One Art


Susan Feldman (b. 1950)
There's a superb line in Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" -- that 1968 song that hit number one on the Billboard chart. It goes: "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" I could have used a similar heading for this week's feature. If this sounds puzzling, let me try to clarify.

Twenty-five years ago I bought a thick book entitled "The American Poetry Anthology" in an Amsterdam bookstore. How can I be so lucid about the occasion? Well, not on account of my trustworthy memory, to be sure: on the inside cover I had scrawled my initials and then the date and place, "Dec. 86, A'dam." Edited by Daniel Halpern and dedicated to Stanley Kunitz, the anthology included work by emerging artists ("poets under forty," the back cover affirmed).

I still remember how much I admired the young poets I found in this compilation. Russell Edson was there, Carolyn Forché was there, Tess Gallagher was there, Louise Glück, Marilyn Hacker were there, … But for me the highlight of the volume was one Susan Feldman. The obligatory "Notes on the Poets" had this to say about her:
Susan Feldman (1950) was born and grew up in Brooklyn. She attended Simmons College in Boston and received a B.A. in English in 1971. She received her M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, where she studied with Anne Sexton, John Malcolm Brinnin, and Donald Barthelme. She is presently living and writing in Boston, and working as the assistant to an editor of a Boston publisher.

The anthology had four beautiful poems by Feldman, but it was the following that utterly blew my mind.

Lamentations Of An Au Pair Girl

Some days, I'm sorely tempted to throw out the baby
with his bathwater, or jettison the babe and save
the juice for soup stock: we're thrifty here. But
his little cries are so sweet!
Days are spent with my marrowbones crossed under me,
apron loose, swabbing the floor with my clubfoot: it's
slow work but I'm satisfied when the job's complete.
My room? A little box with bluing
hanging on hooks, and the master wouldn't think
to ask before entering, but what's to be done?
It's le droit de seigneur, and sex
is a vile itching, peroxide on the skin,
but necessary as bread. One does well,
dear Miss, not to put up a fuss,
and take one's tea, as expected, with the rest.

I still cannot read this poem without feeling devastated. Narrated in a voice that feigns naiveté, it is heartbreaking, flamboyant and desperate. This girl with a clubfoot is completely true to life and yet terrifying. She is both adorable and sickening. Many years later I would read the following passage in an essay by John Updike and have at last some clue about the inscrutable effect of this poem on me:
In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity  […] An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy, and pity.

When I raked through the Internet for a bio and a photo, I discovered (at any rate at the outset) baffling leads about Feldman. It became plain that her middle name was Helen, and that she had published another incredible poem ("How The Invalids Make Love," also available in the anthology) in The New Yorker. But that was it; no more tangible data were to be had. I came across a Susan Feldman, appearing on a social network, who had a matching alma mater complete to the year of graduation and proudly declared "extensive experience in writing, editing and consulting on editorial projects." Little by little I was becoming convinced that this Feldman was identical to my Feldman. But I wanted to be 100 percent sure.

I needed to subscribe to the network to be able to e-mail her and corroborate her identity. Now I had mixed feelings about that. It was only last summer when I bailed out of all social networks I had once so keenly used; I didn't want to go back to those days again. Still, I was geared up to complete my subscription, but the clock was ticking. While precision is perhaps one fine quality for a columnist, getting in print on schedule is of course a more desirable one. So I gave up. I decided not to get in touch with Ms. Feldman and ask for particulars (the social network concealed the photo unless you became a member; now, wasn't that clever). Lacking a detailed, up-to-date bio of her did not hurt either, I thought.€ After all the poem spoke for itself. With these feelings, I closed my search window and turned off the lights.

So, this is why I am still asking today, with a certain air of optimism and expectation: "Where have you gone, Susan Feldman?"

Avon Books published the Halpern anthology in 1975, viz. more than a decade before my acquisition. By the time I was reading it, the poets were not that young, I presume.
The Updike quote is from "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women," edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman, Henry Holt Books (2006).

About social networks, the King James Bible warns: "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."