Was the point always to continue without a sign?
A substantial number of Louise’s sentences recurringly come to mind, filling a big role in the observation-soundtrack of my life. This began after the first long drive we took together. I was her student at Williams College in Western Massachusetts, hired to pick her up and drop her off each week at the bus stop in Bennington, Vermont, as she commuted from Plainfield. I was also working with her for the first time—on my honors thesis, poems—and she had a reading coming up at the University of New Hampshire, where my younger sister went. Louise proposed that I drive her to Durham. A ways out on Route 2, I asked what she would read [Terns, assassins— ]. She said new poems, from a new book. Ararat. “What are they like?” I asked. We’d known each other maybe six weeks. She paused, “Like yours!” she said, elated. “They are a lot like yours!”
This is not me reporting, Sally = Little Louise. This is how she talked to us.
Also, she and I had already found on our drives a likeness in our relationships with our sisters. [My sister and I, we’re the end of something.] We drove. We arrived—in the woods, in a glade—at the home of Charles Simic, with whom Louise would stay. Turned out he’d planned for me to stay too, and invited me to dinner. I desperately wanted to accept, but I had this stomach-pit knowledge that I could not bow out on my sister. Later, on campus, I told Jennifer about “Like yours!” and then we went to the reading. After “Paradise”—Adam and Eve—Jen leaned over and said, “So, is that how you feel? an ache where something was taken away / to make another person?” I had tried not to get in trouble, but I got in trouble anyway.
On another drive, later in the year, Louise told me a story about being in her twenties and wanting to write to Louise Bogan, admiring her work, but postponing the letter, being busy, and then Bogan died. Thirty years later, I emailed to confirm my memory of this story, and she said:
Yes, Louise Bogan. There was another such event with Ashbery. I was composing a letter in my head the first night at Yale and the next morning he was dead.
Write your unwritten letter.
A painful early romance of mine caused Louise to say, in casual conversation, First you’re the savior, then you’re the target.
A letter from 1993 (written on the Selectric in all lower-case) is 90% chicken recipe [don’t think of them as guests, think of them as extra chickens], an annotated version of Marcella Hazan. Louise writes, “add fresh rosemary (she says a branch; I use a tree)”; “you can do this two ways: 1) strip needles (they stay in sauce) or 2) use branch and remove. i do both and chew the branches”; “i tend to cover tightly, but then, i hoard by nature”; “something dark green looks nice on the plate.”
When, about a year later, I read Meadowlands (sort of stunned by its being very funny…) I also read, “We can all write about suffering / with our eyes closed. / You should show people / more of yourself; show them your clandestine / passion for red meat.” And there was Louise, chewing the rosemary.
I am responsible for these vines. Louise and John came to my wedding, near the end of their own marriage (oh, there is a marvelous photo of Louise dancing with Chris Nealon)—that whole love was marked by many many Louise-isms: We were artists again, my husband….
No one’s despair is like my despair—
Her way of skewering self-importance. You are showing off again, one speaker says to herself, lambasting her own “ridiculous errand,” weeping in the dark garage with your sack of garbage.
I remember Louise consoling me when my first class of students (high schoolers) seemed unimpressed, like if they went to Williams College they would end up doing something way better upon their own graduations. “It never goes away,” she said, “I sometimes wish for one of those court buglers to go in ahead of me—” She described the bugle, the scroll of achievements, the red tights.
A white business in the trees, like brides leaping to a great height.
Writing this, I felt something akin to what I felt in the first days after Louise died: refusal. I am tempted to go out to the garage and dig through old files for choice Louise criticisms (e.g.: “you’re writing about feelings you’ve already had, not discovering them”) and for other letters, for more of her to put in here rather than say, What now? Who are you in the world if Louise is not in it?
In “A Work of Fiction” the speaker finishes a novel and feels bereft, and goes outside to smoke a cigarette. “Where had they all gone, these people who seemed so real?” —oh, how this resembles the question from Winter Recipes, when the sister is dying,
Where did you go next, after those days,
where although you could not speak you were not lost?
The cigarette glows in the darkness. “How small it was,”[the light of the tip, it seems—that’s what we see, “a small dot among the infinite starts,” but also, we realize, the novel]. Brief, brief, but inside me now, which the stars could never be.
Sally Ball (poetry ’94)