Double Wedding Ring Quilt

When they exchanged wedding rings
did they know
it was only the start of sorting
through work baskets of “why”
and “what it all means,” a ragbag
of eye-strain and piece work?
Now, seventy eight and seventy five,
they hold the quilt between them
as you snap their photograph.

It scalloped their bed
that first night he brought her
home, they tell you; covered
that winter the kids got so sick;
full moons when she couldn’t sleep &
he brought warm milk upstairs;
the year the Wahoosac Mill closed;
evenings he came home after midnight
and she didn’t ask; the time
their oldest girl “got caught”
with Harry Benson; memories,
and happy ones as well:
wedding rings, closed
circles, how they twined,
too hot, awake, and, honey,
holding through damp nights
he told her all his
dreams and she agreed.

Did you think they would ever
become fashionable, old quilts,
pale remnants fading here,
stitched by some village spinster
on a back road in Vermont,
whole townships of clothing fragmented

yet holding together somehow?
Did you understand
their quarrels meant nothing
in the end, that the pastel
wheels on the bed would last
longer than they, that in clear
sunny air they would lighten
into thin shades of themselves
and that the double-wedding-ring
quilt, tattered inheritance,
would flatten deckle edges
in your own white city room?
“It belonged to my parents,”
you will explain.

–Kathleen Spivak

Kathleen read this poem at her poetry reading in Cambridge last week. It is included in her latest volume of poetry, Moments of Past Happiness. In addition to sharing her poetry from a long and productive career, Kathleen told a few stories about her early days in Boston when she was studying with Robert Lowell. It was through Lowell that she met that extraordinary generation of female poets–Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop.

One of her comments that I found particularly fascinating was the comparison of East Coast and West Coast poets in the 1960s. Kathleen had originally wanted to go to San Francisco to be part of the Beat world that was constellating around City Lights Bookstore in the form of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Her scholarship brought her to Cambridge instead.

Looking back, she pointed to the extraordinary legacy that Lowell began by his devoted commitment to younger poets, particularly his female students. That tradition has continued and can still be seen with the dedication of Boston based poets such as Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart and Gail Mazur.

The City Lights crowd did not take that approach. “I don’t think Ginsberg mentored a single woman poet, let alone any young poets at all,” Kathleen said. And I think it is fair to say that the Boston/Cambridge area is more poetry-centric today than San Francisco.

How often it happens that some small gesture takes hold, then everything down the road is changed because of it. One of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little Time, posits that very argument in political settings. But the “small gesture influence” applies to other fields as well. Lipstick traces, as Greil Marcus coined it, is a good reminder that legacy of influences are often nonlinear and frequently unidentified by the historical canon. But they have impact nonetheless.

The “long tail” of our actions today seems a sobering thought, especially just one day from the election of our lifetimes. After making calls for the Obama campaign this weekend, I can only hope that people understand that their vote on Tuesday has serious, significant consequences.