On the death of a poet

May 1, 2020, 12:22 a.m.

Our last conversation was brief. I was on my way out, late for my next class, pausing only to thank her for a good quarter, that I learned a lot, that the readings were interesting — the usual. 

“Do you still believe poetry is futile?”

This was based on a question I had asked the class before. The pandemic was looming, people were trickling off campus and there seemed to be little interest in discussing Anne Carson, or anything else.

I said I didn’t know. I would always prefer fiction, I told her. 

I had been difficult all quarter. I resisted admitting that I had liked any of the poems, I pushed back on the midterm by submitting a piece that had nothing to do with the assignment, and I declared outright that I thought we had no business indulging in something like poetry when we were on the cusp of a global crisis.

There will always be a crisis, she said calmly. She then told us about surviving the 1957 flu pandemic in London as a little girl, and she had no doubt, she said, that she would survive this, too. She seemed to me indestructible.

I met her for the first time two years ago, as a sophomore in her class on 20th-century Irish literature. She was monumental, a fixture in the English department I had wanted to meet since stepping foot on campus. I sprinted to Margaret Jacks twice a week to get the best seat — the one right next to her. 

I didn’t speak at all in that seminar. I was afraid, intimidated by the upperclassmen in the English department, who all seemed impossibly confident and well-read. At the end of the quarter, when I approached her, she didn’t know my name. Timidly, I told her I planned to go to Oxford to study James Joyce, that I was going to apply for a grant to go to Ireland and see the Dublin of “Ulysses.” She had a habit of reading everything in class, and she narrated the entire first episode for us — “Telemachus,” the first time I had ever heard Joyce read aloud. 

I admitted to her that I was afraid of such an undertaking, that perhaps I had no business dealing with the legacy of a figure such as Joyce. Who was I to presume any authority about his art?

“I think,” she said, “he would have been thrilled.”

Maybe it was that she was such an eminent figure on the Irish literary scene herself, or maybe it was the way I had felt — transfixed — as she read that excerpt of “Ulysses,” but I felt assured, even protected, by her words. I began to consider her a living connection I had to a figure — a world, really — to which I felt I had little right. 

“You know, my father had dinner with Joyce. Interesting man.”

The next two years were filled more or less with work toward that eventual thesis, which would be on “Ulysses.” I studied abroad in Oxford twice and spent the summer before my senior year doing research alone in the Bodleian. 

It was a difficult summer. All my friends had left for their summer jobs, and there weren’t any students remaining in Oxford. I sometimes went days without speaking to another person. I felt lonely and stranded. I wanted more than anything to go home. 

My research included one week in Ireland, midway through the summer. I packed one set of clothes, my copy of “Ulysses,” my passport, and headed out to Gatwick at 4 a.m. Dublin was even less familiar, a city where I stood out in the worst way. Then in a bookstore off Grafton Street, there was a poetry display, and in the middle of the table stood her collection, “New Territory.” Her face was on a little placard, a scholarly photo of her with her hands folded and her head tilted slightly. 

It was a gesture of familiarity, seeing a face I knew and respected and admired at Stanford, in this place that had been entirely strange and rather unkind to me. I wanted to climb onto the table and announce to everyone in Hodges Figgis that this woman, this eminent poet, was my professor and mentor, that I would have the great privilege of studying with her again soon.

I bought a copy of “New Territory” for her to sign when I got back on campus. And Dublin itself changed, after the encounter. She became for me both a way in, and a way out.

She was a familiar sight, always. I would see her wandering up and down the Row, or hovering in the English department, or shopping at the Trader Joe’s in Town and Country. She was a hallmark of the Stanford I knew. 

The winter of my senior year, in her seminar on women poets, I was no longer the meek sophomore, but instead one of the surly and jaded upperclassmen I had always feared. She challenged me sometimes, and she agreed with me sometimes. I was emboldened, or perhaps I was just cocksure, but she allowed me my frustrations and my resistance and patiently listened to me bluster through my reactions.

Our last conversation. I told her I was finishing up my thesis on Joyce, and I would be honored if she attended the colloquium. She said she would try to make it, that she was very glad I had persisted with this Joyce project. Back in Ireland, she said, we have great respect for him.

I left that day feeling righteous in my refusal of poetry. It had no place in what was to come. I would need many things in the coming weeks, but I was quite sure I would not be inclined to poetry.

On the day I learned she had passed, I could not find any words. I was asked how I felt, and I didn’t know. I sat down, and I read her poetry. I read “New Territory,” which I had never gotten around to asking her to sign. 

I want to tell her I am sorry. I am sorry I do not have any words of my own, and I am sorry I did not believe her about poetry, and I am sorry I cannot say anything of value without her words. In times of futility, in times of grief, in times of immeasurable loss, poetry has nothing but purpose. I am sorry I learned this too late.

Contact Lisa Liu at lisal3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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