Saturday, October 4, 2014

Dead Poets Remembrance Day - Oct. 4, 2014

I read -- or thought I'd read -- that the 2014 Dead Poets Remembrance Day was going to be observed 186 miles from my home on Oct. 4th at various sites in Amherst. I was glad. I love that area of mid-Massachusetts … The Pioneer Valley … the Connecticut River Valley; an area of many esteemed colleges and universities, of culture, of rich rich farmland. I've visited there a hundred times and more; I have dear friends there, both dead and alive, including, of course, Emily Dickinson.

I made a handy little list of the street addresses of seven sites we would visit and plugged them into my GPS. Once near Amherst, I drove way into the sticks to pick up my friend, Lisa, a former co-worker whose regular stops by my desk for fun chit-chat I miss a lot.

Then, with a entertaining passenger, I entered the first address into the Garmain device ... 156 Bridge Street, Amherst.

I love the device's smartness, even if in, say, downtown Boston, your satellite reception might be interrupted by your being amongst too many tall buildings. But this is central Massachusetts, wide open -- it took Lisa and me directly to Bridge Street. Smart as the device is though, it didn't know that Bridge Street's bridge was closed. I'd have to approach the cemetery from the other side of the bridge. This seemed to be a test of Mr. GPS's patience. Recalculate. Recalculate. It didn't help that it started raining. Then it didn't help that it started raining really hard. It didn't help that, as we followed directions, we seemed just to be going in a circle. It did help that Mr. GPS kept mispronouncing Pine ... a street that we came across twice or thrice too often to feel convinced that we were getting to where we wanted to be. Our aimless circles and the mispronunciation of Pine made us giggly. (You should have heard it pronounce Chequessett Neck Road in Wellfleet when I visited friends there this past August.)

But of all that didn't help, what most didn't help was that I had not read the schedule of events carefully. "Are you sure it's in Amherst?" Lisa asked.  She'd wisely brought along a local atlas. "There's a Bridge Street in Northampton too."

Now I read the schedule carefully. Yup, we were supposed to be eight miles away. We were supposed to be on Bridge Street in Northampton. While re-reading the schedule I noted also: "In case of HEAVY rain ...." the gravesite visits would be cancelled; we were to meet at 2pm in the Jones Library in Amherst.

Zip, zip, we're at the library on Amity Street. We might not be parked legally but we're at the library.

Google Image
The grave in Northampton's Bridge Cemetery which we never got to was that of Agha Shahid Ali. I'd not heard of him, but part of the pleasure of Dead Poets Society is getting to know new poets and their poems. Agha Shahid Ali was an immigrant from New Delhi. He died in 2001 … young, 52 years old, brain tumor. I've since read some of his poems and learned some of his biography … I'm richer for even the little bit I now know of him, and want to know more.
Elaine Goodale Eastman
Being indoors for Dead Poets Day seemed strange, and there were not many people, maybe 12, maybe 14; a semi-circle of chairs set up in front of a table. We're supposed to be tromping through graveyards in the sunshine.

The first speaker was Theodore Sargent who has written a biography of Elaine Goodale Eastman (1863-1953). A book of poems by Elaine and her sister Dora was published (and became a gigantic seller) in 1878 when Elaine was 16 and Dora just 12!

In adulthood Elaine's passion was to educate and better the lives of black people and Native Americans. She eventually married a Dr. Charles Eastman, who was part Indian. Elaine helped him write stories of his childhood and of Indian culture; he became popular on the lucrative lecture circuit. From her biography on Wikipedia: "In 1921, after allegations that Charles had an affair and an illegitimate child, the couple separated, although they never divorced or acknowledged the separation publicly. Eastman did not publish any books after their separation."
I've not succeeded in finding a picture of Elaine Goodale's grave, though it is said to be in Florence, a town adjacent to Northampton at the west.

(Also these couple of biographical details trivialize what was a life of many and various and admirable accomplishments ... if you find her interesting you can always buy Sargent's book.)
Rhina Espaillat is pretty and so sweetly-countenanced that I heard someone, upon seeing her, exclaim, "Oh! I want her to be my grandmother!" Born in the Dominican Republic, she's a very accomplished poet, writing in both Spanish and English. After monumental work, she has succeeded in getting a large selection of Robert Frost's poems translated into Spanish, and I heard that the collection will soon be published in Mexico City. She and another poet, Toni Treadway, as announced by Walter Skold, "do polyphonic readings in Spanish and English of some Robert Frost poems," -- just as they'd done two years ago at Newburyport's observance of Dead Poets Remembrance Day.

Espaillat's own poems can be playful or serious, or, as in the following, both:


What a good fit! But the label says Honduras:
Alas, I am Union forever, yes, both breasts
and the heart between them committed to U.S. labor.
But such a splendid fit! And the label tells me
the woman who made it, bronze as the breasts now in it,
speaks the language I dream in; I count in Spanish
the pesos she made stitching this breast-divider:
will they go for her son's tuition, her daughter's wedding?
The thought is a lovely fit, but oh, the label!
And oh, those pesos that may be pennies, and hard-earned.
Was it son or daughter who made this, unschooled, unwedded?
How old? Fourteen? Ten? That fear is a tight fit.
 If only the heart could be worn like the breast, divided,
nosing in two directions for news of the wide world,
sniffing here and there for justice, for mercy.
 How burdened every choice is with politics, guilt,
expensive with duty, heavy as breasts in need of
this perfect fit whose label says Honduras.
Newburyport readers Toni Treadway and Rhina Espaillat, Oct. 7, 2012

Dead Poets Society founder Walter Skold, can -- so to speak -- dig up the most obscure of the obsure dead poets; today he read from the work of Marjorie Frost Fraser, "whose book of poetry," he said, "was published by her parents after her death at age 29." One of those parents was Robert Frost.
An event which was planned to be held at Emily Dickinson's grave -- stories by Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst -- was next. Anecdotes about the visitors, and, yes, there is a mailbox at Dickinson's grave (though I never saw it the several times I've been there), plus Emily gets lots of mail at the home she lived in, now a museum dedicated to her. (In 1975, a time when the home had not yet become a museum, I took a walnut from Emily's yard, and still have it.)

Pictured to the left is Henry Lyman; he interviewed many poets for a 1976 to 1994 series on New England Public Radio; and, along that way, became a friend of poet Robert Francis (1901-1987).After playing for us a tape of Francis reading a few of his own poems we were then invited to drive north about three miles to Fort Juniper, a small house built by Francis himself, and a place where Robert Frost often visited because he enjoyed the company of Francis, whom Frost publicly referred to as America's "best neglected poet."

Fort Juniper has for some time been made available as a residence for artists -- painters, poets, novelists, photographers -- rent-free, for various lengths of time; rarely, I'm told, for more than a year. It's an ideally small place … just the necessities … and I found myself envying Francis for knowing what was best for him and, in 1940, making it happen by buying half an acre of land and building on it a home that wouldn't bankrupt him; nor would it cry out to him for huge maintenance projects. He could be what he needed to be -- a poet -- and he wouldn't need to make a fortune to live in a beautiful place in a beautiful setting.

My friend Lisa later sent me a card thanking me for "a lovely day" and copied out a Robert Francis poem:

False Flowers

False Solomon's Seal? False Lily of the Valley?
Whoever heard of such a villainy --
To call an unsuspecting flower false
Merely because it isn't something else!
To be oneself, this is Original Sin
Whether we speak of flowers or men.

Lisa (my sunshine on a rainy day) inside Fort Juniper.
Thanks for the photo: Walter Skold

The last segment belonged to me. Walter had asked if I would read two poems by Deborah Digges, a woman who, right here in Amherst, took her own life on April 10, 2009. I didn't know her poems that well, and sometimes found them difficult to fathom, but had enjoyed the two memoirs she'd written. So, basically, I just grabbed two of her shorter poems from the Internet, interested mostly that they be easy to read.

As we'd left Fort Juniper it was again raining, raining harder than it had rained all day, and the grey sky made it seem that dusk was about to settle in. It turned out that none of the others followed us to Wildwood Cemetery. I had an audience of three: Lisa, Walter, and the beautiful horse sculpture that adorns the grave.

Sopping with Walter

Ponds are spring-fed, lakes run off rivers
Here souls pass, not one deified,
and sometimes this is terrible to know
three floors below the street, where light drinks the world,
siphoned like music through portals.
How fed, that dark, the octaves framed faceless.
A memory of water.
The trees more beautiful not themselves.
Souls who have passed here, tired, brightening.
Dumpsters of linen,
empty gurneys along corridors to parking garages.
Who wonders, is it morning?
Who washes these blankets?
Can I not be the greeter of souls?
What's to be done with the envelopes of hair?
If the inlets are frozen, can I walk across?
When I look down into myself to see a scattering of birds,
do I put on the new garments?
On which side of the river should I wait?

My mother always called it a nest,
the multi-colored mass harvested
from her six daughters' brushes,
and handed it to one of us
after she had shaped it, as we sat in front
of the fire drying our hair.

She said some birds steal anything, a strand
of spider's web, or horse's mane,
the residue of sheep's wool in the grasses
near a fold
where every summer of her girlhood
hundreds nested.

Since then I've seen it for myself, their genius –
how they transform the useless.
I've seen plastics stripped and whittled
into a brilliant straw,
and newspapers – the dates, the years –
supporting the underweavings.
As tonight in our bed by the window
you brush my hair to help me sleep, and clean
the brush as my mother did, offering
the nest to the updraft.

I'd like to think it will be lifted as far
as the river, and catch in some white sycamore,
or drift, too light to sink, into the shaded inlets,
the bank-moss, where small fish, frogs, and insects
lay their eggs.
Would this constitute an afterlife?

The story goes that sailors, moored for weeks
off islands they called paradise,
stood in the early sunlight
cutting their hair. And the rare
birds there, nameless, almost extinct,
came down around them
and cleaned the decks
and disappeared into the trees above the sea.

It seemed odd to me that in my randomness I chose poems that both used the word 'inlets' and both used strong images of hair.

I eventually got dry.  Even my sheets of Digges' poetry eventually got crinkly-dry. Thanks to all who enjoyed the day with me; I enjoyed everyone I met or re-met and all the presentations; and I thank especially Walter Skold, founder of Dead Poets Remembrance Day, superior organizer, and Digger-Upper-of-the-Obscure Extraordinaire.

And thank you Lisa. You truly did make the day sunshine-bright!

1 comment:

  1. Dear G...there be no I am left to imagine ;-)