Leonard Nathan: At the end, still himself, says poet Jane Hirshfield

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"Finely woven intelligence"

I “met” the poet and translator Leonard Nathan in 2000 – actually, it was a telephone interview, hence the quotes.  I never had the privilege of meeting face-to-face with one of Czesław Miłosz‘s earliest translators, and the man who translated Anna Swir into English by the Nobel laureate’s side.

After our short interview, we kept in email touch over the years.  I told him about my plans to compile the essays for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and he contributed his previously unpublished memoir.

Some time afterward, I got a phone call from him out of the blue.  He saw my name on a his phone list, and wondered if I was a photographer – or who, actually, I was.  He was his usual chipper and polished self, but I had already lost a mother to the early onset variety of Alzheimer’s in 1988, and the odd and cheerful phone call struck a familiar chord.

During her reading of her latest collection of poems, Come, Thief, at Kepler’s tonight, my friend Jane Hirshfield described how Leonard Nathan had been very open about his disease, calling Jane before she had even noticed anything amiss to warn her he would be having good days and bad days.

Jane told the story of visiting him in a nursing home when he was in a more advanced stage of the disease.  When she asked what to expect, she was given a “dire, dire” description of his condition.

She was instead amazed at “how much he was still the eloquent, educated, finely woven intelligence he had always been.” Even as his mind deteriorated, he would be endlessly discussing Beaumarchais, or any of his other literary preoccupations.

So she wrote this poem for him, “Alzheimer’s”:

A good day for Jane

When a fine old carpet
is eaten by mice,
the colors and patterns
of what’s left behind
do not change.
As bedrock, tilted,
stays bedrock,
its purple and red striations unbroken.
Unstrippable birthright grandeur.
“How are you,” I asked,
not knowing what to expect.
“Contrary to Keatsian joy,” he replied.

“I couldn’t come up with a line like that on a good day,” said Jane.

(By the way, it was otherwise a good day for Jane today:  Garrison Keillor read her “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun” this morning on “The Writer’s Almanac” – it’s here.  Her “Three-Legged Blues” is here, with a blues musical setting by Kay Ryan‘s brother-in-law, David Fredrick Lochelt, here.)


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