~This essay was previously published in Hanging Loose (2007).
“Life and memory of it so compressed they’ve turned into each other.
Which is which?”—Elizabeth Bishop
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”—Cesare Pavese
I came to MIT in 1966, on a scholarship, from a Buffalo, New York, working class family, a family where books were suspect and my decision to go to MIT instead of a local college surprising. I was majoring in physics when, during my senior year, I took a poetry writing class with Denise Levertov. In Denise, and her husband, Mitch Goodman, I found the intellectual family, and the wider world, that I had been searching for. Over the years, I continued to live and work in the Boston area, mostly in Somerville and Cambridge. My relationship with Denise continued as she became my confidante, my poetry mentor, my guide to a life of the mind broader than just physics and mathematics. I was soon admitted into her large but intimate circle of friends, social activists, and writers. This included becoming an invited guest at her country house in western Maine. At some time in the early 60s, Denise and Mitch had bought a farmhouse in the township of Temple—literally where the highway ends. It served them for years as an escape from the summer heat of their Greenwich Village apartment. After they moved to Boston, as it was closer to the farmhouse, they took off to Temple more frequently and in all seasons, as indicated in the following sketches from memory. As you read them, imagine the effect on a young mind of this couple, poet and novelist, well-read intellectuals, and political activists.
I remember flying with Denise in a small prop plane from Boston to Farmington. The twin engines thrummed as we skimmed the green treetops of Maine’s endless woods. It was my first visit, August. Mitch was there to greet and drive us in his Volvo to their Temple farmhouse.
There was always at least one other Volvo parked on the front lawn. Over the years, with each visit, I would find the collection had grown. Mitch bought them for spare parts to keep one aging Volvo running. His answer to inquiries was always “You can imagine how common a Volvo dealer is in rural Maine.”
The kitchen window looked out on a lone apple tree beside a fieldstone fence a short distance behind the house; beyond the fence was a broad, grassy field. It sloped up from the farmhouse to a tree-lined ridge; to the right of the house the field descended sharply in the direction of Temple Stream. A granite slab served as the front-door step. Denise and I sat there one morning as she read me the poem she’d just written: “night lies down/in the field. . . .”