By Adrienne Pine
Alison revealed her past to me one April morning in 2015, as we ate a late breakfast in the elegant Georgian Room of the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. I had accompanied my husband to Seattle, where he was to receive an award at a professional convention. Except for the awards ceremony, my days were free. Alison had come to meet me in Seattle from her home in a small town in the middle of the state of Washington where she had established a psychotherapy practice. I was touched that she had planned a stopover on the way to see her mother in Portland, Oregon, to coincide with my visit.
For the previous five years, Alison and I had participated in an online group of women poets. Once a month, we shared poems and offered comments and suggestions about each other’s work. We were all older women, we had been writing poetry for years, and we had no axes to grind. There was little back-and-forth, and we were free to ignore each other’s comments. Privy to each other’s themes, language, and concerns, we connected entirely through the written word. Until this breakfast with Alison, I had never seen any of the other poets or spoken with them.
Alison instructed me to meet her on a street corner between our hotels. We identified each other right away. She was small and slender, with wavy dark blond hair cut across her forehead in a bang and curling softly below her ears. Through the translucent skin on her face and hands, I glimpsed the blue traceries of veins. She looked somewhat frail and was dressed warmly against the April chill.
We shared memories of our days at Columbia’s School of the Arts. The year after I graduated, she arrived, so we had not overlapped. In the late seventies and early eighties, the faculty was nearly exclusively male, and we recalled the sexist atmosphere. I remembered only two classes taught by women, both fiction-writing workshops. Poetry was strictly in the domain of men, and some of the teachers preyed on female students. Indeed, I witnessed such behavior in a future Nobel Prize winner. I complained to the department about an unpleasant encounter I had with another poetry workshop instructor. It took guts for me, because the office administrator who received the complaint was the instructor’s wife. She didn’t seem too surprised. Not long after that, she left her husband for the director of the department, another poet.
That was the way things were in those days. At its worst, the culture was predatory, abusive, and soul-destroying. In between was a whole gamut of behaviors.
Alison and I went on to talk about how our lives had evolved. She opted for adventure and freedom, and I chose stability and security. My husband and I got married the year I graduated from Columbia. We still live in the same neighborhood, where we raised a daughter. While I am happy with my quiet domesticity, I found myself drawn by the romance of Alison’s life.
During her years in New York, she lived with her boyfriend, a corporate lawyer, in a high-rise apartment on the Upper East Side. Although he supported her, she paid in other ways. She was his arm candy, obliged to attend functions in which she had no interest. She came to feel she was living in a cage, and she resented his social expectations of her. One day she woke up, and she knew that she didn’t want to live like that anymore, and her boyfriend wasn’t right for her. In a matter of weeks, she departed for the West Coast, where she had grown up, and where she had always intended to return.
After Alison left New York, she found a ramshackle home in an artists’ community in Seattle. While living there, she got involved with another writer. Together they shipped out on a fishing boat up to Alaska. Back then you could get seasonal work on the boats, she said, and a lot of artists did it. It was a way to see some of the most spectacular scenery you could imagine and get paid for it. However, the relationship with her boyfriend soon frayed. Their writing territories infringed on each other. Suspicion and competition divided them.
On the boat, Alison met another man, a visual artist. He was strikingly handsome, and they fell in love. She left the writer for the painter. Their turbulent romance lasted over a decade.
Eventually Alison married a photographer, became a psychotherapist, and established a clinical practice in Washington State. She settled there because her husband was drawn to the beauty of the valley. Eventually he succumbed to a chronic, fatal disease, leaving her a widow.
Alison’s poetry was unique, elliptical yet piercing, philosophical and sensual, abstract yet concrete. It jumped from subject to subject, showing the workings of an agile mind in pursuit of its inner logic. Her poetry did not apologize for its difficulty, and it was difficult, not a poetry most people had patience for. I admired Alison for that, even as I responded to the challenge of reading and commenting on her poetry.
Imagine an insular artistic community in a town surrounded by the Cascade Mountains where, night after summer night, people gather in a pub as high as a barn overlooking a river. This was the town where Alison had lived for twenty years with her photographer husband, stricken with Huntington’s disease: “that wolf,” as Alison wrote in a poem, “that tore into his brain and body,/then stalked us here from Alaska/south through Canada,/settling on the mountain crests above our hidden valley.”
When our group started exchanging poems in 2010, Alison’s husband had been dead for two years. She was writing a long poem about a photographer and his wife and the progressive ravages of his inherited disease, how it claimed him molecule by molecule and took away all that she recognized as his. The photographer responded to his wife’s care and devotion by initiating an affair with her friend, which he pursued even when confined to a wheelchair. Was the betrayal an attempt to escape the disease? To escape his wife? Was it the disease that was responsible for wreaking havoc with his emotions, encouraging behavior that would not have occurred had he been healthy? Or did the disease unmask his essential self, and that self was not faithful?
From these materials, Alison was weaving a complex narrative of retribution without justice, where humiliation, anger, and shame took their places beside love, awe, and desire. Just as Shakespeare larded his tragic dramas with buffoonery and subplots, so, too, did Alison. Her pitiless descriptions of the husband’s growing physical incapacity and the wife’s sense of a crime having been committed were echoed in the descriptions of the wife’s work as a forensic psychologist helping a police detective interpret photographs of crime scenes. By turns, the poem was lyric, dramatic, epic. Time was telescoped. While the poem’s flow sometimes made it hard to follow, I trusted the wife’s voice as narrator—rueful, caustic, imaginative, angry and yet resigned. The poem meandered like a stream, following the byways, not the highways. A philosophy professor whose aesthetics of photography becomes an organizing principle appears in the poem. I had looked him up on Google to learn more about his aesthetics theory but found nothing.
“Next time, I’ll alert you when I am inventing characters such as Dr. Winston Lazarus, Philosopher of Aesthetics(!)” Alison wrote me. “For now, I’m uncertain how I will proceed with him in this poem, so he’s on vacation in the south of France.”
Our group’s focus on craft was why we were valuable to each other. The fact that we knew so little about each other’s lives made us more objective critics of each other’s work. Because of the many framing devices of Alison’s poem and her distanced tone, I hadn’t considered that she was writing her own story. Although had I considered it, it would have been obvious.
Alison’s poetic gift distinguished her story of a philandering husband. The litany of his mental and physical decline and the wife’s despair were wrenching. Why would anyone want to commit adultery with a man who was so deteriorated? Why did the husband’s lover think it worth betraying the wife, who was her friend? Alison’s poem suggested that it was because he offered her the possibility of transformation:
Her face glowed with the rose of the freshly
explored. Its soft blur dazed me.
Soon enough, framed, it gazed again
in the gallery, engaging everyone
circling again then again.
Beneath the wife’s apprehension of this change in her friend, her realization of the depth of the betrayal, was a deep well of anger.
Now there was another man in Alison’s life. He was also an artist, and she confided that he was eighteen years younger than she. I was curious to learn more, but she wasn’t forthcoming, and I didn’t press her. From the oblique way she referred to the state of her health, I understood that she was a person who lived with illness, not only her late husband’s, but her own.
Nevertheless, I felt buoyed up by my meeting with Alison. I don’t have many friends who are writers. As we parted, we pledged to continue to exchange poetry through our group. When I returned to New York, I sent Alison a gift, a blue bowl from a pottery studio in Maine, which she celebrated in a poem.
Six months after our meeting in Seattle, Alison divulged that she and her brother had had their DNA tested and discovered they had different fathers. Their mother confessed that they were early donor offspring, as their “Dad” (Alison added the quotation marks in her email to me) was unable to father children. Through the online DNA service, Alison discovered a first cousin on her birth father’s side. “Probably I’m the biological daughter of one of four brothers, all doctors, who formed a practice together,” Alison wrote me. “Their kids haven’t been comfortable about going any further with me. I accept that. I just feel all round disoriented.”
It was a shattering discovery. Alison had thought she knew who she was and where her people came from. Now she was grappling with questions of identity and a whole new origin story. “It wasn’t always easy for me growing up, as my parents favored male over female,” wrote Alison. “I definitely assumed I was my Dad’s daughter, but often felt confused by the intrinsic differences in our natures. My brother, who does look like me, also felt differences of character with Dad.”
Alison thought of herself as the “difficult black sheep” of the family. Although she and her brother got along reasonably well, they were very different. Her brother was a financially successful inventor fond of hunting and fishing. Now, with the DNA analysis, she had an explanation for the alienation she had always experienced.
“I was proud of my father’s family, pioneers who had crossed the continent in covered wagons, settling in southern Oregon. Now I’ve learned I’m descended from a group of families who settled in Rhode Island and never ventured west of the Mississippi. I was conceived in Cleveland, where my parents lived for several years before returning to Oregon. I never paid attention to genealogy, but 23andme opens a treasure chest or Pandora’s box, depending on how you see it.”
I imagined how upsetting it must be to discover you are not who you think you are. I wondered if Alison regretted her genetic testing. I once had thought of getting a genetic test myself and had gone so far as to fill out the form on the 23andme website, but the fine print agreement gave me pause. I wasn’t prepared to sign away the rights to my DNA to a corporation, and so I never ordered the kit.
I didn’t need the results of a DNA test to feel alienated from my parents and siblings. It had always been thus. While I look too much like my father to question my paternity, I didn’t welcome any unexpected surprises. Alison’s experience justified me in my resolve not to order a DNA test.
A year after our meeting, Alison stopped submitting poems to the group or commenting on others’ work. Eventually she sent an email explaining that she had been preoccupied with major life changes, having given up her practice in Washington and moved to Portland where she could be near her ailing mother. She sold her house and bought an apartment in a retirement community where her mother was in the assisted-care wing of the facility. She had also had to accredit herself professionally for Oregon’s exams so she could open a new psychotherapy practice.
“So far, the coastal climate is an improvement health-wise from the mountains—though I miss of course the blessings I had there. My greatest aim is to continue my poetry life,” wrote Alison. “The fact that you understand what that commitment might require, and where in the heart it is coming from, means so much to me.”
Sensing her retreat, I worried about her. I inquired and heard nothing at first. A year later, she wrote me back, describing a struggle with depression following her mother’s death. “My mother’s last words to me were that she hated me and always had since I was a baby. Although I am a therapist and know many methods to work through depression, I found with my mother’s death, I was sliding more and more that way.”
Alison also described a precipitous decline in her physical health and a bewildering list of diagnoses, including kidney disease, myalgia, diabetes, hearing loss, heart attack, cardiovascular disease, anemia, and fibrosis. She had finally discovered that her illnesses were side effects of the antidepressants that she had relied on for years, ever since her husband had gotten sick. It was another great shock to realize that the medication she had been prescribed to make her better had in fact made her so much worse. She was experiencing withdrawal simultaneously with grief and loss.
“These experiences leveled my old life. I’m now figuring out a new one. Since my blood pressure wouldn’t go down, friends suggested I get a kitten. To the doctors’ amazement, having Denise (for Denise Levertov) has improved my blood pressure. One of the most awful parts of this syndrome is that it acts in the brain like a hot poker in the rage area. Though I’ve had a meditation practice for decades, the rage made it impossible for me to sit. I worried about getting too angry at the bullies in my clients’ lives or being too direct if my clients were undermining others, so for the moment my practice is on hold.”
Gradually, Alison has begun to notice improvements. More recently, she wrote, “Slowly my brain seems to be cooling and I can laugh more, write some, read. However, the poetry I am writing focuses on sociopathy and is unreadable. I’m hoping to write poetry that is readable and that finds a way to stretch the thin membrane of logic. This week I was able to acknowledge a gentle memory of my mother.”
Her handwritten card included a photograph of her kitty Denise looking out the window, her tail raised expectantly.
In her long, meandering poem, Alison wrote:
A question eats out a space
which is what my mind loves these days:
emptiness and space.
Certain things can mean too much.
Remember our vanishing
into the auto brilliance
of shared glare
for the remaining afternoon
we lay on our backs
at the rest-point of the nadir,
closed our eyes, and drifted.
I picture Alison with her cat, waiting for illumination, believing she will receive it.
Copyright 2020 Pine