Rachel Wetzsteon — I.M. 1967-2009
Tonight—April 16, 2010—there will be a memorial service for Rachel Wetzsteon at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. It is a fitting place for family and friends to gather to remember Rachel, who died tragically, late last December: Rachel taught in the Poetry Center’s Writing Program (alongside Marie Ponsot, Rachel Hadas, Charles Martin, and others) for many years, and has scores of adoring students at the Y who remember her fondly and continue to marvel at her poems.
When I served for several years as director of the Poetry Center, it was my pleasure to present a reading by Rachel as part of the Tenth Muse series of emerging poets on March 22, 2004. It was a historic night, joyous and, in retrospect, also melancholy. The evening was introduced by Billy Collins—as you would expect, a generous and wry MC—and it included readings by Rachel, George Bilgere, and Michael Donaghy. After the simply smashing readings, we celebrated with a lively wine-filled dinner nearby. It was only a few months later that we learned of Michael’s death, at age fifty, from a cerebral hemorrhage. Michael was among the very finest British (and American) poets of his generation, an incandescent talent. Rachel, too, led the new generation of poets in this country, and to think that she is gone as well, at age 42, is very hard to bear.
I had been bowled over by Rachel’s brilliance long before coming to the Y. We were graduate students together at Columbia in the early 1990s—or rather she was a PhD candidate writing on Auden (a real graduate student) and I was getting an MFA in poetry (for my sins). A group of us somewhat more adventurous “creative writers” insinuated ourselves into classes in the English department. It was in Edward Tayler’s famous Shakespeare seminar (on the Problem Plays) that Rachel and I first met. Of course, I knew and admired her poetry (she was already an established talent), and soon learned firsthand how lightly and how commandingly she wore her scholarship—it was for me a formative glimpse of a true literary talent at work.
While we were not close friends (though extremely fond of Rachel, I saw her only sporadically), I was always delighted and honored when our paths intersected: at the Dante readings on Maundy Thursday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, when once she judged The New Criterion Poetry Prize, when she agreed to be included in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. She always made me feel that we were fellows engaged in a common pursuit, a kindness on her part and an honor for me. A few weeks before she died, I had invited Rachel to participate in a reading for the Swallow Anthology at the Grolier Club in New York (with poets Ernest Hilbert and Adam Kirsch). She kindly agreed; then, overwhelmed by illness (it was depression, I came to believe) she cancelled at the last minute. Her apology was heartfelt, and in hindsight terribly sad—something seemed out of register with the Rachel I knew. In her absence, her poem “Pemberley” was read out by the young poet Callie Siskel. It is that poem I would like to return to now.
Some poems grow on us over time; others are diminished. Occasionally, we embrace a poem beyond criticism, beyond its value as literature; we internalize it for its life-value. Some poems synchronize with our breath, take root in our hearts, where they assume a private and indelible meaning. Death is not the end when a poet dies. What we dearly miss is everything they have to tell us about the minutiae of life, about head colds and deadlines, restaurants and articles, embarrassments and triumphs. And gossip, always gossip—about our doings and others’. But the poems keep talking. They talk with even greater clarity and power, in fact, because they are no longer in process. They are finished. Yet like all good art, they continue to unfold, have things to say, even new things to say that we hadn’t heard before.
I have been reading and listening to Rachel’s poems in the last few months, ever since the news of her death began to circulate, slowly at first and then more widely, until an obituary appeared in The New York Times on New Year’s Day. There is much I would like to say about Rachel, but this is not the occasion. Instead, I would like to say something briefly about one of her poems, “Pemberley,” from her most recent collection Sakura Park. The thing I have heard often since Rachel’s death is how her poems (people now realize) returned regularly to the ultimate source of her unhappiness—the seeming impossibility of connecting with others, of finding (and keeping) love. “Pemberley” is very much in this vein.
“Pemberley” recounts a modern-day visit to proud Mr. Darcy’s estate—probably Chatsworth in real life—which like many of England’s stately homes is now open to the public. Much like the characters in Pride and Prejudice, the anxious speaker is sorting through the difficulties of love and missed connections. It begins:
The park was very large. We drove
for some time through a beautiful wood
until the wood ceased, and the house came into view.
The description is eminently lucid, though I can’t help hearing a distant ring of fairytale. The “we” is particularly wrenching. Rachel wrote often of the elusiveness of Mr. Right, of the mixed blessings of freedom, of loneliness. “We” quickly dissolves to “I.” The poem then maps elements from Austen onto the contemporary couple’s relationship. On the house tour, among the miniatures and the family portraits:
I dredged up a shaming moment:
you asked me a question, then ducked as I spewed
an idiot’s vitriol, blindness disguised as rage.
The speaker ironically channels in one excruciating moment Elizabeth’s rebuke of Darcy and her realization that she has been partly to blame (as was Darcy, for his haughtiness). She cools her heels with the “thirsty couples” “at Café Can’t Wait,” spending time “at its flimsy tables” and brooding on her rash and seemingly unprovoked outburst.
The poignancy of the ending is crushing, and, as several people have commented about Rachel herself since her death, brave:
but then I walked under trees whose leaves
exhaled gusty stories of good deeds;
I learned empty houses are excellent teachers;
I sent you away and felt you grow
tremendous in your absence. Ask me again.
The speaker inhabits Elizabeth in a feat of metempsychosis. Writer calls to writer, book to book, love to love. For a brief moment, for those three words, we are the poet herself, in the same way that the poet is Elizabeth, or the ideal of Elizabeth—so dearly longed for—shimmering like sunlight in an allée.
The voice is measured; the sentences, simple, declarative. As emotion mounts in the poem and the absence of the beloved grows tremendous, it’s all the poem can do to keep its composure, until restraint is exploded in a final unguarded utterance. The speaker declares her desire, but the outcome is left hanging. The plea is unanswered.
What I feel most immediately (and selfishly) about Rachel’s death is the loss of a comrade-in-arms in the battles both large and mundane. Tonight, I will see a great many of the poets I most admire in New York. A good number of them are friends, and Rachel was very much among them. It will be a bitter night for all of us, who saw Rachel as an ally, a colleague, a fellow in this strange pursuit of writing poems. She was part of our worldview, part of what helped us believe that art is a worthwhile pursuit. Without her here, it seems harder to say that this is so.
In March 1970, a memorial service was held for Louise Bogan at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. Auden—Rachel’s pet subject and a presiding genius—took part, wearing carpet slippers (they were easier on his corns) and clutching all of Bogan’s books. The image of Auden at Bogan’s memorial in slippers is deeply touching to me. It conveys the way in which we are all made slightly ridiculous by grief; the abasement is part of mourning. With Rachel gone, I feel more lonely and more alone. I cling to her heartbreaking poems more fiercely now that she’s gone.