The River Phoenix Collection by Aaron Smith

We watched My Own Private Idaho, college students tragic in rooms: blue horizon, white clouds, blowjob for cash by a slippery man.


Based on Henry IV. We drove to Waldenbooks. L read out loud on the way home. We didn’t understand what she was saying.


Years later, I checked out Lost in Hollywood from the library. Unauthorized biography. Never read it, stared at the cover (sunglasses, messy hair), returned it. Six months later, the same.


Too soon we said rewinding the tape from the video store in town. Wishing he’d kiss Keanu Reeves by the campfire.


River Jude Bottom. We were obsessed with the names of his siblings, too: Rain Joan of Arc Bottom, Joaquin Rafael Bottom, Libertad Mariposa Bottom, Summer Joy Bottom. Perfect drag names, we joked.


I still listen to the 911 call his brother made the day he died outside the Viper Room. I don’t know why.


Stand By Me. The Thing Called Love. A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. My Own Private Idaho. Running on Empty. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (uncredited).

“River was more than a pretty face. He could act, too.”


In an interview in 1988 he looks like Jodie Foster. He plays with his hair and his shirt collar. At first it seems like he doesn’t want to be there.


Maybe he looks like Kurt Cobain….


“It is my prayer that River’s leaving in this way will focus the attention of the world on how painfully the spirits of his generation are being worn down…. And even River, who had the whole world at his fingertips to listen, felt deep frustration that no one heard. What is it going to take? Chernobyl wasn’t enough. Exxon Valdez wasn’t enough. A bloody war over oil wasn’t enough.”


It was a joke when we mixed drugs and drinks in my twenties: I don’t want to have a River Phoenix moment.


“Los Angeles. Saturday, October 30, 1993. River Phoenix wakes early. To the world he’s Hollywood’s golden boy. Vegan, ethically-minded, squeaky clean. The truth is very different. For over two years River has been struggling to overcome a drug problem. Today, that problem will overcome him.”


When he’s shirtless in Running on Empty, I think of Brenda Hillman’s poem “Male Nipples.”


Judy Davis was horrible to him on the set of Dark Blood. He filmed a love scene with her the day he died. “Somebody’s going to die,” he said, “Believe me.”


“You must get over here please….please cause he’s dying please….”


Cut. That’s a wrap. They forgot to turn off the camera the last day he filmed. In the footage: he’s a silhouette in candlelight walking forward.


Aaron Smith is the author Appetite, an NPR Best Book and finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award; and Blue on Blue Ground, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. His chapbooks are Men in Groups and What’s Required, winner of the Frank O’Hara Award. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, and The Best American Poetry 2013. A 2007 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Poetry Editor for the literary journal Bloom, he is Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.

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