as a poet, but in a far more capacious sense of that word than simply someone who writes poetry. In his case being a poet meant being part rabbi, part shaman, part entrepreneur, part teacher, part movie critic and television personality, part radio host and interviewer, part journalist, raconteur, bon vivant and, oh yes, writer of lots of poems and books of poetry—verse poems, prose poems, lyrical poems, surrealistic fables, family narratives, nature poems, urban poems, short poems, long poems, skinny poems and fat poems. At times didactic or philosophical, at other times comic or fantastic, often stretching beyond any signature style or comfort zone, his writings defied easy categories and roamed wherever his imagination led.

I first met Mort in 1968, soon after we'd both arrived in Santa Cruz. In our occasional dinners together, I was struck each time by his voracious intellectual appetite (not to mention his appetite for food): He was, as he said to me in a conversation last year, "absolutely intensely engaged in everything" and could draw on his vast reading and picaresque personal history—having been farmed out by his much-married mother to a series of boarding schools and fending for himself throughout his youth—to talk as well as eat you under the table. A conversation with Mort would typically range from poetry and poets to sports and athletes (he'd been a boxer and a street fighter, a high school basketball star and later a coach), from Eastern philosophy to movie trivia, from international politics to his familial and personal odyssey starting in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and migrating through New York City to Northern California and eventually Santa Cruz, which he considered his only true home.

It was Jim and Jeanne Houston who first cajoled Mort and his family into moving to Santa Cruz. Houston and Marcus had been graduate students together at Stanford in the early 1960s, and their friendship then evolved into a lifelong personal and literary alliance as they became twin towers of accomplishment in their respective disciplines, Jim in prose and Mort in poetry. Their illnesses and deaths within six months of each other this year are a devastating double blow to local culture. Both in their early '70s, both still working right up to the end (Mort completed his final book two days before he died), they represent the passing of an irreplaceable generation.

I remember a conversation we had over sushi and sake one night in the 1990s, when Morton admitted to me that he felt he had not measured up to his original ambition to be a truly great and famous writer. As with most of us who begin with such lofty goals and dreams, those illusions had given way to a more realistic assessment of his achievement. But he realized that was no small thing, and that all the books he'd published, the magazines and anthologies in which his work had appeared, all the readings and lectures he'd given and classes he'd taught and articles he'd written and friendships he'd cultivated and events he'd organized added up to a lasting contribution to his community—both the local one and the larger immortal fellowship of literature with which he felt forever affiliated. Morton Marcus left his mark on Santa Cruz, and on each of us who had the singular luck to know him. As artist and Mort's friend Futzie Nutzle said, "It's hard to believe that somebody of his magnitude is somewhere else now."


A memorial service will be held Saturday, Nov. 7, 1–3pm, at the Cabrillo Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College, Aptos. The Marcus family is donating Morton's poetry collection and literary papers to the Morton Marcus Poetry Archive at McHenry Library, UCSC. In lieu of flowers, tax-deductible contributions can be sent to: Library Development Office, Attn: Morton Marcus Poetry Archive, UC–Santa Cruz, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz.

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