Feature > Memoir
Judith E. Johnson

Judith E. Johnson

Judith E. Johnson is the author of a book of short fiction, The Life of Riot (Atheneum) and eight books of poetry, the first of which, Uranium Poems, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and the most recent of which are The Ice Lizard (1992) and Cities of Mathematics and Desire (2005), both published by Sheep Meadow Press. Her most recent short story "The Tarot of Lost Names," won Nimrod International's 2012 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for fiction.

Black Roses, Pink Panhers and Magritte

In the circular casino, set up as an auditorium for the International Poetry Biennial at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium, Magritte's mad murals stared down at us, no doubt laughing at the assorted delegates gathered to discuss the past, present, and future of poetry. The surreal masterpieces on the walls set the context for our much tamer ventures into its postmodern successor, life as performance art. On stage, the keynote panel, charged with setting out the poetry symposium's agenda, was busily debating the future of the French language. I was not sure whether this was a prelude to debating the future of any language, as opposed, say, to snarls, sighs, and grunts, whether the panelists believed that French was the central fact around which all other languages and poetries revolved, or whether they were taking a global approach in the belief that all languages would lose their identity and become one, probably based on French.

The three American delegates were not giving this discussion their full attention. It was September 1970, with the 1960s not definitively over. New York City, in a state of ecological enlightenment, had just passed a pooper-scooper law. Robert Creeley, Carolyn Kizer, and I were passing notes back and forth about the future of dog-poop, with jokes about doggie-do and doggie-don't.

Bob whispered, "Those characters up there would not be impressed with the high quality of our topic choice."

Carolyn replied, in more of a stage whisper than an actual one "Well, Baudelaire, while living in Brussels, said that all human beings are born in excrement. This may be particularly true of the ones surrounding us."

I had been living in Brussels for just over a year, and considered that I had some insight about the surrounding culture. I whispered, "In Belgium, as in France, people take their doggies to join them at the table in whatever gourmet restaurants they favor, and if the doggies do or don't do what doggies do, nobody has a fit about it." The first panel adjourned, leaving the futures of the French language and of doggie-do up for future determination. Thankfully, we headed out to the opening reception, which we were pretty sure would serve wine much superior to that served at American literary events.

Bob and Carolyn had been selected as delegates by whatever formal body home in the US selected delegates for international events. Carolyn had just resigned as the first literature director of the N.E.A. as a protest against the firing of her superior, Roger Stevens. Her third book, Midnight Was My Cry, was either just out or about to be. Creeley, a foundational figure in the Black Mountain poetics movement, was settling into his life at S.U. N.Y Buffalo, and, as he later observed to me in a kind of bemused wonder, "now able to support my family through poetry!" I was widely unknown. My first book, Uranium Poems, had just won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, but my husband's employer had transferred him to Belgium before I had a chance to enjoy that honor, and I had been living in a suburb isolated from any intellectual community. Finally, in despair, I had gone into the American consulate, introduced myself to the cultural attaché, and had been promptly selected as a delegate. This was my first venture into literary life as the author of a published book. Bob and Carolyn had a long-standing friendship; I had introduced myself to both of them while milling around outside the auditorium doors, drawn by the sound of American English, for which I was starving, and by Carolyn's loud hoots of laughter over something Bob was saying. They enfolded me in their collective embrace, which became my joy and my sustenance for years after.

We compared notes about the conference schedule. Bob and Carolyn were both on panels; I was merely an observer. Bob was scheduled, in addition, to give a reading at an afternoon event, likely to be well attended. Carolyn and I were scheduled to participate in a group reading of women poets, about twenty of us, one poem each, during the cocktail hour one afternoon, which we suspected nobody would attend. An official of the Belgian literary organization sponsoring this event came over to greet us. Carolyn asked why all the women had been relegated to a separate reading, instead of being integrated into full participation in the program. The official replied, "We can't integrate you. We can't judge your work by the same standards as ours, since you women think with your ovaries."

Carolyn asked him, with what I later came to recognize as the demure sweetness she used to set someone up for slaughter, "Oh, sweetheart, what do you think with, then? Surely not your brains?"

He replied, in a very formal tone, "I think with the equipment God gave me."

Carolyn said, emphatically, moving in for the kill, "Well, thank God for small mercies."

Carolyn and I, over dinner that night, planned out what we would read, she settling on a section of "Pro Femina," I on one of the anti-Vietnam war poems in Uranium Poems.

The next afternoon, at cocktail hour, we headed over to the women's reading, which, as we suspected, was attended only by the women reading. A series of elegant creatures in décolletage, reading in French and draped in chiffon, intoned, one after the other in morbid tones, works that invariably seemed to begin with something like, "Je suis la rose noir de ton amour." Each one of them, unimpressed by her colleagues' work, left as soon as she had finished reading her own poem.

Carolyn muttered to me, "Where did they get these specimens? It's harem poetry. I bet it was the boys in charge. These must be their mistresses. It's a form of purdah. Be a good girl and you too can read where nobody hears you."

I said, "They know that. Only the black rose of someone's love would put up with it. That's why they don't stay for each other."

Carolyn stalked out without reading, drawing me in her wake like an apprentice battleship. Not content with the walkout, however, she decided that we had to make a feminist statement, with a press release to make sure it got noticed. She composed the statement and the press release; I translated them into French. I'm not sure how the release actually reached the newspapers, but in due course we had a herd of journalists and a television camera recording our protest, which Carolyn read in English and I in French.

Grim silence, followed by one brave reporter who asked, "Now, are you going to burn your bras?"

Carolyn, stretching out her arms like some earth mother who had long ago morphed into a Valkyrie, said, "I never wear one." There were no other questions.

The next day we saw ourselves introduced in television and reported in the newspapers as "un type de panthères roses Américaine." Carolyn snorted, "These boys wouldn't get the point if you handed it to them with a plate full of doggie-do."

I said, "True, but being a panthère rose is still marginally better than being a rose noir de someone's amour. And at least they think we're panthers rather than pussy-cats."

"Yes," Carolyn said, with one of her hoots of laughter. "We can move around. And claws are stronger than thorns."

That was the beginning of our long friendship. In spring of the next year, while Carolyn was on her way to a trip through Romania with her daughter, Jill, and I was in Italy as an appendage to my husband's business trips, Carolyn and I spent a few days in Verona and Firenza, eating pasta with fresh truffles and speculating about what happened to the women artists of the Renaissance, if any. Once my husband was reassigned to New York, and we were home, Carolyn invited me to visit her in Chapel Hill, where she, Ron Bayes, Daphne Athas and I shared work in progress. I remember a wonderful afternoon with Daphne reading sections of Entering Ephesus, Carolyn reading her poem about Nicanor Parra, and I reading from a never-to-be-published novel about a werewolf shedding his skin. With the generosity that was one of her gifts to poetry and to poets, she was my mentor and my supporter, as she was for so many others. Her generosity was one of the strongest inspirations behind my own formulation of a "Poetics of Generosity." When I became a member of the Board of the Poetry Society of America, I asked Carolyn to join so that I could get her onto the board. She persuaded Edmund Keeley and Richard Howard to join and to become Board members also. Together we worked on changing the direction of that organization and broadening its membership.

I visited her in Washington D.C. and wrote and read an epithalamion for her marriage to John Woodbridge. It was a great joy to see Carolyn reveling in that "Afternoon Happiness," as she called it in one of her poems. Once she had moved first to Berkeley, and then to Sonoma, I visited with her and John whenever I could. The last time I saw her, in Sonoma, she had gone deep into silence. I tried one topic or another, recited a few of her own poems to her, asked for her help with a poem-in-progress and got no answer. Finally, I decided to respect her choice of silence and simply sat there, looking at the shadows on her face, how its angles picked up the late afternoon light, and at the beauty, not of old age exactly, but of what life had written on her, and what she had written on herself through her work and her life. My silence found a response from her, as none of my words had.

She asked, "What are you looking at?"

I said, "I'm looking at you. You're so beautiful," which was not flattery but truth.

She said, loudly, emphatically, "Bullshit!"

Thank the Goddess, there was my Carolyn again, back from silence, with her old strength, putting up with none of it, whatever it was, not a black rose, not a pink panther, but a lioness of the mind.