Deborah Garrison, formerly an editor at The New Yorker, is currently the poetry editor at Alfred A. Knopf and a senior editor at Pantheon Books. She is the author of A Working Girl Can’t Win and Other Poems (Random House, 1998).
Before I started working as an editor of poetry books, when I was still a magazine editor, I used to roam indiscriminately in my extracurricular reading among poetry, novels, and short stories. I was on a long poetry jag in 1999 when, after basking in the familiar voices of poets I already admired (Louise Glück and C.K. Williams both had good new books that year), I came across Stan Rice’s fifth collection, The Radiance of Pigs, just published by Alfred A. Knopf. I’d never heard of Rice, but the borzoi imprint seemed a recommendation of quality; I had no idea that only ayear later I would be working as an editor at Knopf and that one of my authors would be Stan Rice. Nor did I realize, as I puzzled over Rice’s refreshingly nervy work (was he a Beat? a distant southern cousin of the writers of the New York School? a postmodern devotee of Wm Blake?), that he was married to the novelist Anne Rice. I had read Radiance twice, smitten in particular with Rice’s neatly crafted, almost radioactive shorter poems, before I even glanced at the book’s back flap, where the bombshell about his marriage, as well as his literary history, was relayed. But who could focus on such externals when confronted with the almost psychedelic precision of Rice’s internal world? Take for example these eleven lines titled “The Thing in the Dirt”:
In the garden, lying
By the brick wall in the dirt
Where the sprinklers drench each night
And the sun never shines
I saw something black,
It looked like feces of the elephant ear,
In plastic wrap, thrown
Under the plants, repulsive as offal,
Daring me to fall on it and
Eat it if I really loved life.
The poem serves as a useful entrée to Rice’s worldview. He shrank from nothing and didn’t trouble himself about anyone else’s idea of good taste. In the time we worked together, I marveled at his high-stakes creative impulse and learned to respect the way his on-the-street (sometimes in-your-face) immediacy was countered by a surprisingly staunch formality, a closet strictness about rhythm and shape. I began to grasp that, as is so often the case with writers, Rice’s person was like his writing: pungent, self-knowing, and proud. Now, to my great sadness, Stan is gone, having died of brain cancer December 9, 2002, at the age of 60. This month sees the posthumous publication of his final collection, False Prophet, which I sent to press without him.
It was lucky for me that Rice was one of my first subjects—or victims, perhaps—in my new job as a poetry editor. (In those first months, I had to remind myself daily that there was no way to walk in the footsteps of the illustrious Harry Ford, the editor who’d brought such poets as W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Philip Levine to the house—that to walk at all was an accomplishment.) The manuscript of Rice’s Red to the Rind (2002), originally called “The Daylight Moon” (a title I found unexciting and, perhaps impertinently, asked him to scrap in one of my first communications with him), came in during my first month on the job, and was followed by lively letters from its author, arguing over points I had raised (he was more than willing to find a better title). He let me know early on that he did not “do” phone, but his correspondence—mostly real letters, which arrived addressed in his hand, in the time-honored fashion—was a joy: by turns casual and formal, like his poems, and courting an intimacy that felt earned line by line.
Some poets—most, actually—are not easy to edit, because their work has been conceived in a mental and emotional space that bars all entry by outsiders. And yet it’s also true that good writers, even great ones, can be open to suggestions, eager to be better than they already are. Rice was of this type. He was receptive to line and word changes within individual poems (the poems, I noticed, were still alive to him as problems), and he agreed to cut several very long and, I felt, rather “out there” poems from his manuscript. But he also let me know how important the long-poem form was to him, and pinpointed my prejudices as a reader while educating me about his own. “Perhaps someday in the future we can discuss what I am trying to achieve in…my more ‘excessivist’ and experimental poems,” he wrote. “The ones you like best are shorter, more compact, and at the end they tend to—paraphrasing Yeats—‘click shut like a box.’” He explained that he saw his longer poems, with their more “open strategies,” as a point on a straight line from Whitman, Pound, Zukofsky, Lawrence, Olson, Ginsberg, and O’Hara. Not bad company, though Rice on the page has more the footprint of an iconoclast than of one who walks in a straight line from anything. From his first publications, it seems, Rice was a lone wolf, inventing himself as a poet. In Whiteboy (1976), a poem titled “Poems and Marriage” describes the sensation of roots pushing down through the chair he sits on as he writes, suggesting that his poetic roots are self-generated (and that his drive to write poetry is solipsistic, an unfortunate distraction from his role as a husband). “A vain and selfish flower,” he writes, “is growing downward from my / tip-of-spine,” and he finishes: “One day / standing up from this chair / will rip my heart out.”
Rice’s heart was ripped out, but not by poetry. His collection Some Lamb (1975) was published three years after the death of Stan and Anne Rice’s first child, Michele, who died at the age of six from leukemia. (They later had a son, Christopher, who is a novelist.) What Rice faces in these poems is truly unspeakable, yet he is determined to speak it, in a thousand different ways. In “Incanto,” he catalogues the details of the end:
In rumpled suit no tie unshaven
5 a.m. & fumbling Intern,
This probably his first death, mine too
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The oxygen tent ripped back, the cooler roaring for nothing, me
Squeezing the rubber bag trying to find the rhythm of a breather sleeping
That her heart might recognize
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The head nurse massaging the chest a deep gurgle like a clogged trap
NO RESPONSE, Anne
“Can’t we do anything, isn’t there anything else we can do?” The Doctor
Stands up, “You can stop now, we might as well stop kidding ourselves, she’s
Gone,” and my head cocks sideways like the RCA Victor dog
& I bend over & her lips part easily & wetly & I give her
the long kept sexual kiss of father
to daughter, too late
That ambiguous, terrifying kiss: How many fathers would give voice to it? Rice’s willingness to do so is almost exhilarating. Elsewhere he finds something close to repose in the same scene, when he writes, “look! a shaft of light pierces the dustball: just that effortlessly / she went.” (Odd how both versions seem equally true.) Or he manages a cool distance, as in “Sonnet”: “No more child. Much less fathering / therefore. Much less mothering to know.” Hardest to bear is the naked brutality of the collection’s title poem, in which Death, having finished its meal, remarks, “That was / Some lamb.” Stan and I never spoke about his daughter. But I knew that the remarkable poems in Some Lamb were, for him, the only possible response to her death, that in the course of writing them he discovered a clarity of purpose (and earned a horrific badge of pain) from which all his future work would issue. There was more trouble to come: In Body of Work (Lost Roads, 1983), we find him “Wrecked on the wine, on wreckage / itself. Wrecked on what / some call / the dog.” It is a case, he jokes bitterly, of “Losing the haystack finding the needle. / Singing along with the wrecking ball.” The point was—and this, too, would become a lifelong theme—that he was still singing, wrecking ball or not.
Born in 1942, in Dallas, Rice met Anne O’Brien in high school in Richardson, Texas. They married young, in 1961, and Michele was born in 1966. Perhaps it is no accident that in the same years that Stan was composing his own chronicle of loss, Anne was finding her way toward Interview With the Vampire (1976), written as it is out of deep psychological engagement with the idea of the living dead. The first in the series of vampire books that would make her an international sensation, Interview changed the Rices’ lives forever. No one can comprehend what goes on in a marriage, of course, other than the two people who are in it, but it’s fair to say that many marriages between two writers would not have survived the kind of fame and money that arrived with Anne’s success. The pair remained together for 41 years, and Stan gave up his position as head of the creative writing program at San Francisco State in 1988 when they moved to New Orleans, the city of Anne’s childhood and of her imagination. Though this was her turf, it became a rich vein in Stan’s work (some of those Whitmanian longer experiments owe their macabre charm to the atmosphere of the city), and the financial ease that came with Anne’s career allowed Stan to pursue his art full time.
His art, increasingly, involved painting as well as poetry; he set up a studio in the guest house behind the Rices’ main residence in the Garden District, and began producing canvases with the same Fauvist energy of his poems, taking similar risks: He would put things together in a painting that didn’t seem to go together, without fearing (indeed at times courting) the possibility of mixed results. One startling work is Hitler Denies to Six Million Jews the Watermelon of Life; in Taxi, a ghoulish family of dogs tries to hail a cab (actually, it’s wonderful). Among these visions—which, even more than his poems, seem “found” in some way—are a few simple, gorgeous still lifes, perhaps the equivalent of his exquisite short poems: caps hanging on a hook, poppies melting into an orange-red background.
Few writers can afford the luxury of a life devoted solely to their work, and lesser men might have been undone by it all and might not have produced in the way that Rice continued to do. Still, I have sometimes wondered if it wasn’t a mistake for Rice to come to Knopf—in the eyes of the world, his wife’s publisher—which he did with Singing Yet, a volume of new and selected poems, in 1992. Over the years he has not received the review attention that other poets on the Knopf list generally enjoy, as though critics weren’t sure if we were publishing Stan because he was Anne Rice’s husband, and didn’t know what to make of the work as a result. As one who had made my way into his poems before I knew about his marriage, this pained me, though I never raised the subject, and Stan didn’t either.
Last summer Rice wrote to let me know that, though we had just published Red to the Rind, he was almost ready to send us a new manuscript, which he called “False Prophet.” It was, he explained, a series of his own biblical psalms; he promised that it “breaks every rule, written and unwritten,” adding, “The book dovetails with events of 9/11 uncannily, yet 90 percent of poems were written before that event.…Who says a false prophet can’t be accurate?”
A few weeks later I learned that Stan had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I wrote him immediately, and received in return a spidery handwritten note that would be the last from him. He stated briefly that he was dealing with “the T-rex of brain tumors, glioblastoma Grade 4,” and went on to say, “I will poem and paint until I am a cauliflower, for I still look forward to each day.” Apparently that’s what he did. About a month after Stan’s death I received at last the manuscript of “False Prophet,” with a heartbreaking letter from Anne Rice: “He went to his studio every day for as long as he could, even though he finally had to be strapped upright into his wheelchair.… Only when his right hand finally weakened to the point that he couldn’t write or paint and his vision was blurry did he go to bed.” She spoke of Stan as a “secular saint,” a man devoted wholly to his writing and painting. “It is my considered opinion,” she wrote, “that for decades the fanfare surrounding my novels hurt Stan’s career brutally and unfairly. He never received the recognition that he deserved.”
It was difficult for me to turn to the manuscript itself—by now a communication from beyond. I was acutely aware that whatever I might feel about the work, there would be no further conversation between Stan and me, no editorial negotiation of the kind we had come to enjoy. But the work supplied the conversation. “Lord, hear me out,” the book begins, with “Psalm 151,” thus taking up where the Bible leaves off. “At the point of our need / The storehouse shares its shambles.” Each piece is a prayer, an enraged or grateful or haunted or cackling song, for our existence, full of nonsensical questions without question marks: “Is that old sock in the back yard / In a coffee can worth going to hell for. Is a Superdome full of screaming women.”
Instead of supplying the answers we might crave in response, each poem finishes with the mysterious Hebrew word Selah. (Webster’s 10th calls it “a term of uncertain meaning…carried over untranslated into some English versions” of the Psalms.) The effect is oddly deadpan, as in: “Have I heard my last mandolin. / Selah.” Or “And after the walk the blindfold is always wet. / Selah.” As Rice’s psalms accumulate, you begin to read the word as a kind of “So be it,” or maybe a “Thus I set it down for you to ponder”—a ritual utterance that recalls us to the act of writing itself, and to its sacredness, even in the face of the unanswerable questions throughout. For me, the Selah, as the last word on each page, also carried another meaning. These poems were Stan’s last words, and had to be considered finished. With the exception of a few superficial points about Stan’s unorthodox spellings, which I found myself lingering over unduly, I would publish the manuscript exactly as he left it.
False Prophet is meant as a book about foresight, but what I find most moving in it is perhaps a product of hindsight—not, that is, the prophetic sense of a world going to hell due to terrorism and other forms of social, political, and personal corruption, but the feeling of a writer composing his own farewell, and the profound love of life, with all its burdens and beauties, that is stitched into every verse. I can’t help but hear “Psalm 212,” which closes the collection, as the intentional final statement of a poet who, as he put it so eloquently, looked forward to each day:
…I was lost
and sang my broken-down songs in the hell of the hour.
Then in my heart moved an oar,
And I was found by a breeze from a door in the sea of forms
And was rowed to the cherry trees on the shore.