One thing about death: it brings out the desire to make the person who’s died into a myth. Everyone who knew Stanley will have his version of him, and there are many who knew him much better than I. But I did spend a solid week with him eight or nine years ago, when he was visiting at a college where I was teaching. (I had known him since I was a young man, when we met at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the fellowship program for young artists that he and Alan Dugan helped to establish.) At the hotel where he was staying, we had dinner together every night, and his conversation was bracing and precise and full of a tart, sly humor. One night, toward the end of his stay, I remember him talking about being an old man in a way that I found completely refreshing. Although he was understanding of people’s desire to make him into a wise man because of his age, that particular night he seemed a little scornful of the impulse: there was even a hint of half-malicious joy in shrugging off his age as anything other than an impersonal fact—a rueful fact, a fact that Stanley recognized, a fact not to be gotten around by talk of transcendence or wisdom, but a fact that could be withstood with just the right admixture of gin, vermouth, and jokes. As we sat there drinking martinis, we both noticed at the same moment a misprint on the hotel menu. The poem that follows (which was written several years before Stanley’s death, but tinkered with in the last few days) is a record of that moment.
Impeccable service from a devoted stiff
is how the menu-header read—
sitting in your room, listening to the ominous,
past midnight hum of tires rain-skimming
across the bridge about to flood.
“That’s the life of poetry,” you said,
your one shoulder hunching in hilarious
strain of being over ninety and feeling
too much the water rising.
The third martini
sharpening us both to erosions and let-downs
that leave us beached, disgraced and mortal
as your Wellfleet whale, you shrugged it all off,
your quick blackbird’s eye scanning the level
in your glass:
“You know, when you get old,
people ask you about death—but all I
can think to say is, It doesn’t get any easier.”
Originally Published: June 23, 2006