My first year in grad school was a swift kick to the gut, and I was wholly disoriented for much of the time. It’s not just that I was involved in an intense and heartbreaking love affair, but more that I had been unprepared for the ambition, the competition, the sheer intellectual drive that animated many of my colleagues. I had had no idea what I was getting myself into. But my great friend David helped me through. A tall, burly Grizzly Adams of a man, David lightened the mood for all of us that year.
David and I were in the “Yeats and Stevens” seminar together, an intense, intimidating and utterly illuminating examination of modernist poetry. When the day came for David’s presentation on Wallace Stevens, he eschewed his usual flannel shirt and blue jeans, dressing instead in a neatly pressed suit and tie; his crazy curly hair was tamed into submission and his beard has been neatly trimmed. At the start of class, he sat at the head of the table and looked around the room with a long, penetrating glance. “Let us begin, then,” he intoned, paying homage to our professor’s baritone solemnity, “with Stevens’s excellent poem, ‘The Well Dressed Man With a Beard.’”
That seminar was intense, but it stays with me. I now carry a passionate devotion to Yeats and Stevens, who have become my go-to poets in times of trouble. All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
On the morning of our first snowfall that year, my phone rang at 6 a.m. I answered groggily, confused and disoriented; I hadn’t even yet looked outside. It was David. He didn’t say hello; he cleared his throat and read “The Snow Man” – beautifully, and with conviction. And then he hung up.
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
A few months later, on the day we took our major text exam – three hours written and one hour oral, the Brandeis alternative to a Master’s thesis — everyone in our class met at a local restaurant afterwards, to drink together and debrief. I didn’t have a car at the time, so David offered me a ride in his junky old Toyota, and once we got in the car, he offered to share a joint. It was delicious.
One Saturday night in January, David invited me to join him in a late night tromp through the snow covered wilderness behind the country estate where he was housesitting. The moon was full and we broke our trail through the soft blanket of landscape. The silence is astonishing when you’re surrounded by that much snow; it’s easy to forget about this in the summertime, but winter has a haunting quiet through and through. We climbed up hills and jumped off giant rocks, laughing and singing and talking about poetry.
“What I love about studying poetry,” David bragged, standing atop a rock as tall as me, “is that it’s gonna help my love life. Women love to be seduced by a few well-chosen lines.” And he recited Edna St. Vincent Millay, then jumped down and tumbled in a heap at my feet.
I laughed. “What I love about studying poetry,” I replied, “is that it gives women a way to repel the advances of men who think we can be so easily seduced!”
I thought of the Wallace Stevens poem we’d studied in seminar just the day before, “The Monocle de Mon Oncle,” a witty and sad meditation on impotence and age. The narrator looks down at his body, considers his sexual limitations and asks himself, “Shall I uncrumple this much crumpled thing?”
I didn’t quote that line to David, who was still reciting Millay to himself. I didn’t have to. I climbed up to the rock he’d just jumped down and stood at the top with my arms outspread. I surveyed the world around me, a beautiful, wonderful world of possibility. I was just 21. I looked down and laughed.
“If sex were all,” I shouted, recalling a different section of that Stevens poem, “Then every hand would make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words. But note the unconscionable treachery of fate, That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan!”
And I jumped.