To a Former Student of My Father’s

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A few weeks ago, an email arrived out of the blue from a former student of my father’s. My father, dead now nine years next week. In this unexpected missive were recollections of my father’s enthusiasm for 18th century poetry and the way he laughed. He did have a wonderful manner of laughing. It’s said that you die two deaths. One when you draw your last breath, the other when someone speaks your name for the last time– and thus my father, Larry Vonalt (January 10, 1937 – December 26, 2005) lives on.

Dear David,

Thanks for your note. I’ve been meaning to answer it since it arrived, but time has a way of zipping past regardless of one’s intentions. I can’t imagine what you found on Google– but I haven’t been 40 for some time. I went to Florence O. Stillman and Wilbert Snow Schools in Middletown and have vivid and mostly happy memories of living in Connecticut.

Though I know well his enthusiasm for 18th c. poetry, Dad’s interests later tilted more towards the Moderns and after– Eliot and Pound, and then Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman. I sat in his senior seminar in poetry the summer of 1972– and remember some 40 years later that two poems covered that day were Anne Sexton’s “Woman with a Girdle” and “Flee on Your Donkey.”

Dad spent 1971 (’72? one of those) — on sabbatical trying to write a book about John Berryman. It was the same year that Berryman died– but he didn’t finish it and as a result didn’t apply for tenure at Wesleyan. My mother fell in love with a British physician and she and I left the country in the autumn of 1972.

When he was dying of laryngeal cancer in 2005, Dad asked me to clean out his office at the University of Missouri at Rolla and I found drawer after drawer of material on Berryman– each poem had a file an inch thick. When I asked him what to do with it, he wrote (having been robbed of speech by that time) “Pitch it.”
I didn’t, of course, I couldn’t– and instead carted it home like a very heavy cautionary tale.

The way he let me know that the cancer treatment had failed was to ask me, by email, if I wanted his poetry books. (Because of course, I already had copies all my own.) When we buried his ashes at a cemetery in New Harmony, Indiana I read aloud at graveside the last stanza of “Little Gidding” from a first edition of Four Quartets, (“We shall not cease from exploration . . . .”) and then I carefully tore the page from the book and placed it in the little vault (bigger than a bread box? barely) with what remained of him.

He would be very pleased to know that you turned out to be a poet. I tried for years to not be a writer. I mean, I worked at not being a writer, even going so far as to take a degree in art. But I allowed myself a few poems, and then somehow I became the protege of Howard Nemerov. After my shoebox filled up with rejection slips from all the best houses and journals, I gave it up in entirety. (Marriage and children and a career in journalism contributed to the fall, I’m sure.)

I still miss my father every single day.

Thanks for writing. Enjoyed the couplet.

Larkin

 

Into the Dark

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I looked at death tonight. I’d like to say I examined it like you would a textile, holding the weight of it in your hand, feeling the surface. But of course, it wasn’t like that.  No one touches death, we only picture it until it embraces us.

It was more like admiring something in a catalog and thinking “I wonder how that would be. What would it be like to try that on? Is it too expensive?”

In my twenties, I used to think about suicide on a fairly regular basis. I’d imagine the aftermath. I’d consider it as a solution, but not for long. If you’re thinking about the “after” you’re only kicking the tires. For a month or so, when I was 26, I slipped way below the surface and really thought I wanted to die. I was in so much pain that I didn’t see the point in going on living.

Luckily I had health insurance. Because I had health insurance, I had a psychiatrist, a good one, who kept me alive by making me sign a contract every day that I would not kill myself before I saw him the next day.

I don’t have a psychiatrist anymore.

But this evening, I looked at death again. And I didn’t think about “after.” I looked at it like one looks at a deep dark pool. Some alternative state. And what I thought is this: it would be so nice to rest.  This would stop all of the things that are hammering in my brain. The last box to tick on the last to-do list.

I have too much on my plate.

I am supposed to be writing a book. I haven’t done a damn thing for it since October. That inattention weighs me down. I have been busy with volunteer efforts. I have been busy helping friends. I have been busy spinning my wheels. The days start and end in the dark.

When I tell my friends that I am out of hope, they suggest chocolate. They say they feel the same.

At my house, the television goes constantly. My husband is wonderful in many ways, but he starts the day with “Paternity Court” and falls asleep on the sofa to “Rachel Maddow” on Tivo. I am not in the same room with it, but I hear it throughout the house. A friend of mine used to share the complaint– her husband had a particular fondness for “The Price is Right.”  When her husband died last winter, “The Price is Right” was on across the room.

Our twenty-year-old son lives with us. He’s a good kid, but he and his father can’t communicate.  As a result my husband nags me all day every day about the things he wants Julian to do, since direct communication  between the two of them so often ends in shouting.

Every plaint, every pundit, the queries by phone and email, the tasks left undone, each of them another stone in my pocket.

Today I met a friend for lunch. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was out of sync, not quite keeping up. Afterwards, alone, I sat in the car in a parking lot in silence. For twenty-five minutes, just staring out at the December sky. I felt strange. I ran some errands, picked up dog food and toilet paper.

Driving home through the city streets, I didn’t even feel like I was in the car. I felt like I was in some other place, perched on a diving board, my toes curled around the edge.

And then I came home. And the television was on and the dogs swirled around me. In the kitchen, my husband notes that I have tears in my eyes. I just nod. I don’t know why I’ve been crying. I don’t know why I feel so down. I don’t know why I feel so tired. I only know that I’ve been into the dark and out again.