As the fresh young program coordinator at the Poetry Project in the late 90s, I often felt nervous walking into the Parish Hall before readings. I didn’t really know who was who, or what was what, and it was hard sometimes to parse mental illness from loneliness from alcoholism from sexism from snobbiness from someone who was a wonderful poet with a long history with the Project. But with Lewis, it wasn’t like that. Instead, as I walked through the door, there would be Lewis just to the side (he often stood to the right of the Parish Hall door, leaning against the wall), friendly and with his habitual amused sideways smile. He didn’t seem to assess the crowd for who the most important person to talk to at the moment was (which was definitely not me); he didn’t ask me for a reading or a glass of wine or free admission or a primetime spot at the New Year’s Day Marathon. Instead, he’d ask me how I was and mean it.
Since he passed, I’ve been reading Piece of Cake, Lewis’ collaborative project with Bernadette, written on alternate days during their time living together in Lenox, Mass., August 1976 with their daughter, Marie. It’s a beautiful book. Everyone should read it. Everyone should read it during this virus time because it cuts through the wisps of fantasy about poets partying and socializing nonstop during the ’70s to the true solitude of writers. Here’s a passage that Lewis wrote in response to his parents’ question, “What did you do at night?”
We read endless books. No one visited, not even Clark and Susan. We read all of Simenon, even his autobiography, Pedigree, which we found in the Lenox Library. We didn’t have a phone. We kept journals, wrote a few poems, talked a lot, read the newspapers (The New York Times and The Berkshire Eagle), drank beer, drove to Worthington for the mail at the small post office near the Worthington general store, picked berries, baked pies, lived frugally, and counted our blessings.
I talked about this passage with Brenda Coultas, who pointed out how revolutionary this vision actually was—a life of reading, writing, talking, being together without jobs, productivity, demands. A life unshaped by externalities. Hard to imagine except maybe now a little bit.
Here’s another part I just about gasped while reading:
I think of Venice and how much fun we’ll have traveling the world after Marie grows up. After Marie, who looks most like you, and all our other children, grow up. I think of Valery Larbaud’s poem about railroad stations. I think of my great grand-father, Louis Freedson, about John Ashbery’s poem “Lithuanian Dance Band,” of Dominic Sotelo, a student in my workshop at the Poetry Project, who died of “heart failure” in his small apartment on the Lower East Side, and whatever became of his notebooks and poems with their Greek references no one in the workshop could understand.
I watch the cars return from Tanglewood through the living room windows, strip the tinfoil from the last chocolate kiss, and wonder if Marie will ever read this book.
I gasped because that passage is so wistful, so longing (and adult Marie helped this book to publication), so aware of time and poets being lost in it, the Poetry Project burning like fragile coal in fragile snow (to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg), that at the Poetry Project, someone like Lewis would remember and care and note the student and his Greek references. And I hear Whitman’s dust too—the poet will be there in all their energies.