I’m on a residency at Yaddo, where there has been a fire in the main office building. The fire took place early Friday morning (1-2 a.m.) No one was hurt—or in the building at that hour, thank goodness. But the telephone and internet cable wires have “melted,” which is not a good sign for those of us addicted to email and google. So I have forwarded my blog posts the night before to Nick, who is Vermont, so he can put them up for me. I can usually catch a ride into town to Uncommon Grounds, a wireless coffee shop, after dinner. But no one likes to go in the morning since that is when everyone is busy at work.
I have been thinking a lot lately about Jane Cooper, who died, at age 83, on October 26th of last year. She was my first female creative writing professor at Sarah Lawrence. She was in her last year of teaching before retirement, and I was in my first year as an MFA student—the virgin and the crone, the mother and daughter, the wise one and the fledgling. I admired her beyond belief—her direct yet enigmatic poems, her perfect bangs (it never looked like she needed a haircut), her deliberate opinions, the slow and careful way she took apart her students’ poems. She had been very ill as a child, as had I, and her amazing prose poem “The Children’s Ward” influenced my own early poems about illness—or gave me permission, as it is common to say now. She was a calm presence when I had to move apartments mid-year because of a crazy roommate situation, and she actually let me store all my belongings—boxes of books and papers, suitcases, even small pieces of furniture—in her office between semesters. My graduate student assistantship was to help with the shopping and set up the receptions for poetry readings. Jane patiently taught me which kind of crackers go with which kind of cheeses, how to shop for wine. I had to help design the Poets and Writers ad for the graduate MFA program, tape all the readers on a heavy ancient machine to be archived in the library. Jane was a compassionate boss, a wonderful leader, yet I didn’t want to be her.
I may have rebelled against Jane because I thought, arrogantly, that her poetry suffered because she was such a good teacher. She kept a file on each of the students she’d ever taught. Not only that, she kept those files in her apartment! In her living room! I had my last conference there—it was customary—and I was secretly horrified that she had kept, or it seemed so to me, a copy of every student poem she’d ever commented on. I heard someone say—a visiting writer? another grad student?—that Jane could have had more of a “career” if she wasn’t such a devoted teacher. In retrospect, her poetry didn’t suffer at all. Perhaps there would have been “more” poems if she’d had more time, if she’d focused less on teaching, but the poems she’s left us are incredible gifts, her consciousness, not only about her own body, about bodies in peril.
I believe that Jane struggled with the subject matter of her poetry—to reveal or conceal. She was “a lady,” and I say that without the utmost respect. One time a student mentioned “Trojan” in a poem—and Jane, not knowing the student was referring to a condom brand, commented on the poem as though it was about the Trojan War. Yes, we all had a good laugh after class, but it wasn’t as a cruel a laugh as you might expect. Jane, who had no husband, who had no children, fascinated us. Graduate students are sometimes self-involved, it’s true, but it did seem that Jane was there solely for us.
About a decade after I’d graduated, Jane and my husband and I were at Yaddo together. My husband, Nick Carbó, also went to Sarah Lawrence, but a few years after I did, and he told Jane how sorry he was he hadn’t had the chance to work with her. He meant the lament as a compliment, not as a need a favor. But, without missing a beat, Jane asked us both to look at the poems we were currently working on. We thought it a courtesy, that she’d say, “Thank you for letting me read these…” or something to that effect, but instead, the next night she set up conferences with us. I didn’t want a conference—I’d taken advantage of her enough during graduate school. I was at Yaddo, for goodness sakes. I didn’t need her anymore. “Nonsense,” she said—she had already marked up the poems. She met us in back-to-back slots in the Pine Garde living room, giving us a ½ hour conference each. I’d like to say that I was “beyond” Jane’s comments, but she really helped me to transform two of the poems I’d written. Nick couldn’t believe her insights. In exchange for her conferences, we took Jane to a nearby mall. She needed shampoo and was allergic to lots of chemicals, like I was. We went to a big retail story—the Bon Ton?—because I thought she’d like Clinique. Jane was dazzled by the mall and claimed she’d never been in one before. It was hard for me to believe, but I did believe her. She purchased her own shampoo, refusing to let Nick and me buy it for her.
While at Sarah Lawrence, I also studied with Jean Valentine, Michael Burkard, and Thomas Lux, who all were good friends to Jane. Over the years, I’ve relaxed into more friendly relationships with them, something more akin to peers.
While I will never be the teacher that Jane was, I did wind up teaching. While I will never be the nurturer that Jane was, I did wind up letting a student stay in my apartment when he was between homes, I did call on behalf of a student who was in trouble with her student loan. While I’ll never be the poet Jane was, I did wind up writing my poems. And though I think of myself as rebelling against her—my wild and unrestrained (by comparison) poems, my wild hair—I do have some Jane in me. Though I’ve married, Nick and I don’t have any children, anyone to take care of us in old age. I get a chill from Jane’s poem “Hotel de Dream” in which her friend Muriel Rukeyser makes an appearance to say: “I’ll never put you in a nursing home…/I promise, Jane, I’ll never put you in a nursing home.” Of course, Muriel died before Jane did, and it was probably a promise Rukeyser couldn’t have kept anyway. At Yaddo, Jane told me she was afraid of nursing homes, afraid of leaving New York. And her final home was a nursing home in Pennsylvania. Nick and I also claim we’ll never put one another in nursing homes.
It was always a thrill to see Jane read. She had poise, grace, and an understatement that served her poems well as she delivered them. The last time I saw her, she had to read sitting down. Because of her Parkinson’s, she shook as she picked up a cup of water with both hands. She put the water down slowly as though the cup was very heavy, and I remembered the time she made me tea for the conference in her apartment. Even then she moved slowly, carefully, as though she had all the time in the world.
-- Denise Duhamel, Yaddo