Imagine Larkin Going Among the Dead
by Larkin Vonalt
Howard Nemerov, 1988
A Tale of Two and a Half Poets
People ask me where I got my name. I can understand that, it’s a different sort of name. My answer varies on the circumstance. If they seem interested, I might tell the truth. Otherwise I just toss aloft a little lie like “It’s a family name.” (The only member of my family that has the name “Larkin” is me. And that’s the truth.) There are other Larkins, of course. Hundreds, I would think. It’s a big world after all, and it is a common family name in the British Isles. I occasionally meet people who have daughters named Larkin. One woman named her daughter after a wildlife preserve for ducks. The woman at the rental car counter just liked the way it sounded. And one day, in the McDonald’s drive-through of the town in which I used to live, I discovered that someone had named their little girl after me.
When I handed my debit card through the window to pay for my coffee and Egg McMuffin she said “You’re Larkin Vonalt!?” When I admitted that I was (with some trepidation) she said “I just loved what you wrote so much and your name is so wonderful I named my daughter after you!” Honestly, I had no idea what the proper response to that situation is. Emily Post does not cover it. I told her that I was honored, that she had made my day and that I hoped her Larkin had a long and happy life. Then I drove away with my breakfast.
So, first of all, I did not name myself. My mother named me, though it took her a little while to come up with “Larkin.” I was damned near called “Laura Kirstin.” Apparently, as the story goes, I was a few weeks old when my mother realized that I was not a “Laura.” (I’m not sure what that means, and I don’t know what I did that made “Laura” unsuitable.) “Larkin” was conjured out of several things: a contraction of Laura plus Kirstin, the nickname of St. Lawrence (“Lorchin”) and influenced somewhat by the British poet, Philip Larkin. I was not named for Philip Larkin, but his name helped to inspire mine.
Both of my parents were English professors, and writing came easily to me even as quite a young child, nature and nurture I guess. (I still have a “biography” of George Washington I wrote in the first grade. The last sentence is astounding: “He had red hair, he liked women and he liked to dance.” ) Nevertheless I never wanted to be a writer. Nope. Never. I wanted to be a ballerina, a veterinarian, a trainer of race horses, an actor, a director, an archaelogist (that one was short-lived) and a film maker. I resisted writing with all the ferocity I could muster, and you see how well it turned out.
While working on my BFA in Performance Art, I started to fool around with poetry a bit. I’d cut my teeth on Anne Sexton and T.S. Eliot, and being twenty-something in Boston, Massachusetts lends itself to the poetic life. It fits in well with art school– black clothes and English cigarettes, plenty of self-examination, both figurative and literal. Much of performance art was about stripping bare the soul (and often your person as well) and poetry was a means of getting there.
In the autumn of 1987, I saw that Howard Nemerov was going to be the writer in residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, which was quite near my mother and stepfather’s house. Qualified individuals could apply for a month-long fellowship to work with the esteemed American poet, and he alone would choose the chosen. I gathered up the poems I thought were reasonably good, filled out the application and sent it in. And I was chosen.
This is how these things work: you gather in a room with the Master, and the other (in this case five) supplicants. You sit around a table and one person reads their work and the others use their analytical and critical skills to trash it. Some of the criticism served up at residencies has been so brutal as to become legend. The brilliant Flannery O’Connor attended Breadloaf, the Iowa Writer’s Conference. There, she wasn’t permitted to read her own material, as the other writers complained they couldn’t understand her Georgia accent. So someone else read the story and Flannery took notes. The other writers dismantled and dissected her story ruthlessly and she wrote down their every comment. (The idea was that you would take the commentary and suggestions of the other writers to revise your work, and then return with a new draft.) When she returned to have her story read again, she had not changed one word.
At 26, I was the youngest poet in residence, at least 15 years younger than anyone else. The oldest participant was in his 80s. His poems had footnotes. Some days listening to the works in progress, I wondered if there had only been six applicants. (There were over 200, I was told later.) We talked about trends in poetry and work habits and favorite poems by other writers.
“Were you named after Philip Larkin?” someone asked.
“Sort of,” I said and didn’t offer any more. Instead, I asked Howard about a poem that had been widely cited in the obituaries of Philip Larkin, three years previous. In those days, you had to know the first line or title to look up a poem, and I had not been able to find the one that ends “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/and don’t have any kids yourself.”
Howard grinned. His face was almost a perfect rectangle, topped by a thatch of white hair. He had blue eyes and they honest-to-God twinkled. “That’s the poem that starts out ‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,’ ‘This Be the Verse,’ ” And indeed it was. I still know the poem by heart and can recite it like a parlor trick. That day Howard recited it for us.
We sat around a horse-shoe shaped table with Howard at the apex. Every day I sat at Howard’s right hand. He had said he didn’t hear well out of his left ear, and I was intent to get the optimum experience. Every morning I arrived with my canvas mason’s bag, unfastening the little buckles to fish out my notes, Moleskine-style notebooks, fountain pens, and my very large antique Wedgwood Edme coffee cup, eschewing the styrofoam provided by the Center. As if those affectations weren’t enough, in those days I looked like I could have stepped out of a J. William Waterhouse pre-Raphaelite painting; all long red hair and pale complexion. The first week came and went and I was the only one that hadn’t yet read my own work, leaving me the weekend to stew over what I was going to present. I was nearly done with a new poem, and I was carefully shaping it, strengthening it in preparation for its dissection.
On Sunday night I laid that poem aside, put a new sheet of paper in the typewriter and wrote “Contemplating Hannah,” a poem about my stepsister, in about 15 minutes. I had to tweak it here and there, but essentially it arrived on the page like a gift. On Monday morning, I unpacked the notebooks, the pens, the coffee cup, and the poem. When I read, my voice shook.
We were in the garden
among the poppies
talking about French kissing
and shrieking at some
stripling’s miserable efforts.
We were sixteen and the
sun was high.
She was the pretty one
with her lacquer and hard
eyes, hoarder of secrets and
silver. I was older:
we were in it together.
There’s a baleful husband and
two tiny children entwined
in her fine tea brown hair.
She’s made her face of
paint and feathers, hidden her
heart in the secret drawers,
left her orange peel on
the front hall floor
To gorge on lotus fruit
locked in the Happy Prison,
The road home long forgotten.
Where is Hannah who sat
on my bed bemoaning history
And braiding my hair ?
Where are those sharp nails
that dug half moons across
my hand? Our conspiracy
of the lickerish?
The starlet of mathematics
has disappeared against the
sky; where are her Tolkein
books and Tarot cards?
Are they lost with the
cold Canadian morning, her
sandalwood soap, clarinet reed
and amber beads, all of
Hannah says she’s out there
in some hazy Manx landscape
and when I saw this woman
she held me by the waist and
nuzzled my face. And I wondered
Who is this impostor and
Where is my lost sister?
Arriving at the end of the poem, I was met with utter silence. Then Alan, across the table, leaned forward to speak. Howard held up his hand to stop him.
“That was lovely,” Howard said, and no one else said a thing. After we sat there for a minute or two, Howard leaned over and said “There’s only one ‘s’ in ‘disappear.’ Why don’t we take a break now?”
For years, I thought that it was all about the poem. I bet I was 40 years old before I realized that it probably had at least as much to do with being a twenty-something girl – woman with long red hair. Not that it’s a bad poem. The poem has some significant flaws– the last stanza should be deep-sixed altogether, but it wasn’t bad.
The next day, we all came in, sat down. I took out my notebooks, and my fountain pens and my English coffee cup. The woman to my right was tidying her notes, preparing to read, chewing a fingernail, when Howard came in and sat down.
“Good morning, all. Last night I wrote a new poem, and today I thought I would share it with you. It’s called ‘Larkin’.” No one said a word. No one gasped, or choked or laughed out loud. Their eyes shot darts though. Thank God the poem was not about me.
Imagine Larkin going among the dead,
Not yet at home there, as he wasn’t here,
And doing them the way he did The Old Fools,
With edged contempt becoming sympathy
Of a sort, and sympathy contempt for death.
It’s a quirky spirit he carried through the arch
To aftertime, making a salted fun
Of the holy show and grudging his respect
For all but truth, the master of a style
Able to see things as he saw through things.
He was our modern; in his attitude,
And not in all that crap about free verse.
He understood us, not as we would be
Understood in smartass critical remarks,
But as we are when we stand in our shoes and say.
Our Roman, too; he might not have cared to be,
But what I mean is this: you wander through
The galleries entranced with shepherdess and nymph,
The marble or alabaster faery and fay,
Then suddenly you come on him, the stone
Of his face scored up and scarred with the defeat
An honorable life has brought him to,
And know that backing up the tales we tell
Is mortal this, the what-it’s-all-about,
So that you turn away, the lesson told,
That’s it. Dear Warlock-Williams, might you weep?
The penetrative emptiness of that gaze
Kindly accusing none, forgiving none,
Is just the look upon the face of truth,
Mortality knowing itself as told to do,
And death the familiar comes as no surprise –
“Ah, Warlock-Williams, are you here as well?”
With Auden, with Hardy, with the other great and dead,
Dear Larkin of the anastrophic mind,
Forever now among the undeceived.
At the end of the session, he stood up, scrawled his name across the bottom of the onionskin, and handed it to me. “This copy is for you.”
By Wednesday, things were back to normal. When I read my second poem, he was less impressed. When I asked him about it later he advised that it just needed more work. But when he went on to say that he thought I’d have a great talent for writing popular songs, I burst into tears on the spot. I didn’t want to write popular songs! I wanted to be Elizabeth Bishop! Marianne Moore! Stevie Smith! I wanted to be taken seriously. Poor Howard, he handed me a tissue, quite flummoxed by my response to what he meant as a compliment.
When the month was over, Howard gave me an inscribed copy of his collected poems. It didn’t contain “Larkin,” of course. He’d just written it. But my typescript copy is still tucked inside. We wrote letters every so often for nearly three years. I’d send poems. He’d send them back with cryptic notes, a word circled, with “no” written next to it, or “nice” or “yes.” Sometimes the poem was ignored altogether. I wrote that I was disturbed to discover that Philip Larkin had been revealed to be a “right-wing, racist, womanizing misanthrope.”
“He was charming,” Howard wrote back. Indeed, he must have been. No one could stretch a description of Larkin to include “handsome,” and yet he was often balancing two and three romantic relationships at one time. But you don’t have to love the poet to love their work. Then Howard’s letters stopped. He died two months after the last one, of throat cancer at the age of 71. (Ironically, for me, Philip Larkin died of the same in 1985, at age 63. And my own father, in 2005 at age 68.) I never wrote another poem.
Knowing “This Be the Verse” by heart is a lot like knowing a good joke. Larkin had better poems. One of them was “For Sidney Bechet,” written in 1954 in homage to the great Jazz clarinetist. In the second to last stanza, there’s a particular line: “On me your voice falls as they say love should; Like an enormous yes.” When I read that, it’s not Sidney Bechet’s horn I hear, but Howard’s commentary, a combination of gravel and gentle wickedness– and his inscription in my copy of the Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov: “To Larkin with love from Howard and Larkin.” An enormous yes.