Writers on Writing #30: Julie Marie Wade
When I was growing up, we had two kinds of books in our house—those written by dead people, and those written by Danielle Steele. My mother was a former fourth grade teacher turned reading specialist for the Tukwila Public Schools. She seemed to regard these books by dead people as a literacy obstacle course, and once you had mastered it—scaled the fences of the hardest words, army-crawled through the comprehension maze—you could slip into a hot bath and prop a copy of Jewels or Kaleidoscope thereon the porcelain ledge. You could read with ease and pleasure from then on. The real work of language and literature was done.
In middle school, I confessed to my mother that I was a poet—bashfully, the way some children might confess to a petty crime or a substandard report card.
“What do you mean you’re a poet?” she asked, one dark brow raised. “Do you have to write a sonnet for class?”
“No, nothing like that. I just—I think I’m a poet.” Then, more solidly, like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: “I know I am.”
“Well, you’re going to be a doctor,” my mother said. “Poetry is hardly a viable profession.”
But I hadn’t thought of poetry even then as a profession, let alone a viable one. I wasn't talking about the way I would make a living; it was more intuitive than that, almost spiritual. I was talking about a kind of vocation.
When I continued scribbling away in my notebook each night, my mother responded by leaving a copy of Danielle Steele’s The Promise on my pillow. She was fond of refrigerator lists and lunchbox reminders; books were no exception. Write something that can sell a million copies, and we’ll talk, her note said.
I read The Promise with some measure of curiosity. The main character is a woman whose face is ripped off during a tragic car crash, and she has to have a new one installed. Apparently, her old face was quite beautiful, but her new face is even more beautiful, and with it, she begins a new, even more successful life. But the man she once loved finds her again by happenstance and falls in love with her new face, so finally she must tell him the truth—that she is still his old love, simply refurbished.
My mother wanted me to see what made a best-seller. Inadvertently, she sent another message. I would put on the face of a doctor-to-be. We had compromised by this point on psychiatry instead of pediatrics, since I was more interested in grown-up minds than in tiny baby bodies. I would study hard and go to medical school and become a true professional, but secretly, I would tend my poet self.
During senior year, as I dutifully filled out applications for college and wrote personal statements describing my long-term goals in the medical field, I also studied AP American Literature with Amy Kaz. Ms. Kaz was different from my other teachers. For starters, she had a Ms. in front of her name instead of a Sr, which was not so common in Catholic school.She was also young—a new graduate from a Master of Arts program at Emory University, which I only knew was very far away and quite prestigious. Ms. Kaz loved books by dead people, perhaps even more than my mother loved Danielle Steele. In her class, we read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and The Stranger by Albert Camus. These were not bathtub books by any means, but books that made you wish for a garret with a frosted window and white tapers dripping their slow wax. They weren’t books that helped you relax and unwind, but books that required an engagement of all your senses and your muscles, too. I read until I was sore.
One day in class Ms. Kaz sent around copies of a poem. The poet’s name was Denise Levertov. The poem was called “In Mind.”
“Would anyone be willing to read this poem aloud for us?” she asked, and her bright, hazel eyes settled on mine.
This was the first time I had read a poem with my own voice, pronounced poem-words in the presence of others instead of mouthing them silently to myself. Reading a passage of prose felt less ceremonial to me, more of a task than a ritual. In a poem, every word seemed equally warm and weighted, as if every word were a live ember in an old-fashioned, wood-burning stove.
I cleared my throat and began, bashfully at first but growing more solid as I spoke:
“There’s in my mind a woman of innocence, unadorned but…” (Read the entire poem here.)
Ms. Kaz was fond of free association. “What does this poem make you think of?” she asked the class. “What does it make you feel?”
“You can’t have it both ways,” I said, forgetting to raise my hand. It was another version of a two- faces story, but I liked this one better.
“Go on.” She perched on the table at the front of the room, leaned in like we were on the verge of an exciting discovery.
“Well, I mean, you can—you can have these two women inside you, the good boring one and the difficult interesting one, but you can’t be both at once without sacrificing something.”
“What does she mean by moon-ridden?” a girl in the back row asked.
Suddenly, I became authoritative, sure of myself as I hadn't been before. This felt like my territory. “Eccentric. Maybe a little crazy—the way the moon can mean lunacy, especially in women. Maybe she’s talking about the part of herself that’s a poet, the part of herself that wrote this poem.”
“But what does that have to do with kindness?” another girl pressed. “There are plenty of kind artists and cruel housewives.”
Ms. Kaz looked at me again, as if to say Go ahead. You’re doing fine.
“I don’t think she means kind so literally. I think she means it like conventional—doing what you’re supposed to do and not complaining about it versus—I don’t know—taking a path that someone else might not understand. A mother maybe. A mother could be hurt by that.”
I looked down at the page, where Ms. Kaz had printed beside the poet’s name (1923 — ). “When did she die?”
I nodded, feeling my pulse quicken.
“She’s still alive. She actually—if I’m not mistaken—she lives here, in Seattle.”
The following year, home from college for Christmas, I read the headline in TheSeattle Times: “DENISE LEVERTOV, POET AND PROFESSOR, DIES AT 74.”
I scanned the article feverishly: “Ms. Levertov was awarded honorary doctorates by 10 American colleges, including Seattle University in 1995.”
A doctor and a poet, I smiled.
Then: “Mount Rainier had become a talisman in Ms. Levertov’s life and art. She never tired of the mountain, which she would see in ever-changing perspectives during her walks in Seward Park, near the small brick home where she had lived since moving to Seattle in 1989. The mountain is visible, too, from the First Hill neighborhood of Swedish Hospital, where Ms. Levertov died Saturday from complications of lymphoma.”
I ran in Seward Park with the Holy Names cross-country team. I had studied Mount Rainier my whole life like a holy mystery, a snow-capped tarot card. And Swedish Hospital was where I was born.
In my mind, I heard that tidy shift tearing along its seams. It would become the rags the old woman wore with her opals. I could picture her. She looked a little like Denise Levertov, and a little like me.
I was a poet. I was filled with strange songs.
Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press 2010), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, and the forthcoming Postage Due: Poems and Prose Poems (White Pine Press 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series. Most recently, she has won the Thomas J. Hruska Nonfiction Prize from Passages North and the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Wade lives with her partner Angie Griffin and their two cats in the Sunshine State, where she teaches creative writing at Florida International University.