Father, I’m drowsy in April’s humming sun and think
A girl the color of autumn kneels at the Squanicook’s bank,
Who is the river’s daughter, dressed in driven skins,
Who knows a cedar wind at Nissequassick brings
The school of alewife, herring, yellow perch ashore.
– from the Squanicook Eclogues
In 1991, Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky was asked what American poets he admired. Of the two or three he shortlisted, he mentioned Melissa Green for “tremendous intensity and tremendous intelligence.” He continued: “In the case of Ms. Green, I think it’s a tremendous facility. She’s a tremendous rhymer. There’s a collection of hers called Squanicook Eclogues, wonderful eclogues, I think. Virgil would be proud of those. Tremendous rhyming, tremendous texture.”
Then she disappeared. Her 1987 Squanicook Eclogues, which received awards from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets, looked to be a solo product of a brilliant woman. Then, a decade later, a memoir of mental illness, Color Is the Suffering of Light, then, a decade after that, another collection of poems, Fifty-Two (try finding it anywhere, just try), and now, the next installment of her memoirs, The Linen Way, excerpted in the current Parnassus.
For my money, my favorite passage is a description of her Boston University class with Nobel poet Derek Walcott, which, in fact, brings back memories of his Russian friend’s classes. Walcott made his students memorize “Lycidas” – a suggestion that was met with “tittering and mumbled derision – most of the students seemed to resent having to memorize such a long, boring poem.” Here’s a sample of Walcott’s classroom style:
“His first class was held at 236 Bay State Road, in a shabby second-floor room with an unvarnished floor, empty bookshelves, and a dozen wooden armchairs crowded into it. Though bleak, this was also the room where Robert Lowell had taught Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck. Walcott walked in wearing a casual sport coat, without books or papers, and sat down. Cordially, he spoke about how the workshop was going to be run. He wanted us to read a lot, and we would look at our own poems only part of the time. He then gave us five minutes to write down the names of ten of our favorite poems. I quickly made a list: the Iliad, the Odyssey, ‘The Seafarer,’ Dante‘s Inferno [why not the Purgatorio? or Paradiso? – ED.], Paradise Lost, all of Shakespeare‘s sonnets, all of Donne, Herbert, Keats, John Clare, and Robert Browning. Finally, I added ‘The Schooner Flight.'”
“When I lifted my head, the other students were looking puzzled, chewing the ends of their pens in some combination of aggravation and disbelief. Walcott went around the room and asked us to read our lists aloud. Most of the students said nothing – it seemed they couldn’t call to mind a single poem. When Walcott came to me, my heart sank into my shoes. By naming ‘The Schooner Flight’ among my favorite poems, I would look like the biggest kiss-up ever born. I read my list, and when I looked up I saw that a line had been drawn in the sand between me and the other students.
“On the occasion of our first student-teacher conference, Walcott sat behind a large, empty desk. When I entered the room he looked me up and down with an exaggerated leer, which seemed more of a friendly joke than an insult. I sat and handed him my poems, my heart thumping so loudly I thought he could surely hear it. He set the poems aside and smiled at me, his sea-green eyes bright and congenial.
‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.
I cleared my throat and blurted out, surprising myself, ‘I want you to teach me everything you know.’
His eyes widened, and he grinned. ‘You’re hungry, aren’t you, Emily?” he said. “Or should I call you Sylvia?'”
“Illness married me,” she later wrote. Soon after the publication of her first collection – “I could say ‘my head spun,’ but the world also spun around me; my sense of self became frangible, and I felt my mind and body crumble. I spent the next eleven months in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital, shattered and suicidal. I remember the sound of the long key chains the staff all wore, clinking and turning locks.”
Her memories of her friendship with Joseph Brodsky, who befriended her during the difficult years, shows a more tender, caring side of the exiled poet: “As a lifelong insomniac, I am often awake in the middle of the night, and Joseph sometimes called at an ungodly hour to read an English-language poem he’d just written. … At other times, he called just to talk. He would ask what I was doing or reading or working on, and I would find myself sitting on the kitchen floor, twisting the telephone cord, chain-smoking, and talking into the wee hours. He never said goodbye, but rather, ‘Tender kisses on both your cheeks.’ I’d sign off just as Jimmy Durante did, but substituting the name of Joseph’s lovely cat for Mrs. Calabash: ‘Good night, Mississippi, wherever you are!'”
I’ve already ordered a copy of Squanicook Eclogues. And if anyone knows where I can find a copy of Fifty-Two, please drop a line. Meanwhile, I’ve a sudden urge to memorize “Lycidas.” All of it.