Rachel Wetzsteon

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Rachel Wetzsteon


She had a tremendous laugh—utterly unaffected and clear. We know how brilliant she was, but sometimes brilliance comes disguised by disingenuousness, and I never felt that with Rachel. She could be quiet, of course, never displaying that need to dominate a luncheon conversation like more aggressive personalities. But she was a presence—tall, a bit gawky, seemingly amused by the interplay of egos in the poetry world.
     Now I have learned how much anguish she lived with, and in hindsight I can’t help feeling I should have guessed it from her poems, which so often find her returning alone to her apartment or bearing up under romantic stress and isolation. Here is the conclusion of her “Short Ode to Morningside Heights”:

      Ranters, racers, help me remember
      that the moon-faced fountain’s the work of many hands,
      that people linger at Toast long after we’ve left.
      And as two parks frame the neighborhood—
      green framing gray and space calming clamor—
      be for me, well-worn streets, a context
      I can’t help carrying home, a night fugue
      streaming over my one-note how, when, why.
      Be the rain for my barren indoor cry.

I don’t believe that “barren indoor cry” begins to describe her life or her poems. Like so many others who knew her but not well, I simply wish I had paid more attention. It’s not that I think any of us could have saved her. Rather, I feel I did not give myself enough opportunity to know her, to learn from her and to enjoy her quiet wit.
     Her brief essay, “Philip Larkin and Happiness,” recently published in Contemporary Poetry Review, wisely saw beyond the usual characterization of Larkin as a jaundiced misanthrope. It now seems particularly sad that Rachel could focus so thoughtfully on the subject of happiness when that condition might have seemed unattainable to her. Re-reading her poems, I find intelligence that must have out-classed the men in her life. Here she is in “Love and Work”:

      There is an inner motor known as lust
      that makes a man of learning walk a mile
      to gratify his raging senses, while
      the woman he can talk to gathers dust.

      A chilling vision of the years ahead
      invades my thoughts, and widens like a stain:
      a barren dance card and a teeming brain,
      a crowded bookcase and an empty bed. . .

      What if I compromised? I’d stay up late
      to hone my elocutionary skills,
      and at the crack of dawn I’d swallow pills
      to calm my temper and control my weight,
      but I just can’t. . . .

The word “barren” is again used in that isolated state.
     Still, all suicides move into a privacy that survivors cannot really fathom, and we shall be guessing at and wondering about and regretting Rachel’s death whenever we think of her or read her poems.
     I shall think of a gentle woman at a New York dinner following a panel on Auden’s poetry—we had both done scholarship on Auden, and Rachel had published hers, and I certainly wish we had taken up that subject of conversation more often. And I shall remember one small gesture of generosity. Sometimes, in the adrenalin rush after a poetry reading, I have been known to bum cigarettes from my friends. One night at the West Chester Poetry Conference I found myself crossing a parking lot in that mild euphoria poetry engenders, and seeing Rachel stop to light up, I asked her if I could bum one. She knew exactly what I was feeling. She knew, in fact, that one would not suffice. Without missing a beat, she shook two delicious coffin nails from her pack.
     “Help yourself,” she said.