Reading Loop – September 2020

“Reading Loop” is a close reading or discussion by an invited contributor.

“The Idea of Order at Key West” and in My Life

E. A. Philadore

Introduction:  Word Gathering Can Take Seven Decades

Teachers tend to be remembered if they are, in impalpable ways, connected to their students, but they do not often receive written credit, accolades, or living testaments of their influence.  Writers have the lasting legacy of their printed words, but teaching writers particularly are rarely or possibly only obscurely recognized in writing.  In the 1960’s, when he was particularly afflicted by bipolar illness, and often “locked up” in McLean’s mental facility, Robert Lowell taught at Harvard. He was an astonishing voice for those of us in the graduate English program in the years he was there, but I do not recall ever reading a record of what he did in the classroom.  In essays, and memoirs, his friendship and correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop are sometimes referenced, but that is more about his capacity for a long-term, imaginative relationship with a professional woman than it is about his guidance of students.

With us attending the Harvard graduate program in that decade of extraordinary social change, he spoke about mental illness.  He once included a ten-minute discussion of his acting as if one could choose sanity because the medications were improving for his kind of disease.  I don’t think many of us had ever imagined such a choice, and so immediately his importance in our attitudes leapt high in influence.

He also gave a remarkable course called “American Poetry” as a graduate seminar, and his way of teaching students how to read a poem was unparalleled.  He was deep and able to instruct us about what he thought was a useful way to attempt to learn to “read.”  He often asked us to write an imitation of a given poet—Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson—and then write a brief comment on what principles or observations we attempted to “catch.”  His comments on our work were type written, in seriatum on a sheet of typing paper, one-half to one inch of comment per student, which he cut and paper-clipped to our papers.  His judgments were honest, pithy and tactful; he treated us as if we were his equals in ambition and did not mince words.  This attitude toward us was both flattering and distressing.

When he modeled what he meant by our attempting to penetrate what a poet’s imagination was doing when composing, he rarely quoted more than a phrase, some musical accomplishment or a juxtaposition that might seem contradictory.  He was “global” and “experiential” in his comments on the work in our one classic and not new anthology.  He tended to try to describe accomplishment rather than “deviation” from some fore-given expectation.  I found it breathtaking to listen to him and remarkably difficult to reproduce his form of entry into the poet’s internal process.  He had done it for decades, by then—experiencing his own internal workings as he wrote poems—whereas even if we saw ourselves more as poets than academics, we had not.

I found it easier to imitate a poet’s model than to describe what someone else had done in a specific poem.  He did not want us to work in a profoundly biographical way, although he was generous about details of his own life—the pressure of coming from a famous New England family, as well as his mental disability.  He did not—for example—mention that Wallace Stevens has a poem with the “n-word” in its title, and would have been uncomfortable trying to parse if this, ipso facto, makes Stevens, as a white man of his epoch, a racist.  (I would feel a responsibility to take a stand on the matter to the effect of calling attention to the social norms that acknowledge degradation, and although I feel certain Stevens was sensitive to this implication, he did not take a moral position to his own use of the word.) Nor did Lowell mention, as my ordinary professors did, William Carlos Williams’s erotic forays into the community he served as a medical doctor.  The poet who taught us did mention the verbally obvious—the casual, intimate communication Williams employs often, and particularly in some of his most famous, and shortest works like the “wheelbarrow” or “summer plums” poems.  Lowell could lead us in a rich discussion of what such intimate and commonplace language makes us feel as readers.

And yet, he understood that for a given poet a single poem might in fact alter the life moving forward, and that in the best of circumstances for a reader, a particular poem we had learned to read deeply might also alter our lives.  He was never reductive—that was not the sole purpose of a poem, such transformation of us, or of the poet.

Studying with Robert Lowell certainly reordered my life.  I was heartened by listening to him about all the poets we studied in that anthology.  I treasured his disbelief at my imitation of Emily Dickinson.  (He said that if he were presented with my two little pieces, he would have believed they were in fact written by Dickinson.)  However, I never felt as if I was able even to describe what a poet had done in a poem.

I turned eighty last month, and, for the first time, I imitated the way I feel Robert Lowell showed us how to read a poem.  I used the one poem by Wallace Stevens (referenced in the title of this piece) to try to transcribe another subject I had never been able satisfactorily to capture in writing.  It occurred to me that the general question I have tried to assay in this introduction about a poet teaching students how to be open to transformation made me feel that I might reach an audience already ripe for its small revelations and the large questions about disability and trust that occupy the few pages under my name.

July 24, 2020 Lawrenceville, New Jersey

In 1936, when Hitler had begun to show the world his malevolence and his power, not merely as intent but as invasion, my parents lived in the Bronx, very near the New York Botanical Garden where my father walked each Sunday.  He and my mother had taken occupancy of a three-room apartment on the second story of a corner of a building on Wilton Avenue, and the other side of the corner was a doctor’s office set up with a darkroom for developing X-Rays, a waiting room, a conference room and an examining room, where the X-Ray machine and its always cold, flat table also stood, kitty-cornered to the adjustable examining table.  Here, as a young internist, with a specialty in renal failure, my father would see patients until 1942 when he moved both his office and his home at my mother’s urging to Manhattan. By then, he had discovered his ear was so keen with a stethoscope that it allowed him to make subtle diagnoses of heart disease, and so he turned more and more to let his highly developed hearing guide him. He ended up a well-known and remarkable New York cardiologist with needy patients and very wealthy philanthropists, one of whom endowed with a major building the Botanical Garden which he loved so much and where he took me walking in my carriage Sundays for the first two years of my life.

My father was blind in one eye from a botched surgery when he was seven years old to correct his vision, crossed from birth.  The surgeon was so pained at having left him wall-eyed and one eyed, that he promised the boy my father was that such accidents would not happen when he was the age the surgeon then was.  From that moment, my father believed he had to become a physician to help bring that better world about.

Given his loss of sight and his wandering blind eye, he had not wanted children.  It had kept him from being a soldier. But in 1939, ten years after he and my mother had married, the Anschluss of Hitler was so terrifying that my mother talked him into their need to replace the children being slaughtered in Germany, and Austria and Poland, with at least one Jewish child of their own.  I was born on the day France fell, and so was named impulsively for two English queens, in the hopes that England would not succumb to German occupation. When I was two, my mother pregnant with a second child, we moved to Yorkville in Manhattan, where the German immigrants had settled with bierstube and swastikas on the doors, open in summer with sounds of Nazi songs sung by male voices wafting up the stairs and into the hot street.  Now my father took me walking on Sundays along the East River Drive up from the wide, elegant horseshoe steps of Carl Schurz Park.

My life changed with my sister’s birth.  My parents were told she was not normal (the word “neuro-typical” was nowhere on the horizon and the difference in the effect was in large measure responsible for my mother’s despair).  Vicky’s reaction times were slow, very slow; there was some sort of brain interference in the transfer of sensory information.  The obstetrician and pediatrician could not say what her development would be, but it would not be ordinary or good.  My mother had toxemia. Her second pregnancy lasted ten months. She was only thirty-two and had been married fourteen years, and the medical knowledge in 1943 could not tell if my sister bore a genetic insult or if she had been damaged by the toxins in the last month in the amniotic fluid in utero.

Vicky (Victoria—England was still suffering the blitz) was schizophrenic as an adult, difficult as a child, and died in the remarkably fine burn unit of a Miami hospital of a second genetic illness (Pemphigus Vulgaris, in which the skin blisters and peels off like wallpaper) at forty-nine years of age.  It was only then that we could be sure that her damage had been commandeered at conception.  I thought her wonderful and beautiful, and at three, having dolls, much older cousins, and pets as my only comparison, being with Vicky was more surprising and more fun than any inanimate toy, sixteen- or twenty-year old cousin, or any cat or puppy which could never learn to speak. I took care of her in all the blank spaces of rainy afternoons or waiting in the car for my father to finish his house calls, and looked after her in school.  I consulted with her teachers and the principal until I left sixth grade; after that, she could manage socially on her own.  But her diagnosis destroyed my mother who turned all her attention to her second-born child until my sister went to kindergarten, whereupon my mother left me to communicate on her behalf; both she and my father made themselves completely unavailable to teachers and the principal of the wonderful private school that let us both in.

My mother taught second grade in Spanish Harlem from 1945 until 1962; there, she put into practice her first ten years of work as a medical social worker and took me and my father into tenements with tiny carpets hung on the walls, pictures of Jesus or the Madonna, newspaper carefully spread weekly on the floors, and the distinct smell of urine on the stairs (no elevators). My father treated whomever the sick person was in the household that had kept the second grader home for a week.  Very occasionally in the seventeen years he helped my mother at her school in this way, he hospitalized one of these family members.

In 1962, my mother began a ten-year battle with reproductive cancer. She died at the very end of 1971 at the age of sixty-one. My sister had to live twenty-two years without her and her life became in those years a round robin between a solitary existence in a tiny cabin in Fort Lauderdale and the locked wards of south Florida’s mental hospitals.  She would run naked in the streets having been chased from her home by flames engulfing the walls, which were not in any way marked by fire. Three times my father tried to find her private care, but she escaped after a few days each time and was not easy to find.  In order not to be apprehended at the cabin my father rented for her, she would go to rooming houses and pose as a teacher who had gotten stranded in Florida with sunburn (what she called her final disease). She bled into sheets; ruined rugs, towels and curtains; and left my phone number as a contact, so, although she was registered with Social Security disability, I paid many of those bills of restitution. The mental hospitals had been emptied in the northeast, and there was nothing my father could do to make this disaster easier for her or us to bear.

The other thing that happened in 1971 (besides the birth of my second son, whom my mother willed herself through terrible pain to keep alive to greet—she wanted to make sure my second child had not been, as she would have said, “marked”) is that the saving figure of my natal household died a few months before my mother.  My father had found her her own apartment by then, a few blocks east of where we lived, a walk-up of her own.  He tended her and saw her to her death, and maintained her for some ten years after she stopped living in their apartment. She was eighty-two or three to my mother’s sixty-one.  She had been born in Wales, raised from seven years old until she was seventeen in a French convent in Aberystwyth and had been with my parents from 1936, that first year of the Wilton Avenue practice in the Bronx.  When she was four years old, her father, a coal miner, died.  There were no relatives whatsoever in the mining village about three miles from the town and its convent where there was a famous early eighteenth century orphanage for girls.  Her father had black lung and her mother TB.  She taught Agnes how to lay out a body, put pennies to keep the eyes closed, and cross the arms before rigor mortis set in.

When Agnes was seven, she laid her mother out as she had been taught to do at her father’s death, and walked to the convent, three miles over fields and through woods.  She handed the sisters the two gold wedding rings of her parents as she had been told to do, and explained that her parents hoped the sisters would take her in and raise her in the orphanage and bury her mother.  She told them where to find the deed to the cabin which her mother had in some way legally authorized as belonging to the convent.  The sisters did raise Agnes and sell the shack with its dirt floor and had her mother buried. But in 1905, when Agnes was seventeen, Norway broke away from Sweden, and Denmark, fearing the collapse of its maritime industry, passed a law to allow captains in the Danish merchant marine to take wives aboard ship.  A Danish captain almost twice her age came to the famous orphanage where the reputation of the girls was that they were sturdy, curious, thankful and cheerful. Captain Petersen asked the head sister if she would introduce him to the three most robust, oldest girls; of them, he chose Agnes, married her and then kept her on board ship with him for the next twenty-five years.  She told stories of him and of her years at sea as joyous and loving.

Babies could not be on board, and so it was not until she was nearly forty-two that she gave birth to a baby boy.  That year, terrible storms at sea sent her husband to a watery grave and in the weather she could not get to the goat farm that sustained her son.  In the same maelstrom that had killed his father two weeks earlier, their son died because he was allergic to cow’s milk.

Agnes wrote to a couple in Key West who ran a tavern.  They were the best friends in all the world that she and her husband had.  She had become a great cook on board her husband’s ship and she offered to cook for the tavern; they said yes, so she packed up some of her belongings from Aberystwyth, sailed for the American South, and became the chef in the island place that Hemingway and Wallace Stevens frequented in the 1930’s.

Stevens in particular promised her a poem in 1936 when my father opened his office. Almost surely, she is the partial subject of “The Idea of Order at Key West” (first published in 1934 and then in the 1936 anthology called Ideas of Order) but she had left before Stevens gave the book (or the poem) to her.  I shared an office building with Stevens’ daughter, Holly in 1967, when I taught at Yale.  We both smoked a bit then, and would meet outside the building and talk.  I never got up the courage to ask her if she knew that poem or its circumstances, and in a way I am glad.  The story belongs to the realm of myth as does the entire saga of Agnes in our family.

Agnes had always been in touch with her “orphanage sister” May.  They were the same age and had gone together to be interviewed by Captain Petersen.  May and Agnes agreed when she was chosen and left for marriage and adventure that they would write to each other, always, and some months after Agnes took to sea, May accepted a position with a Catholic doctor’s family in Boston. When Agnes was widowed in 1930 and came to America, May began to ask her to leave Florida, get off her feet and come north so they could see each other again and share Christmas.  May told her that she was happy enough in Boston but that New York was a better choice.  The Jewish doctors there, before Social Security, had a reputation for seeing their house servants to their death and providing for them in their old age, but even the wealthy Catholics tended to rely on the church and charity for their household help.  She told Agnes to get hold of The New York Times on a Sunday, look at the want ads and ask her friends when the listed doctor’s name did not have -berg as the last syllable, if it sounded Jewish. For six years Agnes cooked in Key West and did not do what May asked.  But in 1936, the second Sunday my father ran his ad about opening his new medical practice, Agnes saw it and phoned him.

They talked for an hour.  He understood about her life, losing her family twice, fishing and cooking on her husband’s boat, singing with the sailors, loving Mandalay best of all the ports of call: she loved its song, and all songs she had collected (they sang duets for almost thirty years together, many of which she taught him), but toward the end of the conversation, he said he could not understand why she wanted to leave Florida and then she told him about May, her hopes for four days off at Christmas.  His response is one of those places in a storied life that always makes me cry because it shows who my father was at his best, and he was often at his best, and often adored by his patients, among whom every family member on his side and my mother’s numbered.

He told Agnes that she needed to box her possessions and he would pay her friends for mailing them.  He would send her a one-way ticket to Boston, money for a week in a hotel, and a second one-way ticket from Boston to New York.  She should leave enough for a taxi from Manhattan to the Bronx. And then, if they did not continue in the vein of their long phone call, he would buy her a one-way ticket back to Florida but he did not imagine that would happen.  Did she?  She agreed that it had been fun to talk together.  She was with our family as my father had thought she would be for the rest of her life, from 1936 when she was about forty-nine until her death in 1971, although the last years she lived in her own apartment which my father maintained for her.  He saw her to her death as May had suggested he would.  And when my sister began having psychotic episodes, she would stay with Agnes and be given medication there in that calm place.

Agnes told me what May had said about Jewish doctors, but I do not think she ever told my father that.  She was profoundly tactful and deeply Catholic out of gratitude to the sisters who had raised her.  She adored life and her life.  Often she would give me a big hug and she always called me Pet.   I cannot hear my name in her voice.  “Pet, I lost my father and my mother when I was tiny, lived with the sisters as an orphan, and then I lost my son and my husband.  But now I have you and I am so glad. You make my life worthwhile.”  I adored her.  She taught me about the world, she introduced me to the priest and the sisters at St. Joseph’s in case Hitler came to Yorkville.  We all hoped that they would save me if the war came to America.  She made me feel safe.  She was almost always full of zest and cheer.  She understood about my sister, but I was her person. Vicky belonged to my mother.  My mother closed herself to me when I was not yet four.  She told me Vicky was the ugliest baby in the world and no one else would ever love her.  She told me she could not let my sister see that I was loved but I would have to know that I had come first and would always be loved best because longest.

My mother was adamant about her show of indifference.  The day she held my baby sister in that blue long bedroom of my early childhood, she sat on the rocking chair, my sister for the first time on her lap, asleep.  My mother had come home from the hospital with pneumonia. She did not want to live, and said so. She slept and wept and ate chicken soup for five weeks and was still in her sky blue bathrobe when she got up to visit my baby sister for the first time.  Each night I had been allowed to visit my sick mother in her doorway for one minute.  Mary, the yellow haired Irish baby nurse, almost touched the ceiling.  When my mother told me how she would be with me, Mary was standing behind the rocking chair and she made a funny corkscrew with her finger over my mother’s head and shook her own head “No!”  She was silent and it did not comfort me that my mother was “screwy,” but I did understand that since Mary also knew what my Mother said was crazy, I was not really alone.

I fought with my mother from the beginning because she pushed me away and this seemed to me so unfair and unnatural—I said she was not like the way my Aunt Sarah’s dog Lassie was with her litters. When my mother said, “A dog is a dog and a mother is a person,” even as I begged her not to leave me, I ran out of the room sobbing and down the stairs to Agnes in the kitchen.  She was cutting up string beans on the cutting board—and that faint fresh green scent is with me still—as I grabbed her knees from behind.  Agnes turned and kneeled, she held me, asking me “What happened, Pet, what happened?”  I finally was able to tell her to ask Mary.  And from that moment, Agnes and I were orphans together.

I talked with Mary about how beautiful my sister was and she taught me about the fontanelle and showed me the faint heartbeat still visible at its center.  She called the baby a “bairn.”  I loved Mary’s hair and the way the words sounded when she spoke them.  Agnes spoke beautifully, but her accent was not marked by the British crispness.  She said “ofTen” with a ‘t’, but I never did.

Agnes was a presence, a third grandmother, there, immutable, reliable, adorable, and it was as if she was in the air like the faint “thereness” of green beans the day I went over to her way of being.  I was four and I must have been twenty-four, studying with Robert Lowell in the American Poetry course he taught in the graduate program in English at Harvard in 1964, when I first read “The Idea of Order at Key West.”  Agnes lived another seven years after that, but I did not want to ask her about it.  I was not sure she sang to the sea. I was not sure Wallace Stevens knew she had sailed on it for a quarter of a century or that her husband was “there” in it, present, and that she was almost surely singing to him, to his rescue of attachment in her life, to what they had done and where they had gone together and to their dead son.

Stevens’ poem was first published in a group of eight pieces in 1934. In it, a Hispanic man named Ramon, a friend of the poet, knows the sights and the people who are “native” to the landscape. Ramon is walking with his friend and his “non-Anglo” name suggests a relationship of somewhat unfamiliar beings as a person is “not of” the sea. Also, they are walking on the outskirts of the downtown of Key West and in the dark they stand watching and hearing the woman sing to the sea. The lights of the town are visible in the distance and the moon is on the water.  The song is human, of the sea, but not the sea, and her grief and bond with the sea are palpable. The idea of order is that our life breathes and sings on land, but that the edge of the land brings us to a medium that is not ours and yet we wish to know it and engage with it.  In the poem, the singing “is,” a necessary expression, but not a communion with someone who has drowned.  The haunting intimacy and otherness of the song is not incompatible with such a death, but it is not spelled out, and while any of us could feel prompted to sing like that, clearly something decidedly personal has “struck” this keening chant out of the singer.

There could have been a different singer when I believe the poet came upon Agnes singing to the sea.   As she was always singing when she worked—chopping vegetables, whipping lemon and the egg whites for her celebrated lemon meringue pie, folding laundry—perhaps Agnes was not herself singing on the beach when Stevens heard her.  Perhaps he did not hear her there at night.  The point is that this poem captures the story that lay under the woman who, when things went badly, would shake her head, guffaw and exclaim “Never a dull moment!”

My mother felt the world was against her.  She would pull at her face and shake her head as if doing away with any tears that might claim their place.  Some part of Agnes had decided  that you could never foretell the next minute. And this attitude gave the impression that she was steady, ready for anything,  Even if my mother had not been lost, I cannot think of a more reassuring person than Agnes to be with during the Second World War, walking among swastikas in Yorkville, German all around us, as a small Jewish girl who knew that Hitler hated Jews and was killing them by the millions.

I did not get far, given that Third Reich backdrop, trying to persuade my mother that she did not have a fair way of being with my sister.  I believed my sister was so worried about my mother worrying about her that she had to misbehave.  As a result, I found ways to comfort my sister and to let her feel trusted, which my mother could not do. Vicky in public spaces always adapted when we were together.  When I was nine or ten, and my sister six or seven, I had discovered that she was deeply responsive to music.  My father played the harmonica and sang with Agnes, and Vicky started to sing pop songs and play the piano.  She began to collect sheet music and 45s and was given a small record player of her own.  Even as early as her kindergarten year, I had learned to calm her down with nursery rhymes and little dances of Ring a-round a Rosie.  Essentially, I discovered what came to be called music therapy, which Oliver Sacks has described so cogently in his book, Musicophilia.

It is possible that my father mentioned this musical foray of my sister to one of his wealthy patients who had moved into a position of friendship (by way of paying my parents to accompany them on shipboard, classical musical cruises to Europe).  It is also possible that his patient, knowing the importance of music in my father’s life gave him tickets to the Young People’s Concerts at Carnegie Hall for Vicky and me without being explicitly told that I could maintain my sister’s equilibrium and joy more easily than my mother. I trusted that if I could calm and entertain her, she would not misbehave.  I knew my father had observed this.  Sometimes we talked about what I did to soothe her before any anxiety began.  I could not stop her if she “went off.”

My mother did not want me to go alone to the concerts.  She did not want Vicky to go at all.  She did not trust that it would not be a disaster.  And she often would tell me how much my privilege disgusted her and made her jealous. I wanted to wear Mary Jane Shoes, white trimmed socks and a taffeta dress with a big bow in back. I wanted to prove I was right about my sister.  Competitive and stubborn, I told my sister how to watch the violins and study the many colors of the woods and the unison of the bows when the strings played.  I told her things to listen for, ahead of time.

By the time I was six, my father had taken me to little daytime concerts at small theaters.  I loved to watch the orchestra.  It was so different from only listening to a record and that is what I talked to my sister about.  I took her to the ladies’ room just before the concert would begin (I had a tiny gold watch).  I would take her for a treat at intermission.  She loved the first half of the concert and listened, and concentrated, perfectly behaved, and when we got to the lobby, a most extraordinary sight presented itself:  There was a man with a nerf ball and a whistle and some fifteen boys were playing soccer with some wastebaskets marking the goals of each side.  Vicky did not want her M & Ms; she wanted to join the game.  The boys were between five and twelve years old.

It turned out none of them could have lasted for the second half of the music, and I had had my doubts about Vicky.  So I went to the man with the whistle and asked if she could join if she were a girl. He blew his whistle and motioned her in on the short teamed side. “Better to be even,” he said.  He asked me if I had my ticket or knew my seat number and my parents’ phone number.  I did.  He gave me a card to write them down, along with my name and Vicky’s.  “I’ve been doing this for years.  Only the second half beginning at Intermission.”  He told me I should buy my sister a bottle of water if I had money and write her name on it.  He would take everyone to the bathrooms, wait for them, and take them to collect their coats from the anteroom, before the concert was over.  I should make sure to bring my sister’s things.

Vicky loved the Young People’s Concerts.  She became adept at listening in the first half, because she had the nerf ball game to look forward to.  The boys never questioned her being a girl who liked sports more than music and moving more than stillness.  I once told her she could tell our parents if she had to, but it was probably better not to tell, and I would save money and buy the usher Mr. Charlie (not his name) a Christmas card and a present (playing cards, dominoes, after-shave lotion with ducks on the bottle you could see from both sides) with my allowance at Christmas.  I told her that Pop’s patient, Hugh N. and his wife, Dotty, had paid a lot of money for the tickets and it might embarrass Pop if he knew Vicky played soccer half the time.  He would be worried that his patients might find out.  “He doesn’t have to know and they don’t have to know, do they?”  I said, and I am not sure, but I believe she understood the logic of everybody getting what they most wanted.

I am almost sure my mother would not have attempted this.  I do not know if Vicky would even have asked.   I believed as a child and I believe now that my sister would have misbehaved instead of asking.  I believe that everyone needs to take social risks in the direction of trust, so long as there is no danger.  Vicky was a terrific athlete, although her body as a child was awkward-looking, with a big barrel chest.  Later on, she had the most beautiful breasts I or my cousins agreed we had ever seen.  She loved women, not men, although she was briefly married to a man when she was twenty.  That marriage was a risk she should not have taken; it ended, four years after it began, in divorce.

My imagination was set free by Agnes, her love, and her reliability.  She is the one who, along with my father, taught me the depths of what trust is.  She could bear up under—and had withstood—the worst things in the world.  I remember only one example of this deviation of my own mind, my separateness from her, which I also understood she would not want to hear.  When I was four or five, I knew I could not imagine the piles of dead bodies in the German concentration camps.  My father’s patients died often enough for me to understand about death, but they died one at a time, and he would come home and put his coat in the coat closet and his hat on the hat rack and sit down on a chair, undo his tie and say, “another candle has gone out today.”  And then he would weep.  My mother would walk into the room when she heard the key in the door and the door close; she would stand in the doorway shaking her head, elbows akimbo and exclaim, “I hate a man who cries.”  This was a less visceral reaction than what she had done to me when she sat in the rocking chair, more like thinking my sister the ugliest baby in the world, but I thought it was in a way worse.  How could his weeping when he lost a patient not be the right sauce on his sustaining experience?

In any case, these singular evenings of my mother and my father’s disconnection had nothing really to do with what Hitler was doing.  One day, when I was pairing the socks and Agnes folding the laundry, I looked at the clothes piling up in the oval woven basket. I suddenly saw them as dead Jewish bodies in Auschwitz and I froze, and was horrified and, in a strange way gratified, at having an image of what Europe was now like, and I never told anyone until I began writing poems at the age of twelve. Still, it took me almost three quarters of a century more before I wrote about Agnes. What she is to me is in some ways too deep for language, beyond language, like the song of the woman in Stevens’ poem which contains her and I will always think was at the least revised to hold her, to keep her forever alive.

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About the Author

E. A. Philadore, born the day France fell and named impromptu for two English queens in the hopes that England would be able to resist Hitler, is the mother of two grown sons, the grandmother of three teenage children, and the keeper of two beta fish. She lives alone in New Jersey, which has made sheltering in place easier than it might have been. She has been trying to write the enclosed piece for some seventy years, and just accomplished what she had in mind from the beginning. That is in part because she usually writes poems. She worked as a poet in the schools for the New Jersey State Council of the Arts (which awarded her two poetry grants in the 1980s) and with the Inside/Out Poetry Organization run by Terry Blackhawk in Detroit in the 1990s. She has taught at Yale, Quinnipiac, and Albertus Magnus Colleges in New Haven in the 1960s and 70s, at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, Oakland College, Lawrence Technological Institute and Wayne State University in the Detroit Area in the 1990s, at Saint Andrews School in Delaware (where Dead Poets Society was filmed in 1988/9 and where she was hired to be “the opposite of Robin Williams’” character). She also taught at a variety of other high schools in New Jersey and Michigan when not being an itinerate adjunct. She studied at Harvard University as a graduate student, earning a doctorate in 1967. One student who enjoyed being a cut up in her senior class at a Michigan high school wrote to her some twenty years later, that he had become a teacher because of her; aside from raising her two sons, that is probably the most important accomplishment of all.