And the Immaculate White Bed

August 25, 2013
Sunday

Flowers through the window
lavender and yellow

changed by white curtains –
Smell of cleanliness –

Sunshine of late afternoon –
On the glass tray

a glass pitcher, the tumbler
turned down, by which

a key is lying – And the
immaculate white bed
— William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963
American poet and physician
“Nantucket”

I first knew this poem in, probably, 1967. I say “probably,” because I was introduced to it by poet-professor Leon Feldman, who was the guiding light in my first college level American literature course, in my sophomore year at Harrisburg Area Community College, 1966-1967. We used The Norton Anthology of American Literature, a two-volume set that took the traditional chronological approach. William Carlos Williams would have been in Volume II, for the second semester.

I still have that Norton set. It has my earnest underlinings, my notes in the margins. Some of those notes, I had occasion to recall recently, are in Hebrew (pertaining to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown”) that I could no longer read when I studied the story in a graduate class in 1992, causing me to seek help from a neighborhood youngster who was preparing for his bar mitzvah.

Leon Feldman, with his passion for poetry, his demanding standards concerning language, and his editorial expertise, made me the devotee of American literature I am today. This development no doubt has disappointed him (we have been in touch in recent years), since his real passion was English literature. That he was able to present American literature with such joy and such enthusiasm despite his lesser love of it is testament to what an extraordinary teacher he was.

Thus it is that I recall my introduction to William Carlos Williams and his “Nantucket.” It would have been in early spring, in a classroom on the second floor of a building that had once been a residence when the complex was a boarding school (the women’s restroom down the hall from our classroom had a bathtub). I can still see Mr. Feldman walking to the window, looking out (the view was of the river opposite the high hill where my studio is), and reciting the poem. He told us that he had recited it to his wife upon entering their room in the Nantucket B&B where they spent their honeymoon. I thought that was just the most romantic thing.

2013-08-25 12.42.52It came to mind today as I entered my home for the next five days, pictured at left. This is the Arthur Miller Room at When Words Count Retreat, a place for writers run by Jon Reisfeld and Paul Eisner, two energetic men with experience in publishing, promotion, and editing. I was here in April for a very brief stay, and have returned to have a quiet space between the busy-ness of Bread Loaf and the beginning of a new season of the suburban community life that puts me in roles other than writer.

I had a productive and professionally enriching experience at Bread Loaf this year. But it’s a writers’ conference, not a retreat. I have been extraverting for two solid weeks, bumping up against other people’s energy, moving from lecture to craft class to workshop to reading according to a schedule so complicated I have to make a chart.

I am high above Route 100, a few miles from the town of Rochester, Vermont, thirteen miles over the river and through the woods from Bread Loaf. There is no cell phone service here. For some of the days, there will be no other guests. I spent the morning organizing the details of my plan for moving forward with my novel and writing my evaluation of Bread Loaf 2013. Then I slept for three hours.

I will be here until Friday. I expect to be changed by the white curtains.




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