It’s a contemporary story, it’s an ancient story — the death of a poet. One moment “everything clicks”1 and then one night “nothing clicks.” The lighthouse has lost its keeper.
Poet: lonely mythic death in Mystic. The story of Wendy Battin’s death does not disappoint.
Contemporary: I learned Wendy had died from Facebook, a notification, a status update. The thread told me almost nothing — a “lingering illness that she was adamant about not making public.” Most of her friends knew her virtually. I hadn’t seen her for years, a chance meeting at a conference. We had followed each other, commenting often but concisely as was our want. She posted about being a yoga instructor and then losing her position interspersed with poetry — her lines solid chants running down the page in nuggets of sound I’d be able to identify anywhere. Poetry, a tape, continuous the way blood circulates through the body.
And then she became infrequent.
On December 5th she posted her last photo: “Incredibly beautiful natural pool in Thassos, Giola Lagoon, Greece,” a place where she had counted herself happy. Myth was always her thing.
A few days before on December 2nd, she wrote: “I hear a mouse.”
She died on December 21st. Alone. I know no details. We often say a death was sudden but it rarely is. I suspect Wendy’s death was not sudden, that she knew she would not see the trees turn green again.
She left her cat Fu behind. So not entirely unattended. Today someone posted a photo of Fu along with a plea that the cat be adopted from Animal Services. Fu looked just like the cat Wendy had over thirty years ago when she lived in the apartment below me in the old converted yacht house above the Burke Gilman Trail in the University District. I no longer remember how we came to have brother and sister kittens, big fluffy tigers that looked remarkably like Fu. Mine was Arturo and she had the much fluffier sister whose name I can’t remember. Oh how I wish I could remember her name. Somehow the name seems important now, a piece of the puzzle of our past gone missing.
Even then when we were in our twenties, it would not have surprised me to learn of her death. You see she smoked four packs of cigarettes and cared nothing about her health or longevity. But it was more than her smoking habit that made me think death would not be a strange bedfellow. Neither one of us could imagine a long life ahead of us. But I wasn’t so aggressively trying to sabotage my health. Still young, she already seemed faded, in her last colors,2 though they were not her last colors. Hers was a long fading. When I’d enter her studio apartment, I could barely make out her outline sitting crossed-legged on her mattress, her cat on her lap, the sun pouring in and mixing with the thick smoke. She presided in a halo of distinction.
She reminded me of Gloria Graham, an actress known for her film noir projects and tarnished beauty — everything came out of her mouth side-ways, at a slant.
We were both enrolled in our first poetry workshop led by David Wagoner in the graduate program at the University of Washington. She came to the University of Washington because Bill Matthews, who she knew from her Cornell days, was the Director of the program. Wendy was not a beginner in anything but certainly not a beginner in writing. She was a fully formed, poised poet, secure in her avocation, and she brought poems to the workshop that had already been perfected. Even the poems that she called drafts were untouchable — to suggest some alteration was unthinkable.
Since my last name ended in A, my poem was first up, and since Wendy’s last named ended in B, she was second, and the two poems took their positions on opposite ends of the workshop spectrum, mine representing an unpromising mess and hers representing poetic realization of the highest order. David Wagoner plunged in on my “Afternoon Swim in The Sea,” with what struck me as cruel zeal — he really warmed to his task of dismantling every part of my draft, starting with the dreadful title. He read some lines with exaggerated disdain dramatizing just how off the words and sounds were, how the poem made no sense. The other students, emboldened by his heartlessness, joined in. At some point in the thirty-minute session, I stopped writing notes. I knew the poem was a goner, that it could not be saved. I felt like I was a goner too, that I couldn’t be saved either. The only encouraging crumb that was tossed my way was a line that was deemed good, one line in a poem of thirty lines, and the question was rhetorically posed: “If I could write that line, why couldn’t I write more lines like that one?”
I went home and called my best friend and told her I was quitting the program, which of course I didn’t. I told her about the poem that followed mine, also a “beach poem,” Wendy’s “Cape Cod,” a poem that made it into her first book, In The Solar Wind.
On the dunes, on Truro’s backside, the clouds
open and close like gauze curtains (the yellowed
drapes that follow a woman from room to room
and keep her last colors from fading) lighting
and shading improbable contours.
Ah, I thought, so that’s poetry. There it is, the real thing. Not just one good line but line upon line flowing seamlessly.
Wendy sat across the oblong table from me, at the end, and while she held the poem before her she didn’t so much read it as recite it. She knew it by heart. She knew all her poems by heart. Her readings were incantations. And she read slowly (I raced through my poem), measuring out breaths and beats and catching us in the inevitability of the line.
No one at the table had a thing to say. We were caught in the spell of the poem. Later we offered our praise, heartfelt but tinged, naturally enough, with our insecurity.
I don’t remember if Wagoner was taken aback by her artistry and confidence or whether he had read her work beforehand and was prepared for what he found. I do remember that in contrast to his treatment of me he had nothing but praise and admiration for Wendy’s poem and we moved on quickly. Wendy must have been aware of the painfulness of contrasting our two poems, pain for me that is. I was a true novice, unschooled in workshops, naïve to think I was supposed to bring a rough draft to the first workshop. Of course, I didn’t know my poem was so bad. If I had, I wouldn’t have brought it. I didn’t realize that many of the participants would bring poems that had been worked over many times before the workshop, one might say they were done. I couldn’t understand the point of that, and I still don’t. All Wendy received was our congratulations and adoration — maybe that’s what she needed. She was so much farther along in her development than the rest of us. Enrollment in the program bought her time to write.
You might think I’d stay away from Wendy or not like her since she was so much better than I was. But it turns out I accepted that I had much to learn and I could learn from Wendy. She was a deliberate writer, every word and beat seemed decreed, nothing accidental or slap-dash. I read her poems as if they welled up from her dreams, dictated by gods. She never was unsure about the rightness of what she was doing, never said things like I don’t know about this one, or maybe I shouldn’t share this or I could really use help on this. Never did such words escape her lips. I heard most of the poems from In The Solar Wind either in workshop or in her apartment or at readings and the final versions were close to the original versions — that’s how the poems came to Wendy, fully formed. She made it seem that she slept in a world of language and that when she woke up from her sleep, she brought a poem with her.
I don’t remember Wendy ever making me feel inferior. From the start she made me feel I was her equal, perhaps not in achievement but in potential. She didn’t join in the slaughter at the table of our first workshop, she hung back. It was clear I was inexperienced, that I had been writing my head off in the dark so to speak and that there were leaps for me to make. That I could learn wasn’t a question for her. It was for me — there seemed so much improvement to be made, so much territory to cover. Wendy reminded me of a student I became close to my senior year in high school, Beth Webster, another remarkably poised girl for her age, gifted, confident, bold, set apart from the other girls at Moravian Seminary for Girls. She knew more than anyone else and that knowledge made her Cassandra-like just like Wendy. She had an advanced bull-shit detector, didn’t suffer fools, out-classed all the rest of us, and yet was entirely generous towards me just as Wendy was. In both cases I accepted their mentorship. I accepted my position because it was my true position — I knew who I was and it allowed me to be open to what they could teach me.
I learned more from Wendy than any of the teachers in the program, which is not to say I didn’t learn anything from the workshops I took. I’ve been telling my own students that they will learn as much if not more from some of their fellow classmates than they will from their “teachers.” I never feel they quite get it.3 I didn’t so much learn craft or technique, though I absorbed plenty of that too. Wendy had a voice but it was not loud. Wendy had a stance but she did not stand up straight. I don’t think her greatness came through mechanical proficiency. Her voice and stance was wedded to her words, wedded to the belief in what she had to say and how she had given birth to that form. She believed in the words themselves, gave herself over to them — that they were not inadequate, they were sufficient. In “The Apple is a Rose: October Fair,” she wrote:
Apples litter the ground.
The world accumulates.
So it was with words.
While I was sleeping, a poet died. The seasons have unwound