Friday, August 2, 2013

Memories of Lucy Grealy

I did not know Lucy Grealy well, but she was not the type of person you met without getting an impression, although in my case it may have been a more difficult process. I will say that it was a measure of her strong personality, rather than of my own self-absorbed obliviousness, that someone actually had to point out to me that her face was disfigured.

We attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for poetry at overlapping times together, and there probably wasn’t a semester she was not in the same workshop or seminar with me. It was mostly through these occasions, as well as other random ones, that I got to know her. My first memory of her I was sitting in a classroom-building hallway when she noticed a bandage on my arm. “Oh, I just had a blood test.” “Are you sick?” “A little sick,” I said. “I hope you get better soon.” She was very sweet on that occasion, her small, wiry body animated. It was only later that the wilted jaw, sometimes with drainage tubes in it, became a part of my mental picture of her. Her bearing was simply not that of a victim.

The poems she submitted for review in workshop tended to be sere. Her poetic talent, especially her penchant for written clarity, always came through. Often I try to remember one of her poems, which she may have published later in another form, that seemed a blend between Grimm’s tales, Kafka and what could only have been the spiritual austerity she must have learned through her ordeals with bone cancer and reconstructive surgery on her jaw. The poem involved mice, doorways and a tremendous sense of gray. As the months went on, she, herself, seemed increasingly dour, yet I also remember her laughing with her girlfriends, talking about the summer romance that she wished she to have.

I never recall her talking specifically about her ordeals with childhood cancer and recent cosmetic surgery, but she did speak once about narcotics. As a child it appeared she was becoming depended on the drugs that had controlled her pain. Lucy said her mother simply cut off the supply, and she lost the dependency through cold turkey. She told this story with a smile, and yet it was the moment I was most impressed personally with the pain that had shaped her life.

The last poem of hers I remember workshopping was very different, one recounting a personal encounter on a telephone, one that ended badly. We all liked the poem very much, but Lucy became contrite and surly, not so much in reaction to our positive evaluation, but, it seemed, to the fact that she had brought such a personal poem to the workshop at all. It was a personal embarrassment.

Years later I began looking up people I knew from the workshop days. The internet is a helpful and scary facilitator of that process. I was shocked and saddened to learn of Stephen McNally’s death and wrote a more than one elegy for him. Jane Mead and others had continued working in poetry, teaching or not teaching. Lucy, though, had a very popular memoir, Autobiography of a Face, that I could buy at my local bookstore, and occasionally I could find an article by her online. If someone had made it big that I knew, it was she. Only recently have I seen her interview with Charlie Rose, and there she is, looking very tall in her chair, unflappable, mistress of her own domain that seems to be wherever she is, whoever she’s with.

It was not long after I had read Autobiography of a Face that I became involved in Buddhism in a real way, and on a whim I went to that same bookstore where I bought her memoir and purchased for the very first time one of those slick, nationally-distributed dharma magazines. In that issue was a section about dharma and death. And in that section was an article about Lucy dying of an overdose of the drugs she had become addicted to over the course of a life dealing with pain from repeated corrective surgeries, though I’d guess the pain came from many other sources. It was another shock of loss. I didn’t know her well, but there had been something larger than life about Lucy. Also, I had to wonder what we poets had signed up for in life, if the fate of a poet was more doomed than another's.

I was also impressed at the facades we put up, the smiles and bearing that say we are okay; everything is fine. Sometimes they even ask: How could they not be fine with you? Toughness, something I’ve worshiped all my life, showed another one of its sharp-edged limits. It was less and less a worthy fetish.

But when it’s said and done, I didn’t know her that well. There is only this need to say what I can.

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