The View from Mattie’s Pillow

The Cruelest Month

The days are warmer now—in the 40s (Fahrenheit) but in the teens at night.  In the corral, the snow is melting and compacting to hardpack ice, and gradually all the manure we didn’t manage to collect throughout the winter—first the ice storm, a series of deep snowstorms, several flus, and other distractions—is emerging in ragged brown mounds through the ice.  Sam looks pretty ragged, too.  His gloriously long teddy bear coat is coming out in clumps and hangs from his belly in a ratty profile.  I was afraid that there was no horse beneath all that hair, but after much work with the shedding blade, his fine short summer coat is emerging and with it his aging athlete’s muscle definition.

As Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month”—for there have been a string of deaths that have emptied out my reserve of grief.  The most recent, yesterday, was my long-time poet friend, Joe Enzweiler.  Joe has been struggling with brain cancer for the past two years—who knows how long the tumors had actually been there, but by the time they were diagnosed, he was on a slow slide off the slippery slope of the planet.

Joe trained as a physicist, but always wrote poetry and, when I met him, he was one of the brilliant young men in a writers’ workshop that also included Dan O’Neill, Linda Schandelmeier, Jean Anderson, Patricia Monaghan, Gerald Cable, Elyse Guttenberg, and me.  Joe was the one whose poems always seemed to contain a vocabulary that flew off the page to somewhere unexpected.   He was tall and wiry with an unruly tangle of blonde hair and an elusive quality—he would leave town for his brother’s farm in Kentucky nearly every year, so that he seemed to have the Cheshire quality of appearing and disappearing.

He managed to make a life for himself in a cabin he built among birch trees on Old Cat Trail.  He had electricity, but no running water, and he heated with wood.  One of the ways he meditated on the nature of this world and generated poems was to head out to his woods with a Swede saw and cut small trees—thinning out his patch of forest—which he stacked in a mosaic pattern under his porch.  He also stacked rocks, and had a years’-long project building a fieldstone wall through his brother’s Kentucky property.

Joe believed writers should write, no more, no less.  Because he had his land and could do carpentry work in the summer, most of his time was spent just writing—or running, or reading, or cutting wood, or engaging us in long conversations that drifted along as if there were no other demands on either person’s life.  Talking to Joe could make you feel that work was an indulgence, a distraction.  The true work was the written word.

Joe and I had a years’-long habit of getting together for Poetry Thursdays.  It started when he needed help navigating a computer version of one of his books—what to do about margins, fonts, etc.  It evolved into sometimes his reading aloud new drafts of his developing memoir, or my reading him new poems or horse essays.  He took the manuscript of my book and chapbook and gave me useful suggestions on poem order, sections, and the paring away of words.

Every Christmas, we would go to Joe’s place to thin out a spruce from “Joe’s Tree Farm.”  We would stop for tea first, then head out in a rush to find a tree before the waning light left us.

Now, he has left us.  “So many,” Eliot says, “I had not known death had undone so many.”  But Eliot’s words still live—and so will Joe’s.  And he was right: writing (or art or whatever we can create out of our own uniqueness) is the true work.  The rest is distraction.

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4 Responses to “The View from Mattie’s Pillow”

  1. Karen Douglass Says:

    My sympathy. He seems like an admirable person. I am glad you have his work to lean on.

  2. Amy Vorro Says:

    Great post, Cindy. No one could have said it better.

  3. beth caissie Says:

    This is a beautiful description of Joe. Thank you for posting it–my heart is so heavy today.

  4. Vivian Faith Prescott Says:

    Cindy,

    Sorry to hear about your friend Joe. Thanks for sharing this post with Alaska 49 Writers.

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