By Valerie Horton, 2/5/2018
As I write my brother’s memorial, I have gained respect for those who attempt to memorialize a life. It is not that my brother is hard to write about. He was a hot mess of virtues and vices like most of us. What is difficult, is trying to capture why someone who didn’t know him should care. What is the value of one life among the seven billion who live on this planet? His poems tell the story of the inner life of one thoughtful man milling among so many. Is that enough?
My view into Bruce’s life was as an observer, and as I read these poems I have learned that I understood only a sliver of a man whose life was intensely internal. I will draw conclusions from his life that match the themes and narrative of these poems. In reading this body of work, my main impression is that his internal focus of attention is tied to his desire to be an expatriate. There is a connection between his internal landscape and his conflicted relationship with United States of America.
Bruce was many things, obviously a poet, and also a linguist and published scholar, an adored teacher, a loving father, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend, and more. He was also an expatriate at heart, which makes him rare. Many Americans travel, but few long to make their home in another place and culture. From his letters home, it was clear that Bruce was always ambivalent about his home country, with both a draw towards America and away from it. He grew up during the Vietnam War and civil rights eras. The injustice he witnessed bothered him deeply. I believe he found injustice in Japan as well, but in neither country, did he feel much need to try to change the culture. His focus was on his inner journey and with the people whose path he crossed.
The Minnesota Early Years
Born December 9, 1949, in Homecroft, a suburb of Duluth, Minnesota, Bruce spent his early years as a small-town boy. Family movies from that era show Bruce and my brother Gary, sledding, fishing, and running carefree, a.k.a., an Andy Griffith Show episode. My father, Milton Horton, worked for the Uniroyal Tire Company, while my mother, Claire, stayed home to raise her sons. One of my favorite stories from that time was Bruce was given a BB gun for Christmas, during rough play, he accidentally shot Gary. Gary was not seriously hurt. My father in his rage broke the BB gun in half over his knee. Bruce didn’t care much for guns after that. My father and Gary enjoyed deer hunting over the years, Bruce either didn’t go or went reluctantly.
Gary was born in November 1950 and the two boys grew up, close and not close, at the same time. While they were playmates, their personalities and interests were different. Bruce was the good student, quieter, more introspective. Gary was charming, joyous, and filled with interest in the outdoors, sports, and girls. Bruce was intense, a bit brooding, and very kind to a younger sister, born nine years later. I suspect Bruce’s mix of intensity, intellect, and aloofness would have attracted girls in his youth. I know it made him popular later in his life as a graduate student and faculty member. That said, he had friends but preferred the introverts path of fewer and deeper friendships and relationships.
My father’s job moved the family to Minneapolis in 1961 eventually settling in Fridley, a northern suburb. Bruce played outside, read, and learned the guitar. Summer weekends were spent at the cabin up North, a quintessential Minnesota experience. Bruce had odd jobs, was on the tennis team, and was a good student at Spring Lake Park High School. He had a small Honda motorcycle, and some of my best childhood memories were riding on the back through the suburbs of Minneapolis.
The Wandering Years
Bruce enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1967 and dropped out in 1969. My brother claimed he traveled 40,000 km across America after leaving school. I believe he worked for a while as roustabout at David Brinkley’s ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After that, he backpacked around the world, avoiding the draft. He often traveled with Mary L. Crabtree. He took on the name Indigo Jones during his travels, and Mary choose Sunshine. A silly affectation in hindsight, though as a ten-year old, I found it romantic. From his letters home, he mostly worked as dishwasher, played his guitar for loose change, and considered a career as a poet or playwright. He sank wholeheartedly into the late 1960’s hippy lifestyle with long hair and too much drinking and drug use. In letters to my father, he argued against both capitalism and communism. He hated the war and thought Nixon a thug. He couldn’t reconcile a country he loved with a country involved in Vietnam.
He married Mary Crabtree on June 5, 1971 on the beach in Monterey, California. His letters talk of their traveling around Europe in a Volkswagen bus. That image is such a 60’s counterculture stereotype that it borders on the ludicrous, however true. I believe he loved Mary deeply and when she left him a year or so later, it was a psychological blow that he dealt with poorly for a long time. As he aged, Bruce would never speak of two topics from his past: his first marriage or his time in the military. It was as if by never mentioning those two times in his life, he could make them cease to be real.
Despite his travels, he could not escape the Vietnam War. I remember my father’s frantic efforts to reach Bruce in some European port before the military moved against him for draft evasion. In his letters home, Bruce acknowledged he could lose the ability to ever return to America. So even in his early 20’s, some part of him wanted to leave America. I don’t know what changed his mind, but he did return and entered the Army in July 1971. He asked to be anything other than a rifleman, wishing for a medical or a supporting role. After basic training, the army trained him as a sharp shooter. Somehow, he ended up serving an adjunct role for the military brass in Fort Ord, California. He went on a hunger strike, drinking one cup of V8 and eating one celery stalk a week. Bruce was around 6’1” and his weight dropped down to 125. He received an honorable medical discharge after seven months in the military for an unnamed preexisting condition, likely aggravated by his hunger strike. To my mother’s horror, he looked like a skeleton when he came home.
Bruce returned to the University of Minnesota in 1973 and earned a B.A. degree in English Literature. I believe he stopped using drugs at this time or perhaps during his time in the army. He continued to drink heavily throughout his lifetime. After graduating, he settled down for a while in New Orleans where he found a job as an aide in an inner-city library branch. His letters home during that time show a deep love for working with the children and a deep loathing of bureaucracy. From these letters, I believe he did some growing up and healing from the extremes of his early lifestyle.
His letters are more centered and more outwardly focused towards the world. He had a motorcycle and drove it around the bayou country. His letters often touch on the beauty of the region. One of his poems states that he almost died during an assault in New Orleans (poem 173, Great Chances). He developed a relationship with a first-rate librarian, Patricia Montgomery. When he moved to Utah in 1976 to go to graduate school at the University of Utah, Pat came with him. My father’s job had transferred our family to Salt Lake City at this time.
The Utah and Hawaii Years
Bruce and I attended the University of Utah at the same time. In 1980, I earned my bachelor degree, he earned master’s degrees in both linguistic and early English literature. He loved the Utah deserts and spent many hour hiking and traveling around southern desert.
His relationship with Pat ended and he worked for a few months in Japan teaching English. He was fascinated by the Japanese language and intrigued by the culture. He moved to Hawaii in 1980 where he worked on his PhD in linguistics from the University of Hawaii while teaching at the Hawaii Pacific University. I joined him in Hawaii for two years while I earned my library degree. He loved teaching, and evidence suggests he was popular with his students. His apartment was small, and every wall was covered with bookcases. He read voraciously and worked on poetry during this period, none of it survives. In one letter to me, he mourns not having kept his earlier writings.
In Hawaii, Bruce was more settled and stable then I had ever seen him before, largely, because he was in strong, healthy relationship with a former student, Emiko Hirose. They married in 1986. In 1989, they had a daughter Reina Asami. Reina’s birth marked the happiest time in my brother’s life. There are hundreds of pictures of him doting on his daughter. He loved fatherhood and being part of a happy family. Sometime during this period, he began seriously exercising, running for miles. He often spoke of having an endorphin addiction.
The Japanese Years
After twelve years, Bruce finished his PhD in 1992. In 1993, he and his family moved to Japan. Bruce started teaching at Kanda University of International Studies working up to a full professor, and after his death he was named professor emeritus. He lived in old Tokyo and loved attending the local festivals and perfecting his Japanese
He continued to love running and biking, constantly running marathons. He sometimes joined the overnight long-distance races with a torchlight on his head, running 100 miles at a time. Many of his later poems touch on his love of running. He would tell me about running up Mount Fuji, down it, back up and back down in a 24-hour period. My super-fit brother did these ultrathons in his fifties and sixties. A lot of his poems, deal with his love of the Japanese countryside. All through his life, the one constant in Bruce’s life were a love of open spaces and the beauty of the natural world. He told me once that the average Japanese city dweller loved art based on nature but disliked being outdoors.
Around this time, he and Emiko separated, although they remained close, jointly raising Reina. Emiko was steadfastly by his side as he was dying. Reina and Bruce traveled extensively, often visiting family in New Mexico, Colorado, and Minnesota. He routinely came home with Reina to see our family. One of the most powerful poems in this collection was written the day our father died (see poem #375, He Made Me.) Reina and Bruce traveled to Mongolia, China, Italy, Australia and many other countries.
In August 2011, I called Bruce in Japan, who had an apartment by himself at the time, after receiving an incoherent email from him. He was unable to speak clearly (dysprosody), and was reluctant to go to a doctor. In the end he did and was diagnosed with an aggressive Glioblastoma and underwent brain surgery within a week. He wrote a terms-of-life letter that illustrated his condition: “I am expecting that I will hold on a brain operation that is serious… I am of course for all my hope and love to my daughter, my wife, my sister, my mother and to my relatives, and all workers and all students which I have been in so extremely good luck. I have been with so happy so I have could ever in choice.”
The surgery went reasonably well, and after being released from the hospital, he returned to his apartment. Within a few days, he had a major brain aneurysm causing severe brain damage. He was hospitalized and never regained the ability to communicate. He died with Emiko and Reina by his side on February 26, 2012. His students and fellow faculty at Kanda University held a beautiful memorial for him. He was cremated and buried in his wife’s family tomb in Japan.
In one of Bruce’s unfinished poems he wrote:
my river has been varied
rapid and slow in turn
thru beauty and pain
may your river be full
rich in experience
before you rejoin the great sea
It is a lovely wish to offer the unidentified other he speaks to so often in these poems. It also makes me wonder whether Bruce’s restless soul completed its inner journey to rejoin the great sea or whether some part of him keeps wandering, ever glancing backwards towards his lodestone, the northern star.