I keep returning to that moment, that first Tuesday afternoon, the door with its frosted pane. It swings open suddenly, pulled back into the dusky hallway, and Denise sails in, salt and pepper curls wind-tossed. It reminds me of the course my life is about to take, a change from the routine academia I had set as my goal; it brings back those conversations that pointed me in a different direction.
For it is Denise who suggests that I put my life where my poems are. It is she who travels to my city for a benefit reading a year later, which raises seed money for the arts program for homeless women I’ll join when I leave Stanford.
Denise will lead me to Dorothy the security guard (evicted from her apartment, forced to sleep in her car, then eventually out on the streets), who kept a pair of handcuffs clipped to her belt and painted the fierce self-portrait I have hanging now on my study wall: an “inner warrior” in black and red. Dorothy leads me to Sheila, who heard voices and translated them brilliantly into poems that held us all spellbound when she read them aloud at our weekly workshops; written in a phonetic, ungrammatical code, they defied any typewritten page. Sheila leads me to Joyce, to paintings as full of genius in their way as any van Gogh—canvases filled with strange forests, sleeping goddesses, wide awake third eyes. I see again the bread bags Joyce tucked into the stoma of her colostomy when the benefits ran out, and I see myself linking hands with family and friends around her coffin a few years later, singing “Amazing Grace,” and feeling it—feeling her grace fill up the room.
I commute to Stanford, the Stegner program where I am a fellow. I usually drive down and back twice a week, but tonight I stay overnight with Denise in her tiny apartment on campus. I sleep on the couch but drowse with difficulty. After all, Denise has just read me the riot act about sending poems to magazines too soon, before I know what they’re really about. (I might argue with her now, older more confident in my belief that we rarely ever know what our own poems mean, even to ourselves.) There’s a draft sticking up from the roller of her old black typewriter. It’s 1990 and computers are marching around the continent and the world, but not here. Here the typewriter keys sound more like tap dancers. Denise isn’t ready to send the poem anywhere, though it reads marvelously to me. “No aha! yet,” she says.
I try to remember the look and feel of Denise’s apartment. There’s a dumbcane plant on the windowsill above a radiator, some yellow throw pillows. And the table with the typewriter? Cherrywood, with claw feet. A few books piled in one corner, a telephone. It rings only once that night.
I hope Denise won’t mind that I’m making some of these details up. If she is peering in at me through some chink in the universe (able now to be everywhere at once, free of time and its Newtonian chains), I hope she understands my need to invent, the urgency of even this small claim upon the past.
Did we talk about ahimsa that night? About the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist philosophy of revering all life and refraining from harm to any living thing? I’m going to say yes, because if a life in poetry is anything at all, it is about reverence, about the harms of harm, personal, political, and in nature.
In the end I’m “crystal” (as Jack Nicholson says in A Few Good Men) on two things: Denise scared me. She made me realize I needed to do more to earn my own words—that I had veered toward security in some ways, rather than risk. She scared me because, there I was with my revered poet—wrapped in a borrowed blanket full of her atoms and oils—
camped out with the famous author of books I’d read by lamplight when the idea of writing my own poetry had seemed very far away and quite beyond me.
I gave her a thank-you gift that night—a ceramic creamer in the shape of a little dog with a curly tail. I remember how cream spilled through his doggy smile into our cups. I bought two that day in March at Cost Plus, one for Denise, one for myself. Hers has gone the way of all things, no doubt, but its twin is wearing an eager open-mouthed smile on my kitchen counter. It wears the memory of her touch-marks too, from that shared night when I set them out together on her table and we laughed.