Vivian Shipley

Holly Stevens, 67; Edited Father’s Work

 

March 6, 1992, New York Times

 

 

 

Holly, you were never able to slip the noose of your name,

your father, Wallace Stevens. You may have dared to

mouth his universal intercourse, but there was no circling

Hartford, Connecticut smashed together with local boys

in the back seat of a Chevy, saying fuck this, fuck that.

 

A genius at seventeen, your father wrote to his mother

from Ivyland on July 31, 1896: The piping of flamboyant

flutes, the wriggling of shrieking fifes with rasping

dagger-voices, the sighing of bass-viols. Your voice silent,

editing his poems and letters became a constant sacrament

 

of praise. Even though you had a son, your first husband

like the second was a comma in your life. If there had

been another Spencer Tracy, you might have become

a Katharine Hepburn down from the Fenwick section

of Old Saybrook, but your back and waist relaxed

 

only under your father’s hands. Holly, when I first moved

to Joshua’s Cove in Guilford’s Great Harbor, you told

me the same story again, again—the time your father

gathered beach roses, a bouquet for you to hold while

he waltzed you, how he arced you into air, how it was

 

the only time he wrapped you in his arms, how he comes

to you in dreams: Harvard crimson stripes in his shirt,

the mole on his cheek. When you woke up crying, he

was never there to comfort you; your hand was clutching

the bed post not his arm. Knowing what I was in for,

 

I would invite you to our parties anyway. Veined ankles

thickened with pain, your feet swollen, flip flopping

in chenille slippers, we ferried you over to Horse Island

in our Boston Whaler. Wedged in between the caterer’s

foiled trays, you couldn’t believe Allyn, my husband,

 

had never heard of your father. Trying to be polite,

you substituted the word sailor in The soldier is poor

without the poet’s lines. Our other guests, expecting

impersonal conversations of the usual Yacht Club sort

leaned on deck railing, but Holly, you would not let go

 

of your father, how he looked on a Sunday morning

in a Pendleton bathrobe and slippers, how Eternity

was his hand scurrying across a sheet of paper. Dilled

salmon got cold; still you’d go on sharing your fantasy:

your father would nibble first your left then right ear,

 

whispering you were his darling, music in your eyes,

rhythm in folds of your dress. You were sure his lines,

The two are one. / They are a plural, a right and left,

a pair were for you. No poetry of your own, you spoke

his words from Notes toward a Supreme Fiction as if

 

they were in a grammar known exclusively to you.

Dinner was served, oblivious to the food, you kept

trying to entertain my friends by quoting With six meats

and twelve wines. Touching dents in my pewter bowl

as if fingering scars, irritated because no one listened,

 

you snapped your father would have said my guests were

well-stuffed,/ Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade.

I crossed you off my list. Noon light unmitigated by cloud,

shadow would shift, then not. Long Island Sound became

slate, concentrated as emotion in your father’s poems. Holly,

 

I wondered if you studied the plane of water so long because

it held back what was beneath surface just as your father did.

No hat or boots in winter, a coat in summer, you were out

of season, prowling the beach. The moon pulling, a leash

of foam at your heels,to create your myth, a face for morning,

 

you pretended to be Rita Hayworth with flaming hair

in Gilda. Skyy blue vodka bottle in hand, empty, you’d fling

it onto the rocks. Neighbors complained; you lectured about

blue sea glass, how it was rare, rare as your father, an insect

trapped in amber who held your gaze but never satisfied need

 

for touch, how it was blue as the blue guitar: Things as they

are / Are changed upon the blue guitar. Anchoring our dock,

perfect in its roundness, there was a boulder of granite as big

as the water tank. You saw it move on the average of two

or three times a week. Usually, you would phone, but if chop

 

from Long Island Sound was stilled, you’d holler across

Joshua’s Cove, swearing the boulder had rolled four,

maybe five feet toward the water. I would run to see,

but it had always rolled back. No matter, your father had

Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds.

 

 

 

from All of Your Messages Have Been Erased © 2010

 

 

 

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