The Kingfisher (Knopf Poetry Series)

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In the Company of Amy Clampitt

Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher. I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use. In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.” But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.” In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures. The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home: . . . one nightfall when the last weak string gave way that had held whatever she was, that mystery, together, the bier that waited—there were no planes coming in, not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard had been so bad, the graveyard drifted so deep, so many severed limbs of trees thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow an opening for the hearse, or shovel the cold white counterpane from that cell in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after. This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.” She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon. As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space. I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.” In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like. It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.” Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
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