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A Tribute to Michael O’Brien

February 7, 2019

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We are very saddened to announce the passing of poet, mentor, and teacher Michael O’Brien who joined the poetry workshop in another dimension on Sunday. RIP, Mike, you will be missed by all.

Posting this piece by Jim Klein in O’Brien’s honor.

Finally a Decent Guy in Grad School

We are teaching assistants at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, in the late sixties registering freshmen. I get manic and silly. I have good fastball, a curve, and a change-up going right away. Then I start mixing in the junk: a screwball, an emery ball, and this guy with horned-rim glasses and a trimmed black beard, O’Brien, he stands in there and rattles one down the left field line, goes into the gap in right with the next, bloops one over first base, and then pulls a low, outside pitch over the left field wall out onto Waveland Avenue.

We had a powerful effect on each other, found ourselves acting as one. We left together yakking and started walking somewhere we each thought the other knew where we were so busy talking. Finally, a decent guy in grad school.

After a while we got organized enough to find our cars and buy a case of beer and go to my trailer. He and his wife would come over for supper. Here was this great guy! Our wives, who had never met, couldn’t catch up. Voices blurred and the night ended with O’Brien and me staring at the cold chicken and potato salad as they tried to make conversation. It was embarrassing. The next couple of years we even passed a few times pretending not to notice.

In 1969 I had a fellowship and began working on John Barth, specifically Giles Goat-Boy, full time. I had a library carrel, but before work I’d drink coffee and read the Chicago Sun-Times in the K-room of the Y with a few friends, now including O’Brien. As the year wore on I got into the habit of leaving my reading in the middle of the afternoon and wandering over to Room 206 in the English Building, a huge room with about 60 desks. I was struggling with Barth, and without the release of teaching I had a backlog of things to talk about. If one of us hadn’t read something, we said so.

He had read a lot more, and I had read some things better. While I talked into a critical dither, he would sit there looking into the middle distance through his horned rims, smoking Pall Malls, playing with his beard and dropping modifications and new leads into my spiel. Sometimes it worked the other way. But he had a little speech glitch, and I wasn’t one to give people an extra count in an interesting conversation. He was more metaphorically-minded, and I could tangle his metaphors together. We complemented each other beautifully. Together, we were one genius.

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