During the time I knew Joan Mitchell I was working at the Robert Miller Gallery, her dealer in New York, but it was through James Schuyler, indirectly, that we became somewhat close. Schuyler had become a friend of mine, which was itself an unbelievable thrill and pleasure. I loved that Joan had made two very beautiful big paintings
called A Few Days, (After James Schuyler), and it fascinated me to think about an “abstract” painting being “after” a poem so full of
narrative detail. It changed the way I read the poem, already one of my all-time favorites. (I also loved that, of his two longest poems, she chose the later, more ambling, more elegiac “A Few Days” to evoke rather than the generally favored “The Morning of the Poem,” or anything else.) The first time I visited Joan in France on gallery business I mentioned knowing Jimmy. All at once I became a person of interest to her, and her immediate response was to recite one of his poems: “And when I thought, / ‘Our love might end’ / the sun / went right on shining” (“Daylight”). Under interrogation I admitted to my own hesitant beginnings in writing poetry, and she demanded that I send some to her when I got home.
I did so, and it went to my head when she called back to say, “You’re a poet!” But when she started introducing me as such, and broadcasting it whenever we were in a group, I was greatly embarrassed. Since I had yet to publish anything, I felt like a bit of a fraud. I remember during my second visit to Vétheuil, sitting under the great linden tree at the front of the house looking up into its leaves, and Joan said to whoever else was there, “I can tell he’s writing a poem.” To which I responded with a modest look and an ineffectual shake of the head; what I had actually been doing was trying to remember the times of trains out of there.
On one of her visits to New York Joan said she wanted to make a livre d’artiste with a poet. Could I recommend anyone? Of course I suggested Schuyler. No, she wanted someone younger, less established. When another gallery employee overhearing this conversation
brightly said, “Why don’t you do it with Nathan?” Joan practically bit her head off: “Who asked you?!” And yet somehow after she got back to France, it seemed to have become an understood thing that I was to provide the poems for this projected livre d’artiste. When
I realized she might actually be serious about it, I tried to dissuade her, saying perhaps I wasn’t really a very good poet. She paused at that, but answered, “Let’s just make something and have fun.”
On April 12, 1991, James Schuyler died at the age of sixty-seven. I was extremely sad. Two days later I was with Joan and a group for lunch at Tyler Graphics where she was working on prints and starting to plan our book. It was a sunny spring day, and at one point she looked up to a clerestory window and quoted Verlaine: “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit, / Si bleu, si calme!” These lines seemed to speak directly to my last visit with Schuyler a few days before, when he lay in his hospital bed unable to speak but looking up at the sky through the window. How did Joan know? She commiserated with me on Jimmy’s death and, although she had not seen him for many years, asked if we could go to his funeral together the coming week, which we did. His death gave a kind of focus to the poems I was trying to write for the book.
I know several people, younger painters, who were befriended and lauded by Joan but against whom she later hurtfully turned. Throughout our rather unequal friendship I was always half-braced for the same thing to happen to me. That it never did makes me feel that I misjudged her, and I regret that I was not more trusting. There remains something unfinished about our friendship, not least in my feeling that I haven’t yet lived up to her belief in me, if that’s what it was. When I see her on film her presence rushes forcefully back: her voice, her mannerisms, her vulnerability, her sharp retorts, and I miss Joan terribly. I remember John Ashbery’s words from a 1993 Miller Gallery catalogue, “Her thorniness made you want to hug her, as one thinks (twice) of embracing a rosebush.”