There was a period of time after my grandmother’s death when I shuddered every time I saw one of the obituaries. Partly, I didn’t want to see any obituary, no matter what it said — I loved her severely and it felt too final. (The protectiveness and horror I felt at her death surprised even me.) And, on the other hand, I couldn’t bear the mythologies surrounding her life, regurgitated, diluted, and perpetuated. The loudest of them all was how she was “unknown” until well into her eighties, how her husband had committed suicide and she lived in obscure poverty, basically until she won the National Book Award in 2002. While the facts of her life are so important to who she is as a poet, the image of a senior citizen fumbling into success through overblown grief took away from the fact that she led a long life dedicated to poetry. From a relatively early age she was publishing and teaching, surrounded by devoted students, and for as long as I knew her (I am thirty) she lived a life rich with books, friends — and success.
I grew up with a single mother of three, just like my own mother had. While Mom struggled to support us with her writing and work, I spent much of my life shuffling around with Grandma to ease the load on Mom. “We’re a pair, you and I,” Grandma would say. “We’re buddies.” Early every morning, she’d be up making coffee and rye toast and blaring npr. I’d sit beside her drinking coffee loaded with vanilla creamer and sugar and listening along. She taught me to read and write early. Immediately I was under the impression that everyone was at least aware of contemporary poetry, if not writing it. One of my most uncomfortable memories was returning to a third grade classroom after missing school and telling the teacher I was sorry but I was at my grandmother’s reading. “Oh!” The teacher replied, with peaked interest. “I didn’t know your grandmother was a palm reader!”
Grandma spent most of her time in her house in Goshen, Vermont, high in the Green Mountains, on a winding dirt road. The house is large and creaky, ancient, heated with stoves in the middle of the rooms, and filled to the brim with books and writing. In 1953, Grandma won Poetry magazine’s Bess Hokin Prize, and she received the Kenyon Review Fellowship in Poetry in 1956. She used the prize money to purchase the farmhouse, and left only for long winters teaching at suny Binghamton and other places. She is buried behind the house, near the raspberry bushes she ordered from a magazine.
When I think of my grandma, I think first of her hair. All my friends’ grandmothers had short gray hair and dressed in crocheted sweaters and nylon pants, doling out grisly low-fat cookies every time you came over, talking of nothing but soap operas and schoolwork. My grandma had vivid red henna-dyed hair, piled up on top of her head with bobby pins, like Katharine Hepburn. She shouted at police officers or any man who called her “ma’am.” She wore “slacks” and giant button-up shirts and religiously rubbed her face with organic moisturizer. She had an incredible look — 1940s to the hilt. With her long neck and high cheekbones, she was a classy grandma.
She loved lying in bed reading P.G. Wodehouse or science books, eating Reese’s Mini Cups and drinking mediocre wine. She had poetry students scrambling around constantly; the most clingy of the bunch she usually let stay for weeks before kicking them out. She was kind, good at praise. But also stubborn and in-your-face. She suffered from constant anxiety. I ran like a literal wild-child in the forests of Vermont, barefoot for whole summers with her, bathing only in the brook. Twice a day she would stand out in the yard with her amazing low-howling voice, used only for getting children who were miles away, deep in their game, to come back and let her know they were still alive.
Her voice! There wasn’t a time of day when poetry wasn’t somewhere in her voice and mind. She talked to herself constantly, most of all in the car. On drives down to the store to get supplies, she’d be having a soft conversation with herself, some of which I could hear, and most of which sounded like a poem being assembled. I’d watch, mystified by this process. I distinctly remember that she said once, “Why did you leave me?” In her slow melodic undertone, she was communicating with poetry, and with the dead. “Once I looked out the window and I saw a whole procession of people going by,” she said to me in Goshen. “And then they just disappeared.”
Her relationship with the world existed with one arm and foot beyond the veil. Like her poetry, she was extremely present, and yet always elsewhere; in the ether, out in the Milky Way. It haunts me now, as I write this. I have her poems sitting next to me — this woman who wrote so often about death. I couldn’t see just how accurate, how wise those poems were, until I got a glimpse of loss. And the irony is: it’s her we’ve lost, and she who gives us this darkly glittering guide:
I sit for hours at the windowPreparing a letter; you are coming toward me,We are balanced like dancers in memory,I feel your coat, I smell your clothes,Your tobacco; you almost touch me.— From Tenacity