I had a moving and humbling experience this afternoon. I was visiting poet William Matchett, who is a friend of my parents. Like them, he lives on the Hood Canal, in Kitsap County Washington. (He and my father would both want you to know that the Hood Canal is actually a fjord. Consider yourselves edified.) Bill turned ninety this year, and his fourth book, Airplants: Selected Poems, is due out shortly from Antrim House Books. He wrote me a couple of very thoughtful notes (like, actual typed-on-a-typewriter letters-in-the-mail) after reading Luck and A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, and I brought him a copy of Talking About The Weather. Hoping for another letter!
During our visit, Bill brought out a beautiful old leather-bound book, which his mother had given him when he was a student. She had proposed that he fill the blank pages (such luxe paper!) with his own poems. Instead, Bill has, across the span of seventy years or so, invited other poets to hand-write one of their own poems in the book. What a nice idea! And Bill was inviting me to copy one of my poems into the book. I even had my favorite fountain pen (with the brown ink) with me. (“Peepers,” from A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, was the one he requested, and of course I obliged.)
Before he set me copying down my poem at the dining table, Bill opened the book to show me some of what had been written there before. Some names I didn’t recognize. Others…
Robert Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be The Same,” in the author’s own hand. Howard Nemerov. Carolyn Kizer. Jack Gilbert. Heather McHugh. W.S. Merwin, William Stafford.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ “looking” from “Gay Chaps at the Bar.” GWENDOLYN BROOKS, people. The first poetry reading I ever went to (I was 12 or 13 years old) was Gwendolyn Brooks and she blew my universe. She is in my holy canon to this day.
Bill Matchett was on the faculty at the University of Washington for about fifty years. He helped coordinate the annual “Roethke Readings,” which brought well-known poets to campus, which accounted for some, but not all of these poems. Some of the poets had done their copy-work while visiting Bill and his wife Judy at this very house, perched above the fjord, a house named Nellita for the town that used to be here long ago. Others wrote out their poems in Seattle, a few elsewhere. I used my brown fountain-pen ink and my tidy penmanship and copied down my poem. It felt strange and wonderful for my penmanship to be inside a book with the penmanship of all of these poets. It will feel strange and wonderful for a very long time, I think. And I’m just so touched at Bill’s invitation, just a thing he does when a poet visits him, I guess, but with such resonance for me. I felt warmth and connection and, sure, a little fan-girl giddy. I felt like a part of poetry in a very physical, leather-bound way.
John Crowe Ransom. Adrienne Rich! James Wright. Seamus Heaney’s perfect “Mother of the Groom.” Roethke’s “The Waking” taking up a whole page. Richard Wilbur. Galway Kinnell. Stanley Kunitz. A poem from each. Some of the pages had sketches, watercolors, illustrations. One of the illustrations, early on in the book, Bill pointed out, was by a young “Ted” Gorey. Yeah, him. (They met at Harvard where Gorey was roommates with Frank O’Hara!)
Elizabeth Bishop. She wrote out part of “Sandpiper.” I stared at her handwriting for a long time. I tried to imagine her hand, her pen moving.
And when I turned the page to the gorgeous scrawl of “Then,” by Muriel Rukeyser, I wasn’t ready for it. I audibly gasped. I got inaudibly teary. I was supposed to finish copying my poem, but I kept going back to read hers. Here it is:
When I am dead, even then,
I will still love you, I will wait in these poems.
When I am dead, even then
I am still listening to you.
I will be still making poems for you
out of silence;
silence will be falling into that silence,
it is building music.
At Bill and Judy’s house in the woods next to the fjord where there used to be a town called Nellita, these words came up at me from that page, from Muriel, right up at me, and all of them were true.