The Dead Sing Brokedown Palace for Ken Kesey (May 8, 1984)
by Alan Walowitz
The last we ever saw the Chief—
after he took good care of McMurphy,
broke his neck a couple of places
and broke out into the night—
one hand was latched to the bumper of that chicken van
the other hitched to a tree to keep the wrestling team inside
from sliding off the cliff in the worst snowstorm
the Cascades had seen since ’58.
But by then the Big Injun was getting small again,
worn down and laid waste by the high-talking hucksters,
and pickpockets, and card-sharps,
but along with it came this hard-won but unspeakable wisdom:
Ain’t nothing we can do to make things right.
Still, Kesey, he’s gotta live with the death of his wrestler-son,
another twenty-one years, a sentence he could never do sober or sane–
till one night in Eugene, Kesey sitting in a box over the stage
with the smoke wafting off the rafters in waves
the Dead turned to him–for all their shambling harmony,
close as they ever got to as-one–and sang:
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
The Deadheads were stone-silent as if there were ghosts in the bleachers
and the silence enveloped Kesey like an embrace.
Then–finally–he knew: Art needn’t be a fist to the face.
In fact, maybe he’d been wrong about everything,
and maybe, just maybe, and against his better judgment,
he might begin some merry madness all over again.
Process note: This story is legendary and, like most legends, I don’t know how true: How Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, found some peace when the Grateful Dead played “Brokedown Palace” for him after the death of his son who had been a collegiate wrestler. I guess the reader can decide how true this sounds, though I like to believe it.
Alan Walowitz (www.alanwalowitz.com) has been published various places on the web and off. He’s a Contributing Editor at Verse-Virtual, an Online Community Journal of Poetry. His chapbook, Exactly Like Love, is available from Osedax Press, and his full-length book,The Story of the Milkman and other poems, will appear soon from Truth Serum Press.