by Melissa Green
Melissa Green reading with Derek Walcott, Robert Pinsky, and Rosanna Warren
at Boston University
When it became apparent by my mid-twenties that I could not live by myself or in communal housing or anywhere except the hospital, I moved in with my grandmother. I’d nearly died. I wished I had done. The ER had called my parents to break the news that I might not live until morning, and they wouldn’t drive fifty miles to see me. When I finally managed to return to consciousness, the doctor asked me why I’d tried to kill myself. I could only whisper, “Grief.”
I sat in my room in my grandmother’s black house in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and chain-smoked for two years without seeing or talking to anyone but her. But my grandmother—legally blind, arthritic, full of needs—slowly pulled me out of the paisley shape I made on the bed. I began to care for her because she needed me, and I needed to be called back to life, in whatever form it took. She was eighty, and I was twenty-five. Fortunately I didn’t know how things would unscroll: years of cutting her toenails, of giving her permanent waves, of sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms. She would have three hip replacements, grow ever deafer and more frightened, and finally die of congestive heart failure at a hundred and one. Her house became my prison and my sanctuary; she was both my warder and the reason I continued to stay alive. But if I needed her, I also loved her. I didn’t think of my future, as I never believed I had one. I only thought of hers. I simply blundered like a sleepwalker from day to day, year to year.
In the way we have of compartmentalizing aspects of our lives that conflict with one another, like children who don’t want their peas and mashed potatoes to touch, I was hoarding pain medicine for another overdose and at the same time beginning to borrow books of poetry from our little town library. The first poem I’d ever read, at age fifteen, had astonished me. It was Raleigh’s “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage,” which begins, “Give me my scallop shell of quiet.” This was what I had been longing for without knowing it. In college I took courses on Chaucer, Herbert, Yeats, and the twentieth-century Brits, such as Jon Silkin and Geoffrey Hill. But I couldn’t figure out how to translate what I learned into poems of my own, which I’d become desperate to write. I’d gazed into the eyes of all my professors to see if they knew it, this unnameable thing, this yearning, but I never found an inkling in any of their faces that they would have known what I meant had I had the courage to ask.
After college, while living with my grandmother, I rediscovered Raleigh in our town library. Soon thereafter I began trying to write my own poems, though I knew I was doing it badly. There seemed to be a code I couldn’t crack, or an inability to dig into myself and make poems out of what I found there. So I began to go to poetry readings at Harvard and Boston University. It’s hard now to remember all those I heard. Robert Lowell had been dead for two years, which made me feel as though life had cheated me, but I got to hear—and fell in love with—James Wright, a round, dapper, soft-spoken man in a wrinkled tan suit. (I grieved when he died not long afterward.) I think I also heard Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, and George Starbuck. On one occasion, in October 1979, I sat in a standing-room-only Sanders Theatre at Harvard, waiting to hear Elizabeth Bishop read. The stage remained empty for a long time, and people began to get restless. Finally, someone came out to the podium and, nearly in tears, told us that Bishop had died that morning, or perhaps it was the previous night. We sat in shock. No one moved. I think we stayedthere for more than an hour in silent memorial.
Each time I left my grandmother’s house to go to a reading, I had to shed—emotionally speaking—the apron, the scrub brush, and the foot soak, so that by the time I arrived I could stand up a little straighter and begin to breathe; I hoped that I looked like a woman not out of place at a poetry reading. If I arrived early for a reading in Cambridge, I’d tiptoe into the Pamplona, a small, low-ceilinged cafe that didn’t terrify me, order an espresso with lemon, and bend over my notebook as if I were in pain. At every table there seemed to be someone scribbling; it appeared to be a place where other writers went, so I was both heartened and discouraged. But I never spoke to anyone.
Sometimes, just before a reading, I would suddenly find myself sinking, falling prey to thoughts of suicide. If I could manage it, I would run to a second-hand bookstore, sit on the floor, and pull books wildly from the shelves. When I had columns high enough around me, a kind of protective fence, I would go through the books one by one. This is a book I should read before I die, I would tell myself, or I really can’t kill myself without reading X. I would wobble out of the store with a bag of books, which I told myself would keep me from dying that day, because I couldn’t kill myself until I’d read them. I would stumble into Harvard Yard to sit under the enormous maple at the corner of Emerson Hall, and there I would reassess the books I’d bought to keep from killing myself, and pray they were the right ones and would be enough.
At other times, gripped by suicidal panic, I would race into a bookstore, frantic to find something, and go from shelf to shelf, subject to subject, reading book jackets, blurbs, pages here and there, but nothing would suffice, no book would stand out as the one I needed to read. And in a storm of tears I would realize that the book I was looking for was one I wanted to have written, wanted to be able to write but couldn’t, because I was too sick, and always would be. It seemed intensely cruel that a reader would never discover with delight a book of mine on a shelf in a bookstore like the one I stood trembling in.
Even when I managed to get to a reading, my illness could interrupt at any time. I could be listening to a poet with pure attention when a sudden anxiety at being out in the world, away from that black galleon of a house, would overtake me, and I’d jump on the train for home, mentally taking up my broom, bucket, and ammonia again, so that when I walked through my grandmother’s door I was despondent and disengaged. My grandmother’s self-absorption filled every room of her house; there was no place for either my enthusiasms or my suffering. When I returned from a reading, I had to erase it from my consciousness, and in that moment of opening the door I wasn’t a poet, I didn’t dream about poetry, I didn’t love words as though they were living things. I had to keep everything in my internal “little white room,” a place no one knew about, where there were no doors or windows, where I’d never been hurt, where I could hide poetry and hold it in stasis until I could bring it into my life. I would smooth down my apron and take a deep breath. In order for my grandmother to remain my first and blazing sun, poetry had to disappear.
Her routine was unvarying, and so was mine. I would put supper onto tray tables and sit with her for hours watching game shows in the tiny TV room, the sound so loud it was like a blow, her face practically pressed against the screen. It gave her enormous pleasure and a sense of well-being to have me there to feed her and watch with her, picking up my knitting like the old spinster I feared I was becoming. She needed me, and I had no one else. The shape of her day gave a shape to mine. There were days when it felt as though I didn’t have the strength to stand up, but when we sat in the TV room I could run on her batteries. When I leaned close to her, she seemed both heat and light.
I spent years in that tiny room, knitting double-bed-sized wedding blankets for neighbors or cousins or people my grandmother knew. The first one I made was knitted too tightly and had badly mended slipped stitches and a cigarette burn I couldn’t entirely trim out with nail scissors. The blankets were complicated, like Irish fisherman’s sweaters; they had cables, bobbles, basket-weave stitch, box stitch, broken-rib stitch, chevron-and-feather stitch, bee stitch, and bobble-tree patterns. I crocheted sumptuous borders and made long lovely tassels. Each blanket took weeks to finish. In those days my hair was long enough to sit on, and I would sometimes find that I’d knitted it into the ladders and trellises, and would then have to tweeze it out. I would stand over the ironing board in the dim kitchen removing every bit of evidence that I’d ever been there, tears dropping on my lanolin-soft hands. I made eight wedding blankets and one christening blanket but didn’t attend any of the ceremonies, being too afraid of noise and crowds.
But sometimes it would seem as if my soul had not left my body. One day when I felt well enough to make the trip to Cambridge, I prepared lunch and set up the tea tray for my grandmother, then went to wait for the bus, not knowing that the whoosh of its air brakes was, this time, a signal that something astounding was about to happen. I loved public transportation. It was a revelation to me. Brought up on a farm in the back of beyond, I had no way of going anywhere even if it had occurred to me that I had the power to leave. The miracle was that I could wait with a book at the bus stop, change trains while barely taking my eyes off the page, and in a little over an hour, deep in my novel, find myself at Harvard Square. This was something I could manage with practice, whereas I couldn’t manage so many other things.
The auditorium was dark. I was late and slipped into the back row to hear a poet whose work I knew only slightly, from one slim volume called Sea Grapes. A large-chested man with coffee-and-cream skin came out and announced in a kettle-drum Caribbean voice that he would be reading from his new book, The Star-Apple Kingdom. He spoke a little about the islands, his prosody, the shape his language had taken. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I began to feel chilled and feverish at the same time. What? What is it? I asked my body impatiently. “I’m going to read a poem,” the poet announced, “called ‘The Schooner Flight.’”
He read, and I felt the salt-froth of christening lace in his meter, wave upon wave of crystal-clear turquoise washing over me. The words he was setting free in the air came fluttering around my shoulders and perched on the crosspieces of my ribs, my body trembling unstoppably. I looked around in astonishment. Did anyone else hear it? Did they know what it was?
That day when Derek Walcott read, my heart broke open with relief, joy, and a kind of giddy terror: He had it, the thing I wanted someone to show me. In his poems I heard the joyous mourning of a man with a deep love of words. Here, on an ordinary weekday afternoon, all I had been waiting for but couldn’t describe, all I had stayed alive long enough to find, was in his voice. I recognized my teacher, standing before me, after what felt like a thousand years.
I would have gone to Jupiter to sit in a classroom where Walcott was teaching. In theory. I still found it hard to venture away from home, and the thought of going to live in another place to study with him was inconceivable. What if Walcott were in Minnesota or California? I’d finally found him, but I couldn’t crawl to wherever he was. I sat out on the porch after dark in a wicker rocker, angrily stubbing out cigarette after cigarette. My life was being ruined by the wrecking ball of my illness. Was poetry to be smashed away too?
Then came the news that Walcott was going to teach at Boston University, a place I had been to and that didn’t terrify me completely. It seemed like divine intervention.
His first class was held at 236 Bay State Road, in a shabby second-floor room with an unvarnished floor, empty bookshelves, and a dozen wooden armchairs crowded into it. Though bleak, this was also the room where Robert Lowell had taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck. Walcott walked in wearing a casual sport coat, without books or papers, and sat down. Cordially, he spoke about how the workshop was going to be run. He wanted us to read a lot, and we would look at our own poems only part of the time. He then gave us five minutes to write down the names of ten of our favorite poems. I quickly made a list: the Iliad, the Odyssey, “The Seafarer,” Dante’s Inferno, Paradise Lost, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of Donne, Herbert, Keats, John Clare, and Robert Browning. Finally, I added “The Schooner Flight.”
When I lifted my head, the other students were looking puzzled, chewing the ends of their pens in some combination of aggravation and disbelief. Walcott went around the room and asked us to read our lists aloud. Most of the students said nothing—it seemed they couldn’t call to mind a single poem. When Walcott came to me, my heart sank into my shoes. By naming “The Schooner Flight” among my favorite poems, I would look like the biggest kiss-up ever born. I read my list, and when I looked up I saw that a line had been drawn in the sand between me and the other students.
On the occasion of our first student-teacher conference, Walcott sat behind a large, empty desk. When I entered the room he looked me up and down with an exaggerated leer, which seemed more of a friendly joke than an insult. I sat and handed him my poems, my heart thumping so loudly I thought he could surely hear it. He set the poems aside and smiled at me, his sea-green eyes bright and congenial.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
I cleared my throat and blurted out, surprising myself, “I want you to teach me everything you know.”
His eyes widened, and he grinned. “You’re hungry, aren’t you, Emily?” he said. “Or should I call you Sylvia?”
I put my hands over my face and burst into tears. Hungry? Oh, my, yes. He forever after called me either Emily or Sylvia, as if the only choices I had as a woman poet were to be either a spinster in a white dress who never left the house or a depressive who would end by putting her head in the oven. Though he couldn’t have known it then, I had something in me of both.
I continued attending Walcott’s class and did all the assignments, which included memorizing “Lycidas.” When Walcott announced the assignment, there was a chorus of tittering and mumbled derision—most of the students seemed to resent having to memorize such a long, boring poem. I, however, was moved by the poem. I cried for Lycidas, not knowing that the pain I felt was from having run headlong into one of our great pastoral lamentations.
I began to spend more and more time with Derek, as I was soon invited to call him. One day he pushed my poems aside and said, “No poems for a while.” He told me I was to write prose. I don’t remember how we got to this point, but he suddenly said, “I want you to write strict, exacting, BOTANICAL prose” (he pronounced “ botanical” with great force). Prose? I wrinkled my nose in puzzlement. But I dutifully squatted in my grandmother’s garden, trying to describe the heavy-headed Oriental poppies, the way the birch tree peeled, the bark and leaves of the catalpa. I walked around my neighborhood and struggled to capture the feel of the natural world I had so loved as a child. I wrote page after page, only to have him send me out to write still more.
By that point my father had been dying for a year, of cirrhosis of the liver. He spent months in the hospital, went home for a bit, and then returned. Derek knew of his illness, and at the beginning of class one day he asked how my father was. “He died,” I said, for he’d been buried five days earlier. Derek looked stricken. The following week he handed me Lorca’s “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” a poem I didn’t know, and had me stand up in class to read it aloud. “At five in the afternoon. / It was exactly five in the afternoon,” the elegy for the great bullfighter begins. By the second stanza my voice started to quaver and I had to stop. It felt punishing. Why was Derek making me do this? He took the book from my hands and flipped the pages until he came to the fourth section, “Absent Soul.” Reluctantly, I began to read:
The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree,
nor the horses, nor the ants in your own house.
The child and the afternoon do not know you
because you have died forever.
I wept the stanza out, distraught. Then Derek had me read it again. “No, darlin’,” he said kindly. “I’m trying to teach you something. When you read poems, you have to let the language carry the grief. You have to keep your voice as level as the horizon.” I stood in the middle of the classroom and read and cried and cleared my throat until I could get through all six stanzas without a quaver or a hesitation, as if my father hadn’t died and my devastation wasn’t held in every line and metaphor and repetition. When I finished I was exhausted, but I understood.
Not long after my Lorca recitation, as Derek and I walked back to his apartment on St. Mary’s Street, shuffling through the fall leaves, he stopped and said, “You’ve got to get your father into this. You’ve got to write about your father.”
I had been with my father a good deal during his final year, helping the nurses care for him. I talked and sang to him when he was in a coma, always holding his hand. Just before he died, I held his delicate-boned, suddenly childlike body in its crib, and, careful of all the IV lines and dressings, lifted him to my heart a moment. But I hadn’t even begun to grieve for him. How could I write about him now? It was too soon to have any perspective on the man he’d been, the father I’d lost. Instead I began to write about the farm where I’d grown up, the walks my father and I took through the acres our family owned, the little river that wound through our small town, the Squanicook. It began at the highest point on our farm as a wellspring under years of leaf-fall and pushed its way downhill through the woods and an old granite quarry.
One day Derek clapped his hands quite fiercely and said, “That is the name of your poem: ‘The Squanicook Eclogues.’” He knew that it was time for me to shift from prose back into verse. Over the next few months I wrote (in part by mining my botanical prose) a series of lyrics that I hoped would eventually cohere into a longer poem. But something was missing—a sort of binding agent. I knew that, to complete the poem, I needed to get to the heart of my grief for my father; but it eluded me. Then one day while I was getting Granny her supper I suddenly looked up. It felt like someone had called me. I stood the way a doe will stop stock-still in a glade and move nothing but her nostrils and her widened eyes. What? I got my grandmother ready for bed, made sure she had everything she needed, and flew to the third floor.
Though I had a desk in my study, somehow I couldn’t work there. It was urgent, this pressure, and I thought only to hurry. In my tiny galley kitchen, where there was barely room for a stove and a small kitchen table, I sat with my shoulders to the wall under the eaves, as though to brace myself. It was 6 p.m. A fluorescent light hung over the table, giving off a light of such deadly pallor that I almost went into the other room for candles. When it started to hum, snap, and buzz annoyingly, I looked up at it, and my jaw dropped in surprise. An enormous bumblebee was bouncing off its shade, trying to find its way inside. Despite the fact that my name—Melissa—means “honeybee” in Greek, I’ve always been terrified of bees. But this wasn’t one that could sting.
I found I was holding my breath. I put my head down and suddenly wrote these lines:
Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.
I stopped in surprise. It was unlike anything I’d ever written. Where had it come from? Years later I would see that I had channelled Hart Crane—whom Derek called a great poet, but one whose music America didn’t know how to hear—and had embraced Wilfred Owen, whose off rhymes I worshipped. This was what I’d been waiting for. I had not thought that the place I loved might have a genius loci. I sat chain-smoking in my windowless, hot kitchen, the bee circling and nosing the glass housing of the light. I wrote the “river’s daughter” as summer:
Father, I’m dizzy in shimmering August, rising new
As summer’s mistress from a field of corn. She now
Is married to the heat-swept grain. Her ripening breast
Is a thicket, bright with blood-berries, her body dressed
In flame. The red god of the salamander sandals her foot.
I wrote her as an old woman, autumn’s incarnation:
Father, leaves she’s sent out from her leather hand,
A skulk of foxes, cannot turn the hunters’ hounds.
October’s temperamental wind, which burned to seize
The tamarack and rowan by their bridles, sighs
Because they’re fetlock-deep in thorns.
Finally I wrote her as winter:
Father, she’s made the wolf a widower and orphaned us.
The world lies ruptured to the root, its harvest crushed
By her fallen heel, a maddened heaven thrashing white
Across her unforgiven dust, and shrouded elms weighted
In mourning. She who is dead teaches us grief.
When I put down my pen, I knew I had written my way into and out of some part of my grief. The four seasons, I saw, would also stand for the four elements, and I named them so: Spring became “Water,” Summer, “Fire,” Autumn, “Earth,” and Winter, “Air.” I suddenly felt a craving for hot, strong tea. The kitchen clock still read 6, but I realized it was getting light—it was 6 a.m. The bumblebee had disappeared. I’d written for twelve hours without moving.
After class the following week, Derek and I walked back to his apartment. I told him what had happened and showed him the manuscript I’d put together, which included both the new poems and those I’d written over the previous months. He took several pages and began to read them. After a few minutes he suddenly stood up, grabbed the entire manuscript, walked to the dining room, and put the manuscript on the table. “I’m going into the other room,” he announced. “I want you to spread your pages out across the table, and then quickly, without thinking about it, tear them into pieces, lay them out like a puzzle, and put the poem in its proper sequence.” When he shut the door behind him, I felt like a game-show contestant, an enormous clock ticking loudly in my stomach.
I stood motionless. I didn’t know what to do. Do it quickly, he’d commanded, without thinking. I laid the puzzle pieces all across the table, trying to find their invisible connections. I felt like I was running for my life—not to please Derek, it had nothing to do with Derek anymore—but with my mind clear and swift; I felt as though I were circling his dining room table in a race with myself. I was running toward the future, toward my true self and my real life.
How much time passed? Ten minutes? An hour? It didn’t matter. I swallowed anxiously, gathered up the pages—which I found that I’d reordered into five sections—and tiptoed down the hall to find Derek. I rapped on the door, and when he opened it he’d never looked so tall or severe.
“Give me that,” he said gruffly. “Go sit in the parlor. I’m going to read it, and I don’t want to be disturbed.”
Obedient as a child, I curled up on the sofa, took off my clogs, and wrapped my long skirt around my feet. I smoked. I pulled at my now-short hair. I paced. I smoked. I sat. I panicked. After what seemed like both an eternity and no time at all, Derek was striding toward me. I stood up like an automaton. He told me to follow him into the dining room, where he’d put my pages back on the table. He looked at me. A dramatic pause. He slapped the pages and roared, “This, darlin,’ is one fuckin’ great elegy. It’s fuckin’ great!”
I stood stupefied, then crumpled into tears. Derek pulled me to him, held me against his barrel chest, and embraced me for a long time. “The Squanicook Eclogues” was finished.
A further portion of this excerpt, describing Melissa’s close friendship with Joseph Brodsky, can be found in the hard copy of Parnassus, Volume 33. You can subscribe here. The full text of The Linen Way is forthcoming from Rosa Mira Books.