Courtesy of Phish BlacklerIf you were fortunate enough to have met Gary Tomlinson, you no doubt learned that some people don't so much make first impressions as sudden, sharp forced entries into your consciousness.
Tomlinson was among the most brilliant poets ever to work in Orange County--and one of the most intelligent people I've ever had the pleasure of hanging out with. He died last spring in his sleep. It was heart failure, and it may have had something to do with the fact he was diabetic. He was 47.
The first thing you noticed about Tomlinson was how he carried himself--and what he was carrying. He tipped the scales at 350 pounds, was built like an oak, and always wore his hair in a long ponytail. He had a booming voice and the stage presence of a live bear. There has never been another poet in Orange County--none that I've heard or seen, anyway--who has come close to matching Tomlinson's intelligence, verbosity or sensitivity. And no performer has ever scared me as much as he did.
God only knows what he did in his younger days. There was the mystique: Was he really packing a gun in his sweats? Had he really shot a drug dealer in the jaw, shins and hands as he claimed in one of his masterpieces, "Tiana"? You never knew for sure, though you knew not to ask. Still, though he may have looked like the roughest, toughest son of a bitch in the room, Tomlinson had a rich, deep soul that manifested itself in that voice.
Fellow poet and close friend Tom Rush performed with Tomlinson dozens of times, but he still recalls their first meeting about 10 years ago. "It was a party for a bunch of poets, and this big, heavyset guy with long hair and a beard was reading a short story about deer hunting, something about unsheathing his knife to gut a deer," Rush said. "And I thought, 'Oh, great. Here's another Hemingway.' Then he read a poem called 'Sometimes I Have These Fears.' And I was just blown away. I realized he was this really intelligent, talented, funny and bright person, someone who had been through the ringer and had some miles on him."
Tomlinson was born in Wisconsin, raised in Santa Ana and never knew his biological parents, Rush said. His adopted father was a librarian, a rather ordinary fact that seems salient only when you look back on his kid's growth into a poet. He was also an altar boy in a Catholic church, and at some point, he rebelled.
"There was always something vague about Gary's past," Rush said. "He'd had some questionable friends and had done some things he wasn't particularly proud of. Early in his life, he lived kind of a violent life, but he chose to be a gentle person. No one wanted to fuck with him because he could easily tear your head off. But he chose nonviolence. Even though he liked to shoot guns and shit like that, he had a lot of dignity about him and a respect for people."
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In "Rise to Greatness," Tomlinson is by turns petty and large--small enough to be "glad my ex had a hell of a time with her next three husbands/That her life is hell, and I like that somehow," but gracious enough to acknowledge the pettiness. He predicts his own death, and even your reaction: just as he does not care that his former father-in-law "blew his brains out in a field/So as not to make a mess in the house. . . . When you read this/I will be dead. And I know you will not care."
But we do, some of us. Tomlinson's work was never formally published. "He should have been published," Rush said. "He was a true artist and a true poet. He was brilliant and difficult and, in my mind, the most talented of all the poets I've ever heard in Orange or Los Angeles counties.
"I miss him very much. . . . I still have dreams about him."
Read "Rise to Greatness" and two other poems by Tomlinson on Thee Instagon Foundation's website, www.tif.org. Two other, older poems (circa 1995), including "Tiana," one of his most shockingly explicit yet twistedly beautiful, can be found at www.globalink.net/~toefur/poetry.html#gt.