Sunday, December 4, 2022

Linda Norton : Process Note #6 : “My Mystic” and “Begin in Blue”

The 'process notes' pieces were originally solicited by Maw Shein Win as addendum to her teaching particular poems and poetry collections for various workshops and classes. These pieces and process note by Linda Norton was part of her curriculum for her Poetry Workshop at University of San Francisco in their MFA Program ( for Fall semester of 2022.

Linda Norton on her poems for Fanny Howe and Bill Corbett; and on writing Wite Out: Love and Work

"My Mystic"

Thank you for reading and sharing and teaching my work, Maw, and for inviting me to reflect on it here. I'll start by talking about the two poems you mentioned in your email to me (they are connected by way of Boston, Bill Corbett, Fanny Howe, John Wieners, and painting, which makes me wonder why you chose these two out of so many. Did you see or intuit these connections?).

"My Mystic" is of course a list poem; it's a love list about and a love letter to the poet, novelist, memoirist and filmmaker Fanny Howe. Though of course I have friends who've given me encouragement and feedback, I consider Fanny Howe the only writing mentor I've ever had. Our relationship started long ago when I solicited a manuscript from her for our New California Poetry series at the University of California Press, where I was an acquisitions editor. Slowly I came out of the closet as a writer, and Fanny became my great reader and advocate (tart, skeptical, fond, and encouraging).

Fanny and I have nothing and everything in common. She is older than I am, and grew up in a Boston Brahmin world that fascinated me when I was a kid on the other side of the tracks in Dorchester. She is a Catholic convert and I am an apostate. She is a poet, whatever she is writing, and I identify as a writer more than as a poet, even when I am writing poetry. We are both Irish, she through her Anglo-Irish mother, the actress Mary Manning, and I through my father and his mother, an impoverished Catholic immigrant to Boston from County Kerry. We’ve both lived in Boston and New York and California and have spent a lot of time in Ireland. We're both single mothers, romantic solitaries surrounded by children and, now and then, men. I wanted in this poem to capture the dynamic between us—the love and comedy and contradictions and occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, and our New England-ish spirits.

This poem owes a debt to a poet and book I love a lot: Patty McCarthy's marybones. I reviewed the book for Jacket2 because I just had to; it seemed written for me, and I knew I could appreciate it in a way that maybe no one else could. (That said, I once heard Paul Hoover give a page-by-page explication of the book that caught all sorts of things that I missed, perhaps because I was too close to the subject matter and feeling of the collection.) History, womanhood, motherhood, abjection and delight—these are my themes, too. "My Mystic" owes a debt to McCarthy's propulsive rhythms in marybones, and these lines in particular refer to a passage in the book that I found brutally moving:

My mystic might have been named Affliction or Delight if born at sea in 1620.
            Or, two centuries later, out of Cobh and mad in steerage: perhaps Theresa.

I like the fact that everything in "My Mystic" is rooted in actualities and specifics of my relationship to Fanny, anecdotes we've shared, things I have noticed and written in my notebooks over the years (she really did buy a plot in Mt Auburn Cemetery, which made us both look forward to her death for a minute—it's one of our favorite places! But I think she has changed her mind now about where she wants to be buried). Despite the factuality, the poem reads as a bit of a fairy tale, perhaps because Fanny is a mystic and I am not? And because we are always laughing while talking about loneliness, suffering, and the profane.

I struggled with every word of this poem, and with the lineation, and especially with the last two lines (I had to research the Gnostics and the Cathars to get at what I wanted to say about me and Fanny and religion).

I don't think I have much more to say about the "My Mystic" except that there's a tricolor Irish flag embedded in it; can you find it?

Fanny Howe and Linda Norton, Zinc Bar, NYC, 2019. Photo by Katie Ebbitt


My Mystic

          For FQH

My mystic is not old enough to be my mother.

She yells "No!" when she laughs at my jokes.

She can’t keep anything down and doesn’t drink, except for whiskey, wine, and water.

My mystic is her father’s daughter.

My mystic has her own monk, a hermit who had his own monk.

Out on a boat on the Atlantic with a friend, tossed around, my mystic screams
with laughter when they don’t drown.

My mystic has an early edition of Proust in a closet with her sheets and towels.
Any house sitter could steal it, but no one does.

My mystic picks at her croissant in the dark, Swann’s Way in her lap.

My mystic wants to know all about my men, so I tell her and she groans,
and then we talk about the new Pope. She thinks he has a humble face.

From her apartment we can see an orange neon sign across the Cambridge green.
At dusk it tints the dirty snow. My mystic used to run in and
out of that hotel lobby with her best friend, stealing candy.

Now children crawl all over my mystic. In the pockets of her vest
(the color of their red toboggan) they find hard candy.

My mystic is a sister. Is lilacs. Is toast.

My mystic has already bought her plot.

My mystic is both the crone and the infant in the fairy tale.

My mystic is a fairy. She flies everywhere but leaves no carbon footprint.

My mystic has a device. Children text my mystic from L. A., Dubai, Oxford, Paris.

My mystic might have been named Affliction or Delight if born at sea in 1620.
Or, two centuries later, out of Cobh and mad in steerage: perhaps Theresa.

My mystic has lips the color of a rose named for the Cathars, who had but one sacrament:


"Begin in Blue"

"Begin in Blue" is a poem for Bill Corbett, my publisher and an old friend of Fanny's. He was the center of the poetry world in Boston for decades, and a mentor to many terrific writers including Fred Moten, Maureen McLane, and Jhumpa Lahiri. He died in 2018. Bill loved Sienese painting; so do I (my favorite is Sassetta). Bill and Fanny were also friends with the great Boston poet, John Wieners, who grew up a few parishes over from me in Boston, where the puritanical  Sunday blue laws were enforced until not so long ago.

Robert Creeley comes into it because I knew him (we published him at the University of California Press) and he knew Wieners. My brother Joey's name belongs in any gay poem about Boston and John Wieners (RIP, Joseph A. Norton, poet, who died of AIDS at 24 in 1986).

The first poetry readings I ever attended were given in small rooms at Yale; Creeley read, and Ashbery. I remember being confused about where their talking ended and their poems began. And whether I even belonged in the room. "Begin in Blue" is just talking in poetry and prose.

That's all the backstory except for the actual inspiration for it, a visit by poet Laura Mullen to the Bancroft Library where I worked in the oral history office for fifteen years. I was on the front desk when Laura came looking for material about the eucalyptus grove on the University of California campus in Berkeley. She was doing a project for an eco-poetics event. I found some materials for her and then sat down to read Wieners' chapbook Pressed Wafer (for which Bill Corbett named his press, where he published my first book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, in 2011).

Fanny Howe and Bill Corbett in NYC (photographer unknown).











Begin in Blue

The blue of her robe . . . reads above all as a flat silhouetted shape—a deep infinite midnight blue, large enough to lose ourselves in . . . this very dark blue creates unparalleled effects . . . almost of hypnotic trance; it is as though we are being invited to worship not so much the Madonna as the Blue.

                              Timothy Hyman, Sienese Painting

I’m reading John Wieners’ chapbook, Pressed Wafer, at one of the giant tables upstairs in the archives where I work, when a visiting scholar asks for help with research. And that’s how I learn that, in 1882, landscape architects at the University of California designed a eucalyptus grove for the Berkeley campus (a grove through which I walk once a week). Tasmanian blue gum trees were planted as a windbreak for the cinder running track. They grew and grew, non-natives making themselves at home. To one who’d never seen a eucalyptus tree, the grove smelled like cough drops.

Wieners was a Boston boy. Later, in San Francisco, he wore blue eye shadow and sold heroin packed in matchboxes the size of a palette of eye shadow—false eyelashes, glued one above the other on his forehead—cockeyed Caucasian—
Eyelids the color and shape of the leaves of the blue eucalyptus near the track where the beautiful athlete, also a Joseph, also a John, breathing hard after a sprint, does not look up at the plane from Boston passing over the track—
Boys in California know nothing of priests in long skirts shoveling snow, winters invented by Emily Dickinson—

The Blacks and the blues,
the grove as artifice—

In Berkeley, Robert Creeley recorded a version of "A Poem for Painters":
"With want of it"—
    "despair is on my face"—
"showered by the scent of the finish line"—

The golden boys protected by tall trees—
blue blood—blue eucalyptus—blue-lined paper—
"beginning with violet. I begin in blue"—
"My middle name is Joseph"—

Sanskrit "vaka"
"wat" (temple)
"grove" (copse, thicket)—
A coppice—spinney—brake—for the broken—A grove: a stand of trees with little or no undergrowth—So here’s the floor, all clear and still, a thicket—"cold hell"—

Grave Love Leaves

Torn tickets in the eucalyptus leaves, pants in the trees—
Who walks through the grove in winter rain? Pants decomposing in the decomposing leaves— pants, and a dog—

This was after the picturesque era, before Free Speech— "Books in the running brooks," books in the trees—

Strawberry Creek roars with the snowmelt coming down from Truckee. The train back to Boston leaves at 3:00.
Across the "enormous" country—passing a car filled with Beats, ascending, going where Beats don’t go—

Climbing into the mountains he leans out the window, his ears pasted back like a dog’s—like a dog, submissively free— submission is differentwhen there’s no force.
In the Rockies they close the windows now because so many travelers have been decapitated leaning out to see the trees—but the windows were open then, so he

Wite Out: Love and Work: On Writing to Myself (For You)

A story has to leave out nearly everything or nobody can follow it.
Kate Greenstreet

A musician named Sonny Rollins—see, if I were writing to myself
I would not be explaining that to myself .
. .
Marcella Durand

Wite Out: Love and Work, like my first book, The Public Gardens: Poems and History, is a hybrid work of prose and poetry. But in Wite Out the prose is heftier, covering a much longer period of time (1997-2016). The themes of the book (race, African American culture and history, white supremacy, class, womanhood, trauma, religion, marriage and divorce, love and sex, motherhood, place, and music and books) become fairly explicit when woven through the narrative. Wite Out is 80% prose, 20% poetry and lyric essays; the prose is the bezel for the rest of the text. Implicit in the format and the poetics of the prose is my work in the visual arts (collage), documentary, and history.

I've had Marcella Durand's poem from the Brooklyn Rail taped up over my desk because I'm trying to write a craft essay about the choice to write my own books in the form of diaries—a form in which I can never "explain" things to the reader, because one doesn't explain things to oneself in a diary. Yet through indirection, foreshadowing, the comments of other characters, etc., I had to give the reader everything they needed in order to understand the characters, the narrative stakes, and the way the poems and lyric essays in the book relate to the prose memoir.

To Marcella Durand by Marcella Durand

Well, honest Marcella, how fare you now at home?
My view is of a bridge over water: I swear the world
has sped up. I write not to myself because who am I
but to you in the past dear John Clare a poet like myself
who is looking at a bridge that maybe you would
have been horrified or impressed by. A musician named
Sonny Rollins—see, if I were writing to myself I would not
be explaining that to myself—a musician named Sonny
Rollins treated the view from this bridge as a composition
sheet: he read the city lights (because now not only are
we electrified but we are everything electric) as musical
notes and from that found melodies, that is what it is like
to make art from the environment around me. Making
a composition from the city of others that is about me.

(Shared here with the poet's permission. The poem, inspired by "To John Clare", is included in Durand's book, The Prospect. You can find Durand's review of Wite Out, commissioned by editor Albert Mobilio for Hyperallergic, here.)

If I'd understood my own ambition for Wite Out at the start, I wouldn't have chosen that form—it was too hard! But now that it's done, I think it's okay. I'll just do something different for the next book. I keep a long list of all the things I left out of Wite Out. The people, the incidents, the twists and turns. Some relationships in that book lasted for a year or more, but appear to be brief in the book (making it look like I was very efficient about ending relationships); other important relationships aren't in it at all. Sometimes it feels like a lie to write anything!

It was hard to write about race in such personal terms, and I was terrified and determined to do it. My editor said about the arrival of one character in Wite Out (in the year the narrator, me, turned 50), "Shouldn't you say, 'He is Black,' so the reader knows?" No. Let the reader figure it out. (“Eddie is white, and we know he is because nobody says so,” writes Toni Morrison, re: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.)

I just finished reading Chantal V. Johnson's Post-Traumatic and I can't stop thinking about it. In an interview the narrator talks about upending the clichés of the trauma narrative, the big reveal, the wound. She writes with great humor (affording her narrator with a sense of the absurd, the comic, and the pathetic). I appreciate this complexity because it's what I do in my own life and writing. It's the way life is. And when I give readings, nothing makes me happier to hear the audience laugh.

I'm almost finished with Elaine Castillo's How to Read Now, a collection of essays. "Reality is All We Have to Love" is, for me, the highlight of the book. She considers a story by the great John Berger and some reactions to, or misunderstandings of, its subject, and questions "the subtle implication that the only way to write about abuse or trauma is through the courtroom logic of testimonial and confession, through the sensational drama of exposing a psychic wound… or through the finiteness and finality of judgment and denunciation." I remember struggling with all of these issues while writing early drafts of Wite Out; I really had to get out from under these tropes in order to try to make a book that is as impoverished and rich as my life has been.

Right now I'm completing the third book in my trilogy This will be a collection of linked essays focusing on the story behind my Irish citizenship (my grandmother's and my father's stories, and the stories of so many other Irish women), collage, the Great Depression and documentary. I don't think there'll be any poetry in it. It's a big project and I've been working on it for more than twenty-five years.

I've just finished writing a very short book called A Cloud of Witnesses. It's yet another hybrid work which includes an illustrated essay and thirty poems. They are centi, procedural poems I made from lines in the stacks of books upon which I perched my computer for Zoom meetings during the pandemic. I'm searching for a publisher for this baby. It was cool to write something short—2020-2022—instead of what I usually try to do (nineteenth century history to twenty-first).


Other links:

Books, SFMoMA Open Space essays, Reviews, Interviews, Events, Poems and Collages

Wite Out: Love and Work, 2020 /  The Public Gardens: Poems and History, 2011







Linda Norton is the author of Wite Out: Love and Work (2020), a memoir with poems, and its prequel, The Public Gardens: Poems and History (2011; introduction by Fanny Howe), a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She was born in Boston and lived in Brooklyn for many years before moving to Oakland, where she raised her daughter and met her foster son, who are the heart and soul of Wite Out, a book John Keene and Eileen Myles call a “masterpiece” and Norman Fischer calls “a gorgeous, courageous book.” (You can read excerpts from reviews of both books at the link below.) She is also the author of two chapbooks, Hesitation Kit (2007) and Dark White (2019).

She received a Creative Work Fund grant in 2014, the year she exhibited her collages at the Dock Arts Centre in Ireland with support from the US Embassy in Dublin. Her collages have appeared on the covers of her own books and books by Claudia Rankine, Julie Carr, and other writers. She was a 2020 columnist-in-residence at SFMOMA’s Open Space; you can read her five essays and see her collages and photographs at the link below, where you'll also find interviews, art, and videos of recent readings. 

She has been a guest writer in many classrooms where her books have been on writing and literature syllabi (e.g., Fred Moten's class at UC Riverside, C. D. Wright's class at Brown, Katie Peterson's class at UC Davis, and classes at California College of Art, San Francisco State University, CU Boulder, and other institutions). Among the most moving things to occur in her life as a writer: finding a quotation from The Public Gardens in C. D. Wright's posthumously published book, The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.

Norton is a dual citizen of the US and Ireland/EU and teaches online at the Yeats Academy at IT Sligo/Atlantic Technological University in Connaught, Ireland

Photo: Linda Norton, 2022, for Oaklandside

Maw Shein Win’s most recent poetry book is Storage Unit for the Spirit House (Omnidawn) nominated for the Northern California Book Award in Poetry, longlisted for the PEN America Open Book Award, and shortlisted for CALIBA's Golden Poppy Award for Poetry. Win's previous collections include Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press) and chapbooks Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). She is the inaugural poet laureate of El Cerrito and often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers.

Barbara Cole : Then again: On Pattie McCarthy’s Poetics

from Report from the McCarthy Society, Vol. 1 No. 1





From the first line of her first book, bk of (h)rs, Pattie McCarthy establishes many of the recurring concerns in her body of work:

          “blue, then. again she is—bending against”

One might read this “blue” as the arrival of a new day at dawn, the sky turning from darkness to varying shades of blue or maybe it’s an allusion to sadness, as in feeling blue. Perhaps it suggests loyalty, as in ‘true blue’ or maybe it refers to serenity, a feeling of tranquility or it could be a reference to water, the ocean, eye color, something unexpected as in ‘out of the blue.’ All equally plausible.

But, for me, it’s the sound of this line which I find so compelling: the rhyme of ‘then’ and ‘again’ which is then echoed in ‘bending against’. This subtle shift from ‘again’ to ‘against’ signals how McCarthy uses both repetition and variation throughout her work at the level of the word or phrasal unit, building more nuanced meaning with the addition of a single letter or two.

Then again, I’m tempted to read “then. again” as a reconsideration of a previous statement, taking something back, approaching it from a different angle or perspective, allowing for multiple meanings. “then. again” as an insistence on repetition, a repeat performance, returning to a previous thought or theme.[1]

This single line might be the most concise statement of McCarthy’s poetics: “again she is—bending against” as both privileging the place of women at the center of her work while also resisting or ‘bending against’ the treatment and representation of nameless faceless women as ‘she’ in history, art, and literature, questioning even while paying homage to such depictions, returning to the past (then, again) and her use of repetition (again).

McCarthy’s use of repetition extends beyond a single collection. Her seven books share a constellation of themes; certain tropes are woven from one book to another. A recurring line in the first book might reappear in a later book, as if the lines themselves make cameo appearances.*

In her second book, Verso, for instance, the phrase “a story told as though it is true” appears in varying constructions: “a story told as though / it is true” (17); “these sorts of stories told as though they were true” (18); “a true story” (22);  “a story told / as though  it is true” (25). Each repetition casts the notion of truth further into doubt, hence the line breaks around “as though” to underscore the unreliable nature of the story. Finally, in its last occurrence, McCarthy offers her pithiest variation on this theme: “the story goes like this & has too many commas. / the story was told to me as follows & will be on the final” (45).[2] This questioning the veracity of a story emerges again in Marybones: “this is a story told as though it is / true      I don’t know / whether or not it is” (12). This is just one of the ways that McCarthy emphasizes that history is all too often his story—a narrative told by men—reminding readers how much has been left out, insisting that every supposed fact must be questioned, called into doubt, examined more deeply.

Her work is driven by an insatiable fascination with language over time and in time, in all its most archaic and arcane forms. Her poems reference Olde English and Middle English, religious texts, military acronyms, medical and diagnostic terminology, legal parlance including interrogations, depositions, testimonies, and court records. The point for McCarthy is not so much who or what is on trial but rather the nature of accusation and persecution. She indicts the inclination to indict, particularly as it pertains to women.[3]

This is a poetics that is smitten with scholarship, in love with libraries. One almost imagines the books rubbing against the library stacks (or maybe that’s just me). Each collection becomes more enamored with the artifice of scholarship; the back matter becomes more extensive with each collection including bibliographies and ever more elaborate notes on sources. Her fifth collection, xyz &&, offers perhaps the most meticulous notes specifying not merely source texts but even the particular lines of each poem where they appear. The breadth of her references encompasses modernist greats—Stein, Joyce, Zukofsky, Eliot, Loy, Niedecker, Woolf, Williams—to more contemporary sources—Susan Howe, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Caroline Bergvall, W.G. Sebald, Deleuze & Guattari, Radiohead—though the majority of the research draws on medieval texts.[4]

I want to say—echoing one of her former student’s misguided papers—that McCarthy writes with one foot planted in medievalism and the other foot saluting the modern long poem.[5] That is to say: medieval texts haunt much of her work whether it is her contemporary re-casting of the medieval books of hours, her ekphrastic send-up of depictions of Mary in medieval artworks in Marybones, or her poetic retelling of the Book of Margery Kempe in wifthing.[6]

I can’t claim to always understand everything that she’s doing in her work—the references are vast, the allusions so rooted in medieval texts I’ve never read. No matter. I understand that’s part of the process.w I am reduced to making lists of recurring themes and images:

magpies        maps            margins        martyrs          matriarchy    midwives      mirrors         mothers          mourning     museums     mystics[7]

McCarthy flirts with disaster as much as with the dictionary, with margins and marginalia, reading and misreading geographies and etymologies, every word giving birth to the next, ‘eye’ turns into ‘eve’ to underscore that every letter matters. With each word, the reader is on the brink of discovering something even if you’re not quite sure what.

saints            sky         sleeping    smoking       spells            superstition

Fascinated by “secret / languages & language / acquisition” (Nulls 89), hers is a poetics of silences and sighs, the seen and the unseen, the said and the unsaid, a poetics of historiography & hagiography.[8] McCarthy explores the representation of women as mothers and daughters, virgins and saints but always with the mind of a sinner—maybe a reformed sinner but a sinner all the same, stirring up trouble on the page.[9]

Obsessed with cryptographies & telegrams[10], at times the poems read as if McCarthy’s telegraphing a private message. Read enough of her work and everything begins to feel coded. In addition to lists of tropes, I find myself chasing down numerological significance. The poems seem to encourage it. Table Alphabetical of Hard Words, for instance, includes a long sequence entitled, “spaltklang: is good broken music,” a series of fourteen poems of fourteen lines each—McCarthy’s series of sonnets on the birth of her first son. She then again repeats this form for her second son and daughter in xyz &&, including a series of three poems, one for each child’s labor “the first birth in fourteen lines,” “the second birth in fourteen lines,” “the third birth in fourteen lines” (28-30).

Her most recent collection, wifthing goes a step further: divided into three sections, beginning with 25 poems of 14 lines each titled “margerykempething” followed by 25 poems of 14 lines each titled “qweyne wifthing” which are then followed by 30 poems of 14 lines each titled “goodwifthing.”[11]  One could argue the deconstructed sonnet has become McCarthy’s preferred form as she leans in even more heavily to repetition.

babies           birds             birth             blood           bodies           buildings[12]

McCarthy’s work is grounded in the mind as much as the body. Her poems are full of fingers, feet, hands, hair, noses, eyes, mouths, tongues, and wombs as much as bodies of water. We read of wifthings, daughterthings, even “poor thing” (10), drawing attention to the thing in birthing for McCarthy’s emphasis on the labor of childbirth is as much a metaphor for the labor of writing. A poetic midwife, she delivers the poem onto the page:

she / makes her body by making other bodies…

the text begins imperfectly          with blank
spaces where         her body betrays her

in a new way (30; 31)

Then again, for all of the constancy in McCarthy’s work, the recurring themes woven from one book to the next, each book feels entirely singular. Every time I return to one of her books, I am then again captivated as if for the first time, fascinated by the workings of her mind on the page yet again, still watching, still reading hungrily, still wishing always for one more thing, discovering new meaning then again & again.



[1] I first met Pattie McCarthy in Spring 1996 when we both showed up on the same day to observe Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s graduate Poetry seminar at Temple University. As prospective students newly admitted to the MA in Creative Writing program for the following Fall, we were there to decide whether we would choose Temple. What we didn’t know is that this choice would change the course of our lives.

I had arrived hours earlier and spent the morning exploring the department, chatting up faculty and grad students, methodically checking off the list of questions I had prepared in advance. Pattie blew in after the session had already started and quietly grabbed the chair right next to me. For two hours we sat in silence—perhaps the first and last time we’ve ever been silent in each other’s presence.

At the seminar’s conclusion, a group moved to the office of Kevin Varrone—one of the students I had pestered that morning with endless questions, the person Pattie would end up falling in love with and eventually marrying. Though we didn’t know that yet. (There was so much we didn’t know.) (Strike the above—she would hate me turning this into anything to do with romance or matrimony. It perpetuates all of the most objectionable writing about women writers that we both loathe. Even if it is true.)

What I did know already on that first day was how Pattie commanded the room—not in a domineering way but with her dramatic presence. Poker straight blond hair that fell just below her waist, Ivory girl scrubbed face, a studied flatness that was utterly fascinating. And that smoky voice holding forth authoritatively, her quick laughter, dry wit and unusual turns of phrase had everyone captivated, her blue-gray eyes piercing through each one of us.

Though I had been there all day at that point and should have felt at-ease inserting myself into the conversation, I was too mesmerized to have a thought of my own to share. All eyes were on Pattie. Including mine. I left campus that day hoping she would decide to go elsewhere. How could I possibly compete with such a force?

* But on the first day of Orientation, there she was in tattered cut-offs, black tee shirt, 12-hole well-worn Doc Martens, sitting legs akimbo reading the newspaper, while everyone else sat in awkward silence waiting for the session to begin. Her attitude exuded something between disinterest and disdain. It was impossible not to stare. It was impossible to know that this woman would save my life. (Is that too hyperbolic?)

Within a matter of weeks, this woman I hoped I’d never see again became my everything: confidant, mentor, sister, friend. Twenty-five years later, it is humbling to reflect on how much I have relied on her, turned to her as the voice of reason when I seemed most determined to fuck up my life, the sympathetic ear when I faced the most insurmountable challenges, the calming presence who sat quietly listening through interminable long-distance calls, breathing hope into my weary heart with every exhalation of smoke I heard on the other end of the phone. How many people can you call from a parking lot and just begin the conversation, devoid of niceties or greetings, by declaring “I’m afraid to go home?” No other person has so consistently pushed me out of my comfort zone, tacitly encouraged me and candidly shared her darkest secrets and deepest truths.

[2] That first fall at Temple, we were both enrolled in a Victorian Literature seminar populated almost entirely by PhD students. After the first week, it was abundantly clear that, as the youngest person in the program, fresh out of an undergraduate institution that privileged canonical texts, I was at a hopeless disadvantage as I feigned understanding the discussions, nodding my head as my presumed peers bandied around the names of writers and theorists I’d never even heard of let alone read. While I was trying to hide my sense of panic, discreetly jotting down names like “Fooko?” or “Badtie?” in the margins of my notes, Pattie’s stoic poker face gave nothing away.

It is almost too mortifying to remember my lack of discretion, how forthright I must have seemed a few weeks later when I turned to Pattie in the cramped restroom of what was then known as Anderson Hall while on break from Victorian Lit to ask her point blank: “Are you dating X?” which I followed up by stating: “We’re going to spend two years together in this place—you might as well tell me.” That bold declaration opened the floodgates to a friendship of sharing everything—innermost thoughts, phobias, misgivings, early drafts of poems, dreams and aspirations.

[3] As students of a certain generation, we were presented with a limited range of women writers, our literary education dominated by madwomen, spinsters, social oddities, and suicides. Aspiring to be a woman poet felt somewhat dangerous (not merely because of anonymity or financial precarity). We bonded immediately over our love of writers like Plath & Sexton, finding parallels in Sexton’s close friendship with Maxine Kumin. I remember discovering with awe that Sexton had a pet dalmatian as if this confirmed some cosmic truth given Pattie’s devotion to her dalmatian, Finnegan. (See also: “I’m / never more confessional than when I / write about salem” (wifthing 82)).

But serious students at that time in those circles eschewed Confessional poets and so we broadened our horizons, devouring the works of H.D., Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, & Gertrude Stein among so many others under Rachel’s guidance, opening our minds and forever altering our understanding of what poetry could be.

[4] Are you seriously not going to mention Beckett here?

[5] Pattie remains unparalleled in remembering unfortunate student constructions and even, on occasion, weaving them into poems (cf. this reference to cherubs: “the angels are naked in baby bodies”)

[6] After spending long days on campus together, we’d go our separate ways to our respective homes only to commence speaking by phone for hours. Always more to say. Always more left unsaid.

w Though only three years my senior, Pattie was better read, had more life experience, possessed far more knowledge about movies and art, had traveled & lived whole lives when I met her whereas I, a naïve 21-year-old, felt as if mine was just beginning. (I am tempted to write, “In many ways, my life only began to take shape once I met her,” but, then again, think better of it.) She has preceded me in most things—marriage, motherhood—but never makes me feel less than.

[7] While traveling in Ireland with Pattie and Kevin during the summer of 1997, they’d frequently pull our tiny rental car over to the side of a small country road to jot down a line or two or ten in the small notebooks we carried with us at all times. No explanation needed.

Should I confess that I often felt like their child in these moments? (No, confess nothing) Sitting in the backseat, along for the ride, aware that I was witnessing something profound unfolding between them. (Stop this confessional impulse.) How much we read and wrote and debated that summer, swapping the texts we had brought from Philadelphia—a single box of mutually agreed upon books that we shipped over in advance of our arrival to the little farmhouse we rented in County Kerry. (Then again, should I say “the farmhouse they rented?” Having never left the States at that point in my life, I knew nothing of traveling abroad let alone how to rent a house in another country in those days when the internet barely existed. Pattie showed me two small photos of the house and, in a leap of faith, I said “yes,” putting aside my trepidation, convinced that if Pattie was masterminding the operation, it would somehow all work out.) (It did. As it always does for her.)

Lacking a computer or printer in the farmhouse, we wrote out multiple drafts of poems by hand to share with each other, slipping them under each other’s bedroom doors at night. After writing drivel for a year, when I finally wrote my first acceptable poem, Pattie greeted me in the morning with shining eyes and open arms, hugging me with maternal pride and whispering, “It’s good. It’s really good” in my ear. Her praise meant everything.

[8] After entering the Poetics Program in Buffalo, whenever Pattie came to visit, I’d drag her to seminars, conferences, academic talks, trying to recapture the heady halcyon days of our time at Temple. But it was never again as it had been back then. (Does that sound too melancholic?) Then again, regardless of how much geographic distance separates us or how much time passes between seeing each other, having lived in different cities for the majority of our friendship, we begin every conversation in medias res, as if no time has passed, as if nothing has changed.

[9] Having close to 30 years of Catholic schooling between us, we share an appreciation for church architecture, an affinity for nuns, a distrust of priests, a reverence for ritual, a predilection for Latin, and a pervasive fascination with relics, religious iconography, and stories of saints—the bloodier and/or more macabre the better.

[10] & ampersands

[11] Why do these numbers matter? I can’t say exactly and yet I know they do.

[12] When giving the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, my gaze falls on her face every time I look up from the page as if her eyes alone, so steady & sure, could keep me standing erect.








Barbara Cole [photo credit: Lianna Hogan] is the Artistic Director of Just Buffalo Literary Center and a 2011 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Temple University and PhD in English from the University at Buffalo specializing in Poetics. Her writing has appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter, Open Letter, P-QUEUE, and Traffic East as well as numerous essay collections including The Consequence of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics.

most popular posts