Reading Matters

Martin Settle: ‘An Epitaph for Chilly Willy’

Charlotte’s Martin Settle is the kind of poet who can take what’s at hand and transform it into poetry. Chilly Willy, for instance. Most folks who live or work in the close-to-town neighborhoods encountered Chilly Willy a time or two. He was that lovable panhandler with the long white beard who refused, as Settle writes in “Epitaph for Chilly Willy,” to “wear the harness / of a world without alcohol.” Settle grew up in Illinois, on the Mississippi River, steeped in the mythology of Mark Twain, and he retired from a long teaching career at UNC-Charlotte in 2010. Jonathan K. Rice describes Settle’s new collection, “The Teleology of Dunes” (Main Street Rag, $14 paper), as “powerful work that is retrspective and relevant, introspective and transcendant.”


In memory of a man of the streets

I am here, Chilly, to write your epitaph,

as I was here to buy your coffee,

your cigarettes, and, yes,

your booze.

truth is I could never buy you,

try as I might.

you wouldn’t wear the harness

of a world without alcohol.

we all knew this day would come,

yet somehow you had us believing

you were immortal,

disappearing and reappearing as you did

from the ash heap.

some will say now

“He was a man of the streets

who died in the street.”

facile epitaph for a homeless alcoholic.


But I will miss the small pleasures you provided.

driving to work, I would see you

staggering the streets in wee hours.

you’d stiffen and flash me the peace sign,

and I’d honk to your raised hand --

a blessing and an influx of grace

from a fool to a fool.

once I bought you a sandwich

and sat with you on the curb.

life whizzed by,

but I admit I found items of interest in the gutter.

your knowledge of nooks and crannies was encyclopedic.

you had advice on where I could sleep

if I were ever on the street.

I remember your golden period of companionship.

the first time I saw her

I was jogging through the park.

you two emerged from the brush,

matted with leaves,

Adam and Eve being driven from paradise.

she was skinny and weatherworn like yourself

and you led her like a stag.

we called her your wife,

though the only binding ceremony of your union

was sharing cheap wine.

maybe I measure love too sentimentally.

but when I gave you two an umbrella in the rain,

you reached around her, Chilly, with an affection

as natural as a mushroom rising in rain.

and I ached

when you lost her one night to a car,

doe caught in the headlights.

that was the last intimacy you’d kow.

you replaced her with a transistor radio

that whispered constantly in your ear.


If I were God,

I’d let you in the back door of Heaven,

the place where they keep the mops.

you could roam the pristine streets,

a question mark to all the residents

who had assumed they’d earned their way.

God’s mystery being mercy.

as for Hell, well,

you’d been to Hell.

you’d be a bother to the devil

as you were to the police,

who would dutifully hold you in a cell for a night.

hardly a criminal.

more like a mangy dog without a collar

who peed in flower beds,

and frightened old women and children.

no, I’d let you stay, Chilly Willy,

in the back alleys and overpasses of the celestial city,

an eternal stray in Heaven

that would not be a heaven

without you.

-- From “The Teleology of Dunes” (Main Street Rag, P.O. Box 690100, Charlotte, NC 28227.)