Hadas, Rachel 1948–
Hadas, Rachel 1948–
Born November 8, 1948, in New York, NY; daughter of Moses (a classical scholar) and Elizabeth Hadas; married Stavros Kondylis, 1970 (divorced, 1978); married George Edwards (a composer and teacher), July 22, 1978; children: Jonathan. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna
Office—Department of English, Newark College of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers University, Hill Hall, 360 Dr. M.L. King, Jr. Boulevard, Newark, NJ 07102; fax 201-648-1450. E-mail—[email protected]
Rutgers University, Newark, NJ, instructor, 1980-81, assistant professor, 1982-87, associate professor, 1987-92, professor of English, beginning 1992, currently Board of Governors Professor of English. Has also taught in the English department at Columbia University, 1992 and 1993, the Hellenic Studies Program at Princeton University, 1995, the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University, 1996, the Sewanee Writers' Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference.
Poetry Society of America (member of governing board, 1983-84), Modern Language Association of America, Modern Greek Studies Association (member of governing board, 1996-98), National Council of Teachers of English, National Book Critics Circle (member of governing board, 1994-97), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Phi Beta Kappa.
Isobel M. Briggs traveling fellowship, 1969-70; writers grant, Vermont Council on the Arts, 1975-76, for poetry; fellow of MacDowell Colony and scholar at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, both 1976; Ingram-Merrill Foundation Award, 1977, 1994, for poetry; Sidonie M. Clauss Prize, Princeton University, 1982-83, for best dissertation in comparative literature; Guggenheim fellow in poetry, 1988-89; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Literature Award, 1990; McGinnis Award, Southwest Review, 1990, for best essay to appear in magazine in previous year; Elizabeth Matchett Stover Poetry Award, Southwest Review, 1991; Hellas Award, Hellas Magazine, 1993, for best poem to appear in magazine in previous year; elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995; Sharp Family Foundation Award, Yale Review, 1995; and O.B. Hardison Award of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Starting from Troy (poems), D.R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1975.
(Editor, with Charlotte Mandel and Maxine Silverman) Saturday's Women: Eileen W. Barnes Award Anthology, introduction by Mandel, Saturday Press (Upper Montclair, NJ), 1982.
Slow Transparency (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1983.
A Son from Sleep (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1987.
Pass It On (poems), Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1989.
Living in Time (essays and poems), Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1990.
Unending Dialogue: Voices from an AIDS Poetry Workshop, Faber & Faber (Boston, MA), 1991, expanded edition, 1993.
Mirrors of Astonishment, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1992.
Others Worlds Than This: Translations (from Latin, French, and Modern Greek Poetry), Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1994.
The Empty Bed, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1995.
The Double Legacy, Faber & Faber (Boston, MA), 1995.
Halfway down the Hall: New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1998.
Indelible (poems), Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 2001.
Laws (poems), Zoo Press (Lincoln, NE), 2004.
The River of Forgetfulness (poems), David Roberts (Cincinnati, OH), 2006.
(With Dick Davis and Timoth Steele) Three Poets in Conversation, Between the Lines (London, England), 2006.
Stephanos Xenos, Trelles (poems; title means "Follies"), [Athens, Greece], 1978.
Seneca, Oedipus ("Roman Drama Series"), Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1994.
Euripides, Helen ("Greek Drama Series"), University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1997.
Work represented in anthologies, including Ardis Anthology of American Poetry. Contributor of poems, articles, translations, and reviews to many magazines, including Atlantic Monthly, National Forum, Harper's, New Yorker, New Republic, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and Writing.
Rachel Hadas, a poet, translator, essayist, critic, and professor of literature, grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near Columbia University and surrounded by the generation of New York intellectuals that largely dominated the American literary and political scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. Yet Hadas experienced an unusual journey from Radcliffe and Harvard in the 1960s to her emergence in the 1980s, with five published books of poetry (some mixed with prose), as perhaps the most prolific poet among the New Formalists. Instead of proceeding directly to graduate school to study classics or creative writing, Hadas spent much of her twenties married to a Greek, living with him on the island of Samos, running an olive-oil press, and being tried for and acquitted of arson in connection with the press's mysterious destruction.
Hadas majored in classics at Radcliffe College and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa during her junior year. At Harvard she took her only poetry-writing course as an undergraduate with Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and classicist who taught such other poets as Robert B. Shaw, Katha Pollitt, Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter, and Dana Gioia. Hadas was the poetry editor of the Harvard Advocate during her senior year (1968-1969). Her residence in Greece forms the background and subject matter for most of the poems in two apprentice volumes: her chapbook Starting from Troy and the book-length Slow Transparency. While critics noted the rich emotional background and vividly beautiful landscape that ground these poems, as well as Hadas's obvious intelligence and her technical proficiency with a variety of meters and verse forms, some reviewers found that neither volume is fully successful in exploiting these resources. Slow Transparency moves in time from childhood into adulthood and in location from a Greek island to rural New England. While Times Literary Supplement contributor Anne Stevenson believed that Hadas's "poems suffer from being worked on for too long under the shadow of Wallace Stevens," she added that "there is intelligence here, and imagination which augurs well for the future." Jorie Graham in the New York Times Book Review pointed out the poet's tendency to over-editorialize, but also stated that "in those poems where thinking is not inflated to fit shapeliness, Miss Hadas confronts the details of her life with some genuine power."
Hadas's third poetry collection, A Son from Sleep, is dedicated to her son, Jonathan, the subject of many of the poems. Several critics have noted that as motherhood and domesticity have become more central to Hadas's work, her poetry has become more accessible linguistically and emotionally direct. One theme that emerges in A Son from Sleep is the connection between the intellectual nourishment Hadas still receives from memories of her late father and the physical nourishment she provides for her son through her body. This theme continues in Hadas's fourth volume of poems, Pass It On. This collection is, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Robert McPhillips, her strongest to date and "fully consolidates the potential only sporadically on view in her earlier books. Not only is it a completely unified volume focused on the various ways life and knowledge are passed down from generation to generation—from parents to children, from teachers to students, from books in general, and through the writing of poems—it also makes clear that Hadas's greatest strengths as a poet are less apparent in individual lyrics than they are in the larger units of poetic sequences and in full-length books."
As both a poet and an essayist, Hadas uses both prose and poetry to muse on time in Living in Time. Her long poem, "The Dream Machine," which a Publishers Weekly reviewer considered "a profound meditation on reality," is surrounded by two sections of essays that discuss what time means, how poets have viewed it in the past, and how men with AIDS taking a workshop run by Hadas react to having only a little time left to live. Her experience working with AIDS victims also colors her poetry collection, The Empty Bed, a series of poems about death, memory, and friendship in the face of losing a loved one. "With the softest, sweetest touch, Hadas skillfully articulates the initial sorrow and eventual acceptance of final good-byes," wrote a Booklist contributor of the title. Her poems are elegies, both for her AIDS students and for her mother, who died of cancer. In her prose collection, The Double Legacy, Hadas reflects on the loss of her mother and one of her close friends, a victim of AIDS. "A loosely organized collection of essays whose subjects range from a trip to a mailbox to the role of mourning in literature, [the book] is as deeply subjective … as Ms. Hadas herself promises it will be," wrote Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Times Book Review.
In Halfway down the Hall, poems previously published in Hadas's early books, including Starting from Troy and A Son from Sleep, reappear in the company of thirty-three new pieces. "The rhymes she chooses are gentle and scholarly but always fresh, deft, natural," said Judy Clarence in a Library Journal review of the title. Joel Brouwer, writing in Progressive, noted that many of the poems in the collection revolve around art, from museums to ballet. "Art may not be able to overthrow mortality's dominion, but it can help us understand and endure…. It can delight us, too—as these witty, elegant poems demonstrate," he concluded. Indelible, a collection of new poetry, revisited many of the themes of her earlier works contained in Halfway down the Hall. Divided into three sections, the book contains lamentations for the dead, musings on mythology, and personal pieces. "The book's instants of emotional vulnerability will please Hadas's readers, and are often what compel the most," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor.
Of Hadas's work on the whole, poet Grace Schulman wrote on Poets.org, "The poems are urgent, contemplative, and finely wrought. In them, antiquity illuminates the present as Rachel Hadas finds in ordinary human acts ‘what never was and what is eternal.’" Gloria Brame, who interviewed Hadas on Brame's home page, said of her poetry, "Rachel brings vivid immediacy to the life of the mind as well as to the ordinary realities of everyday life." A Publishers Weekly critic, in a review of The Empty Bed, called Hadas "one of our most elegiac poets." Discussing how "no one reads poetry anymore" in her review of Laws, Amanda Kolson Hurley in the Washington Times recommended, "Readers who have been disappointed by their encounters with modern poetry—and readers who haven't—should discover the work of Rachel Hadas." Kolson further noted that Hadas's poetry in Laws "displays the fluid gracefulness, the generosity of intellect and emotion, that have come to distinguish her best writing." Hadas "has a gift for finding the profound in the ordinary, instilling the ordinary with importance," wrote Bob Braun in the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger.
Hadas once explained to CA: "Why do I write? To make things clear or at least clearer, whether to myself or to others; to hold on in some fashion to what has been and is continually being lost—these may be the most consistent threads in a thirty-year career, but there are others. One strand is the lyric impulse to address a loved one, living or dead; another is the challenge of translating; another is the work I have done with people with AIDS as well as other students—helping them to write and myself being helped in the process.
"My work is influenced by all the books I have loved, starting with children's books from The Color Kittens to The Princess and the Goblin, moving on through poetry, belle-lettres, philosophers I have read and enjoyed—I might mention Proust, Thoreau, Nabokov, Seneca, Catullus, Cavafy, and in our own day James Merrill.
"My writing process is hardly carved in stone. I don't have a daily routine; when time permits, I try to work fast, and later on, typing up my scribbles, begin to shape them, to see what forms inhere and discard the rest. Whether I'm writing poetry or prose, there is a strong sense of discovery, of—in words I am borrowing from Robert Frost, another writer I turn back to often—discovering what I hadn't known I knew."
Rachel Hadas contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA
My initial problem with the assignment of writing even a brief autobiography was this: a chronological account of my own life seemed doomed to be intolerably boring, lifeless, plodding, and inaccurate—not to mention being something of a duplication of what already exists in the form of a curriculum vitae and an annotated bibliography. How much simpler, I thought, to urge any curious reader simply to read what I've written. Wasn't it because I was a writer in the first place that anyone would look me up? I think it was Apollinaire who said that each of his poems commemorated an event in his life. Motherhood, a friend's death, a winter walk—read what I've written, I want to snap, if you're curious how it felt to me. I've even been tempted to excerpt some of my own essays—after all, they're personal—in lieu of an autobiography.
Alas, both these expedients are unfair to the reader who, whether or not she has read any of my work, is simply in search of facts about me. So in lieu of an autobiography I offer here an alphabetized list of items. Alphabetical order seems to me a more neutral principle than chronological order. Other ordering principles, like the periodic table of the elements in Primo Levi's wonderful book of that title, were beyond my reach—but let me pay tribute here to the compelling and inventive ways to order their own stories found by Iris Origo in Images and Shadows and Sharon Olds in Satan Says.
Unlike section D ("Dramatis Personae") of James Merrill's "The Book of Ephraim," another important source, the following list isn't restricted to characters; it includes categories such as Education and Friendship, one of which normally finds a slot in a c.v. while the other doesn't. The resulting index to my life is undoubtedly incomplete, idiosyncratic, and confusing—but so is any account of a life, not to mention the life itself.
A final note: in order to halfway satisfy my lust to encourage potential researchers to read my work, I not only list my books here but refer to passages in the books that are relevant to particular items on the list.
My dear friend, whom, thanks to John Hollander, I met in Athens in 1969: an expatriate, a poet, a wonderfully hospitable and generous, eccentric polymath, who read Dante with me in his apartment in Kolonaki, in a tall old house, now demolished, on Alpekis Street. I've written about Alan in my afterword to Contact Highs, (his Selected Poems) and elsewhere. At a time in my life when I was drifting and frightened, Alan always made me feel completely safe and welcome. He had much more to teach me about literature than just about any of the professors I'd had at Harvard, though some of what I learned from him (love for Auden's work, or for that matter for Alan's own rumbustious poems) ripened only later. Giving me a book about Auden's poetry, Alan inscribed it, "A cart before a heavenly horse." Just so: now, teaching myself, chained to the academic routine, I sometimes feel like a nonheavenly horse, but I was shown the heavenly cart before my real work began.
Disorderly Houses, Alan's 1959 volume from Wesleyan, is dedicated in part to Pindar, "whose [houses] never were." Alan's life might be chaotic—the dying flowers in their vases, the boys coming and going. There is surface scuzz and mess, and there is also devotion to the world of art.
In the spring of 1973, in the olive oil press my then husband Stavros and I were running on the island of Samos, there were a couple of unexplained fires. We went to America for the summer, and when we came back he and I were separately indicted for arson, the idea apparently being that we had "burned down the factory" (it was still standing) for the insurance money. Eventually we were tried and acquitted, a process both slowed down and probably mellowed by the fact that in the meantime (summer 1974) the Greek junta had fallen and democracy had been restored.
My memories of these nightmarish events are intermittent, comical, and scary. It's much easier to recall what I was wearing for the trial (one long day in March 1975), or that I had my period, or that during lunch on the Vathy waterfront I talked about New York schools with the lawyers, than to grasp the whole episode in all its long drawn-out absurdity and danger. What's clear now is that the trial, and the long, long months leading up to it, gave me a gift. For henceforth what might have seemed challenging situations (defending a Ph.D. thesis, for example) were comparatively benign: I knew people were on my side. And having been under house arrest, that is, forbidden to leave the country until the trial, has given me a greater appreciation of freedom.
At the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, my first night at dinner—it was July 1, 1976—I made the acquaintance of a tall, gaunt composer who could tell by looking at me, he said, that I wasn't a composer and was probably a poet. I'd never met a composer before, though I've met many since, and composing twenty seconds of music a day seemed a very slow pace to me.
The tall thin composer was George Edwards; two years later we got married. We've gone off at intervals to artists' colonies ever since, George always to MacDowell (he's there as I write this), I to Virginia, Ragdale, and Yaddo. After ten or twelve days at a colony, I find I want to get back to my home routine, and after about two weeks I'm too restless to work well. But in the first spread of space and time colonies afford, a tremendous amount of work of different kinds gets accomplished. Turning forty at Ragdale, writing prose about the past, I felt as if I were on an island in the middle of my life; I could see with new clarity where I had been, if not where I was going. And at Virginia, the fall after my mother's death, I filled a roomy studio with my grief: papers piled on the floor, grandfather's letters on a side table, me at the desk, writing, weeping, writing.
People who have children especially need the time offered by artists' colonies, but the pull of a child also means, perhaps for women in particular, that one's stay may be short. For those two or three weeks, a colony represents the only form of house arrest (see "Arson") that I can now imagine without shuddering.
CHARLES BARBER, 1956-1992
In his short life an actor, director, dancer, critic, essayist, and poet, Charles was my student in a poetry workshop at Gay Men's Health Crisis from late 1989 until shortly before his death in the summer of 1992. He was also my beloved friend; he had a rare gift for friendship, and I am still basking in the affection we shared even as I continue to mourn his loss. Many, many of my poems in the past six years are in one way or another addressed to Charles; his death, together with that of my mother, is the subject of The Double Legacy.
I was as at the Writers' Conference in 1976, but my cherished and formative memories of Bread Loaf date from 1958, 1960, and 1961 (I think these dates are right), when I was a faculty brat, since my father taught at the School of English. I remember croquet, Ping Pong, milkshakes in the Barn, the peculiar smell of the bathrooms in Maple, the faculty wives shopping for cocktail hors d'oeuvres, plays at the Little Theater. Wylie Sypher, tall, genial, and bald, wearing a seersucker jacket and binoculars around his neck, was a dedicated birdwatcher; Lucy, his wife, a foot shorter, trotted after him with hard-boiled eggs (his midmorning snack) in a basket. Lucy corresponded with me for years, sent me cookies when I was in college, met me for lunch at the Wurst Haus in Cambridge, and—most important of all, I now think—had the imagination and generosity to send me many of those little books about great artists that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts used to publish. "An unbirthday present," she'd write on the flyleaf. The cookies are gone, and lunches, and Wylie, and Lucy. Even the purple finches that flocked in a certain larch tree one summer are gone. But the little books about Degas and Gauguin, Botticelli and Van Gogh, and Goya are still on my shelves. This coming Saturday morning my son will start art classes.
Our son, Jonathan Hadas Edwards, was born on February 4, 1984, and promptly began allowing me, at the age of thirty-five, to relive my childhood—nursery rhymes, a dependence on my mother, the joys of children's books. I've written about some of these matters in A Son from Sleep and "The Cradle and the Bookcase" and in my long poem "The Dream Machine." Jonathan as he grows up walks through other poems, notably—on his way to school—"The Red Hat." But he is not a model, a subject, a muse; he's a separate, complicated, sometimes opaque, and quickly changing person, who so far, I hope, defies Proust's gloomy prediction that children inherit the worst qualities of both parents.
THE DOUBLE LEGACY
This little book of prose consists of various essays around the central theme of mourning. "Double" refers to two deaths that happened six weeks apart in 1992: first my mother, then Charles Barber.
Dreams and poems are engaged in some of the same tasks and use some of the same tools. Both, in my experience, somehow know and can convey unappealing truths to which the waking person, the person living her daily life in prose, seems to lack access—or is it rather that she lacks courage? I was writing poems foreshadowing the end of my first marriage long before I had admitted to myself that it was ending. A dream informed me of my mother's fatal cancer a week or two before her diagnosis.
Both poetry and dreams make lavish use of images; both often move laterally, erratically, by means of what I think of as lyric leaps. Both can be screamingly clear or hermetically difficult to construe. Both are mysterious in their provenance, seeming to come from deep within the self yet also reaching us as if from outside. Both can be zanily solipsistic yet can also command an impersonal kind of authority.
Unlike poems, of course, dreams often melt away, leaving, as Prospero puts it, not a wrack behind. The medium I use for simultaneously fixing dreams in my memory and trying to make sense of them is poetry. It's hardly surprising, then, that many of the dreams I succeed in remembering touch upon the same themes many of my poems do—people I have loved and lost and continue to love.
A recent dream about the poet James Merrill tugged at me all the next day, though each time I tried to reconstruct it, fewer details were available. I'd seemed to be standing with Jimmy and a few other people at twilight just outside a building, an apartment house, under a canopy. Inside had been a kind of boudoir with a travertine dressing table and a tall, four-paneled mirror. There was the sense of going out on the town for the evening and also of looking out on the passing world, critically but not unkindly, with laughter. There was much more I couldn't recall—the substance of what was said…. What made the dream especially poignant was that I was aware in it that Jimmy didn't have long to live. It was such a strong and pleasurable dream that I hated to wake up.
Not until late afternoon did it dawn on me (hardly the mot juste in this connection) that the day's date, August 6, was precisely half a year after the date of Jimmy's death. I felt at once abashed to have been so slow to realize this; grateful for the continued loving intimacy the dream had abundantly conveyed; and mystified at how I had subliminally recalled this six-month mark. "There are subconscious connections, Mom," said my son wisely. Indeed there are. The significance of the date finally became clear to me at the moment when, trudging barefoot along a Vermont dirt road that humid, sleepy Sunday afternoon, I was thinking about a passage in Merrill's Mirabell I'd recently reread, in which Merrill's companion has a dream about his parents precisely a year after their deaths. February sixth to August sixth. It finally clicked.
I haven't, or haven't yet, captured the details of my August 6 dream in a poem. Perhaps I never will. But so much buried love, memory, and meaning clustered even in the few vignettes I was able to retrieve that it was as if I'd tapped into a rich vein of subterranean significance. Remembering the dream, I felt desolate but also consoled; bereaved but also lucky. Dreams are a triumphant loophole in the wall of silence that separates the living from the dead.
During the twenty-six years of my friendship with James Merrill, I dreamed about him many times. Death, while it has changed the tone of these dreams, hasn't broken the continuity of the messages.
It would be pleasant to dream of great poets of the past, as Elizabeth Bishop dreamed of George Herbert. Robert Frost did appear to me once in a dream some years ago, but never Dickinson or Keats, Shakespeare or Sappho. I can hardly complain, though, as long as Merrill continues to be a living presence in my dreams.
Nursery school: Tompkins Hall, at 21 Claremont Avenue, across the street from Barnard College. Cooperative; the mothers—faculty wives—used to help out. I remember playing on the roof, and having my temperature taken, and eating—or throwing up—a baked apple. I remember quiet-voiced, gray-haired, buck-toothed, besmocked Miss Edith Morton. But 21 Claremont came alive for me again in the fall of 1976, when George, whom I'd met earlier that summer, and who was about to start teaching in the Columbia Music
Department, moved into his Columbia Housing-provided apartment on the ground floor of 21 Claremont, right across the hall from where I'd gone to nursery school. Sometimes we'd see lines of small children moving through the lobby, undeterred by obstacles like (one day) George's upright piano being maneuvered around a corner. "Make way for ducklings," George murmured.
Elementary school was much farther away from home (home being 460 Riverside Drive); too far, I now think. I went, as my older sister had, to Hunter College Elementary School, then on Park Avenue and Sixty-eighth Street. In the mornings, if we were early, all the children would have to walk around and around the block until we could go into the lobby. The elevators were big and smelly.
But my imagination out-Orwelled the reality. I remember worrying that kindergarten would be a big dark room with hapless children bent over their desks. (Had I been reading Dickens at age five? Where else did such a stern Victorian fantasy come from?) In fact Hunter was benign enough. Reading was easy for me, though the penmanship teacher admonished me to "Write, Rachel, don't draw!" By third or fourth grade I was helping some of the other kids with reading. French started in fourth grade, with Mme. Hopstein pointing down her throat and gargling "La gorrrrge." The art teacher, Marie Boylan, looked like a 1950s (well, this was the fifties) poodle: rhinestones, swirling felt skirts, lots of pink and turquoise. Pug-faced, pear-shaped, ancient-seeming Dr. Anna Chandler presided over a Hunter Elementary special called Audio-Visual Enrichment, AVE for short. We sat in the dark and looked at slides; I'm sure many people often fell asleep, as I did, but we also learned about Winslow Homer and Pollaiuolo, Albert Ryder and Raphael.
For some unexplained reason, I was one of six children "accelerated"—skipped, or rather shot from cannons, from fourth to sixth grade—none of whom succeeded in passing the newly established test to get into Hunter High. So instead of following my sister to Hunter, I was sent to Riverdale for seventh through twelfth grades. A pattern of lopsidedness had already been set: I was good at English and French and Latin, passable at history—forget math and science. I was only ten at the start of seventh grade, "flat as a pancake," as my best friend Barbara Foley put it, but I made up for my youthfulness by the time I was sixteen or so with determined frivolity … or was I just in search of boys to write love poems about? My best memories of Riverdale are of the sun on the fields in the morning—I was a terrible hockey player, but it was nice to feel almost in the country—and of the relief, as I experienced it at ages maybe ten to fourteen, of not having boys in the class (Riverdale wasn't coed at that time). Every afternoon the school bus would take us up the hill (a hill so steep it allowed for many precious snow days) from the Girls' School down by the river to the Boys' School, where the boys would join us for the bus ride home to Manhattan. Every afternoon on that bus most of the girls would get out their compacts and apply eyeliner and foundation and lipstick.
At Radcliffe I majored in classics, for several reasons. First, sibling rivalry—my sister was an English major already, and I didn't want to follow in her footsteps any more than I already had. Secondly, majoring in English seemed silly when I could and did read Dickens and Shakespeare, Keats and Jane Austen, and the poems of my father's student, the emerging poet John Hollander, on my own. Finally, I was in some ways a very cautious and conservative young person. Taking courses that involved more of what I knew how to do already—looking up words in lexicons—felt comfortable and safe. Was there parental pressure to study classics? Not any more than there had been to do well in school and go on to college; it was in the air my sister and I breathed. No one made an issue of reminding me that my mother's father had been a classicist, or that my mother had been studying Latin prose composition at Columbia the summer she and my father met. My father did, toward the end of my freshman year, send me a brief letter complimenting me on my grades and adding that I didn't have to major in classics and didn't have to get all A's. I think he meant it, or that he thought he did, but there was little time to discuss my future; he died the August following my freshman year.
The teaching in the Harvard Classics Department wasn't, for the most part, inspiring. I do remember with most fondness two early-morning classes on the third floor of the Fogg Museum: David Mitten's Greek sculpture and Sterling Dow's Greek history. Homer with Gregory Nagy and Aristophanes with Harold Gotoff offered more memorable moments than a dry-as-dust Oedipus with Wendell Clausen, who preferred Alexandrian poets to classical tragedians. My Latin training was stronger than my Greek, and I probably learned the most about poetry (genre, meter, imagery, temperament, tradition) from G.P. Goold on Roman elegy and, above all, J.P. Elder on Lucretius.
However dubious my motives may have been, and however large a percentage of what I learned I have forgotten, I've never regretted majoring in classics. Recently, translating some Seneca and Tibullus—and my next project is a play of Euripides—has taken me back to the days hunched over a lexicon in Whitman Hall, with trimeter and hexameter ringing in my ears. To reenter, however gingerly, the world of classical scholarship is a removal, a renewal, a return to the source. Nor have I ever regretted that the only poetry-writing class I took was with Robert Fitzgerald, a piercingly, almost alarmingly low-key, gentle, and charming man. Robert Lowell's gigantic reputation made me nervous, not that I knew much about his work or indeed about the man himself, but a palpable aura of charismatic damage surrounded him—damage his students, it seemed to me, eagerly imitated and shared.
I was in love a lot at college, sometimes with spectacularly unsuitable people (a heroin addict who dropped out of Harvard soon after I met him and is probably dead by now stands out in my memory), sometimes with young men who are so kind and ardent and interesting in my faded memories that I only wish I could recall them better. There was also a married poet; there was a health food store-running hippie up in Vermont. After my father's death I was off course for years to come, easily attaching and detaching myself, panicky, dependent. My first husband, the man who said, "I grew you up and then you left me," was not someone I met at Harvard, and neither was George.
I finished college in 1969 and was away from educational institutions and out of the country for the next few years, but in 1976-77 I went to the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins. One could study either poetry or prose, and about half the students were teaching fellows in a freshman course called "Contemporary American Letters," a subject about which I knew very little. The syllabus featured work by writers like Pynchon, Barthelme, and Barth; I learned as much as my students. The poetry workshop was useful chiefly because of some of my fellow poets. Tom Sleigh, Molly Peacock, Lisa Zeidner, and, above all, Phillis Levin had a lot to teach me about poetry and about critiquing others' work sharply but not cruelly. Different styles flew around the room like germs; there was no prevailing aesthetic that I remember. The year at Hopkins, I was mostly in New York on weekends, visiting George (we had met at MacDowell that summer). On the train rides to and from Baltimore, it was a pleasure to be alone and write! Back at Hopkins, I audited graduate courses in the Romantics with Jerome McGann and the pre-Socratics with Diskin Clay. Library books piled up on the floor: "Beppo," "Julian and Maddalo," Solon's "Hymn to the Muses." I stopped using my married name—I was separated from my first husband—and reverted to Hadas.
It was clear by the middle of my year at Hopkins that an M.A. in poetry (it wasn't called an M.F.A. for some reason) and a token would get me a ride on the subway. I wanted to be back in New York, where George was teaching at Columbia. After dipping a toe into the waters of graduate school at Hopkins, the prospect of going deeper was less frightening. I wanted a program that would make use of my newly acquired modern Greek without letting me turn my back on the classics. The doctoral program in comparative literature at Princeton was, as graduate studies go, painless, even pleasurable. I remember Robert Fagles's seminars on epic and tragedy, Edmund Keeley's tutorials in modern Greek poetry, Theodore Weiss's repair work on my ignorance of American poetry, Clarence Brown's uncanny seminar on Stevens, Ralph Freedman on Rilke and Valery, William Meredith (who had waltzed with my mother at Bread Loaf in 1960 or thereabouts) giving a guest seminar on Auden—all this was a wonderful corrective to poetry workshops on the one hand and readings of Sophocles that emphasized the aorist tense on the other.
Last spring I had the pleasure of teaching a course at Princeton in the Hellenic Studies Program; I'd gotten older, but everything else had pretty much stayed the same.
So many years spent in classrooms! And this September marks my fifteenth fall at Rutgers. My father once wrote, "I am a teacher. Except for wars and holidays I have never been out of the sound of a school bell." I've been spared the wars.
THE EMPTY BED
This collection was going to be called Red House, the title of a poem in turn named after a Malevich painting. The present title is probably too gloomy; even though much of the book is elegiac. I now see The Empty Bed as the middle of a trilogy whose first and last volumes are Unending Dialogue and The Double Legacy.
FATHER, MOSES HADAS, 1900-1966
My father was forty-eight when, the younger of two daughters from his second marriage, I was born; he already had a teenage daughter and son from his first. When he died I was seventeen. Not only did I not have very many years in which to get to know him, but the years we overlapped were the busiest in his busy life. Furthermore, his was not at all a transparent personality. There's an alarming amount about his life that probably no one now living knows (my half-brother David knows more than most people); I'd have to hire an investigative journalist to do the sleuthing if I wanted to find out in any detail about my father's family connections, childhood, education in Atlanta and New York, life as a rabbi, first marriage…. But in a way, what I already know is enough for me. It's not as if even that small stock of memory doesn't
constantly change, abetted by a letter unearthed here, an anecdote shared there, and the fact that I am fast approaching the age my father was when I was born.
To put it another way, love is enough for me—living and dead, absent and present, the love we shared. Rightly or wrongly, I've always thought I probably resemble him in temperament (not looks) more than any of his other three children. I used to feel what I thought of as a pointing finger, admonishing me not to be lazy, not to waste time. Your father, my shrink would say. But in time I came to be able to localize the insistent prodding and found it originated inside me. My father, then, was in a way myself.
Tired at the end of his long days of teaching (he taught classics at Columbia for forty years), tired with a tiredness I understand better every semester, my father would lie down when he got home from work, do the Times crossword puzzle, relax. I'd lie down next to him for companionable help with my Latin homework; we read a good deal of Cicero's De Senectute together. One afternoon I asked him to transliterate the word "fuck," spelled in Greek OYK, in a poem of e.e. cummings. I thought I knew what the letters sounded out but wasn't sure. He looked at the word a long time. "I can't read it," he said.
The temperamental match: no matter how many honorary degrees he got, no matter how many accolades from grateful students, my father always needed more praise than seemed forthcoming—from inside as well as outside. (Inside the family? inside himself? where was the pointing finger?) Alas, it was, of course, easier to wow students than the quiet wife and the two recalcitrant teenagers who faced him across the dinner table. Once I remember telling my father to shut up; of course I had to leave the table. But beyond or beneath all this, I understood increasingly as I got to be sixteen or so the need he felt for unconditional praise and love. (Did I share this vulnerability already?) Besides, though he boasted some at dinner, my father was anything but long-winded about his own concerns and doings. He wasn't one of those men who feel the need to tell their families what they've been telling other people at work all day. If anything, often by dinnertime words would have all but deserted him; he'd point to the butter or horseradish in silence. I understand it so well now, the queasy-making roughness in any teacher's life of the alternation of speech and silence.
This is not the place to rehearse my father's long and complicated career as a rabbi, in the Office of Strategic Services, or at Columbia. Virtually no personal papers have been left behind; my half-brother and sister know more than I do, as do various distant cousins who surface from time to time. Of course I can and do read and reread various of my father's books; I welcome hearing anecdotes about him. What matters most to me at this stage is that, dead for almost thirty years, my father has come closer to me than when I was a seventeen-year-old shell-shocked by his death. Lovable, charismatic, mysterious, vulnerable, talkative, silent, contradictory, versatile, exhausted—human.
Love is a leap, an arc, an improvisation, a surprise. An overcommitted forty-eight when I was born, a grandfather by the time I was six or so, my father had no empty place for me in his heart. Love turns out not to work that way; it creates its own resting place, which death is then powerless to abolish.
Was it no more than a remarkable coincidence that both the men I married had, unknown to me, lost their fathers at eighteen or so, the same age I had? Maybe I was drawn to some signal of that shared loss, some enzyme or odor of adolescent bereavement, some gap in the story. The practical result suited me fine: I never had to deal with a father-in-law, only memories. Living or dead, one father was enough for me.
FORM, CYCLE, INFINITY: LANDSCAPE IMAGERY IN THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST AND GEORGE SEFERIS
My doctoral dissertation at Princeton; also my way of marrying the landscapes of Greece and Vermont, two places where I'd spent a lot of time, under the twin auspices of two fearsome old men.
One of the great blessings of my life. Friends surface and vanish; if one lives in New York, someone is always passing through town on their way someplace else or for some brief, hectic event. And then it turns out life is like that: we're passing through. Friends are associated with times and places in a life: the benches surrounding a sandbox in Riverside Park, a seminar room, a certain stretch of Broadway, or summers in Vermont or Maine or wherever. Friends can be pried loose from their context and find a new niche: Missy Roberts, my best friend when we were growing up on Riverside Drive (our mothers were best friends too) more or less disappeared from my life about 1960 for the next thirty years, but luckily for me, now she's back. Reeve Lindbergh was on a lofty pedestal, concealed in her white hilltop farmhouse in Peacham, for fifteen years or more, but she's down on my human level now, and I know and love her much better than before.
When I was auditing his course in pastoral at Princeton, Paul Alpers said something to the effect that the impulse to pull away from a group, go sit under a tree, and discuss things with one other person was a pastoral impulse. If so, I'm one of nature's shepherds. I want to buttonhole my beloved interlocutor and get him or her away from the crowd, face to face—or even not face to face so long as, the way one can on walks in the country, we're looking in the same direction.
Because in my experience many poets are letter writers, the line between friend and colleague or acquaintance can be blurry. Of course, there are hierarchies, pecking orders, disappointments. I've unintentionally gotten close to one or two people whom somewhere along the way I wounded unforgivably. These contretemps made me feel cautious or guilty or angry, as the case may be. And the passage of time always tempts one to draw the line: no more time and space for friends. Luckily, the world doesn't work that way.
If I had the slightest talent for writing fiction, friendship might well be a subject I'd want to explore. Certainly it's among the themes of much great fiction from Jane Austen to Tolstoy and beyond. And yet lyric poetry, with its plethora of pronouns, its incurably personal and immediate point of view, its penchant for apostrophe, is just as much the genre of friendship as it is of love. From Sappho's message of longing to Keats's chatty sonnets to Montale's wry meditations, lyric is usually addressed to someone. Maybe I'm so drawn to friendship in theory and practice because I'm an addict of the apostrophic mode. Mark Rudman, Eleanor Cory, Reeve Lindbergh, Lisa Hull, Charlie Barber—among many others, let me lovingly name you here.
Gay Men's Health Crisis, one of the first organized responses to AIDS in New York City in the early eighties, is now a formidably large and complex bureaucracy. From early 1988 into 1994, I ran a poetry workshop for clients, most often in a windowless basement room I grew very fond of. I want to name the people who worked with me and some of whose poems can be found in Unending Dialogue: Charles Barber, Glenn Besco, Dan Conner, Tony Giordano, Kevin Imbusch, Glenn Philip Kramer, Raul Martinez-Avila, Gustavo Motta, Michael Pelonero, and James Turcotte. Between 1990 and 1995, all of them died.
My father's father, David Hadas, emigrated from somewhere in the Pale to Atlanta around 1900 and died many years before I was born. My father's mother, Gertrude Draizen Hadas, was, I think, alive for at least some of my childhood, but although she lived in Manhattan, she wasn't interested in meeting this second and incompletely Jewish crop of grandchildren. My father was not in the habit of talking about his early years, and these grandparents are almost completely mysterious to me, though I know (how?) that she was blond, and that he ran a dry goods store, had a horse and cart, was a scholar, and wrote a book. But was it essays or Talmudic studies? And was it in Hebrew or Yiddish?
My mother's father, Lewis Parke Chamberlayne (1879-1917), died when she was only two, perhaps of influenza. A classicist who had gone from the University of Virginia to study for his doctorate at the University of Halle in Germany, he was a gifted poet and translator. A very incomplete but still precious set of his papers came to me when my mother died, including an essay about his boyhood in Petersburg, Virginia, near the site of the Battle of the Crater. His father, who died when my grandfather was small, had been a captain under General Lee; the children playing in the yard found bits of bone.
My mother's mother, Elizabeth Claiborne Mann Chamberlayne, who was born in the 1880s and died around 1956, is the only one of my grandparents I ever saw. She visited us in New York more than once and was staying with us when her arteriosclerosis suddenly worsened and she died. I remember her tall, big-boned, deep-voiced presence; I remember her reading to us; I remember that she was scandalized when the family cat Butterscotch climbed onto the dining-room table and licked butter off the butter plate (no one else seemed to care). I remember walking on Riverside Drive holding her hand and calling her "Grandma" just to hear how the word sounded. I remember peering into the little room halfway down the hall and seeing her lying on the bed, dead.
DAVID HADAS, 1931-
Summers in Vermont during my childhood, this gentle, funny man was halfway between a brother and a father to me and my sister. He had two, small children of his own, but he read my sister and me Dickens, taught Beth to drive, was endlessly available and affectionate. A great reader, often lying down to read (it clearly runs in the family), David was legendary for getting through Calvin's Institutes one summer. He doesn't publish, but he can and does teach anything from the Book of Job to Stanley Elkin's novels. He currently teaches and has taught for many years at Washington University in St. Louis.
ELIZABETH HADAS, 1946-
My sister Beth, two and a half years older than I, in relation to whom I defined myself when we were growing up. I used to beg her to play with me, and often enough she complied; we used to have elaborate games of paper dolls on Sunday mornings when our parents slept late. She went to Hunter, I went to Riverdale; I followed her to Radcliffe but not into an English major. Since 1970 she has lived in Albuquerque, where she is now head of the University of New Mexico Press. Despite temperamental clashes, I have great respect for her judgment and integrity. We don't always like the same books, but we continue to listen to each other's opinions on books. The same things make us laugh, and our laughs sound alike.
LIVING IN TIME
A collection of essays with a long poem sandwiched in the middle. I'll always be grateful to Kenneth Arnold, former director of Rutgers University Press, for his leap of faith in publishing this and two subsequent books by me.
In November 1970, I was married at City Hall in Manhattan to Stavros Kondilis. We weren't divorced until 1978, but I saw him for the last time (so far) in September 1976, when he put me on the train to Johns Hopkins. I've written about this youthful marriage in "Mornings in Ormos" and other essays, as well as more obliquely in poems. Twenty-five years on, this marriage seems remote and unlikely rather than unpleasant. Stavros kept me company and in his own way took care of me as I mourned for my father and decided, by not deciding, what to do next. When I finally did take several steps, including leaving him, he was sad rather than bitter.
My second husband, George Edwards, and I celebrated our seventeenth anniversary last summer. George grew up in Wellesley, studied at Oberlin, did graduate work
in composition at Princeton, and taught music theory at New England Conservatory before coming to Columbia in 1976 and moving into the building where I had gone to nursery school. Inconceivably naive after my years abroad, I asked George in the early days why, if he was a composer, he taught music theory and didn't simply compose. "To support my habit," he replied. We've both been supporting our respective habits ever since.
JAMES MERRILL, 1926-1995
This catalog-in-lieu-of-a-memoir is being written toward the end of a year colored by the death of this incomparably rare genius—a matchless writer and an equally matchless friend. Soon after his death on February 6, 1995, I wrote the following tribute (originally published in PN Review, July-August 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Rachel Hadas).
The last poem I wanted to show Jimmy Merrill was a ballad written by Saint-Exupéry at the age of eighteen or so, which had leaped out at me from a less memorable though usually interesting source, Stacy Schiff's recent biography of the aviator/writer. The slightly aggrieved, wistful tone of Saint-Exupéry's lines is perfectly captured in Mary McCarthy's 1986 description of Merrill's voice, both, one gathers, in life and in his work—as "a very light voice … no organ tones; rather a boy's voice that has only just changed and keeps a slight hoarseness." (From For James Merrill: A Birthday Tribute, New York: Jordan Davies, 1986.) The speaker is a schoolboy's desk which has been cruelly exiled, and there is something inexpressibly Merrillian about its tone of urbane aggrievement.
I prefer not to allegorize the desk and its master. But I know Jimmy would have enjoyed the rhyme of "rococo" and "status quo," and I would have enjoyed hearing him laugh. Besides, as far as I could remember, Le Petit Prince was one book we'd never talked about.
Last November, I flew to St. Louis to participate in a cluster of events I then thought and still think of as James Merrill Weekend. There were to be readings, lectures, a panel discussion—all to celebrate the fact that Merrill's papers were lodged (is that the word?) in the library of Washington University. For some reason, as the plane climbed into the cold morning sky, I felt unusually conscious of connections, of chronology, of the present moment as one in a series. I tried to make order in my mind, to isolate various past events like dots that I would later be able to connect into an intelligible shape—events of which, since I had met Jimmy in 1969, this weekend would be the latest in a long series. I didn't think at that time it would be the last.
Nor, in a way, was it. In December there were chatty phone conversations, though final exams and house-guests prevented me from getting across town to see Jimmy's tree. On January 12 there was a delicious long phone call from Tucson; among the things we talked about were a mutual friend's childhood and Jimmy and Peter's project of finding a few suitable lines from Auden's Thanksgiving for a Habitat to be translated into German and hung on the wall of the Kirchstetten bierstube under what Jimmy said was a wonderful photo of Auden by Rollie McKenna.
Even after the numbing news of Jimmy's death, there were other social events in which he was a presence: the vigil in his apartment the day before the funeral, and then the funeral itself. In all this, the living person had hardly receded at all. It may well be that very bad news is slow to sink in; I'm not sure that by the day of the funeral any of Jimmy's innumerable friends had really understood that he was gone. On the other hand, his living presence is part of me. To quote from a card he sent me in 1976 giving news of some back problem, it "will pass & recur, pass & recur, and finally go away, with me, for good." Not until every last person who knew Jimmy is gone will he really go away for good—and even to say so is monstrously untrue, for it is to ignore the poems.
As I looked out the plane window that November morning, images would open out into events, or at least scenes. December (isn't it?) 1969: the first time I'm at David and Jimmy's house in Athens. Jimmy, standing at the top of the stairs to greet guests, is wearing a belt with a beautiful silver buckle. As if I were waist high, the buckle seems to be what I first focus on.
Sometime in 1973 or '74, sitting at my kitchen table in Samos, I type a letter to my mother on my rusty but trusty Olympia portable, quoting for her lines from "Days of 1935" that make me splutter with laughter each time I read them. The wealthy child, kidnapped by his fantasy couple Floyd and Jean, overhears his captors making love, and they know he overhears them and perform all the more passionately in that knowledge. It's a wonderful variation on the primal scene, with borrowed parents all the sexier for their sleaze.
January 1975: Jimmy and I, sitting in the living room, are among the people gathered in Chester Kallman's Athens apartment. Earlier that morning, Chester has been found dead in bed. There are other people around, making phone calls, making coffee in the kitchen. Next to me on the sofa or even in one of Chester's huge, enveloping black leather armchairs, Jimmy puts his hand comfortingly on mine. I liked Chester, but I am not devastated by his loss; probably I'm too young and callous to be in need of consoling. But I love the feeling of Jimmy's hand on mine, and we sit like that for a few moments. After Chester is buried the next day in the Jewish section of an Athenian cemetery, everyone in the car back to Kolanaki is out of sorts. Has Alan Ansen taken exception to Bernie Weinbaum's tears, or are people worried by the fact that Chester died intestate, or is it something else? In the zacharoplasteion where we testily repair for drinks and cake, there are problems about who should sit next to whom. "How characteristic of Chester," murmurs Jimmy, "that his funeral should leave everyone in a blind rage." Whereas Jimmy's funeral only left everyone blind with tears.*
I was barely twenty-one when Jimmy and I met; I'm older now than he was then. In the years of our friendship, the age gap of twenty-years shrank, by the end, to almost nothing. Now, fast becoming a vieux meuble rococo in my turn, I often find myself irritated by the rawness, the shyness, the inarticulate strengths, troubles, and weaknesses of students in their early twenties. The impulse to retreat, to kvetch, to withdraw—I see it daily, in my contemporaries and colleagues as well as myself. And then I remember Jimmy's generosity and patience, his unfailing appetite for the human comedy, his kindness to—among countless other people—a self-absorbed, confused, and fearful young woman still shaken by her father's death a couple of years before.
Not that Jimmy took my father's place exactly. For one thing, I got to know him when I was already (if barely) an adult. For another, we were in constant touch for the next quarter-century. Unlike my father, Jimmy knew both my husbands well. He knew and loved my son; he knew and encouraged me with all my books. I cannot imagine the past years without his friendship.
MIRRORS OF ASTONISHMENT
This collection of poems began as a group of sequences, but some shorter pieces made their way into the central section, which is probably now my favorite.
MOTHER, ELIZABETH CHAMBERLAYNE HADAS, 1915-1992
Quiet and shy in life, at once articulate and withheld, loving and understated, my mother has, according to what's becoming a familiar pattern, become more present to me in the years since her death. That death and its aftermath, in tandem with the parallel last days of my friend Charles Barber, are the subject matter of The Double Legacy. But just as in life my mother often faded into the background of even a small gathering, so in death she was in some ways eclipsed by him. He was so young and beautiful, and I'd known him so short a time, I was so greedy for more, that I couldn't bear the fact of Charlie's slipping away—whereas my mother, having been part of me for my whole life, couldn't slip away. Or could she?
I'd rather explore my mother's life than her death. Alas, very few papers survive, though she scrupulously kept the transcripts from her studies in classics at Columbia, where she studied in the summer of 1942 and met my father. My mother was born in Columbia, South Carolina, where her father was teaching classics at the university. After his sudden death, his widow took her two small daughters back to Richmond, Virginia, where my mother grew up (she also spent a good deal of time with her grandparents in Petersburg). She went north to college, Bryn Mawr, taught at St. Timothy's School, and was studying for her M.A. in Latin at Columbia when she met my father. They married in 1945, in Washington, D.C., where he was working for the OSS (he had been overseas earlier) and she worked for the Library of Congress until my sister was born. When they moved to New York in 1947 or 1948, she worked for a while at the New York Public Library; after I was born, she stayed home with us girls until we were in seventh and ninth grade, respectively, and then went to work part-time teaching Latin at the Spence School, where she remained for twenty-five years. When she retired in 1984, it was partly to help me with my son, for whom she was a blessedly present grandparent for the first eight years of his life. I wish it could have been longer. But loving relationships and cherished memories aren't the worst of all possible worlds.
Until the last couple of years of her life, my mother was almost never ill. More than sturdy, she seemed indefatigable, walking, gardening, baby-sitting. Her unemphatic presence, like her intelligence and judgment, was so dependable and undramatic that I was apt to take them all for granted—a mistake I no longer have the luxury of making.
Port town on the Marathokampos, a village on the southwest coast of Samos, in the eastern Aegean. Marathokampos was my husband Stavros's village; we lived in Ormos for almost four years in the early seventies. I visited there briefly ten years later, but another dozen years have passed since I've seen the place.
Ormos was on the edge of the world. I loved the nearness of our tiny house to the ocean; the clarity of its north/south orientation (one looked out the kitchen window south to the sea) reminded me of the grid of Manhattan, where as a child I'd looked out the window west to the Hudson River and the setting sun. Elementally bare yet also lush bright colors—the green of fig leaves, the sapphire of the Aegean—Ormos was, from my egotistical perspective, a background for the dramas of my belated adolescence or young wifehood (both phrases seem all wrong), as well as whatever larger domestic or civic or historical dramas played themselves out against what I called in an early poem the blue proscenium of sea.
OTHER WORLDS THAN THIS
Collection of my favorite translations from Latin (Seneca's Oedipus, some poems of Tibull), French (favorite poems of Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valery, and La Forgue) and modern Greek (Karyotakis).
PASS IT ON
The first collection of my work I organized on my own, without help or advice from anyone—which solo practice I've adhered to ever since. The thematic strands seemed to braid themselves without much help even from me: the book had something to tell me.
THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN
George MacDonald's children's story—the first book of any difficulty I ever read to myself—turns up in more than one of my essays. The powerful, magical great-grandmother and the beloved, bearded father no doubt attracted me, but the most crucial thing I took away from the book was the idea of giving someone a present that one can also keep at the same time. Like a name. Like a book. Like teaching. Like writing.
Around 1955, my parents bought a tumbledown farmhouse and thirty acres of land in an area called Pumpkin Hill between St. Johnsbury and Danville in northern Vermont. For the last forty years, I've spent most of my summers there as well as an occasional fall and even, once, winter until March. The house isn't winterized; isn't glamorous; is barely comfortable. Most of the people who've spent time there have had things they wanted to do more urgently than to fix the place up—work in the garden, write a poem, translate, compose. As long as the house is standing (and we've fixed the foundation so that it will, we've been told, last our time), and there are still cows across the road; the place is a priceless blessing.
One of the points of my inner compass. I grew up in a ground-floor apartment (thunderous sneezes from doormen in the lobby; doorknob trembling while on the other side of the door brass is being polished) at 460 Riverside Drive, toward the northern end of the long block between 116th and 119th Streets. My parents moved in, in 1947 or 1948, and the apartment was vacated only with my mother's death in 1992. When I walk in the park now I like to look at the lighted window and know another family is living there.
It was a dark apartment, and my father never had his own study, and the fact that we were on the ground floor meant there was less floor space and less privacy and less of a view than if we had been higher up. Still, it was wonderful to look across the street at Riverside Drive and beyond that the park and the river. I felt almost as if I were near the ocean.
Like many people, I didn't even know that Rutgers had a campus in Newark until, in the spring of 1981, consulting MLA job lists, I compiled a long list of colleges within commuting distance of New York where I hoped I might find a probably part-time teaching job. One thing led to another, and I've been at Rutgers Newark since the fall of 1981. I can be irritated or exhausted or distracted or bored or full of stagefright or unprepared or many of those things at once, but essentially I love teaching and am very fortunate in my Rutgers colleagues and students.
My first full-length book of poems. Like many such, it was compiled over the course of years and is hence very full and probably somewhat disjunct. It avoids narrative but nevertheless more than touches upon both some of the events of my years in Greece and my marriage to George Edwards.
A SON FROM SLEEP
Many of the poems in this book were written when Jonathan was an infant. No doubt, the resulting work is more generic than I intended or thought at the time. After a reading, a man came up to me and said enthusiastically: "When our baby was little, my wife was writing those poems too."
STARTING FROM TROY
My first book, a chapbook in the Godine series. The earliest poems in it were written when I was a senior in high school; others date from college and my early years in and immediately after Greece. James Merrill, who very kindly read the galley proofs in Athens in 1974 and early 1975, said the book was about growing up, losing a father, and transferring my affections to a husband.
The task of translating combines two kinds of challenges: that of an assignment and that of a puzzle. To translate a poem is a workout; it's also serendipitous and mysterious. Where is the author going, and how to follow him or her down the track? But also, why has this particular text turned up to be translated at this stage of my life? Recently, I was offered the choice of translating either the Hecuba, the Iphigenia among the Taurians, or the Helen of Euripides; I couldn't avoid pondering the emblematic aspect of this choice.
UNENDING DIALOGUE: VOICES FROM AN AIDS POETRY WORKSHOP
This hybrid book grew out of the poetry workshop that I ran at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Its heart is forty-five poems by my students there, preceded by an essay of mine and followed by some of my own poems, with commentary.
Rachel Hadas contributed the following update to CA in 2007:
It would be easy to mark the years that have elapsed since 1995, when the original version of my autobiography was published in the Contemporary Authors series, by an incredulous gasp: "Wow, they went fast!" As Horace reminds us, labuntur anni—the years glide or slide by. My son, born in 1984, was eleven in 1995. Now he's almost twenty-three. The changes these same years have wrought in me are, I like to think, less obvious: from forty-seven to fifty-eight? No big deal.
Another way of measuring the passage of time would be to tick off the books I've published since then. In 1995 a prose collection, The Double Legacy, appeared; so did a volume of poems, The Empty Bed, and my translation of Seneca's tragedy Oedipus. These have been followed by Halfway down the Hall: New and Selected Poems, 1998. Also in 1998, my translation of Euripides' Helen was published. Since then, three more collections have followed: Indelible (2001), Laws (2004), and The River of Forgetfulness (2006). Helen was one of three Greek plays in translation in the volume in which it appeared; and, as it happens, an interview with me conducted by Isaac Cates likewise takes up a third of the volume Poets in Conversation published, in the fall of 2006, by the British Waywiser Press in their "Between the Lines" series of interviews with poets. I am presently starting to put together a new book of poems entitled The Ache of Appetite, and I also hope to publish my recent translation of Racine's tragedy Iphigenie. (More about translations later.)
Book publications, like my son's graduation from college in 2006, are, I'm well aware, rather private events. The years since 1995 have been marked by immense public convulsions, from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. History will be much more interested in terrorism or geopolitics or global warming than in a private life. Still, that life is my subject, so I'll go on ruminating about the past twelve years as they have affected me. But I hope I won't be doing so in utter, blithe ignorance of what Hannah Arendt called "the public realm." This realm has sidled into some of the poems in my last couple of books.
But the small realm of my life since 1995 is striking for how much hasn't changed. Indeed, given current trends in American life, the continuities have been exceptional. I live in the same apartment as I did then, teach at the same university, am married to the same man. (It's true that our cats died in 1998 at the ripe old ages of twenty each and have been replaced by another pair who may outlive us.) I still teach and write, and write and teach. Changes in my work, like changes in my face and body, have certainly occurred, but stealthily—more stealthily even than a child's growth, which is hard to see day by day but obvious if measured annually. Still, in the years since a dark change, but a change whose beginning was so inconspicuous as to be unknowable, has been taking place near me.
I've recently been thinking about Howard Nemerov's poem "The Dependencies," which is about the subtle transitions that occur in nature. Nemerov was writing, primarily at least, about the sly changing of the seasons. Yet like other poems I've recently read or reread, the signal or announcement his poem makes me think of is the insidious progress of diseases that cause neurological damage and dementia.
And this is why: my husband George Edwards, a composer who taught at Columbia University for many years, is, at the ripe old age of sixty-three, suffering from a dementia of the Alzheimer's type. He was diagnosed early in 2005, but with the phenomenon I've come to think of as 20/20 hindsight, it is now perfectly clear that as early as 1999 George had begun to cease to be his energetic and witty self. I had been making all kinds of semiconscious excuses for his progressive withdrawal and passivity. In the murky world of dementia, nothing is simple or clear; more than likely my various justifications had some truth to them. The decline is still astoundingly subtle. And yet, as of this writing, George no longer teaches, composes, writes, plays the piano, or reads beyond a glance at the headlines. Since he avoids conversations and keeps moving further toward silence, how subtle, really, can it be?
There is much more to be said about this illness, and I've said a little of it in two recent prose pieces—an essay entitled "Notes from the Kingdom of Illness," published in Literary Imagination in the spring of 2006, and the much shorter "Into the Murky World," published in a periodical entitled Families, Systems, and Health (Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 127-129). I mention the titles of these two vastly different quarterlies because they are so eloquent of the sea-change in what I write about—if not how—and the venues I am finding. And the titles of my essays, I now see, both indicate my feeling that I am living in a new place.
Whatever the venue, whatever the raw material, writing has never stopped being a good friend: a truth-teller, a companion, a life raft. This has been true for me all along. In the mid seventies, my poems seemed to know, though I did not, that my first marriage was ending. Later, around 1990, my dreams (and hence, by a short path, my poems) informed me of my mother's fatal cancer before my harried workaday self could stand to see it. And late in 2004, in the sleepless nights during those weeks and months when George's illness could no longer be ignored or explained away, I looped back in my memory for months, years—and then, when I found the courage, I consulted my journals and poems from those years. Sure enough: I had been pushing the subtle and then less subtle signs that something was wrong to the periphery. But my poems and journal entries, like my dreams, captured, even if they didn't wholly understand, the growing ache of absence, the spooky loneliness of going on living alongside someone who was no longer fully there.
I don't expect to stop writing poetry—far from it. But the prose I write has been moving away from essays about or reviews of poetry and toward what I have called, in those two prose pieces I've mentioned, either "the kingdom of illness" or "the murky world." And no doubt this preoccupation with illness is predictable and logical, given that my husband has a chronic and progressive condition which will keep on slowly transforming the rest of our lives together.
Yet it's not that simple. I was already interested in the world of illness as early as 1998, starting with my work with AIDS and poetry. This interest has seemed to follow its own track. In May 2006, I was invited to serve as scholar-facilitator in the Literature and Medicine program coordinated by the New Jersey Council on the Humanities, run at various hospitals throughout the state; I'll be running the seminars at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark through mid-2007. The young woman from the state Humanities Council who phoned me from Trenton last May knew nothing of either my work with AIDS or my husband's illness. But for whatever reason, one strand in my work connects to a strand in the larger cultural fabric.
That, at least, is what I think is happening in my career, whose new swerve (to change metaphors) reflects a convergence of several developments. My husband's recently diagnosed illness and my own prior curiosity about how illness and poetry might interact—these surely played a role. The shift in my writing wouldn't have happened without a certain restlessness on my part, and it was facilitated by cultural changes much bigger than my own work.
My own restlessness: I'd been feeling increasingly ready to put poetry, and literature in general, to work somehow in what used to be called "the real world." Teaching is, of course, one wonderful way to do this. My most popular courses at Rutgers in the past five or six years, courses like Mythology in Literature or Children's Literature, have addressed not so much poetry as the role of the imagination. I wanted, though I've only recently come to think of it this way, to find a way of making my love and knowledge of literature useful, of putting them to work.
Dr. Rita Charon's authoritative new study, Narrative Medicine, points out that the fields of literature and medicine each have something to offer the other. Charon writes: "… what medicine lacks today—in singularity, humility, accountability, empathy—can in part be provided by intensive narrative training." But what I really found myself pouncing on when I recently read this book was the other half of Charon's equation: "Literary studies … on the other hand, seek practical ways to transduce their conceptual knowledge into powerful influence in the world …" Stir "poetry" into the mix of "literary studies," and you get a sense of what I am discovering I'm in the process of trying to do.
My life has forced me to see if literature can help with my own lonely plight as a well spouse. It has also recently brought me face to face with a variety of physicians, some much more humane than others. My career, in many ways, has always been about literature; but lately the connection has started to feel like a lifeline. I know my needs; I also, increasingly, know I have something that others need. Furthermore, it has struck me with more and more force over the past year or two that, whereas publishing poems often means wrangling with distracted or languid editors (though there are honorable exceptions), the kind of practical literary work I've been trying to describe is something there's no need to try to sell or place. I am eagerly asked to do it and paid for doing it. Like teaching, such work often has institutional support; like teaching, it involves going into a room and talking to people and hearing what they have to say in return. Indeed, this work clearly is a form of teaching—but the syllabus has opened out in ways I could never have predicted.
Maybe my poetry is simply going stale; maybe if I freshened up or retooled my poetic style, which I sometimes think is incorrigibly bookish, there would be more of a demand for my poems. But I don't really believe this. I think the swerve in my career says as much if not more about the culture at large as it does about my own path. I also think, though this may be wishful thinking, that everything I've done up to now, from my AIDS work, writings, translations, mothering, and many years of teaching, to my experience as a well spouse—that all of this life has been some kind of preparation for and hence useful to the way I see my work evolving in however many productive years remain to me. I hope they'll be many, but who knows?
But back to my point about the culture at large and its own swerve away from poetry: here's a little scrap of dialogue that illustrates what I mean. In February of 2004 I was one of several writers invited to participate in an international conference in Delphi about the influence of Greece, or Greekness, in our work. From the hotel in Athens, the day I arrived, I phoned my half-brother David, who was then terminally ill, though alert and cheerful, in St. Louis, where he had taught English at Washington University for almost four decades. I don't remember our exact words, but the conversation went something like this. "Remind me what you'll be doing in Delphi," said David. "Did they invite you there to read your poems?"
I explained that the conference involved writers discussing their work.
"Yes, that's the way it usually is," he said. "People don't want to actually listen to poetry, but they wouldn't have invited you unless you'd written it, and they do want to hear you talk about it."
Like much else that David said near the end of his life, this matter-of-fact gem of wisdom has proven to be a gift that keeps on giving. "Talking about it" is another form of applying or using literature.
Finally, two other developments in my career in the past decade have also involved practical applications: translating and editing. I've enjoyed translating since high school, when I rendered Verlaine's L'Art Poetique into rhymed quatrains I wish I could dig up now. At the beginning of this update I made mention of my translations, from Latin and Ancient Greek respectively, of Seneca's tragedy Oedipus and Euripides' romance Helen. The latter was published in 1998; yet only last year did I use my version of this remarkable play in the Mythology in Literature course which I often teach. I'm evidently getting more impatient, however. Last summer I translated Racine's tragedy Iphigenie, and this translation, which has yet to find a publisher, will be on the syllabus of this spring's mythology course.
The other practical application I have in mind is editing; but again, translation is involved. For the past few years (I'm a bit vague about precisely how many), I have been engaged in coediting a massive anthology, to be published by Norton, of Greek poetry in translation from Homer to the present. This was and still is a daunting mission: collaboration, deadlines, even editing were new territory to me. But the deadline has proven mercifully flexible; my coeditors, Edmund Keeley, Peter Constantine, and Karen Van Dyck, have been wonderful to work with; and as for editing—isn't it one more way to transform the word on the page (or rather, in this case, a venerable, vital, and magnificent canon) into a book which will have a palpable influence in the world?
Two years ago, the tsunami hit. At just this time, my husband's terrifying illness felt like a tsunami in our lives. Now, two years later, his slow decline continues, but it remains slow. I am often tired, frustrated, angry, and sometimes lonely. How could it be otherwise? But I also feel intensely alive, productive, and in some ways fortunate. Poetry, teaching, and the entire world of literature as it touches our lives keeps nourishing me. So long as I in turn feel able to contribute something to the larger dialogue, so long as there is conversation, I can keep going.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Belles Lettres, January, 1996, Lois Marie Harrod, review of The Empty Bed, p. 36.
Booklist, May 15, 1995, Elizabeth Gunderson, review of The Empty Bed, p. 1627.
Library Journal, September 15, 1998, Judy Clarence, review of Halfway down the Hall: New and Selected Poems, p. 83; April 1, 1999, Barbara Hoffert, review of Halfway down the Hall, p. 96; September 1, 2000, Ellen Sullivan, review of Merrill, Cavafy, Poems, and Dreams, p. 208.
Nation, May 3, 1986, Grace Schulman, "Prizewinning Poets," p. 620.
New York Times Book Review, March 4, 1984, Jorie Graham, review of Slow Transparency; May 6, 1990; January 21, 1996, Daniel Mendelsohn, "Keep Your Mind in Hell"; December 23, 2001, Eric McHenry, review of Indelible, p. 17.
Poetry, November, 1984; June, 1990; December, 1991; May, 1994; February, 1997.
Progressive, February, 1999, Joel Brouwer, review of Halfway down the Hall, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, August 31, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Living in Time, p. 59; September 28, 1992, review of Mirrors of Astonishment, p. 71; March 27, 1995, review of The Empty Bed, p. 80; October 30, 1995, review of The Double Legacy, p. 51; July 27, 1998, review of Halfway down the Hall, p. 72; October 22, 2001, review of Indelible, p. 72.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), April 12, 1996, Antoinette Rainone, "Celebrating a Poet's Life," p. 10.
Star Ledger (Newark, NJ), February 24, 2005, Bob Braun, "A Poet's Simple Words Open the Door to Live's Complexities," p. 15.
Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 1984, Anne Stevenson, review of Slow Transparency.
Washington Times, May 23, 2004, Amanda Kolson Hurley, "Poems of Old Truths Relearned," p. B06.
Gloria G. Brame's Home Page,http://gloria-brame.com/glory/rachel.htm (June 11, 2007), interview with Hadas.
Poets.org,http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/195 (June 11, 2007), profile of Hadas.
Rachel Hadas's Home Page,http://www.rachelhadas.com (June 11, 2007).
Rutgers University Web site,http://mfa.newark.rutgers.edu/ (June 11, 2007), profile of Hadas.