Sometime in 1976, I think it was, there was a big poetry festival in Eugene, Oregon. Several poets from Santa Cruz were invited to read, Greg Keith and I among them. No one expected the impoverished bards to check into hotels; we camped instead at Ken Kesey's house in Springfield, where he and his wife, Faye, spread out blankets on their living room floor. The following morning there was a big breakfast, with Kesey holding court. A dozen of us sat around the table, listening to the author's tales and injecting whatever bright remarks we could. We were eager to make an impression on this man--one of the few American heroes born after 1930.
Greg, however, moved to a remote corner of the living room with a mug of coffee and a knotted loop of string. While the rest of us laughed and postured Greg drank his coffee, and entertained a small group of children with the string. Watching Greg play with string is like watching B.B. King with Lucille; his mastery of the medium is a joy to behold. He had those kids mesmerized for a good half hour--weaving and pinching that humble loop into a parade of figures that ranged from Kwakiutl fetishes to the Cheshire Cat.
By that time, even our host had taken notice. Kesey migrated over to the children's domain; the rest of us, naturally, followed. Cat's Cradle, as we know, is a game; one person takes the string from another. But no one could match Greg's skill. He'd ask someone to put a finger here, or pinch a loop there--but the sleight-of-hand was his own. It was magical; astonishing. When Greg completed his repertoire, Kesey leaned toward him and pronounced the words we'd all longed to hear: "Come back anytime you want," he said.
This might seem a strange anecdote with which to introduce a collection of poems. But nothing I can recall, from nearly a quarter century of friendship, better illustrates Greg's extraordinary gift. Using the simplest elements, he achieves transcendence. From a length of twine to the life cycle of a photon, everything he gets hold of is subject to a sly, self-confident alchemy. As carefully as we follow the process, we end up amazed by where he's brought us, and mystified by how he got us there. The effect is so compelling that even when the illusion ends--when the Cheshire smile unravels, or a meditation on starlight reconvenes from its spectra--we find our perceptions transformed. We will never look at a bit of string, or the cosmos, in the same way again.
Don't get the wrong idea. Though he is fascinated by it, Greg's poetry is not about stuff. It is about the animating force, the ineffable miracle that breathes life into matter; that makes matter self-aware. Greg's writing is passionate, emotional, erotic.
It waltzes, with Astaire-like confidence, between our two most elusive, ethereal realms: hard science and the human condition. From neurophysiology to the boa of arousal; from the fate of Japan's blue coral to the origami of the human heart--nothing is more fascinating to Greg Keith than what this world is made of, and what we make of it.
I know of no other poet who moves so gracefully, with such subtlety, across that territory. I know few other writers who even acknowledge that such a territory exists.
Life's not what we think, Greg writes in "Another Note to the Young." It's what the body does. Sorry, my friend; I disagree. Your life is in these thoughts: in this brilliant parade of images which loop and morph from simplicity to complexity and back again. And knowing what I know--knowing, as we all know, what Greg's body is doing--I can't help but recall one more line, taken from "Care and Feeding": Love and death pinched together in delicate fingers. In our fingers, now. He hands the string to us.