Cynthia Macdonald died last month at the age of 87. Typical for our Social Media Age, I found out about her death on Facebook. This sad news was often relayed with a comment along the lines of "I hadn't known her work, and it's blowing me away." Cynthia had published half a dozen searing and beautiful books and won many of the major prizes for poets; she wrote libretti, was an opera singer, and a psychoanalyst. Cynthia was one of the most formative and helpful people in my life, as I made my slow and complicated way back into being a poet.
Cynthia was my professor for two summers at Columbia University. I had to take the summer courses because I was working full-time at the Law School to get the tuition exemption so that I could pay for this extremely expensive degree. I couldn't skip out from work more than twice a week to take the requisite classes, almost all of which were held during the 9-5 work day. What was born of necessity soon became one of the most meaningful and useful experiences of my time in the MFA program.
In those days, Cynthia was co-teaching the summer class with Richard Howard. With Richard's lexicographical, polyglot genius and Cynthia's wicked wit and brilliant way with metaphor, they were an utterly formidable team. Things I remember from the class: poems by Thomas James, in those now-famous, "samizdat" xeroxed copies; they came to mean a great deal to many of us. Words like susurrus, palp, and estrenar, which, though I rarely see or use them, take me back every time to those summers of intelligent immersion in the beauty of words. Cynthia's pronouncement that "writers who are subject to writer's block are usually adults who didn't play as children." That hit home.
Another time, I don't remember why this happened, but I certainly remember that it happened: Cynthia, imitating the improbability of operatic deaths, let out a classically trained, high-something note that went on for what seemed like hours, and that shook the windows of our dingy little classroom in Dodge Hall. Someone had graffitied "DUCK DON'T" just above the "DODGE" that was emblazoned on the pillar of the old brick building that housed the School of the Arts. This was Dodge Hall before the coffee bar in the lobby, the Dodge hall whose wooden railings up the stairs had been known to inflict serious splinters in the hands of those foolhardy enough to grasp onto them during the ascent to the 4th floor Writing Division.
That second summer was the real font of memories. My father had died in February of that year. When Cynthia showed up again, so happy to be back in her natural habitat of New York City, she asked me how my previous school year had gone. "Well, my father died," I answered, first thing. She truly understood what a blow it had been, on so many levels. We talked about his life as a poet, about his frustrations and failures, and what I would then do with that. After a kind and in-depth conversation about my loss, we moved on to gossip and chat: about the rather notorious visiting prof we'd had ("That must have been very difficult for you," she'd said), and about the ever-changing cast of characters in the cosmic game of musical chairs that was the poetry department at that time.
That summer, for reasons I won't go into here, I had asked for an additional reader for my graduate thesis. Cynthia was the one who had drawn the short straw. "Moira," she said to me after a week or so, "I come here in the summer to teach and to be in New York, not to read somebody's thesis, and when I was told I was going to be a reader for your thesis, let me tell you, I wasn't very happy." Pause. "But, after all that, I'm really enjoying it!"
I will always be grateful to her for having understood my over-the-top metaphors and fast-and-loose use of form. Her thesis evaluation was so eloquent and lovely that part of it formed the basis of the blurb she wrote when, years later, my first book was published.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. To borrow the title of her last full-length collection, "I can't remember" the extent to which we kept in touch during those in-between years, but I know that we did. In the summer of 1998, I was getting ready to leave for a teaching job in Greece. Cynthia was in New York, and so was I, packing up my life and figuring out how I was going to do this monumental thing: move to a country I'd never even visited, where I knew not one soul. And Modern Greek? How would I communicate?
I do remember that she and I arranged to meet at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. We ordered cold white wine and fried calamari, and we talked and gossiped like old friends. She asked what my various classmates were up to. She told me about the challenges and joys of her psychoanalytic practice. She told me how much she missed the beau she'd been with for a few years, with whom she'd recently had a break. I won't say here exactly what she told me, because it was rather personal, but it was poignant and sweet. I told her of my excitement about going to Greece, and my fears about not speaking the language. "Well, you know your etymologies," she said, encouragingly. She insisted on picking up the check.
We hugged good-bye, and that was the last time I saw her.
And that's how I'll remember Cynthia: generous to a fault, smart beyond all reckoning, a veritable force of nature. If you aren't familiar with her work, please do seek some out, and be prepared to be astonished and maybe even a little bit frightened by just what a metaphor can do.
Rest in peace, Cynthia. You are much missed.
[photo of Cynthia Macdonald by Gay Block, from the Folger Library]