It’s a strange thing for him to admit, wanting to keep up a tough image as a metal worker, but Jack Burkheimer is a poet.
In fact, he had never really thought of himself as a poet. Words would help him process his situations – losing his marriage, his family, his job, his home. Being homeless. But he would mostly keep those thoughts to himself, until friends in a local organization called Homeless Helping Homeless encouraged him to write them and share them.
“Turns out, people really seem to like my work,” Burkheimer, 56, said. “Apparently I do have that ability to reach people.”
One of his poems, “Figment,” he has shared many times over the past year, making an impact throughout the community.
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“Oh, look at all the people going to work as if marching off to war. They pass by me, but don’t see me, as if I am a figment of my Imagination.”
In the poem, Burkheimer reflects on many of his interactions on the street, expressing emotions of despair, anger, shame and hopelessness – but also hopefulness.
“Everyone has this feeling at some point or another for some reason, about being a figment of their imagination,” Burkheimer said.
He performed “Figment” on Wednesday at the third annual “Silent Voices” program, presented by Homeless Helping Homeless. All donations from attendees went directly to the performers.
Featuring nearly two dozen homeless, formerly homeless and friends of the homeless, the program was a chance for them to share their talents and for the community to interact with the homeless and “experience the human side of homelessness,” Burkheimer said.
“Seeing this right here, it’s an eye opener,” said Marcia Frazier, who attended the program with her mother and several friends. “People need to see and hear what they don’t on a normal basis really know about the homeless. Everyone has their own interpretations about what’s going on, but to actually hear them out of their own mouths and say this is what this is, it was nice.”
“Later they march off to party and still don’t see me. I must be a figment of my Imagination. They see my backpack, my worn shoes as I fade into the bricks. Walking down the sidewalk, they go out of their way to avoid me.”
Burkheimer was in the Navy, worked jobs as a welder and fabricator, raised four daughters and cared for his cancer-stricken wife for two decades.
Three years ago, he and his wife split up. At about the same time, he lost his job. For the next six months, he lived in a motel room and made ends meet as a dishwasher before his work hours got cut and he could no longer afford his shelter.
Since then, he’s done part-time work while living on the streets of Columbia, mostly outdoors, where he’s most comfortable and secure, he said.
“At first there’s this extreme feeling of hopelessness. Despair really set in,” Burkheimer said. “Honestly, my first reaction, I was scared to death of homeless people. But I quickly learned they’re human, too, and they’re caught up in circumstances like me.
“And you know, that’s something people have to realize: We are human.”
That message wasn’t lost on the audience. Grayson Lowman, a senior at the University of South Carolina who attended the program, said the performances were something that could change people’s perceptions of the homeless.
“It was a first-hand experience from some of the performers, which made it that much more real,” Lowman said. “A lot of times (people) probably don’t even see them. ... They just kind of tune them out.”
“No living person can feel this hollow; it’s proof I am a figment of my imagination. They talk bitter of us, as if I’m not there – of course I’m not. I’m fading into the bricks.”
As Burkheimer read the finishing lines of “Figment,” his voice softened from anger to thankfulness.
“And just when I think there is nothing left to see, kind eyes find mine – They pull me back.”
Burhkeimer thumped his chest with his fist, determinedly declaring:
“I want them to know, that in that moment of their concern, I know that I am not a figment of my Imagination.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.