Poetry reading memorializes an old childhood friendship

On Sunday afternoon, Tommy Hester ’11 sat in front of a Currier ballroom filled with folding chairs, smiling and joking with his friends as they filed in to hear him read the poetry of Brendan Ogg, one of Hester’s best childhood friends. Ogg, who passed away on Feb. 24 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in December 2008, had his poetry published posthumously in a collection titled Summer Becomes Absurd.

Hester and Ogg began their friendship in kindergarten, continuing to stay close even after they stopped attending the same school in third grade. Sunday would have been Ogg’s 21st birthday. In his honor, Hester, wearing a t-shirt he had made with his friends – the Wolf Pack, as they called themselves – delivered a simple, personal and understated reading of Ogg’s poetry in the intimate setting of the ballroom, serving as a mouthpiece for his friend’s words and emotions.

Summer Becomes Absurd is an anthology of raw, autobiographical poems, glimpses into the soul which, even when delving into the specifics of Ogg’s personal experiences, connect powerfully with the reader. In two poems next to each other in the anthology, “Keep Me From Fear” and “A Leaf of Knowledge,” defiance – “No. / I have my whole life to be afraid. / There!” – sits side-by-side with fear and uncertainty: “I don’t know / what the scan will look like one month, / four months, / four years from now.”

Ogg, who was an English major at the University of Michigan, began writing poetry in high school and continued writing until his condition began to worsen in January 2010. “A big thing for Brendan was being able to express himself,” Hester said. “Poetry was a way he could continue to do that even as his memory began failing.

“A lot of his memory was in his poems,” Hester continued. “It’s strange because he didn’t know anything, because his memories were jumbled, and we – his friends – didn’t know anything because we were on the outside.”

Even as Ogg delves into the terrifying world of his diagnosis and treatment, these emotional passages are interspersed with moments of grace and resounding normalcy. “Cold Rain” is about the morning after a night out, regretfully paging through the texts of the night before: “My phone / keeps a too-exact account / of every ingoing outgoing thing: / what a tool, messaging!”

A taste of humor enters in “Dear Brother,” which portrays an image of Ogg and his brother “dancing like fools,” as Hester put it, at every party. Possibly the collection’s most powerful moment occurs in its foreword, where Ogg recounts a story of his neurosurgeon seeing something that looked “just like Brendan Ogg’s tumor.” Hester remembered that story as fondly as Ogg did. “Brendan would tell that story over and over and over,” he said. “He thought it was the funniest thing ever.”

Complementing his comedic side, Ogg was thought of among his friends as “the intellectually engaged” member of the group, according to Hester.

“His best friend at Michigan [was someone I’d] played baseball with when we were younger, and he would always talk about how he and Brendan would write things and look over each other’s work,” Hester said. “When we came home after freshman year, Brendan tried to convince us to all play a drinking game [where] one person says a word and the other tries to spell it, and then if you get it wrong, you drink.”

Ogg continued taking classes even when he was forced to leave Michigan for treatment, enrolling in poetry classes at the University of Maryland. As a longtime writer, Ogg always wanted to be published. After a selection of his poems appeared in a fundraising publication, a neighbor who lived down the street from Hester and Ogg got the ball rolling.

“Kathleen Stout worked at the publishing company … she got his foot in the door,” Hester said. “[The book] was being published when Brendan could still be a part of the process, which he really enjoyed.”

Summer Becomes Absurd
is a powerful collection, a combination of coming-of-age and confronting mortality that speaks to the reader simply through its stark honesty. As Hester said, “It’s just a really good perspective on life of people our age.”