When I was in college, I joined, very briefly, a writing group. It wasn’t the worst decision I made as a student, but it was up there, in between, perhaps, taking a calculus exam while profoundly stoned (I failed, for which I blamed the drugs, until I took the same test sober the next semester, and somehow failed even worse) and trying to make conversation with a police officer while on LSD. (I am now noticing a theme with my poor college decisions. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or if you do, don’t ask cops how they’re doing. They’re not doing well.)
Anyway, the writing group had no clearly defined mission or meeting place, which meant we always ended up in a bar. At the few meetings I went to, the only constant members were a tall pretentious graduate student who dressed entirely in purple, and a slightly shorter, slightly less pretentious senior who wore reading glasses that, I remain convinced, were unnecessary. I called them Prince and Reading Glasses, respectively, though not creatively. They both hated poetry. I liked poetry. I carried books by Leonard Cohen and W.S. Merwin around with me everywhere. I smoked French cigarettes, too. Prince and Reading Glasses didn’t like me, which is understandable.
I bummed Prince a smoke one time. He thanked me, and in the next breath, told me I should be reading Marcel Proust, which he said with a weird pronunciation that seemed to be in the same subdivision as French, though not the exact neighborhood. “You know why you like poetry?” he said. “It’s because you have to borrow other people’s pain.” Then he went and tried to hit on a Russian girl, which, again, is understandable.
One of the books I was obsessed with back then was Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems. Kinnell had been recommended to me by my best friend, Stephanie Saldaña, now a writer living in east Jersualem. I had read it maybe once a month then. I read it again this year, after Kinnell’s death in October. The version I have is out of print, although there’s an expanded edition, A New Selected Poems, which I should get, but, having been burned by change at least a million times in the past few years, I’m uncomfortable with it. Pain, I’m fine with, borrowed or otherwise. But not new pain, and not, for the most part, new joy.
Anyway, Kinnell was something like a connoisseur of loss, both actual and anticipated. And he anticipated his own, often. Here he is in “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” a poem he wrote for his daughter, Maud: “Yes, / you cling because / I, like you, only sooner / than you, will go down / the path of vanished alphabets, / the roadlessness / to the other side of the darkness…”
This was a season of loss, but good luck finding a season without it. In September, my friend and professor D.G. Myers died. A month after that, so did our cat, Dangermouse. Three weeks after that, so did our other cat, Starla. (If it seems disrespectful to note their passings this way, as if they were equivalent, I would point out that David was a huge cat fan who was also allergic to sentimentality. Also, I promised him I wouldn’t stop making fun of him after he died, which was a weird thing to promise an ailing man, but he made me, and it’s bad luck and rude besides to ignore the wishes of a dying man.)
Do I love Kinnell because I’m addicted to borrowing the pain of others? I don’t think so, though maybe that’s because I’ve never understood what the hell Prince was talking about anyway. He could have a point. Most of the poetry I loved then was about sickness and death; I was too young to understand what any of that really felt like. God knows I’m not now. When I heard about David’s death from a mutual friend, I thought immediately of another one of Kinnell’s poems, “Spindrift,” which concludes: “Nobody likes to die / But an old man / Can know / A kind of gratefulness / Toward time that kills him, / Everything he loved was made of it.”
I think maybe rather than borrowing pain, I was trying to outsmart it. Maybe I thought I could do a dry run through loss. If so, it didn’t work.
Galway Kinnell seemed to embrace and taunt loss with every other poem. And I think I get it now in a way I didn’t when I was a teenager. I honestly don’t know how to explain it. In his poem “Goodbye,” Kinnell wrote, “It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we learned, the embrace is all.”
Sometimes things that you love disappear, and sometimes they stick around. I guess it seems fair. It makes sense when I read Galway Kinnell’s poems, anyway, and that’s kind of enough. You’ll think you see your friend somewhere on a random street corner, one second before you realize that’s impossible, and you’ll still turn around when you hear a phantom meow, one second before you think, Oh, right. Of course not. And once in a while you’ll remember the people around you, the family and friends who refuse to be embarrassed by you despite a contradictory preponderance of evidence, the dogs staring you down as you write something because they’re convinced you’re going to give them leftover chicken (and they’re right), the books you love and the people who love them, some of whom you also love, and things seem okay. Sometimes for a moment. But sometimes much longer.
That was my year. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, except when it was.
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