I just finished reading Kazim Ali’s “From the Open Sea: The Body and Lyric in the Poetry of Jane Cooper,” which appears in the March/April edition of APR. His meeting with Jane at her apartment in the summer of 2001 was not unlike mine in the spring of 1987. He describes the way she moves “around the kitchen slowly, deliberately, doing one thing and then another—warming the cups with hot water, pouring the hot water out, placing objects on a tray: the cups, a sugar dish, a creamer.” I remember her temperament—so unlike mine, so mannered, so precise, so attentive. Jane was not a multitasker—she performed each task singularly, almost Zen-like. When she was talking to you in conference, you really had the feeling she was thinking of nothing else—not another student and certainly not her own life. Kazim Ali brings it all back for me, with a pleasure and with a tiny sting. Of course she would go on to nurture other poets—she was Jane. But I also have a slight feeling of jealousy, like the first time I saw another patient waiting outside my therapist’s office. For months, I hadn’t seen anyone, as he saw me just before his lunch hour. Then we’d changed my time and there was another poor soul slumped in a chair in the waiting room—and I thought, “Hey, wait a minute!” It was the first time I realized fully that my therapist had other clients. But the sting I feel is only tiny, as I am exceeding grateful for Kazim’s recount of Jane and his thoughtful exploration of her poetry.
Most interesting to me is something I’d heard long ago but forgotten—that Jane never sought to publish her first book of poems about “a woman’s experience of war.” (This would have been post World War II.) I remember this story in relation to the MFA students at Sarah Lawrence-we were, of course, all eager to publish our work. What kind of restraint must Jane have had to spend years writing poems and then keeping them to herself? What kind of critical eye must she have had to judge her own work as not ready? Was it because she didn’t want the world to know about her lost love that we’d only heard and speculated about? Was he a soldier who’d died? Because she’d never married, we students were eager to know the details of her life. But for all her student-centeredness, all her devotion, Jane was not without boundaries. In fact, she was not co-dependent in the sense we know it now. We never would have felt it appropriate to cross the line and ask about her life or her own sorrow.
But now, I must admit, I am obsessed about those first poems. Where are they? What library has them? I don’t want to read them to find out about the lost love—I want now to see how they were made. What were her images like? How much white space did she use? Did she employ couplets? Were there meditative prose poems like those of her friend James Wright? Were they overtly political like those of her friend Muriel Rukeyser? How much were the poems concerned with the body and death?
I am at Yaddo this month and returning once again to Jane’s work, the signed copies she donated to the colony’s library. Jane had beautiful rounded handwriting, spanning books she signed from 1969-1995. The first poem in her first published book, The Weather of Six Mornings, begins: “I’ve died, but you are still living.”
Denise Duhamel, Yaddo