by Terry Messman
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is something timeless and almost mythical about the way his journey ended, like a half-remembered fable. A poet who has battled illness and poverty and his own inner torments finally achieves a measure of peace — just before he dies unexpectedly in a low-rent hotel on a nameless block in the poor part of town, surrounded by piles and piles of yellow pages filled with hastily scribbled poems.
Then, after his death, the poet is hailed as a prophet and visionary by Catholic nuns who were inspired by him, social workers who deeply admired him, and poor people who counted him as a true friend.
The poet is Michael Creedon, and he left a legacy of love and compassion and prophetic art when he died in an SRO hotel room in downtown Oakland last August 16. His dedication to the downtrodden fueled an art of tender mercy and outspoken outrage against the system of oppression he once called “Moloch.”
Prophets and seers may walk among us unseen and unknown. That’s how the saying goes: “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.” Sometimes a prophet draws his last breath — unheralded and unknown — in a nondescript room in a cheap hotel on San Pablo Avenue.
Sister Mary Nolan, OP, a Dominican nun, is a licensed clinical social worker and nurse who has worked at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland for the past seven years. She was working at St. Mary’s Center last summer when she heard the infinitely sad news that her friend Michael Creedon had died right down the street from the center he had loved so well.
Sister Nolan knows her theology and she doesn’t lightly say that one of her clients is a prophet. Yet, in an interview with Street Spirit, she said straight out, “I think in earlier times, Michael might have been called a prophet or a seer. I’m not trying to idealize him, but he did have a vision of compassion and honesty.”
“When I say a prophet or a seer, I don’t mean that with capital letters, but that idea of speaking the word of truth.”
She is not romanticizing Creedon’s life because she saw him many times as he ricocheted between his ups and downs — one day, so high he was “gloriously glad to be alive” and a few days later, so low he was absolutely flattened by depression.
“His poetry was Michael in his best moments,” said Sister Nolan. Once when Creedon gave her an issue of Street Spirit with an abundance of his poems, she kept the issue for years and still has it at home.
She loved his poetry because of Creedon’s deep empathy for people living on the street. She said, “Michael had an ability to speak from the inside of people’s experiences. He spoke as the person he wrote about, and he spoke with a compassion and an honesty.”
Shirley Cheney, a case manager and counselor, supervises Recovery 55 at St. Mary’s Center, a recovery program for persons 55 and older. She worked with Creedon closely for five years, and was deeply involved with him during some of his soaring highs and crashing lows.
Cheney said, “Michael was a beautiful, thoughtful, talented, tormented soul who touched your life and you wanted to just take him and take care of him, and wipe away his tears.”
She often found herself doing just that. Creedon’s lowest point may have come one evening when Cheney was called by the manager of the Ridge Hotel in Oakland, the SRO where he was living at that time. The manager called in a panic, saying Creedon was up on the roof with only a sheet wrapped around him. “That was the worst moment,” Cheney recalled.
For more than 10 years, Creedon sent his poetry to Street Spirit, and his vivid, ragged, street-raw, and sometimes surrealistic poems were avidly read in the community. His first two poems were published in the January 1999 issue of Street Spirit, entitled “Coming Home” and “Down on the Street.”
These poems set the stage for everything that was to come. “Coming Home” drew an historic line, straight as an arrow, from the beggars of today to the poor and oppressed of Christ’s era. Creedon writes:
“The clothed and the naked, I see them
All the time on these streets, homeless
And looking for a newspaper to
Huddle on, hungry and looking in the
Suddenly, the poem takes an abrupt turn, and, in a startling glimpse, we realize we’ve seen these beggars somewhere before.
“It’s the beggars from the New Testament,
Need I point out? We’re
Here and we’re hungry.”
Liberation theologians say that God has made “a preferential option for the poor” So has Michael Creedon, in his poetry.
At a time when art is often a luxury bought and sold by the rich, Creedon’s poetry was always in service to the poor — on the side of the poor. Instead of inviting rich guests to a feast, the New Testament says, we will be blessed only if we invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind. That is precisely who Michael Creedon invited into his poetry.
“Down on the Street,” his second submission, revealed that he was not writing about other people who were hungry and homeless. He truly was a voice of the voiceless in that he himself had been hungry and homeless, down and out, hurt and traumatized. He had been cast out by his own society, and the ordeal left permanent scars that shaped and guided his art.
And he meant to channel the voices of the destitute so we all could hear them. He heard the sounds of suffering on the streets and he creatively transformed that anguish into art so we were lacerated and pierced by those screams:
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
I hear the screams of the
Who are being fried on red hot irons.”
Even though Creedon’s poems often seethed with outrage at injustice, they were not heavy-handed or ideological. Their meaning was to be found only if one took the time to get to know the street people he had befriended himself.
In his poem “Buster,” Creedon invites us into the circle of friendship with a street alcoholic most people would only spurn, and offers us a touching glimpse into his humanity, but also his mortality.
All things are ephemeral and fade like the grass, as we have been taught by the Buddha and Ecclesiastes and the Bhagavad Gita. To be human is to realize how fleeting life is and yet still be passionately committed to treasuring it.
In the middle of a friendly talk with Buster, Creedon sees clear evidence of his friend’s shortened life-span right before his eyes: “I’ll miss him when he’s gone/ And he’ll probably be gone/ Soon.”
For a moment, in the midst of a light conversation on a “bright, cheerful day” on 41st and Broadway in Oakland, the poet is suddenly dressed all in black, and his readers are mourning — ahead of time — over the passing of a man they never met..
Sister Nolan said that when Creedon looked at the world and the suffering on city streets, he said through his poetry, “That is not right that people live like this. But instead of just saying it like that, Michael would describe his experience in the emergency room, and how no one saw him, even though he was bleeding. He showed that kind of categorization and stereotyping and exclusion that everyone in his position experiences all the time.
“Michael wrote in the perspective of Christ crucified, and he was the Christ sometimes, and sometimes he watched the crucifixion happen, but always he knew what the pain was, and he also knew what the social system was that was causing it.”
Because she works every day with poor and homeless seniors on the decidedly unsentimental streets of Oakland, Sister Mary has little use for any kind of sentimentalized notion of spirituality. That’s one of the reasons she admired and loved Creedon so much — because his poetry and his values were honest and real.
“Michael had real insight into human suffering because of his own experiences of suffering, even as a child, and also from life on the streets,” Sister Nolan said. “I was inspired by Michael. He was real and he was an inspiration to me. I loved that Michael was in our life when he was here at St. Mary’s Center.”
“I feel so grateful and so blessed to have known him. I think I’m a better person, and a better clinician, because I’ve known Michael. Michael called forth honesty and truthfulness and compassion. And he called us to do the work we need to do, to get it together — because he did, against terrible odds.”
Susan Werner, a longtime staff and art instructor at St. Mary’s Center, got to know Creedon after he had written a haunting poem that described how homeless people huddled outside on the vents to get warm.
Werner said, “The depths of his empathy for the utter trauma of the human condition was really riveting to me, and I think that’s what struck me about Michael, is that he could withstand this trauma and he could humanize the terrible truth of how people are surviving.
“There’s something about Michael that’s scary. He’s willing to go to those places that I would rather numb out to. He can render them alive even in their terrible truth. Even in the parts of his poetry where I most want to say, ‘Oh, it’s terrible that people live in these conditions,’ his heart could go there. He could see it and speak it.”
Werner recalled how working with Creedon transformed people for the better. “At St. Mary’s, every staff member that worked with Michael was changed,” she said. “Every staff member was transformed because of his own capacity to transform. It was one of the miraculous things. I couldn’t help but feel in awe at his presence.”
Like many creative artists, Creedon was blessed and cursed with an unusual degree of sensitivity. That hypersensitive artistic temperament resulted in heightened creativity, yet also fueled his troubling moods of alienation and despair.
In his case, a finely tuned, over-sensitive artistic temperament was exiled on the tough streets of Oakland, fated to collide with the deprivation, suffering and inhumanity he found there. His poems are shot through with the devastation caused by being trapped on the streets of homelessness, addiction, and poverty, but like some great escape artist, he often transcends this grim reality to find beauty and joy, and to affirm human compassion and love.
Sister Nolan said, “His sense of life was so deep. By nature, he was a very sensitive man. He was very responsive to the environment, when he wasn’t in despair. And then he was just flat — he could barely walk when he was that far down. At times he just couldn’t make it to St. Mary’s, even though he lived so close.”
In his poem, “Tribute to St. Mary’s,” Creedon wrote that “St. Mary’s Center saved my life.” He said St. Mary’s taught him, gave him a forum, listened to him, laughed with him, honored his poems — and hugged him. In his tribute, he thanked Sister Mary Nolan and Shirley Cheney by name for helping to save him.
This poem was an account of the times when he was so sick that he “holed up in my SRO hotel room,” unable to go out into the world. Creedon wrote, in heartfelt gratitude, that throughout those awful times, Shirley Cheney “kept coming to check on me, bring me food and juice.” When his ill health became a crisis, “Shirley got me to the hospital, helped me find an apartment and start over.”
Cheney recalls those years of crisis vividly. She said, “Michael was a very special person, even though he was tormented by a mental disorder and substance abuse problems. He was very talented in being able to describe his feelings on paper. I encouraged him to write about his feelings. He wrote about how he was tormented, but he also wrote about some of his joys after his addiction went into remission about three years before he passed away. He had a long run of addiction until he got into a medical detox.”
The anguish that Creedon often felt, and the painful experiences he went through, made his poetry all the more meaningful by rooting it in the suffering on the streets all around him. He felt the pain on those streets, and became their voice.
Cheney said, “Michael felt too much. He felt way too much. He felt not only his pain, he felt the world’s pain. He was hypersensitive, and he took it on himself.”
Cheney said that Creedon reminded her of Picasso and Van Gogh. She said, “He’s a type of Picasso because he saw life so strangely. He saw it strangely in that he saw what everyday people would miss. He would be able to put it in a cube and say, ‘this is it’ through his writing.
“I also think of him as a Van Gogh because of the torment, and because there was an underlying imbalance that caused him to have behaviors that hurt him.”
Cheney found a way to use Creedon’s poetry as a sort of lifeline to hold onto him when he began drifting away in the treacherous currents of his own mind.
“Sometimes when he couldn’t speak about anything, when he was really being tormented and having a difficult time, he didn’t want to come in to St. Mary’s,” she said. “So I would encourage him to write me something to let me know how he was feeling so that we stay in contact.”
In this way, his poetry was not just exposing an outer injustice. It was also a mirror revealing his inward agony. When he sent her poems that were garbled and senseless, she interpreted it as a warning that she needed to visit him immediately.
One of Creedon’s most dramatic cries for help came on the evening when Cheney was called to the Ridge Hotel in Oakland where Creedon had taken refuge on the roof, with only a sheet wrapped around him. Although the manager was able to talk him down by the time Cheney got to the hotel, she found that Creedon was in an extremely disturbed state.
“He told me he thought he had bugs crawling on his skin,” she said. “He was a mess and he wasn’t making any sense. He said that he had all these bugs crawling all over his room, and his room was a mess. He hadn’t cleaned it in months.”
Many of Creedon’s lowest lows were triggered by mental health problems, coupled with his use of amphetamines and an addiction to a particular brand of cough syrup with a stimulant effect that he would gulp down while standing in a pharmacy.
Creedon was sincerely trying to overcome his substance abuse, and Cheney seized the moment to ask if he would be willing to go to a medical detox facility. He agreed, so right after the rooftop escapade, Cheney drove him to a detox center in Pinole called New Beginnings.
After a series of visits to this five-day detox center, Cheney encouraged Creedon to enter a long-term transitional house in the city of San Pablo. He seemed to do well there and ended up staying about two years. With two years of sobriety under his belt, he was ready for independent living again, and Cheney got him into the San Pablo Apartments in Oakland.
He was thriving, writing poetry prolifically, and faithfully attending Alcoholics Anonymous. He began going to St. Mary’s for therapy sessions once a week.
Cheney said, “We’ve seen Michael at his worst and at his best.” He was at his best in the last three years of his life. She said, “His best was coming in to see his therapist, Tim English, and being clean and sober, dressed to the nines, and he was able to smile, and he was doing great.”
Cheney will never forget Creedon’s kindness. She said, “He was one of the kindest persons, when you really got to know him. Not to use a trite phrase, but he was the kind of person who literally would give you the shirt off his back. When you took the time to know Michael, you saw a very, very tender, caring human being.”
Robert Smith came to know that caring side of Michael Creedon very well, to the extent that he even grew worried that his friend would indeed end up giving the shirt off his back to some needy person.
Smith was Creedon’s closest friend at the San Pablo Apartments, a low-rent hotel where both men were tenants. The two had shared interests in literature. Smith said that Creedon loved the Beat Generation writers, especially novelist Jack Kerouac and poet Gregory Corso.
Smith was prone to occasional bouts of depression, and found that Creedon would always lift his spirits. He said, “Michael cheered me up whenever we got together. He would always ask me about my health, or about the writers we liked, and he’d tease me. He always brought forth a smile.”
Smith remembered many examples of his friend’s kindness. “Michael was always kind in this way,” he said. “He always offered me books and he offered me companionship because he was clearly aware that I felt very isolated in this building.”
Even though he found ways to help others, Creedon’s own life was very difficult. Many of his poems attest to his economic hardships. Creedon told Smith about several health problems and problems with alcohol. But those hardships made his empathy all that much greater for poor people struggling to survive.
“I think Michael cherished his sort of makeshift bohemia,” Smith said. “He also wrote about the plight of people in American cities that he felt had been left behind, and people who had not been able to take advantage of whatever opportunities, real or imagined, that there were. A lot of Michael’s poetry grew out of an enormous empathy and sensitivity to social issues. His poetic efforts sought to explore those dark areas of life and of existence itself, as only an artist can do.”
Creedon’s social conscience grew directly out of the friendships he had with people living in poverty on the streets, and his awareness of the injustice and economic misery they faced.
“Michael had lots of acquaintances on the street,” Smith said. “He knew a lot of the locations where people on the street stayed, and people who lived in SRO hotels. He made friends with them.”
Yes, he surely made friends with them. His empathy and sensitivity and compassion are expressed beautifully in his poems, a record of Michael’s friendship with the poor street dwellers and homeless outcasts who have been disowned by most members of society.
As clearly as any journalist, Michael reported on the great injustice of our time — the prejudicial mistreatment of the poorest citizens. But he went far beyond journalism to eloquently write of matters of much greater depth — love and mercy, and the sure conviction that even though countless lives are exiled onto the unforgiving streets, each one of those lives is sacred.
The Final Chapter of a Poet’s Life
by Terry Messman
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]early every month for the past 11 years, I looked forward to receiving a manila envelope full of handwritten poems from Michael Creedon, one of my favorite poets. Through his writing, I could trace his ups and downs, the steps on his long journey from the misery of poverty and homelessness and addiction to the jubilation of pulling his life together at last.
His poems traced the arc of this journey on its ascent, as he overcame his obstacles and demons one by one. I was with Michael in spirit as he wrote of finding the safe haven of an apartment where he could escape the hunger and desperation he had known on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland. Having found this refuge, he might still live on a poet’s diet of macaroni and cheese, or ketchup and rice, but he could finally enjoy music again and spend hours every day writing poetry.
Through the testimony of his poetry, I witnessed his incredible struggle to get well and become healthy and sober.
Scrawled on those yellow notebook pages, I met the new friends he made as his life blossomed at his beloved community at St. Mary’s Center. I shared his happiness during these last three years, when he had pulled many of the broken strands of his life together, at last.
At last! And then, in a flash, all that Michael had accomplished in those years of struggle were undone unexpectedly. He had done everything to turn his life around, and just when it began turning, it was already over.
Susan Werner vividly recalls Creedon’s inspirational presence when he spoke at St. Mary’s Recovery 55 celebration in May 2008, only three months before he died. “Michael glowed about loving to awaken each morning and devote himself to his spirit through prayer and writing,” Werner said. “He exuded passion for being alive and he was sustained by his creative spirit.”
Because Creedon had endured personal suffering for so long, Werner said, he was somehow able to bring faith into “the places of the deepest deadness and despair.” In his own life, he had overcome such deplorable conditions that his life became an amazing testament of hope to some who knew him.
“His conditions were so deplorable so that when he came through it, the staff was just in awe,” said Werner. “It showed the potential for us all. He demonstrated the possibility of the human spirit. The last time I saw Michael, he was so ecstatic. Life could not be better. He was so wholeheartedly grateful. He was so surrendered to loving every moment.”
Robert Smith was one of Creedon’s closest personal friends, and a fellow tenant at the San Pablo Apartments. Smith spoke warmly about Michael’s acts of kindness to him and recalled how he would express real concern about Smith’s physical health, even while Creedon was dealing with his own serious ailments.
Smith’s only criticism of Creedon was that he took his altruism too far. He explained, “He was so gracious to other people, even to those who certainly didn’t deserve it. I eventually became very concerned because I sensed that Michael may have been too generous with people in the San Pablo if they asked him for money.”
Echoing Werner’s observations, Smith said Creedon was very happy and fulfilled in his final few months.
“Michael was a remarkable person,” Smith said. “He could still appreciate life even if he might have felt awful from his physical problems, and he never permitted himself to be done in by his moods.
“He was the sort of person who always could be grateful just to be waking up in the morning and looking out the window and perhaps seeing the drizzle or seeing the light on the street. Although he didn’t feel great, he would be so happy just that he was feeling up to getting up at 4 a.m. and putting in three or four hours of writing and typing up two dozen poems.”
Only a couple weeks before Creedon died on August 16, 2008, he was still doing acts of kindness. Creedon volunteered to escort Smith home from the hospital after he had undergone a medical procedure that left him feeling dizzy.
Creedon soon offered his help again. Smith said, “I will never forget that when I told him I was going to have an angiography, that was the second time he showed a great deal of concern and promised to come pick me up in the hospital. Michael to me was an extraordinary gentleman.”
Sister Mary Nolan said, “Michael lived the faith that you do unto others as you know you want them to do unto you — doing unto others what is good and right and just.”
On Wednesday, August 13, Smith and Creedon got together and made plans for the weekend. The two loved to talk about the Beat writers, and Creedon reminded him that they had been talking for a long time about going to San Francisco and North Beach to visit City Lights, and other bookstores. Creedon said, “Let’s not put it off much longer, because if we do, we may never make it.”
Smith said, “And sadly enough, that’s exactly what happened.”
On Saturday morning, August 16, Smith was at work, and he kept trying to reach Creedon by phone, but he didn’t answer. When Smith arrived home after work, he found the police and coroner outside the hotel. The coroner told him Creedon had died, apparently from a coronary caused by arteriosclerosis. He died at the age of 64.
“My knees practically buckled,” said Smith. “I felt a frightful loss. It took a long time to recover. I still haven’t made sense of it. I had lost my closest friend. I miss him. I miss him terribly.
“Michael said to me he had pretty much made peace with himself and the anxiety of where to put your head, or where your next meal was coming from, was settled. He was living here. He was safe. That’s why it was so difficult to understand.”
Sister Mary Nolan had worked with Creedon for years at St. Mary’s Center and was inspired to see him in such high spirits during those final months. “He was doing well,” she said. “That’s why it was such a shock to learn he had died.
“I have seen Michael in terrible straits, but when I saw him toward the end of July, he was dressed in his black poet outfit and his little tam, and he was telling me he got his writing together. And what he was really saying, on another level, was that he got his life together and he did what he set out to do. He was just so happy, and I just gave him a hug. I was so proud of him because he was able to persevere and pull his life together.”
Werner, too, was struck by the paradoxical way that Creedon’s life had ended right at the moment when it had all come together so well.
“It was shocking,” she said. “I just saw him in his vitality when I saw him in the May 2008 celebration of Recovery 55, and he just seemed so robust. So the fact that he died soon after, it just felt totally like an anomaly. It just didn’t connect.
“But from knowing how happy he was, when I heard that he had died, it wasn’t about suffering. Why people go when they go is a mystery, but I knew he had found his peace. Sometimes when you find your peace, all the suffering before kind of washes away.”
Smith attended the memorial service held at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in El Cerrito, and met Michael’s mother and two sisters.
“It was such a warm mass,” he said, “because people spoke very movingly of how Michael had helped them with their own problems with alcohol as part of his experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous. The small chapel was nearly full.”
I look back on the past 11 years when Michael sent in a new batch of poems every few weeks, handwritten in his distinctive, uneven scrawl.
All those years when Michael took up his pen to fight the injustices of a world gone wrong, and to speak out against the madness of a system that attacks the poor.
All those years when a poet in a low-rent hotel arose at 4 a.m. — the darkest hours before the dawn — and spilled his vision all over the pages so compassion really would shine a light in the darkness.
Now those years are gone. But his poetry remains — his legacy.
Last summer, Michael seemed to have reached a new level of personal fulfillment and creativity. In July, Michael sent me his last two manila envelopes. I was too sick to open them back then and I didn’t realize until way later that those were the last poems he would ever send me.
In August, I was hospitalized for three weeks. When I got out, the poet was silent. Michael had died on August 16. I was still sick and was in no shape to even realize he was gone, until months later.
And now, all I can do is use the same tool — the pen — that was so central to Michael’s search for meaning, and write him this farewell note.
At the end of her interview, Sister Mary told me, “Your story about Michael is probably the quintessential thing that Michael would love. He would love that you would do that. It’s because of you that Michael has had a voice, that his life has had meaning for other people and has had an impact on other people. Street Spirit goes all over and touches the lives of so many people. I’m just so grateful for that.”
I’m so grateful to have been in Oakland when Michael Creedon was passing through. I’m grateful for this one poet who truly “hungers and thirsts for justice,” as that other classic of Beat literature, the Beatitudes, describes it.
I’m grateful for the shining light of conscience that illuminated Michael’s poetry, on his best days, and I’m grateful for the way he fought so hard to overcome the darkness, on his worst.
Most of all, I’m grateful for the example of his kindness. It is so easy to write about kindness, but it is so hard to actually give kindness to others, in real life, especially on the poor side of town.
If you talk to people who knew Michael Creedon, they will tell you stories of his kindness. Listen closely to those stories, because Michael’s quiet acts of kindness were the finest poetry of all.
This article was first published in the April 2009 issue of Street Spirit.
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