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1921-2004

Mona Van Duyn

By William H. Gass

Consider the spoon’s candid simplicity, or a maid with her bundles waiting for a bus, or a clutch of old souls squatting in the bodies they have plopped into wheelchairs for coursing the corridors. Mona did. She had sat on every step of the stairs. She had slept in every room of the house. What did she call herself: “The sweating Proust of the pantry shelves?” Her poems set breakfast tables. There’d be a boiled egg, a bloom, crumbs on the buttery blade of the knife. And sometimes her diction would sidle into an “old farm folks-at-home” artlessness that was as planned as a cathedral. But on apple pie she cast a cold eye. She didn’t much like scenic overlooks because what one overlooked were the details. In a bit of touristy exultation, which road signs encouraged (two states, look at that, four mountains, see there? Or the rivery string along the floor of the forest, catch a glimpse?), and through the thrill of the panorama—such views of the midget alps it provided—you were carried away from the real drama of things: from a stone as cracked as an egg, from a horn honk heard up hill, from the purse that was bleeding its cheap dye onto the palms of your hand, from the modest furniture of daily life where our emotions, our histories, our routines are lodged and where the rich material of poetry is to be found.

When she sold her first poem for 70 bucks, Mona bought a Danish modern chair where she could sit to pencil her poems, or, later, hear, in countless periodicals of poor circulation, voices pleading for an undeserved prize, because she was often on a jury, often a judge. Her chair faced east, and to her side her husband of a lifetime had his, similarly oriented—one he might have made, for Jarvis Thurston is handy with his hands. But Jarvis was more than a husband or a professor or an editor, his presence brought balance to Mona’s world, and there were no lines of hers he would not hear, and feel himself the full effect.

Picnic tables, public toilets—yes, rest stops on the road—she put in poems, along with swans named Leda who were about as mythological as marmalade; mostly they were there to reach the love that was her subject: a common, ordinary, everyday feeling, salted with sourness sometimes, that made unremarkable lives remarkable beyond reason or any rhyme that could reach them. Love was a predicament, a necessity, a livelihood, a chore, an assignment, an unmerited blessing. She did mother love too. Sometimes she made it as cruel as a caress that’s been erased by a coarse word, or by a look no longer hiding in its face like a wrinkle. Father love got equal time, marooned in the body that was supposed to express it, immersed in its miseries, moving from belch to bowel, its span of attention built over a gulley of guilt; mother, father, looking at old photos of themselves as though they were strangers they wouldn’t ask to stay to dinner.

From the ruins of her childhood in Iowa, Mona made poems that spoke so directly to their problems readers only realized later the punch that had taken their breath. In a spoken down home tone sometimes, though there were occasionally words we didn’t know or daren’t say—a tone that was nevertheless blunt as a ball bat—she’d say things a simple spoon might say, knowing its feel in the hand, knowing the rap it regularly made on the table by the tea cup, calling its glint for assistance, knowing what sort of medicinal syrup sat in it before sliding its stickiness down a chin, knowing that love and anger lived in the same house, grew in the same pot in the light of one window, were stirred in the same tea, were measured by the same spoon that Prufrock used to measure out his life and sometimes slide his shoes on.

Mona had won so many prizes after years of indifference that I once asked her to sell me a couple, perhaps the Hart Crane or the Ruth Lily—after all, now they were well used and weren’t in mint condition—because what did a Poet Laureate need with so many? Those prizes had been paid for by years of silence and suffering. Her first book, Valentines to the Wide World (1959), was not published until she was thirty-nine. When To See, To Take came out, Mona was bludgeoned with blue ribbons: the Bollingen, the National Book, and for Near Changes (1990), the Pulitzer. She found the time—took the time—to be a good citizen of our literary commonwealth, not only serving as the nation’s first woman Poet Laureate, but as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as well as on juries of every description.

What she did best was sit still and take up her pencil. If Mona were writing this, she might salt some of its sentences with a bit of dispraise. In her world, there could be a worm in every apple, but there was also an apple that grew around every worm. If Eve had offered Adam that sort of fruit, perhaps his knowledge would not have been half-hearted. I think of Jarvis and Mona in those two east-facing chairs, keeping the work on course, keeping, for the poems, their marital balance.

 

J. D. McClatchy:

William Gass was a colleague of Mona Van Duyn’s for many decades at Washington University in Saint Louis. I want to add a word of my own because she was, as to many of you in this room, a dear friend of mine.

I’ve been teaching writing long enough to know that beginning poets will take the most available cliché and go as far as they can with it, so I’ve long since taken, in my classes, to forbidding them to write about certain subjects. They cannot write about their parents, they cannot write about their sex lives, they cannot write about schizophrenics on the subway, they cannot write about their ideas—above all, their ideas! And invariably, half-way through the term, the smartest student in the class comes up to me and says: “Mr. McClatchy, I can’t understand why you forbid us to write about these things. You say you like Mona Van Duyn and she writes about them.” The answer I give is to remind them of a story about Noel Coward when he wanted to play a joke on a friend of his. The joke involved sending a telegram to this friend, and the point of the joke depended on the telegram being signed “Fiorello LaGuardia.” So he calls Western Union, he dictates the telegram, and he says to the operator, “Sign that ‘Fiorello LaGuardia.'”

There’s a pause, and the operator says, “Are you Fiorello LaGuardia?”

“No.”

“Then you may not sign it ‘Fiorello LaGuardia.'”

“Oh very well then. Sign it ‘Noel Coward.'”

Another pause. The operator says: “Are you Noel Coward?”

“Yes, I’m Noel Coward.”

Another pause.

“Well, if you are Noel Coward, then you may sign it ‘Fiorello LaGuardia.'”

It was only Mona who seemed to be able to get away with so much. She could write about Colorado or constipation or canning peaches or the Cloisters or what she called the “manifold motley of the world,” and give it such a wonderfully fresh perspective and deal with it with such eloquence that she was quite a model.

Read by J. D. McClatchy at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2005.

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