Marie Ponsot, poet, translator, teacher, stroke survivor, nonagenarian writer of acclaim who wrote for twenty-five years in obscurity, single mother of seven (six of them boys!), lifelong Catholic, writer of my all-time favorite poem “Among Women” and co-author of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, died a few weeks ago, July 5, at age 98.
I’ve had four poems of hers on the docket for my file-clearing project (Franz Wright’s been done, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Grace Paley still to come). I posted them just after she died. These wouldn’t be the poems I’d choose if this were a planned tribute to Ponsot—not that they’re anything less than wonderful—they just aren’t my favorites of hers, which is the reason they have been in my leftover pile for so long.
I was helping to move one of my daughters from Baltimore to northern Michigan and Ponsot’s mothering eye seemed just right for the moment. You can read a good obituary of Ponsot here. Meantime, let’s start with “After the Pastoral.” I taped it to a window in my daughter’s Baltimore apartment where she’s lived for the last two years.
I’m sure that come September This year my child goes where I can’t follow will be a painful line for many mothers. I myself went through those farewells years ago, but that maternal feeling of being ferocious with fear just never goes away.
(I’m not understanding the last line—I picture a mother nursing a baby, innocent of the anxiety mothering older children brings—but let me know how you read that line.)
I set “Climbing in Big Bend National Park” on a brick wall as I walked to buy more packing tape. Not the best spot for this poem, but people, I was in Baltimore.
The side of the mountain like a pelvic floor? I’ll never forget that. Or this: We city people laugh to shrug off awe
On packing day my daughter discovered that her elderly next-door neighbor had once been an art teacher at her high school back in Michigan. I taped “What the Worn Rhymes Find” to a planter on the former art teacher’s front porch.
Cyanide and gold, the stain of the woman’s long lies, of the tough unsayable. Poisonous and precious. What a description of family secrets! What rhymes, not worn at all, so effortless!
Lastly I put “The Problem of Revolution” at a Panera condiments bar at a rest stop along the Pennsylvania turnpike.
The charming details of the clothes and the dessert, the guests (the scented aunt who thinks her new/and the cousin, ten, who sees her old) come to a hard stop at the poem’s end. Who remembers that feeling of disconnection, of crawling out of your skin to get away from what used to comfort?
To close this post, here’s Lizzie just before she put a framed Anais Nin quote in the uHaul.
“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”
That seems as good a summary as any for a young woman beginning a new chapter of her life and a great poet doing the same.
From a previous post, a short bio of Ponsot:
Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921. She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University. After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot. She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States. She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family. In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.
Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed. When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards. Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves: her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.
Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter. Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.
As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem. I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood. Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out. Children, too, wander as best they can.
The book is still in print. My children loved it. Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.