I have written countless posts and shared many videos over the years from my home back in central Pennsylvania. I am deeply saddened to say that we lost one of the quiet giants of that world, a tender, strong, and supporting lover of music, poetry, and art. From hosting the first Sunday services of Music and the Spoken Word at the historic Priestley Chapel, to emcee-ing the informal readings at Faustina’s art gallery with Poetry Under the Paintings, Tom Bresenhan had his steady hand on the wheel, always steering us in the direction of beauty, unity, and human kindness.
We lost Tom last Friday after complications from a surgery that would be considered routine. I can barely begin to tell you how much he will be missed or how heartbroken our little community is over this loss. There are some people that you never even consider losing. Tom was—is, to me, a timeless figure.
If people were lights in the night sky, some of them far off and twinkling softly, others bright and hurried flashes that disappear into the dark almost as quickly as they arrive, Tom was a constellation. Tom was the great bear, Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), a dependable reference point in the dark, guiding us toward other beauties, both old and new. I don’t know how many times I’ve read an astronomy article in which the scientists had said that to find this comet or that meteor shower, first find the Big Dipper at a particular time of night, then look below it toward the horizon, or out from its handle toward Orion’s bow . . . That was Tom, always a steady and reliable guide, whether he was reading the classics to us or supporting a young poet on her first night reading in public.
Whenever I was testing out some new poem at PUP (Poetry Under the Paintings), I would watch Tom’s face. If the corners of his mouth rose into a smile, or if he nodded in that certain way, I knew I was doing something right. If his face suddenly became blank, I knew I had more editing to do!
I wish I had heard more of Tom’s own poems, but those I did hear touched me deeply. I’m hoping someone has a copy of the piece he brought to a workshop at the Priestley Library once. There were only the two of us in the history room that night. The poem was about a young woman at the checkout line in a town she had just moved to. It was one of the most tender insights into the human heart I’d ever heard. Some friends are hopeful that a compilation of his work can be put together in the future.
Below are a couple of my favorite timeless moments with Tom that I spliced together from Poetry Under the Paintings at Faustina’s Gallery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I’m so glad we caught some of this on video. This night in 2012, Tom was introducing many of us to the work of poet Wendell Berry. Beneath the video is the link to a poem by Li-Young Lee that helped me this week. I think Tom would have liked it, and when I hear it, I hear it in Tom’s voice.
by Li-Young Lee
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard . . .
Thank you, Tom, for both the smile and that serious but patient look of concern whenever my lines went astray. We miss you already, but we’re grateful you were here.
[image by Raymond Cummings: Tom with Jan Pearson and Ann Keeler Evans]