It's Peaceful in Cambridge: The Poetry of Susannah Robbins

Susannah Robbins died on Tuesday the 27th of December. She died peacefully in hospice in Cambridge.

"Amelie's Statement"

one's feelings change.
there could be no definitive
sentence of size,
such statement otherwise....

and so one needs
recursive entries into time
to show one lives.
and that's why one still reads
after life gives
all that one knows is all, and grieves
its own changing
in new growth challenging
perfection, then, in
sight of time, in another's rhyme,
one newly leaves
grief where the grief has been

Can you hear the influence of Yeats, Donne, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Creeley in this complex series of sounds that are the meaning of this beautiful poem that is also very much her own?

It must have been the late 70's or early 80's when Susannah Robbins & I found ourselves in a poetry group together, which often met at Pat Rabby's house in Lexington, sometimes on her screened-in porch. I would pick Susannah up at her place on Shepherd St. and we would talk up a storm. There was something moving about her confidence, her lack of pretention, and her modesty.

She has a subtle sense of sound, she cares nothing for what is fashionable--what is everlasting is her concern, and her poetry is essentially lyrical. At times it's formal, even a sonnet once in a while. For over a decade she wrote mainly in syllabics. She cries and laughs at some remove in her poetry, disciplined and skilled as she is. You can hear a bit of Matthew Arnold's melancholy coming through.

From "Amelie's Composure":

Sitting under the shadow
of trees that are not trees,
a light that is not a light,
love (it is barely love) .....

Always there are stacks of paintings, watercolors, etchings, prints, and drawings in her apartments. Last year she had a show at Neville Place, the assisted living facility on Fresh Pond where she has lived in recent years. She's appreciative of every little stimulus or treat. One day when I went to see her she was in the main room for an art lecture that though well done was nothing new to her yet she was listening with interest, and beaming as she ate the piece of requested key lime pie.

From an earlier time, some of "Amelie Lives":

The tide
I see has no
starting place, running
up as it does freely as
children's hands and again back in confusion,
little disarray, laughing with
themselves half-seen.
The surge of the full
tide against its limit carries
the weight and the rush
as though it were some self-
floating sea
creature, in one with
itself, where all motion is one....

....Unconscious the sea
returns again; somewhere the sand
notes all of this, and sighs in its half-openness
like a child sleeping, half-hearing the rain.

Hear Stephens in "some self-floating sea"? (Why the name Amelie, I asked. It's a combination of the Dutch lieder singer, Elly Ameling's, name, and her friend Amy's, BTW. She is loyal to & incorporates those she has loved.)

Her personification is convincing; it isn't the easy, superficial kind. Nothing in her is superficial.

time, dark as
some lord drunk
with power leaning
from a tower
predicting doom,

my mind nears
peace, here in
this dusk where
all wind leans
as in trust

(from "Amelie Forgets")

Her father, Herbert Robbins, was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th c and she inherited some of his acumen and ability to think logically. And political engagement. She edited two anthologies of political writing, Against the Vietnam War: Writings by Activists and Peace Not Terror: Leaders of the Antiwar Movement Speak Out, which include essays by such notable activists as Noam Chomsky and Staughton Lynd, with whom she is still in touch. Jane Bond Moore's essay in the Vietnam anthology discusses the roles of an African-American woman in the movement. These collections are varied and valuable historical documents.

"At my Harvard twenty-fifth reunion in 1992," Susannah writes in the introduction to the Vietnam one, "There was a symposium entitled 'Vietnam: The Choices We Made.' It was like a memorial service....
"In Harvard Square it seemed that the sidewalk was glass, that below it lay the rubble of the Vietnam War on which American society was built, and that no one was looking down.
"So, I would look down...."

She edited for a living, for example, books on impressionism and cultural illiteracy, novels, and political work. Yet she remains little known and underappreciated.

What does it mean to live Cambridge unrecognized? For her, this was always the place, after Radcliffe, then a PhD at Boston College, (with a thesis on Yeats, "The Perspective of Style"), then a brief stint teaching literature at Vassar. She tells me she feels free here. And that she loved her Harvard professors, for instance, David Riesman, the sociologist and author of The Lonely Crowd, and Hilary Putnam, the mathematician and philosopher. What she loved about her Boston College English professor and thesis advisor, Andy Von Hendy, is that 'he didn't talk. He let us talk.'

Why did she return here rather than go back to New York? Because it's peaceful, she says. Because it had become her real home. She loved living on Shepherd St., then on Oxford St., between Harvard and Porter Squares, loved the little grocery stores--she is sorry to see Evergood Market go--and the proximity to The Harvard Art Museums, where her work is collected, as it is at Vassar and Smith and in private collections and now in the estates of Meyer Schapiro and physicist Victor Weisskopf. Some years ago she had a show at the Cambridge cable station in Central Sq.--the funkiness of the venue seemed right for her.

Recently, when the few of us who visit her had a birthday party for her in her room she couldn't talk very much and lay in bed, sometimes dozing or just listening with her eyes closed, making a remark once in a while; what I keep with me is her loving smile.

There are those who live in Cambridge in relative anonymity, though with talent and accomplishment, and it has been better for them to live here than most other places, since they need to be surrounded by others who are talented and accomplished, if more traditionally successful than they are. Cambridge can accommodate them. If only it could do more for them.

Here is her painting of the building on Shepherd Street where she lived for decades in two rooms.

When I asked if she could say more about Cambridge, she said with typical concision, "It's beautiful." Then she remembered that "some old lady said that the garden in Radcliffe Yard is the closest thing in Cambridge to Heaven." I asked if she agreed. Yes, she answered, and she cried for a moment, maybe remembering better days.

From "Amelie is Honest" (written at Vassar):

In the morning the curtain
is quite quiet. There
sunlight lies, off-white,
warm, lying in loose short folds.

Susannah still sounds like a New York intellectual and retains some of the hands-on way she got at Putney, the school in Vermont where the students farmed as well as got their book learnin'. She grew up around Einstein (in 1952, when her father was at The Institute for Advanced Study), and Aldous Huxley and Alan Lomax in Manhattan, who visited them on 80th and Madison. I asked if her mother, an artist, was as brilliant as her father and she said certainly. Her father was at times social and her mother always, and she looks like each of them.

She has six books of poetry to her name, and, despite little critical attention, has gone on working because that's what she does. "Eclipse of the Moon" is the title poem of her book published by Elderberry Press in 2012. Other books of poems include her etchings and color prints.

Of her Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: A Memoir of the Sixties and Beyond, Howard Zinn wrote, "I am enormously impressed with the quality of the writing and the extraordinary portraits she has drawn of the people who crossed her life's path." She herself is extraordinary, another of Cambridge's unseen, unsung brilliant, and lives with that which means most to her. She just quoted this to me, from the song by Michael Balfe:

I dreamed I dwelt in marble halls
With vassals and serfs at my side....

But I also dreamt which pleased me most
That you loved me still the same.

From "Amelie Speaks with Love":

The gravity of certain
rainfalls is a feeling I
learned early on in spring, the May
love bloomed powerful as a
cherry's dark rind of
bark falling under showers speaking
the final transient language: we.