A Poet’s Sendoff for ‘Saint Carlos the Melodious’

In a city full of poets, there are few whose very lives are poetry. Carlos was one whose whole life was poetry. He radiated kindness and good will. No one can remember hearing Carlos say an unkind word about another person. His phone message was a musical invitation that included waltzing bears.

by Kitty Costello

 

Ninety friends, family members, and poets gathered on Sunday, April 21, at St. Martin de Porres House of Hospitality on Potrero Street in San Francisco to celebrate the life of the playful, beloved songster and poet Carlos Ramirez (1938- 2013), who died on March 10 after a relatively brief bout with brain cancer.

Carlos was a well-known figure in his Mission District neighborhood and beyond, easily recognizable by his halo of white hair, his long white beard, and his sweet-hearted, whimsical manner. He was involved in so many different communities in the city for so many years, that one memorial participant commented, “You don’t ask, ‘How did you know Carlos?’ Rather, how could you not know Carlos?”

He was a regular at many of the poetry readings in town, including Sacred Grounds Coffee House, Om Shan Tea’s Open Heart Poetry, and La Boheme Café at 24th & Mission, where another memorial gathering was held for him last month.

Carlos studied poetry at New College and City College, and he attended writing groups at Central Hospitality House, Faithful Fools, and Studio Arts in the Tenderloin, to name a few. He attended several Zen and Insight meditation groups in the city, was part of the Freedom Song Network, exchanging peace and pro-labor music with other activists, and he per- formed in numerous fundraisers for AIDS and cancer relief, for the children of El Salvador, and other causes.

Carlos was San Francisco-born to Salvadoran parents, then moved to El Salvador at age 3, returning to the United States four years later when his family fled during a revolution. He lived in the Bay Area after that, settling eventually into the Mission District.

His creative work combined original and borrowed poetry, song and dance, and was marked by sprightly inventiveness and playfulness, both in formal performance as well as on street corners, on MUNI bus rides, or in casual encounters with friends. Carlos had a special fond- ness for the poetry of Langston Hughes, setting some of his poems to music.

He worked as a substitute teacher in the San Francisco school district, where he had a reputation for rarely sticking to the lesson plan, sometimes serenading the students with voice and guitar. He taught poetry and song to children through the public library and other venues, including traveling to El Salvador to work with children there.

In 2012, Carlos published a selection of his work, called My Heart in the Matter: Stories, Songs & Poems.

From the many rich songs, prayers, eulogies, stories and poems heard at Carlos’s memorial, here are a few insights and revelations:

From his rooftop in the Mission District, he could be heard daily at 7 a.m., crowing like a rooster.

His outgoing message on his phone was a musical invitation that included waltzing bears.

He was a tender-hearted guy who wasn’t afraid to let it happen.

No one can remember ever hearing Carlos say an unkind word about another person. He believed that if we knew a per- son’s whole story, we couldn’t judge … yes, even Hitler.

He listened at all costs to his interior self rather than to social convention.

When he was with you, he would give you his whole and complete presence.

He radiated kindness and good will, and those present at the memorial were encouraged to give a warm, loving smile to every single person we meet in honor of Carlos.

Another reader announced his canonization as “Saint Carlos Ramirez, the Melodious.”

Through Native American ritual and song, we were encouraged to let go of Carlos with joy, to let his spirit be free, the same way he lived his life. It was noted that in a city full of poets, there are few whose very lives are poetry. Carlos was one whose whole life was poetry.

 

POETRY FOR CARLOS

Too Soon, Carlos, Too Soon,

(for Carlos Ramirez)

by Kitty Costello

You could see his halo

from blocks away

down sun-seared Mission streets,

his glow arriving well before

his sweet smile-crinkled face

came to full view

 

Beside the produce stand one day,

our friendship still new,

he showed me how

you could wrap yourself, each arm clasping the opposite shoulder,

to gently knead and rock

rock and knead in self-embrace

whenever feeling loveless or afraid

 

Eyes and ears deeply tuned, he’d ask,

“How’s Kitty today?” meaning me

and my answer, rapt in soul listening,

let me hear

unforeseen selves speaking

 

When powers-that-are

BELLOWED,

leaned their

mean weight down —

soldiers, fathers, petty cops –

he shied deeply in

to ready refuge

of his own vast tenderness

 

Crooning his poem tunes,

teaching us how to make rain,

pied pipering children

who let flow for him their

no-longer-silent poet voices

onto once white paper.

 

 

CARLOS RAMIREZ*

by Jack Hirschman

Comrade and revolutionary

lover of such rich and

meaningful independence,

relishing every zenny compa,

always reverberating,

living on smiles,

rendering all means indivisible,

reading every zero coolly

as real lost ones.

 

See reincarnate

a man in radiant eternal zest.

Congregate and ring

love’s old sweet

radical and manifest

intensity

Ramirezing every

zone.

(* an acrostic in which each word begins with a letter from the name CARLOS RAMIREZ repeated 4 times)

Carlos Ramirez radiated kindness and good will. Photographed here in Golden Gate Park, his halo of white hair shines in the sun. Photograph by Linda Atkins

 

POETRY BY CARLOS

 

Some Words

by Carlos Ramirez

What are we here for

if not

to bow

sway, sing

as ripening apples

beneath

the sun’s reign?

 

 

Childhood Woes

by Carlos Ramirez

The kid

who needs

an audience

 

Sullen cries

 

where does this

come from?

 

A pit

of sorrow

 

Not given

a chance

to play

with language,

to shape

the clay

of words

 

Patriarch dad says

speak Spanish here

if you want to eat

 

Where can I

speak my heart,

find friends?

 

I touch

these wounds

today.

 

 

War Cries

by Carlos Ramirez

I’m about

eight years old

 

This one

Sunday

afternoon,

pop orders me

to go to

the movies

 

I don’t want to,

he flails me

with his belt,

I wail.

He yells,

I’m doing this

for your own good

 

I stiffen,

surrender

 

Walk with

brother Jorge

and sister Ivy

to the Alexandria

 

Blue Skies

smiling at me

Nothing but

Blue Skies

do I see

 

Stars Bob Hope

And Bing Crosby

 

Why am I being forced

to see a movie?

 

I learn some things

about him

one day

 

He was orphaned

at age fifteen,

walked from El Salvador

to Guatemala.

Shoes unraveled

en route,

peed on his feet

to keep the skin

from cracking

 

Sported a bullet scar

on his right hip

 

Would entreat kisses

from mom

in the kitchen

to no avail

 

Talked about himself

just one time

in all the years

I knew him

as a youth.

 

 

 

Crucible

by Carlos Ramirez

Organ cactus

on Alvarado Street

rises

deepens

 

Each

column

is ringed

by dots

who once

flowered

in their place

 

This cactus

knows abuse

 

Its stalks

were axed

years ago

by neighbors

furious

with the property’s

landlord

 

Since then,

offspring

have bloomed

from its

crippled stumps

 

I wonder:

what mysteries

inhabit

its looming

breath

and aren’t we

each

a cactus,

regenerative

succulent v

ulnerable

 

to anyone,

who

strikes us

in fits

of rage

and terror?

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