Field of dreams 

Savoring Patricia Goedicke’s last poems

Almost three years ago, I wrote a story for the Independent on a posthumous collection of poetry by former Esquire fiction editor (and beloved Missoula poet and poker player) Leonard Wallace Robinson (see “A life remembered,” Sept. 22, 2005). That story was as much about Mr. Robinson as it was about Mrs. Robinson, the poet and University of Montana writing professor Patricia Goedicke, who passed away in Missoula two years ago this month. The photograph we ran with the story—it’s also on this week’s cover—was borrowed from Patricia’s living room and, therefore, was recognized by many who were close to Leonard and Patricia. In it, Leonard stands in a doorway, wearing a sweater, holding onto a notebook, gazing down at his feet. Patricia stands in profile to the camera. She has one hand on her hip, the other on Leonard’s shoulder. She’s looking up at him—chin lifted, head cocked, earrings dangling. Both figures are amiable, wise, cultured. Patricia, in particular, appears haughty, seductive even, and as sinuously powerful as a whippet tank.

No literary couple had ever photographed better.

A few weeks after the story ran, I learned that actual circumstances belied the photo’s aura of effortless sophistication. It had been taken around 1970, while Leonard and Patricia were living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. At the time, Patricia was battling breast cancer (she would later survive two mastectomies) and chemotherapy treatments were giving her a run for their money. Leonard too was suffering from some kind of stomach ailment. Therefore, what is at once a stylish photograph of a cultivated, deeply intellectual couple is also, and more so, the portrait of two lovers leaning on one another, each suffering their own physical pain. Though certainly not in defeat, they are figures standing at halt and, if only momentarily, at rest.

I bring up the photo because it strikes me as the most emblematic tool to convey the contrasts in Patricia’s own poetry. Expressed throughout The Baseball Field at Night, Goedicke’s 13th collection (finished just weeks before she died and published posthumously this year), are contrasts between living and dying, the physical and the ethereal, the body in love and the body in pain. The speaker in these poems is caught, as expressed in one poem, between “ecstasy and oblivion/chained between worm and sky.” They reflect an unflinching awareness of the decline of the body: “near death I suppose everyone is/naked/without makeup losing it/even my clown red/lipstick/line drawn against encroaching/wrinkles from nose to chin/seriously I can’t quite/see/sallow gray dishrag me.”

They also illustrate a master poet’s cool, keenly observed analysis of the same awareness of physical decline: “As the great capricious Body above us moves on,/the question,/is a tongue burning/to contain its own dissolving/into snapshots/of what we used to look like: what cells/eventually consumed us/and what we cooked for the picnic, what blessings, how many oysters,/or pancakes or kisses (which are words).”

As much as death and decline thematically underscore these poems, so does the theme of absence, particularly that of a late and deeply missed husband: “A year and a half after you died I looked up from my novel—/another one about Pygmalion and Galatea—/and once again you were nowhere./There was a kind of soft crash in my stomach,/a sense of no air,/(or rather, nothing but air—).” From individual moments in poems to poems in their entirety (as in the collection’s final entry, “Heliopause in His Study Now Her Bedroom”), Robinson’s absence and its effect on Goedicke amount to a concomitant discourse throughout the entire collection, a conversation both with Robinson and about Robinson.

In her introduction to the collection, friend and fellow poet Melissa Kwasney points out that Patricia often began poems with conjunctions. The title poem, for example, begins with the lines: “but what keeps us company is not/always here...” As Kwasney points out, it’s as though “all experience was a conversation continuing…even after the death of those to whom we were talking.” It’s no wonder, then, that this collection, as were all her books after 1968, is “for Leonard Wallace Robinson/still here.”

And yet, Goedicke’s final collection neither sentimentalizes nor idealizes. In these last poems beauty in language comes easily, as does the beauty of a woman in an old photograph. The words, however, underscore deeply moving currents that only the curiosity and the wisdom of a poet can unveil, particularly this poet, who remained active even at the very end (and especially at the very end) of her composing days. These poems are indeed a conversation, an audacious, supremely joyful conversation using the genre in which Goedicke had the most faith and for which she had the most respect.

Her poems never “play” with language; words are the tools used to root out—sometimes quietly, never timidly, always courageously—the mementos of memories, dreams and the final years when the poet knows, as expressed in the first line of the opening poem, that “Death be my home light.”
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