Poems and chapels

When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.

A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been.  When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.

And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.

What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.

I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.

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