LEGACY by Richard Harteis
© 2007, Wesleyan University Press. 62pgs.
The Fifty-Ninth Swan – A Review by Peter Klappert
“ISBN / Library of Congress Catalog Card information pending.” copies can be purchased at http://stores.lulu.com/TheChurchofLivingHopeBookstore. The website gives the price as $16.95.
Legacy is a series of poems for Richard Harteis’s lover of 36 years, the gentle, quietly elegant and rather traditional poet William Meredith. Writing these poems is one of the ways in which Richard struggles to be reconciled to his loss, a series of elegiac lyrics which come together as a non-lineal narrative of their lives together and Richard’s life now, alone, and as a moving and often artless extended elegy.
I’ve always had a particular fondness for Meredith’s poems, in part no doubt because he was the first poet I ever spoke to–albeit to ask a typically undergraduate question about the note on the “Notes” at the end of his recent collection, The Open Sea. He answered the question with a humility and patience I hope I might muster today. That was on November 12, 1962: I know the exact date because he signed and inscribed my copy of his book. In those years my friends and I were most excited by the new poetries beginning to emerge (the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, the Confessionals, etcetera), but I also admired Meredith’s poems a great deal–and thought I understood them! They were exactly the kinds of poems the New Critics who were my professors were teaching us to read, except that Meredith was not coldly or convolutedly intellectual and did require that a critic stand by his side to explain him.
If Meredith’s poems are less read today than the work of Robert Lowell and John Berryman, his friends and contemporaries, it may be because he employs his mastery more quietly and because he was, as Harteis says in “Evensong,” a “model of / civility, the ultimate good guy,” a poet who did not expose, let alone exploit, his private, most personal life. Emotion in Meredith’s poems is no less honest and intense, but it is subtle and more objectified. Loneliness is a recurring theme. The Open Sea begins with its title poem:
We say the sea is lonely; better say
Ourselves are lonesome creatures whom the sea
Gives neither yes not no for company.
The next poem is the lovely, delicate “Sonnet on Rare Animals”:
Like deer rat-tat before we reach the clearing
I frighten what I brought you out to see,
Telling you who are tired by now of hearing
How there are five, how they take no fright of me.
I tried to point out fins inside the reef
Where the coral reef had turned the water dark;
The bathers kept the beach in half-belief
But would not swim and could no see the shark.
I have alarmed on your behalf and others’
Sauntering things galore.
It is this way with verse and animals
And love, that when you point you lose them all.
Startled or on a signal, what is rare
Is off before you have it anywhere.
In 1962 almost no poets were open about homosexuality, and English professors evaded the subject as best they could. I spent three weeks on Hart Crane in a modern poetry course under Arthur Mizener, without even a whisper that Crane might be gay; two weeks on W. H. Auden with the same obliviousness. Nonetheless, although there was nothing in Meredith’s work or person to even raise a question, I’ve always read “Sonnet,” as a poem addressed to a specific “you, ” another man to whom the speaker had expressed attraction and affection. In that subjective reading, the speaker has offered to share something gentle and natural (the deer), something which might also be dangerous (the shark). If my reading is accurate, indirection is one of the sonnet’s most charming attributes.
In an inspired act of matchmaking, Maxine Kumin introduced William Meredith and Richard Harteis around 1971, and despite the 28-year difference in their ages William and Richard were devoted to each other for the rest of William’s life.
Legacy opens on “Memorial Day, 2007,” as Richard keeps vigil by William’s bed “in the hospital penthouse,” “alone with / my dying lover contemplating / hospice decisions, what to hold / what to give.” Richard uses “lover,” rather than the asexual and antiseptic “partner,” to convey the depth and intimacy of their bond and to make it unequivocal that they were more to each other than simply devoted companions. Anyone who has had to make “hospice decisions” will recognize the anguish in Richard’s phrase. As he struggles, alone, with such awful responsibility, William, who had been a navy aviator in World War Two and the Korean War, breathes
steadily into the blue
oxygen mask, preparing for lift off.
What adventure awaits you? This
private mission we all must undertake.
The succeeding poems, all addressed to William in a kind of conversation Richard has with silence, record a survivor’s adjustments and the way dailiness is infused with memory, loneliness and grief.
Richard is both a health professional and a writer, and he takes all the measures which are usually indicated: he reads about death and dying in books by Joan Didion and Iris Murdoch, writers who have lived with such losses; he does his “Homework” and learns the seven stages of grief; he visits a grief counselor (“smart/ and sweet - Jesus sandals and / a pony tail. Jungian, I suspect”); he talks with a psychiatrist, prays and wrestles with doubt, revisits places he has traveled with William, and receives the advice of friends who “hand me back my own words. / ‘It will take time,’ they say, / ‘‘You will be okay with time.’’
Richard is not to be so easily consoled:
What is time supposed to do for me,
I wonder . . . .
You are nowhere to be found,
are lost to me in [the stars’] cold
brilliance, the infinite sea of light.
This story will not end in joy....
“You are nowhere to be found” echoes an often-translated lament by the Emperor Wu of Han, which W.S. Merwin renders “oh if anyone looks now / for the beauty / of that woman where can it be found.” That might be coincidence, but elsewhere Legacy is salted with allusions: “Now your blue eyes grow grey / with the fading of the light”; “You have taken a / different road, the road less traveled” (the grief counselor, unwittingly quoting the poet who was very likely of greatest influence on William); “a year ago we stood with Yeats / by his grave: ‘Horseman pass by.’” One of the deftest lyrics in the collection, “Aubade,” adopts the strategy of James Wright’s well-known “Lying in a Hammock at William, Duffy’s Farm...,” which itself adopts the strategy of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”; Richard’s poem ends not “I have wasted my life” or “You must change your life,” but “How can I bear this / without you?”
As one would hope and expect, Legacy is also filled with lines and images that quote William’s poems or bring them to mind and make us feel the presence of his spirit all the more. “The Deer are After the Apples Again,” the “gentle deer” of “Aubade,” and a stanza in “Symbiosis”--
You stand like a lifeguard
in the mirror, warning me
of dark shapes in the water,
the channel widening as I swim
-- take us back to “Sonnet on Rare Animals.” The enigmatic “husk and canvas” of “In Memoriam, May 30, 2007" are explained by William’s alter-ego “Hazard” in the latter’s Hazard the Painter (“February 14"). The opening words of Meredith’s elegy for John Berryman – “Friends making off ahead of time / on their own, I call that willful”–find a second home in Richard’s “Phylactery.” The swans William and Richard saw at Coole Park in 2006 evoke their love of Yeats, swans on the Thames River near their home in Connecticut, and these lines of William’s:
One October at Coole Park
[Yeats] counted fifty-nine swans.
He flushed them into legend.
Lover by lover is how he said they flew,
but one of them must have been without a mate:
Why did he not observe that?...
When I am not with you,
I am always the fifty-ninth.
It is remarkable to have this memorial so soon after William’s death–it is by itself testament to the love and the intensity of grief. One sometimes wishes Richard had lived with the poems longer--long enough to recognize occasional readymade phrases and sentimentalities, to rely less on direct statements of emotion. Nonetheless, this is a moving work–to any of us who knew William and Richard and to a larger readership as well–and one has to agree with Grace Cavalieri’s words on the back cover of Richard’s book: “LEGACY sustains the author, and any of us who has experienced such pain.”
Peter Klappert is the author of five or six collections of poems, including Lugging Vegetables to Nantucket (Yale Series), Circular Stairs, Distress in the Mirrors (Griffin, new edition forth-coming from 6 Gallery), The Idiot Princess of the Last Dynasty (Knopf) and Chokecherries: New and Selected Poems 1966-1999 (Orchises).