Rachel Wetzsteon, Teacher and Friend

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Rachel Wetzsteon, Teacher and Friend


       “A toast to depths and surfaces and the lovely rare person who observes and stirs and disturbs them!”
                                      —Rachel Wetzsteon, from “Notes Toward a Theory of the Self”


It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. In the fall of 1997, I walked, full of trepidation and hope, through the doors of the 92nd Street Y into one of the upstairs classrooms, with its small chairs, toys in primary colors, air redolent with the smell of tempera drying on newsprint, for my first workshop (of what would turn out to be many) at the Unterberg Poetry Center. In a life-altering moment for me, Rachel Wetzsteon appeared. Although it is tempting now, in the wake of her death, to romanticize or mythologize the moment and claim that if not for Rachel, I would never have become a poet, she would not have liked to hear me say that. She would insist that the passion for writing poems was always there and would have somehow found its expression. I can, however, claim with complete certainty that without Rachel Wetzsteon as my teacher, mentor and guide, my path into the world of contemporary poetry writing would never have been the same. Rachel showed me, just as she had written of her beloved Auden, “not a room, but a way to light it,/not a goal, but a way of arriving.” 
     As a poetry teacher, Rachel was generous and perceptive, extraordinarily knowledgeable and well-read, imbued with a palpable love of the genre that was infectious and inspiring. It would have been easy, had she been so inclined, for her students to be intimidated by the range and force of her intellect and her formidable credentials. But Rachel’s classroom was never a place for acolytes or affectations—there was, in fact, a sweet humility about her teaching—it was all about poems and their making.  Every week she provided interesting readings, challenging assignments and useful comments to student work. She returned our poems covered with question marks, double check marks and memorably trenchant notes in tiny, meticulous handwriting.  One such note to me stated, speaking of Auden, as she often did, was, “better to be Audenesque-ly poignant, than poignantly Audenesque.” I still remind myself of that useful advice.
     Although she never ceased being a teacher and mentor to me, over time Rachel became a friend and colleague as well. We shared many experiences:  operas, movies, plays, poetry-readings, dinners, book parties and occasionally antic car rides to the West Chester poetry conference. She came to my daughter Lucy’s bat mitzvah and was a guest of my family in upstate New York and Cape Cod.  She never arrived empty-handed: always with books and poems and delightfully idiosyncratic house gifts, often with an animal theme, like the speckled green fish-shaped dish which pleased her because, as she told me, it was not only useful, but it rhymed.
     Of the adventures and experiences I shared with Rachel, the encounters I remember most affectionately were our “poetry dates” at the Starbuck’s on Broadway and 102nd Street where we met for coffee and conversation that generally centered on Rachel’s twin loves: poetry and New York City, two strands which seemed so finely woven together as to be inseparable from her very being.  This was not only manifest in her poems (“to know my city/like a bold lover, to trace/its ravishing curves…”) but in her whole persona. When she visited us in Cape Cod, I was not remotely surprised to see her step off the bus in her “urban black” jeans; nor was it entirely unexpected when she wrote her bread and butter note in cinquains, a form I was working in at the time.
     It is to celebrate this asphalt-and-poetry aspect of my friendship with Rachel that I include my favorite of her many New York City poems: “Manhattan Triptych” from Sakura Park.   Much can be said about this wonderful poem, but to me it perfectly captures the combination of authority and vulnerability so characteristic of Rachel, the poet and the person, who seemed always both part of, and apart from, the urban landscape she traces.

      Manhattan Triptych

                      i. Café Pertutti

      Being here now be damned,
      there is a motion in the passersby
      that troubles comfort and brings on longing.
      Midsummer evening, women drifting by

      in peacock colors; what fitter thought
      than Watching them pass, I am happy?
      But summer is framed by ardent spring and dense autumn.
      Where are they going in their emerald scarves?

                      ii. Skater’s Waltz

      This was the challenge:  not to succumb,
      that late grey afternoon in Port Authority,
      to easy fury at the piped-in music—
      such carefree, glittering sound must surround

      much happier commutes than mine—
      but to let the lushness pierce the grayness,
      discover myself gliding in
      an indoor rink with all the other skaters.

                      iii. Grove Street

      Out on a limb, I liked the breezes
      but feared the storms.  Succeeding days
      saw me stubbornly moving through crowds
      with wide grin or vacant gaze—two sides

      of the same page, for either way I was martini-dry,
      incapable of bruising, noticing flecks on necks
      rather than eyes, their daggers and their vistas.
      And then a tree wept! The petals at my feet . . .

In fine weather Rachel and I loved to take our poetry dates outdoors to any one of the parks that bejewel our Upper West Side neighborhood, and there she will ever remain in my heart and mind—cherished friend and beloved teacher—sitting in a sliver of green, petals at her feet, on a park bench where, as she wrote in “Home and Away,” it is always summer . . .


Lorna Knowles Blake
April 16, 2010