~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. . . .”
Mitch split logs, using axe and wedge, sweating profusely in the afternoon sun. In his pedantic fashion, he explained to me the necessity of putting in a winter supply. Mitch was proud of his stack of cordwood.
Mitch delivered endless monologues concerning the leach field. A new--and expensive—septic system was needed, so for a time the outhouse beside the barn replaced visits to the indoor flush toilet. The stack of cordwood formed a corridor you had to pass through on your way to use the outhouse; and, Mitch told me, it served as a windbreak in winter.
One evening Denise ran out the front door shouting, “Time to pick the corn!” Mitch and I left whatever chore we were doing to follow her down the slope to the corn patch. We shucked ears on the run back up to the house, and then plopped them into the pot of already boiling water. The
freshest corn I’ve ever eaten!
Breakfast taken together, consisting of boiled eggs, toast and coffee, was the summer routine at Temple, then each of us retired to our reading or work: Mitch to his novel in the attic loft, Denise to write poems and answer correspondence at her desk in the bedroom. I used the screened-in porch/sitting room off the kitchen as my “study.”
After lunch Denise would read aloud the draft of the poem she had been working on. Mitch was always quick to comment, whether he thought the poem a success, or not yet finished. Other times she’d share a passage from a letter she had just received from the likes of Bob Creeley, Robert Duncan, Galway Kinnell, Hayden Carruth. …
On a clear day, standing back of the farmhouse at the top of the sloping field, you could see Mt. Blue in the distance, blue-hued, of course.
There were afternoon walks to the top of the field when Denise told me stories about her childhood in Ilford outside London. As she bent to pick wildflowers, she called each by its name: Dutchman's breeches, butter-and-eggs, cowslip, forget-me-not...names she had first learned from her mother.
Hot summer afternoons after a long long walk through the woods, skinny-dipping in Temple Stream!
Other afternoons I accompanied Mitch on his errands in the Volvo: to a local dairy farm to buy milk and eggs; to Temple general store to pick up newspapers; to Farmington to buy stationery. Evenings after dinner there was quiet reading in the living room, always punctuated by Denise
sharing her enthusiasm for a passage by reading it aloud to her audience of two, Mitch and me.
I sat mesmerized one evening as Denise read Turgenev’s “Bezhin Meadow,” from the Hunter’s Sketchbook, in its entirety, a reading that conveyed the passionate belief she held that this sketch was a poem in prose.
Another evening Denise looked up from her copy of the Penguin Book of Latin American Verse to make a pronouncement: she really preferred these plain prose translations of Neruda, on facing pages with the original Spanish, to the “poetic” versions done in English by Robert Bly. Then she ran off to fetch her copy of Bly’s Neruda, where she showed me she had penciled "improvements," which she then demonstrated by reading aloud.
Some time later, back in Cambridge, following the bloody U.S. backed military coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chilé, a memorial reading was held for Allende, and those who died with him defending his democratically elected government; in Kresge Auditorium at MIT. Denise, among many others, was on the program. She read Neruda poems to the overflow audience, with her “improvements” of Bly's translations, which she acknowledged.
Denise led me on mushroom forays in the Temple woods. We found, among others, edible boletes and chanterelles. She showed me how she made spore prints of the gilled mushrooms by placing individual caps on slips of notepaper, leaving them overnight, each covered by a teacup. The next morning, we poured over her well-thumbed copy of Kaufman, Mushrooms of North America, in the Dover Press edition. Denise admitted to my astonishment that she had never used a key but instead had created her own system of indexing and cross-referencing this tome to aid her in identification.
At dinner, Mitch always begged off the proffered mushroom appetizers. He hadn’t forgotten the time Denise’s wrong call of a bolete that turned out to be satanis had made her violently sick. Years later, visiting Mitch in Temple again, I couldn’t persuade him to taste the large parasol mushrooms I’d found growing in his field and had fried up for dinner.
Whenever I had the use of a car and was planning a visit to Temple, Mitch would ask me to bring him supplies. He was very particular: French roasted coffee--whole beans, not ground, decaffeinated by the water method; and five-pound loaves of his favorite Lithuanian rye bread, which I was to pick up at Spelewski’s, a little neighborhood store on Broadway near Kendall Square in Cambridge. The bread was delivered from a bakery in Brockton every Thursday. ‘"Try to get it fresh,” Mitch would instruct me. “Pick me up at least five loaves. I can freeze them.”
Mitch’s novel-in-progress took up the entire attic loft. Each chapter was a neat pile of stacked typescript, with its alternate drafts and notes piled alongside--chapter upon chapter, pile upon pile, spread out on every available surface: tables, chairs, and wooden doors laid across sawhorses.
Denise explained to me sometime later, in the mid-seventies, that Mitch had put aside this never to-be-finished second novel at the time of his trial for counseling draft resisters. (Mitch, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Marcus Raskin and William Ferber, was front page news in 1968, mostly because America's "baby doctor" was risking jail to oppose the war.) Afterward, Mitch was occupied for several years gathering material for his telephone-book-size compendium of the anti-war movement. Now, years later, he was trying to pick up the thread of his novel once again but, Denise said, he was having a hard go of it.
Back in 1970, my friend and fellow poetry student, Richard Edelman, along with his comrades in the Rosa Luxemburg chapter of SDS, had led a takeover of MIT President Howard Johnson’s office. During that occupation, which lasted only a few days, I went inside several times to show support for the group. At one point I found Denise in one corner of the crowded room, holding a copy of Catch 22; she was about to return it to Johnson's bookshelf from where she had “borrowed” it the day before. Many MIT faculty gave verbal support to the occupation, but Denise was the only one to stay through the night with the students as "protection" against police violence in the event of an early morning “bust”.
Heller’s novel, she told me later, had appeared at the same time as The End of It, Mitch’s anti-war novel, and had stolen all the critical attention--unfairly, she had always felt. “I had never read it until last night, out of loyalty to Mitch,” she confessed. Now that she had finally read Catch 22, she admitted that it was “pretty good.”
One summer visit to Temple, Mitch “offered to let” Richard and me read a sample chapter of the novel. We couldn't refuse. I remember that Richard turned to me, his eyes rolling back in his head. Afterward, we huddled in prolonged discussion searching for a way to phrase our lukewarm response to what we had read.
Years later, after they had separated, Mitch revealed, in a letter to me from Temple, that when he lived with Denise he had never allowed himself to write poems—she was the poet--but now, he said, he'd come to realize after the divorce that poetry rather than fiction was his "calling" (Mitch’s word). The letter was followed in the mail by a copy of More Light, his selected poems published by Mark Melnicove’s Dog Ear Press.
On one drive over winding roads to Temple, Mitch behind the wheel of his Volvo, Denise expounded on a favorite theme: the young poet starting out--one she later expanded upon in “The Quality of Genius” and “Growth of a Poet.” She said, then, that she thought Richard and I were lucky to have studied engineering and physics instead of English literature. She went on about the many young poets she knew who had been set back by their formal studies. It took them years, she said, to unlearn habits of mind that got in the way of their writing successful poems.
Ever the autodidact, and proud of it, Denise distrusted formal education, which she felt all too frequently resulted in mis-education (a word she borrowed from Paul Goodman). Being largely self-taught was a bond we shared and often talked about, although our experiences were, at the same time, very different from each other. Until her late teens, she never attended school, but grew up in a household full of books, where everyone read voraciously. "I learned French history," she once told me, "by reading aloud with my mother, all of Dumas and Balzac." In contrast, I was formally schooled, if questionably educated by nuns, but I had grown up in a household virtually without books; and instead of literature I had read, for my pleasure, physics and mathematics.
Denise liked nothing better than to engage in rapid fire conversation with visiting literary scholars, trading insights about her favorite authors--Chekhov, Keats, Rilke, Wordsworth, Shelley, Hopkins.... On these occasions, I felt out of my league. I was humbled before the breadth of their knowledge, English literature in particular, and I felt desperate to “catch up.”
Denise and Mitch both held strong opinions about many things but especially about literature and politics, and they held many of those views in common, but on some topics they diverged dramatically—and neither was shy to express an opinion, begging to differ if you put forth a contrary one. To join conversation with the two of them together was not unlike navigating the straits between Scylla and Charybdis.
Mitch disagreed with Denise’s appraisal of Charles Reznikoff, for one. It was her contention that he never developed as a poet but continued writing more or less the same brief imagistic poems based on observations he made while he walked the streets of Manhattan. Louie Zukofsky, she held, was the more ambitious and hence “greater” poet, and gave as evidence his epic poem A. Mitch countered that Reznikoff was the more profound poet. He said he found Reznikoff’s pithy poems retained their freshness and grew more resonant with each reading. Denise could never appreciate Reznikoff’s uniquely American, multi-book epic poem Testimony.
Once, just as I was expressing my admiration of Virginia Woolf, whose recently published biography by Quentin Bell was open on my lap, Denise, who never held back her opinions, interrupted: “Don’t get me wrong, I love and admire her work,” Denise said. “She is an important and gifted writer. But her vision was limited by her social class.” Denise added: “How she failed to appreciate Joyce, I could never understand.”
Another time, when I was revising poems for publication in my first collection, The Buffalo Sequence, Denise admonished me: It was not worth my while, nor was it productive for me to keep struggling with one particular poem in an effort to get it "right." Sometimes you have to give
it up--"abandon" it was the word she used, quoting Valery. You have to move on and open yourself to new poems.
Still another time, she offered: “Sometimes it’s necessary to give up your favorite line or image in the poem you’re working on for the sake of the whole.” This was after she’d suggested lopping off the last stanza in a draft I had showed her.
Denise always spoke highly of her friend and publisher, James Laughlin. Using him as an example, however, she once warned me against becoming an editor, advice which I clearly did not follow. The occasion was a new volume of Laughlin’s poems, which we were discussing, as he
had just sent her a signed copy of the limited edition. She said that she considered him a talented poet in his own right, and lamented that he didn’t write more poems more often. The plain American diction he enjambed against a strictly counted line was a formal choice that Denise
said she found both idiosyncratic and interesting—interesting because it sometimes produced “unexpected felicities.” Denise thought Laughlin might have developed into an important poet if his own writing hadn’t always taken a back seat to his work in the service of those he published
under his New Directions imprint, herself included.
Denise professed to greatly value the work of magazine and press editors, admitting that she would find it hard to survive as a writer without their efforts, but she nevertheless thought that becoming one was the death knell for a poet. Denise believed in the primacy of the poet’s calling and jealously guarded her time to write. She often said that in order for ‘negative capability’ to do its work, a poet needed to keep herself free of commitments. During the height of her activities opposing the Vietnam War, she was very conflicted on this point and often didn’t take her own advice.
Although she had mixed feelings about Ezra Pound as both poet and person, Denise was fond of quoting his formulations about poetry. “Dicten = Condensare,” was one favorite; and she often made reference to Pound’s “A Few Don’ts.” She viewed artists, poets in general, and herself in particular, as craftsmen, whose business it was to make poems that had a life of their own, and which, like a table or a chair, in paraphrase of EP, had the “requisite number of legs so as not to wobble.”
Denise once sent me a picture postcard of Brunnenburg Castle in the Italian Tyrol, the home of Marie de Rachewiltz, Pound’s daughter and the translator of Denise’s poems into Italian. With ballpoint pen she had circled one window in the picture of the castle and noted: “I’m staying in
this very castle—have marked my window.” There she was surrounded by Gaudier Brzeska’s art and she reported that she had sat in Yeats’ chair (inherited by Pound in Rapallo long before).
Pound's formulation of the chief modes of poetic expression— phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia—was a shorthand Denise borrowed to characterize the work of any poet she was discussing. I have always thought that Zukovsky's version— the "pleasure poetry affords as sight,
sound, and intellection"—was less pretentious, but she favored Pound’s Greek.
When Denise asked the editors to remove her name from the masthead of Hanging Loose, after serving for more than 25 years in the capacity of contributing editor, she gave as her reason the different directions our tastes had taken. She felt closer to the melodic late verse of Galway
Kinnell than to the often ironic language play, formal invention, and syntactical dislocations that appeared in the pages of our magazine and which she likened to Bob Creeley's later work--her melopoeia versus our logopoeia, was how she characterized it.
One of the things that Denise and Mitch agreed about wholeheartedly was that Hayden Carruth’s anthology of twentieth century American verse, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, had no rival in terms of the quality of work included and its faithfulness in representing the modernist tradition in American poetry.
Denise held that the vital tradition of American poetry descended from William Carlos Williams, with a seasoning of Wallace Stevens early work. Although she had little interest in the poems Stevens published after Harmonium, she adored his prose Adagia. "Literature is the better part of
life. To this it seems inevitably necessary to add provided life is the better part of literature," wrote Stevens.
The Maine farmhouse was on a graded gravel road that climbed steeply up a hill from the paved Temple Road. Theirs was the second to last house. Then the road gave out and became just two ruts.
The farm beyond theirs, where the road ended, had once belonged to Hayden Carruth, although I don't think he ever took up residence there. Mitch and Denise had persuaded him to purchase it with the idea that he would move from Vermont to be near them and to join their growing
community of writers. Ted Enslin lived in Temple, as did George Dennison. The Kimbers, Bob and Rita, German translators, lived in the bottomland beside Temple Stream, and Henry Braun and other city writers summered in the area.
Mitch, always fond of making pronouncements, once offered me his appraisal of Carruth’s strengths and weakness as a poet. He liked best the poem-portraits Carruth drew of his Vermont farmer neighbors, which were written in open forms. Mitch didn’t agree with Carruth that using
artificial structures and imposed rules gave greater fluency or force to his writing. On one of my visits to Temple, Mitch spoke effusively about Hayden’s latest collection, Brothers I Loved You All, newly published by Sheep’s Meadow Press. He produced a copy of the book and insisted that
I read it immediately.
Denise told me that she and Mitch eventually realized that Hayden was never going to move to Temple. After one heavy snowfall had collapsed the roof of “his” house, they bought him out and gave the property to their son, Nikolai.
Denise found comfort in the friendship of people half her age, with whom she surrounded herself, former students and political activists such as Richard and myself, whereas Mitch preferred the companionship of his male peers, and was often lonely for lack of it. Lengthy correspondence
helped but wasn’t an adequate substitute. Denise told me that when Carruth didn’t become a neighbor Mitch was far more disappointed thnt she was.
Years later, shortly before Mitch’s death, I read a novella by George Dennison set in Temple (posthumously published by Stearforth Press). I’m convinced that the protagonist—a New York writer transplanted to Maine, divorced, but now with a new wife and children--was largely a
portrait of Mitch, or at the very least a composite of George and Mitch. I once attended a lamb roast party at Dennison’s farm, a Temple summer tradition. Over a blazing fire, a lamb from the Kimbers’ flock turned on a spit. There were games and entertainment for both adults and children, and later there was dancing. It was a feast out of Brueghel. All of Temple's urban expatriates were there, plus summer people--writers and intellectuals, with Philadelphia’s Henry Braun rounding out the mostly New York gathering.
For a period of time, Denise had taken German lessons from Bob Kimber. When Denise and Mitch decided to live separately, she took away with her a ten-volume boxed Brecht Gesammelten Werke. It was a gift to her from the Kimbers, as Bob and Rita each had one from graduate school and they no longer needed two. She later lent it to me when I began to translate Brecht's anti-war poems (Deutsche Kriegsfibel). For a span of five years, as I transported that bulky boxed set while moving from apartment to apartment, I would find scraps of notepaper tucked between pages on which Denise, in her looping scrawl, had recorded her attempts at translation.
Ted Enslin, if I have my facts correct, was already living in Temple when Denise and Mitch bought their farmhouse. I never met him, but from the tales they related of his Maine woodcraft, I formed the image of him as a latter-day Thoreau.
In the fall of 1972, just before Nixon’s re-election, Denise traveled to Hanoi with fellow poet Muriel Rukeyser and Jane Hart, an anti-war activist and the wife of then Democratic Senator Philip Hart of Michigan. This was obviously a very controversial thing to do, some at the time called it
traitorous as the country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War and the resistance to it. After Denise returned from Hanoi, she and Mitch retreated from the city to spend Christmas in Temple. They invited me to join them. Nikolai was there too. A great snowfall blanketed the fields in soft curves and covered the tree limbs in white--"each upper half” as Zukovsky observed. We were snowed in.
I cursed Mitch’s ineptitude as I trudged through knee-deep snow in a blizzard carrying an extension ladder up the road to rescue him from where he was stranded on the new roof of Nik’s house. He’d climbed up by way of an adjoining shed to shovel off the snow as a precaution but was unable to climb back down by the same route.
An ice storm followed the snowstorm, which left the gravel road slick and impassable for days. Trees and bushes were encased in ice. When clouds finally gave way to sunlight, frozen droplets hung from branches.
Stranded in the farmhouse in remote Temple, we heard news over the radio of Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi. The phone lines mercifully were not down. Denise and Mitch took turns making calls to the outside world--New York, Boston, Washington--trying desperately to mobilize friends, poets, and Movement activists to stage demonstrations against what they viewed as an atrocity. Denise was inconsolable, given to fits of frustration at being unable to vent her outrage. Mitch was calmer, methodical, wearing his organizer’s hat.
This was when Denise wrote perhaps her most violent poem, "A Poem at Christmas, 1972, during the Terror-Bombing of North Vietnam," in which she imagined herself an assassin whose targets were the likes of Kissinger and Nixon.
The bombing was the precipitous event that led Denise to sever ties with many poets she had long considered colleagues and comrades. The time for reading poems as a form of protest was over she felt, and announced publicly in "Goodbye to Tolerance," another poem written during that winter in Temple. To oppose genocide, she passionately believed, writers, among others, had to, in the parlance of those times, "put their bodies on the line," engage in "direct actions," and "bring the war home." Yet to express her intolerance for tolerance, she had written a poem.
Worried perhaps that I might see an inconsistency in her dealings with fellow poets, Denise offered that she did not hold Hayden Carruth to the same standard of commitment to antiwar activity because he was severely agoraphobic and thus constitutionally incapable of being an activist or even participating in rallies and demonstrations.
There was seldom a conversation, where Mitch and Denise were involved, that did not mention
“The Movement.” They always spoke of "The Movement", rarely of the "counterculture" or the “New Left." Their conception of it was inclusive, stretching from the 50s anti-bomb rallies and civil rights marches to draft resistance, antiwar activism, SDS, Weatherman, the Black Power Movement, the Women’s Movement (at first called Female Liberation), and Gay Liberation. Sectarianism was antithetical to their thinking.
Mitch's compendium of “The Movement,” published by Beacon Press, is testimony to the inclusiveness he and Denise believed in. At over 700 pages, it rivaled the Manhattan Yellow Pages in size, and had a title almost as long as the book itself: The Movement Toward A New America: the beginning of a long revolution; (a collage)—A What?
Listening to Mitch and Denise talk, I thought they knew everyone who was anyone, coast to coast, or especially everyone on East and West coasts, with the great midlands "populated" by islands of activists, primarily on college campuses, across the great expanse of the nation--all of whom they were acquainted with.
In those days, WBCN, the Boston radio rock station we listened to, had Danny Schechter as its self-styled "news dissector." Dissecting the news--print, radio, and TV--was something we had all learned to do to find out the truth about the conduct of the war and rebellion in the streets of American cities. Mitch was a master at this. It was his ritual to take apart and reconstruct the daily New York Times and Washington Post coverage and report his findings to whoever was within earshot.
Watching Izzy, the documentary film about I.F. Stone that was made in the early 70s, I remember thinking that it was the correlative for Mitch’s mind at work on the news. In the film, Stone is shown riding about Washington in the backseats of cabs reading a pile of daily newspapers. He neatly tears out news items, saving them to be later reassembled in his weekly Report. (Stone once sarcastically quipped that the Washington Post was an exciting newspaper to read, “because you never know on what page you will find a page one story.”)
Mitch often described himself as "a charter member of the great conspiracy on behalf of ‘The Movement,’" as indeed he was. Denise, who could appreciate irony as much as anyone, would have savored the fact that her obituary in the New York Times shared a page with that of David Lamar McDonald, the admiral who commanded US naval forces during the Vietnam War.
I first encountered Mitch during a meeting of the MIT poetry class held at their Webster Street apartment in East Boston. Denise had an aversion to classrooms. She preferred to convene her poetry classes in places that were conducive to relaxed, congenial conversation, namely in her own
and in her students’ apartments or, if space allowed, in their dorm rooms. My first impression was one of diffidence on Mitch’s part--a shadowypresence, rummaging in other rooms, and passing through where we met to discuss poems on his way upstairs. He showed little interest in conversation; although, he may just have been following instructions from Denise to stay out of the way so that she could conduct her class.
I had an altogether different impression of him when a month or so later, he turned up with Denise at another class meeting, this time at a fellow student’s Cambridge apartment. I recall that that evening started out with a pot luck dinner. We listened to music, talked, drank wine, and smoked a lot of cigarettes—something we all did at the time. A joint was passed around and then poems were read aloud. When it came to be Mitch’s turn to share something, he drew himself up, grew serious. He wished to use the occasion, he told us, to remember the life and legacy of Jack Kerouac, who had died the previous week. Mitch spoke in a commanding manner about the importance of Kerouac as both a prose writer and a pioneer of the counterculture by documenting the lives and exploits of the Beats; but also Mitch lamented Kerouac’s descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, which resulted in his death. Then Mitch read a lengthy passage from On The Road, pausing from time to time to extol the rhythmic language of Kerouac’s prose, which he clearly admired.
I don’t recall whether Mitch read any poems of his own that night, although it was revealed by Denise that he did occasionally write poems. I do remember that he spoke at some length about the importance and influence of William Carlos Williams, who was as dear to his heart as he was to Denise’s. If not that night, then on another occasion, he extolled Williams’ prose, recommending that we especially read In The American Grain.
Denise and Mitch both spoke of certain people in tones that approached reverence: in addition to Williams, Pound (with the usual political misgivings), Olsen, H.D.…and in the political realm, A.J. Muste, David Dellinger, and Barbara Demming. Paul Goodman was another. Mitch, in particular, considered him a major cultural critic and political thinker. Mitch thought of himself as cast in the same mold and strove to attain a comparable stature among his New York literary intellectual peers.
Mitch's style was to make pronouncements with a Brooklyn street tough’s bravado about anything and everything: the greatness of William Carlos Williams, the significance of the latest government policy shift regarding the war in Vietnam, the best rye bread on the East Coast....His utterances were a challenge to anyone within earshot to dare contradict him. They were also, I learned over time, a defense against his insecurity and low self-esteem in Denise’s company.
When I first met him, Mitch was on probation, a sentencing condition after his conspiracy trial, which restricted him from engaging in political organizing, speaking at rallies or leading marches. He had to content himself with being one of the crowd. As a result, Denise stepped forward and took on a more publicly visible role in denouncing the war. At the time of my first visit to Temple, they had moved into a large Victorian house on Brook Street, in Brookline, which they shared with two other couples. Mitch's conviction had been overturned and, with it, his restriction from political activity lifted, but, unlike Denise, he had a hard time finding work. For a time he taught several classes at a Tufts University alternative college program established by students and radical teachers there. After that came short-term teaching gigs at a number of colleges, punctuated by extended stays in Temple.
Mitch seemed always to be just returning from one of these short-term teaching gigs, or was just about to embark. During this period, I came to think of him as an itinerant scholar/provocateur. He was in the habit of organizing his students, and any faculty he could persuade to join him, in holding teach-ins to raise awareness about the war. Acts of civil disobedience or disruption usually followed.
Denise shared news of Mitch’s activities with anyone who happened to be visiting Brook Street, reports which Mitch gave over the phone or in letters. I recall one vivid account of how Mitch had orchestrated a symbolic act of civil disobedience in response to the U.S. mining of Haiphong harbor, closing down the interstate highway that ran through the Midwestern college town where he was then teaching. For this he got fired. No matter what the intended duration of his teaching gigs, Mitch seldom lasted the term. Invariably the collegiate administration found a way to dismiss the provocateur in their midst.
One August day, I sat with Denise on the front steps of the Brook Street house. Mitch was in Temple at the time. She wasn’t her usual perky self on this occasion. Denise addressed me in a deliberate manner, saying that she had a new poem she wished to read to me, “If that is OK?” Then she proceeded to read aloud “Cross-purposes.” In this way, I first learned of Mitch’s decision to pursue a separate life. This should not have come to me as a surprise, but it did nevertheless.
Denise and Mitch were hardly a conventional couple. As writers and activists, they each made commitments to read, teach, speak or agitate, which frequently took one of them away from the other for extended periods; in other words, they led lives that were already quite separate. In my youthful naïveté, I romanticized their relationship as “bohemian;” not realizing that in actuality they were growing distant from one another. Compounding things was Denise’s success as a poet, which in more ways than one overshadowed Mitch’s accomplishments.
More telling, in the end, was the fact that, after 25 years of marriage, they were each in love with someone else. It was quickly evident to me that Mitch was having an affair with the young woman he had asked us to put up for a few weeks that summer in our Centre Street collective. She had followed him east after his recent teaching gig in the Midwest.
For her part, Denise, although she tried hard to disguise and even deny her affections, had been in love with Richard since soon after he enrolled in her MIT class. The poems that she wrote over a period of four or five years in which Richard figures attest to this. Richard, however, never fully reciprocated her feelings. He always viewed her as his comrade, his confidante, his mentor, but never as his lover. In keeping with his wish to be “just friends,” Denise would try her best to suppress her true feelings, but from time to time she could not stop herself from blurting them out. This always lead to a crisis in their relationship, which Denise patched over by apologizing for her indiscretion—all things that Mitch could not failed to notice.
The outcome then, which included their eventual, mutually agreed upon divorce, was that Denise stayed in the Boston area, moving out of Brook Street into a house she purchased on Glover Circle in Davis Square, Somerville, while Mitch took up permanent residence in Temple.
I regularly visited Denise, sometimes daily, in the ensuing years. Number 4 Glover Circle was just a ten-minute walk from my apartment on Rindge Avenue in North Cambridge. My friendship with Mitch was strained by their separation, but then was rekindled after his son Matty was born to Mitch and his new wife Sandy, and we began to share notes about our experiences as fathers of young boys. I made summer visits to Temple, accompanied by my wife Mary, and son Andrai. Mitch, Sandy, and Matty, would, in turn, visit Boston in February or March each year to escape the harsh Temple winters. Before continuing on to see friends in New York, he and his family, would “crash” overnight, or longer, on a mattress on my living room floor or at the Somerville home of my Hanging Loose coeditor, Dick Lourie. (Dick, a student in the very first poetry workshop that Denise taught, had known Mitch since the mid-60s in New York.)
I saw less and less of Denise in the 1980s. She was frequently away teaching on the west coast, at Stanford and elsewhere, for many months at a time. Then in 1989 she relocated to Seattle. We continued to exchange notes but rarely saw each other.
In February of 1997, a call from Dick Lourie brought me the sad news that Mitch had died, in Temple, after a brief and painful bout with pancreatic cancer Then, one night in late December of the same year, I got another unexpected call, this one from Richard, who told me he had just received word from Seattle that lymphoma had claimed the life of our friend and mentor Denise.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
How and where does one to begin to describe the person who has played a central role in your life and guided you along the path to become who you are today, especially when that person-- friend, confidant, mentor-- is as fierce, complex, and accomplished a person as the poet Denise Levertov? I had compiled hundreds of pages of notes, had constructed chronologies, read and re-read everything she ever wrote, and had consultant mutual friends but couldn't commit to anything I wrote about her. It was all fits and starts. How could I describe this aspect of her personality without also talking about that aspect? I was stymied. The breakthrough came when I recalled Joe Brainard's delightful prose/poem/memoir I Remember-- a deceptively simple catalog without any particular structure, chronology, or narrative arc. Why not just start as he had, without concern for where it might lead me? That did the trick. Beginning with those two words, "I remember" memories flowed freely and have ever since. "Where the Highway Ends" was the first section of the more than pages 250 to date that I have now committed to paper.
ABOUT MARK PAWLAK
Mark Pawlak is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Reconnaissance: New and Selected Poems and Poetic Journals and editor of When We Were Countries fourth in a series anthologies of the "best" poetry and prose by high school-age writers. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, and Polish, and has been performed at Teatr Polski in Warsaw. In English, his poems have appeared widely in periodicals and in such anthologies as The Best American Poetry. "Wordsmiths in the Idea Factory" his memoir about Denise Levertov's 1969 M.I.T. Poetry class is forthcoming in the University of South Carolina Press anthology Denise Levertov in Company, edited by Donna Krolik Hollenberg. Pawlak supports his writing habit by teaching mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston.