The Last Glimpse
The Last Glimpse
The dead, below or on the other side,
although they bypass lighted rooms
and skirt the conversations of the living,
lately have begun
to turn up—sometimes in the street, sometimes
climbing the subway stairs—as passing figures
that loom abruptly into familiarity.
Sometimes we seem to see them
not palely present, not peripheral,
but face to face. Red hair, those eyes like lamps;
that height, that hat, black pants, even that laugh—
I see, I hear her; instant, piecemeal, gone.
The last time I glimpsed her among the living,
she was standing on the corner
of Broadway and a Hundred and Tenth Street,
not, as I first thought, talking on a cell phone,
not talking to anyone at all,
rather intently watching
through the November twilight
either shoppers bustling in and out
of the West Side Market
or else the brightly lit
fruits and vegetables on display
or something inward that I couldn’t see.
Alert, observant, listening, alone. . .
I saw her from a bus. We rumbled on.
But was this the last time or did I dream it?
Were there other last times? Were there none?
She who stood close to the fruits of autumn
before they were taken in
as protection from the winter cold
at the turn of the year herself went underground.
The trees are bare still, Rachel, two months on.
The days are getting longer. When you died
in late December, each day was already
adding on a sliver of new light.
Although Rachel Wetzsteon’s path first crossed mine at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, in Tennessee, in the mid 90s, the backdrop of our subsequent friendship was the Upper West Side of Manhattan, specifically the area between Columbia and my apartment, or between 116th Street and Broadway and 101st Street and West End Avenue. We’d sometimes meet for coffee at the Hungarian Pastry Shop; once or twice I went to Rachel’s apartment and several times she came to mine. On at least one occasion, she accompanied my husband and me to Charles Martin and Johanna Keller’s New Year’s Day open house uptown at Hudson View Gardens. I remember her accurate comment that George resembled the actor Willem Dafoe, whom we’d all recently seen in Nosferatu; on one of our subway rides up the party, he convulsed Rachel by making frightening faces at her.
But the times with Rachel I remember most vividly happened out of doors. We’d run into each other on the street and wander over to Straus Park or Riverside Park, or sit on a bench in the center strip of Broadway, to continue the conversation. When I think of these exchanges, I see the pale spring colors of the park, or in the case of our last meeting, a sunny Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2009, the bright produce of the Farmers Market where I had been shopping, the fuchsia T-shirt I was wearing, the sun-soaked bench where Rachel and I sat and talked for the last time. It was hard, this last time, to hear how much pain she was in, hard to feel there was no help I could offer that she would accept. Before we went our separate ways, Rachel characteristically apologized for her tears, her distress, her tale of woe. “After all,” she said, “I’m talking to someone with real problems.” And indeed my husband’s illness, which became evident not too long after Rachel and I met, had been making my life as well as his problematic for years. Rachel had done her share of listening and offering help. In the event, though, her problems proved to be more “real” than mine. (The last time I saw Rachel, or thought I saw her, is mentioned in my poem “The Last Glimpse.”)
I would hate to end with the banal observation that in certain dire situations people are powerless to help one another. To say this would be both true and untrue. Rachel couldn’t do much about George’s dementia but offer me a listening ear and a wholly sympathetic, open, unsentimental comprehension—having said which, I think that such gifts of friendship are not to be dismissed. When, around 2000, George’s behavior began to change in frightening ways, it was above all to my poet friends that I turned, and Rachel was in that world. When, early in 2009, her own behavior began to change, Rachel’s friends found that by and large they were unable to reach her. As in the case of George’s neurodegenerative illness, the symptoms of Rachel’s depression probably began to manifest long before most people, maybe anyone, recognized them for what they were or understood what they portended. But it may well be that poetry, and her friends in the poetry world, kept Rachel alive at a time when she felt she had nothing else to live for.
Certainly the poise, brilliance, and wisdom of her writing both in poetry and prose are undiminished by the human suffering from which Rachel’s work sprang and which it transcended. In her truncated life she left us a great deal of work, which I and many others will keep reading and from which we will keep learning. As I’ve often had occasion to think, reading the book of my husband’s essays published in 2008, what is a book, after all, if not someone talking to you who isn’t there to talk in person any more?