Get to know: John ‘Cal’ Freeman, celebrating Detroit Mercy through poetry

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February 12, 2021

John "Cal" Freeman's portrait.Detroit Mercy is in John Freeman’s bones.

His father, John Freeman, was a beloved English professor whose lectures examining connections between the lyrics of Tupac Shakur and themes in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were popular with students and taught young John to think in creative ways. The father and son also spent many afternoons and evenings at Callahan Hall, cheering on the Titans men’s basketball team and the younger John and his sister, Emily, both graduated from Detroit Mercy. John met his future wife when they were both students at the University.

“It’s obviously a place that meant a lot to me over the years,” said Freeman, who is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Oakland University. “It has such a great English department and I remember being in awe of all the wonderful professors.”

Many of those professors make an appearance in “University of Detroit: A Memoir with Basketball and Poetry,” a poem Freeman wrote that was published recently in the journal Permafrost. The poem will also be included in “Poolside at the Dearborn Inn,” Freeman’s second book of poetry — he publishes under the name Cal Freeman — due out in April 2022.

It is a love letter of sorts to the University and the people and events who shaped him. It weaves together names of Titans men’s basketball greats and professors who influenced him and his writing into a brief and moving memoir.

“I was just thinking of experiences that I had at the University and started to write them down,” Freeman said. “I included the names of people because I am in favor of using proper nouns when you can in a poem, even if the readers won’t know who those people are, because I think they carry a certain resonance. And I think readers will go along with it and trust you know what you’re writing about.”

A portrait of John Freeman, who taught at Detroit Mercy for more than 30 years.Written more than a year and a half ago, Freeman never imagined that it would become, in a way, an elegy for his father, who died unexpectedly in January.

“The cool, spooky things about poems is that they take on meaning from things going around them.” Freeman said. “I received the galleys for proofing in the mail the day after he died.”

It seemed tragically fitting to him, as his father often lectured and wrote about “hauntology,” a concept in literary theory that, roughly speaking, concerns itself with the interaction between the past and the future.

“I hope when people read this they will remember my dad as a teacher and will read his writing,” Freeman said. “It’s really good, and I think it should be remembered.”

— By Ron Bernas. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

University of Detroit: A Brief Memoir With Basketball and Poetry

a poem by Cal Freeman

          The basketball players
          collapsed in their red jerseys.

          A thin dust fell
          from the rafters.

*

I was born with the ponderous name
John Calvin Freeman III,

what Father Justin Kelly,
who taught the class, “Poets, Mystics,

and God,” referred to as “A Protestant
name that belies the truth.”

You might know my father,
John Calvin Freeman Jr.

He teaches English in a brick building
where the ceiling tiles

regularly peel from their glue
and plummet.

I’m convinced he’s among the last men
to shoot a sky hook,

anchoring his left leg and swooping
his right arm across

his body like a crane’s wing.
He does not sleep.

My father teaches Tupac’s lyrics
to his poetry classes.

He reads the rapper’s tattoos
through the dialectics

of elegy and self-protection:
names of murdered friends,

the words, My only fear of death
is coming back reincarnated,

on Shakur’s left bicep.
Tupac’s fear was realized

when they brought him back
as a hologram to perform

at Coachella in 2012.
“Outsourcing here takes on

the quality of outsourcery,”
my father writes—

amortization, immaterial
labor performed by the dead.

*

In the early-90s my parents
would take me to see

Ricky Byrdsong’s teams play.
Later that decade

Byrdsong would be gunned down
by a white supremacist

while jogging with his children.

*

In a windowless white room
Claire Crabtree writes a poem

about a woman sewing
green thread through her iris,

an eye to be looked at, not through,
turned inward.

*

My mother takes an independent study
with Father Kelly

and stages a dramatic reading
of “The Leaden Echo

and the Golden Echo.”

*

A clocktower squeezes out the minutes
and chimes the half-hour,

the names of the long-dead
soldiers of the War to End

All Wars etched into its base.

*

The year before Clint Hurst dies
I visit his office every Thursday

to go over Keats’ Odes and Letters.
I come to admire the way he stared

at poesy’s blank margin
after that first spatter

of blood had spelled his doom.

*

Chris Gilliard lectures
about digital red-lining

and the surveillance state,
how it’s no abstraction

for black bodies harmed
by Silicon Valley innovations,

how resistance movements
are forged in the very private

spaces carceral surveillance
seeks to penetrate.

*

Spencer Haywood, to my knowledge,
has not returned.

His time in the NBA was marred
by drug addiction and paranoia.

He was the first player
to utilize the hardship clause

and go pro early.
Dick Vitale returned a decade ago

for a court dedication
in his name. Former players

John Long and Terry Duerod
were on hand.

After his retirement from the NBA
Terry Duerod served 27 years

with the Detroit Fire Department,
Engine 55 on Joy Road

on the city’s northwest side.
He played on the firemen’s team,

never once bragging to the young guys
about the 1980 NBA Finals

or the ’77 Sweet Sixteen.

*

As a kid I’d sneak into
the empty press box at Calihan Hall

while my dad played pick-up games,
trying to sort the dull

action into language,
mimicking George Blaha’s

and Dick Vitale’s play-by-play.

*

My mother has MS now
and cannot drive,

can barely walk. My father
spends a year-long sabbatical

writing about George Antheil’s
and Hedy Lamarr’s collaborations,

the signal-jamming qualities
of Antheil’s noise, the birth

of wifi. He drives my mother
to therapy and doctor’s appointments,

reading Abraham and Torok
in antiseptic waiting rooms.

My mother speaks of her illness
in clinical terms, the degradation

of the myelin sheath and scarring.
My mother’s myelin sheath

is a hopelessly encrypted code,
a jammed signal,

an erstwhile technology.
She writes a poem

about Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding,
the convex mirror

behind the hearth revealing
the painter at work, a curious

black dog at his feet,
the sort of mirror one finds

in Detroit party stores for the purpose
of surveilling black youth.

My mother argues that this painting
is a holographic image, writing,

“This ‘violent perspective’
is a diverging lens that splits

the original laser beam
into reference and object beams.”

An epithalamion of sorts
for a man who stayed with her

through several suicide attempts
and years of manic paranoia.

*

Sarah Pazur reads Anne Sexton
on a coffee-stained orange couch

in the writing center.
She tells me Sexton would drink

vodka martinis while chain-smoking
cigarettes every afternoon in the sunlight

by the pool, thumbing through
her dog-eared rhyming dictionary,

letting the inherited sounds of the language
itself punctuate her thoughts;

that’s precisely what she’d like
to do with the rest of her life.

Five years later we are married
on a grey September day

at Gesu Church in a ceremony
officiated by Father Kelly.

*

My mother recites
“The Wreck of the Deutschland”

to a synthespian
Gerard Manley Hopkins:

          I am soft sift

          In an hourglass—at the wall
          Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift.

*

In my Western Civilization course
Claire Crabtree speaks of

Odysseus in the mead hall
on the island of Scherie

sobbing as Demodocus sings
of the disguised hero’s decades

of wandering and wrack.

          Demodocus fuses epithet to melody
          and rests the lyre’s tortoise shell

          against his stomach to feel
          the exiled creature’s reverberating

          voice, and in this gesture
          we begin to understand

          the subtle difference
          between poetry and song.

Outside the hall, young Phaeacians
hold contests of skill

in honor of the gods.
A hook shot clanks

from a back rim, soles
squeak over maple planks.

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