I Turn Towards Words – A Tribute for Robert Jensen, American Artist, Dear Friend

American Multi-Media Artist and Creative Force, Robert (Bobbie) Jensen (1936-2022)

Come, let us spread a picnic on the precipice,
Eat, drink be merry with our back to the abyss,
Till in that dusk when Bats cannot be told from the Swallows,
Gifts from threats, we’ll banish solemn songs like this.
This is our hopeless heaven these flowers our eyes have watered,
Wine drawn from our veins tunes piped through hollowed bones,
And gaiety gushing from every wound.

Peter de Vries (1910-1993) from Reuben, Reuben, A Novel, Little, Brown and Company, 1964

I first heard this poem recited by a stranger in my house, there for a fiftieth birthday of a friend. That stranger, Robert Jensen, became a dearest friend. Robert or Bobbie as he was known to his friends died this past weekend, his beloved partner Susanna with him, in his extraordinary house in Stanwood, WA, full of books and artistic marvels and treasures. Such a multi-dimensional character he was as I attempt  to capture in prose and in a series of three poems included in this post. The first poem shares my first meeting with Bobbie and Peter de Vries’s marvellous poem!

Unfinished Medical Self-Portrait by Robert jensen

Being Someone Other

I invent people and one way or another they are me.
— Robert Dante (Jensen)

Knowing myself but being someone other, this saw
of Eliot’s becomes the large room you were, all
windows and doors flung open wide and a wineglass
full of chardonnay on each sill and you would go out
one door and come back through another as someone
other like the day you did it at that house on Bowen
in 2006, there to celebrate Somae’s fiftieth, and after
you recited de Vries’s poem, these striking first lines:
Come, let us spread a picnic on the precipice,
Eat, drink be merry with our back to the abyss,
you changed your last name to Dante from Jensen.
Just like that and none of us there knew but you were
now a new invention and many of your canvases
and tar paper paintings after this were signed with
the flourish of someone as big in the world as Dante.
I am no Dante and, of course, neither were you,
but if I enter the dark wood again in the year’s to come
I would conjure your spirit the way Dante did Virgil’s
and name you Jensen and me Osler but also welcome
the crowd of others who make up the inventions of us.

Richard Osler, Unpublished, January 16th, 2022

The poem  by Peter de Vries was Bobbie’s signature and it took me some years to fully discover its origins as a poem written by one of the characters in a novel by de Vries.  And de Vries, it turns out, was a significant literary figure in the American mid-century. In addition to wrting twenty-three novels he was an editor at Poetry magazine for six years (1938-1944) and spent the rest of his career (forty-four years) as a staff writer at the New Yorker.

Death, a portrait by Robert Jensen

De Vries was largely known as a comedic and witty writer (and he touched up captions for the New Yorker’s comics) but there is a dead-set seriousness at the heart of this poem. A charge to embrace life, its pleasures, no matter what. And the striking contrdiction in the last line: And gaiety gushing from every wound. This striking way de Vries expresses the need for an aliveness undeterred by wounds by death, by the abyss. His way of saying, no matter what, I will live. And that was how Bobbie lived his life. And right until his last weeks, almost utterly blind, Bobbie was still making art as he did almost every day of his post-teaching life, still spreading his picnic, his life, on the precipice.

The scope of Bobbie’s artistic output in his life is impossible to express. Yes, he was a multi-media artist specializing in life-sized or upsized photographs he would then distort with other art, paint or words. And so often it was the social commentary built into his pieces that made them so impactful, made you reappraise the way you looked at the world. But he was also a craftsman in wood and metal, able to make his signature spirit or death boats  and even, at least one model car, with a millworker’s or model builder’s precision.

This was the tension that lived in Bobbie’s art and life: death and life were dueling preoccupations as so wonderfully captured in the quote to the left which was writ large on a blackboard in his studio. For all the livliness of Bobbie’s work it all was contained in his unflinching refusal to look away from death. Perhaps this goes back to the death of his father who shot himself early on in Bobbie’s life.  In a strange way, as I discovered in writing a poem about Bobbie a few days ago, it was as if death was his dancing partner of sorts, helping Bobbie kick up his heals a little faster and farther. Here is my poem:



— For Robert (Bobbie) Jensen (1936-2022)

Bobbie, on a day so weighted down with the scythe-swipe swing
of your death I keep remembering your art, how your collages,
paintings, spirit (death) boats, even massive tar paper creations
splattered with red paint, were how you five-stepped
with death – death as your dead horse’s bones; death
as animal skulls; death as Christ on a cross; death as you,
you cut from a photograph pointing a derringer
at another cut-out of you; death as the Twin Towers burning;
and more personal, black-cloaked death with its scythe;
but what I think about most from inside the draughty barn

A Dual Self-Portrait by Robert Jensen

you made your studio, what lightens what I carry, is how lightly
you carried death, almost as if daring it to come, and
all those days it didn’t, and I remember you telling me there
how you welcomed one of death’s dearest familiars
into your work space, what had been death’s loyal witness,
something so awkward and heavy, it needed five men and a crane
to move it in – the porcelain mortuary table you bought on-line –
and your delight as you placed a paper pop-up skeleton face-up
on the table, and the impish look on your face when you pointed
to the white-chalk quote on the wall: “This is the place where death
rejoices to come to the aid of life.” And if I had Googled then
as I did today I might have better understood the joke.
Got that the quote, in Latin, can be found today engraved inside
a dissection theatre built in 1594 in Padua. This quote that welcomed
your mortuary table to your studio more than four hundred years
later. And could it be this poem, this act of love, is the mortuary table
where tonight I place you Bobbie and I dissect from your death
the memories I had of you and your art, watching you build
the model-sized spirit (death) boat you constructed for my beloved
and me, all its intricate metal and wooden parts crafted by hand as you

Small Scale Spirit Boat by Robert Jensen

were losing your sight, the boat that will carry our spirits on after we die?
And what if I could gather all my other memories in see-through
bags for all to see, the memories I have swept up all day, and what if
I could hold them up as you did, years ago, your freezer bags
full of sweepings from your workshop floor – the cut-out, left-out,
sawdust, bits of bone, feathers – what you didn’t use and in there
this memory: when you told me, sheepishly, a collector once bought
three of these for a hundred bucks each and as I smile I wonder
could this poem, this mortuary table, be the place where death rejoices,
aids my living and helps me hold death more lightly, like you?

Richard Osler, January 15th, 2022

Robert Jensen’s Spirit or Death Boat outside his house near Stanwood, WA

This relationship with death and dying that Bobbie had along with his exuberance and curiosity for life is what I was trying to write toward in my poem. And so much of this came to me when Bobbie introduced me to his mortuary table  which he brought into his studio with such delight about ten years ago.  And it was at that time he showed me in English and Latin his infamous quote that has haunted me ever since.

I do not hold death as lightly as Bobbie did or make it so visible in my life as he did in the art and pieces around and inside his house. But I now have such a better understanding of the quote’s importance when I discovered where it came from and why it was so important to be there in the same room as the mortuary table.  Yes, in its literal sense the quote says that autopsies help us understand how people die and therefore help us keep people living longer!

Bow end of Robert Jensen’s Spirit or Death Boat

But I think by meditating on death, by not hiding it away, we can find a deep wisdom inside the

Untitled, from the “Eyeball” Series by Robert Jensen

quote: This is the place where death rejoices to come to the aid of life. What place? Any place, I think, where we acknowledge death and in that acknowledgement choose to live expansively and whole heartedly in joy or sorrow.

As a book lover my delight in the wonders of all the books in Bobbie three story hundred-plus year-old house was beyond description. Thousands of books interspersed with art objects and other Bobbie creations. And he read many of them. But, and this is something I still am getting over,  he also used them, especially the uncountable number of coffee table books. He would cut out their images for his  art!
Or he woould make art inside the books and sometimes reshelve them. I remember my shock when I came across a value 1930’s volume and found to my dismay it was now a piece of shelved art!

Now, a few more images and this last poem of mine in Bobbie’s memory. This poem I wrote after his massive stroke and the signs he did not have long to live.

Canadian Sonnet for Bobbie’s Dying

What times aren’t dark times?
— Don Share, Poetry Magazine Podcast, 2017

I make you a box of darkness with a bird at its heart.
—Terrance Hayes, from American Sonnet for my Past
and Future Assassin, Poetry, 2017

Now, in this small room I choose to enter, no lock
to keep me here, no cage, and I have no bird, nothing
winged, only a keyboard to spring me free, here, as I
work in words out of a darkness of your dying because:
We turn towards words because there’s not much more
to turn to, as my friend Patrick says in his poem
of dark and light where he goes on to say: That’s
the hard part, knowing the darkness is there and
singing anyway. And there’s no Patrick, no you, here
offering songs or consolations and so I sing, alone,
pray it’s enough to find the light inside this darkness,
turn to what dazzled so inside you, sing out, I praise you,
the mortuary table you bought for your studio, your joke
on death. Now, as you always knew, death’s here for you.

Richard Osler, January 14th, unpublished

Below, a few more pics of Bobbie, his studio and his art:

Unfinished Medical Self-Portrait by Robert Jensen

A Beard-Trimming day for Robert Jensen in Stanwood, WA


A room in Robert Jensen’s studio

Robert Jensen in Langley, WA

The Converted-barn studio of Robert Jensen


  1. Peter Lincoln
    Posted January 18, 2022 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Well said. Jensen is a singular figure who epitomizes the last line of that singular poem by Peter de Vries,”And gaiety gushing from every wound.” Through all the wounds, from the death of his father to the the loosing of the very tools of his art, sight and sound, he continued to revel in the gaiety. He surmised it best when asked, “How are you doing?” His answer was always a clear and honest, “I couldn’t be better, considering the circumstances.” Thank you Jensen.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    What a man! And much love to you, also what a man!

  3. Gail Masters
    Posted January 18, 2022 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Beautiful memorial to a very talented man! Thank you!

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Greetings to you dear Gail. Hope you are well.

  5. Linda Roberts
    Posted January 18, 2022 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Deeply touching,
    Touching deeply,
    Words are
    A way.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Words sure are a way! Thank you for being one of my readers! Taking the time to spend time with me and my words!

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