Notes on the One Year Anniversary of Anne Stevenson’s Death

I don’t remember how I found Anne; I don’t know if I came across her in one of my poetry anthologies or if I found her through my obsessive googling about Oxford, fetishising some far-off life of academia that could only take place under the light reflecting off the windows of the Radcliffe Camera. I remember very specifically reading ‘Temporarily in Oxford’ for the first time and feeling like finally someone understood me, had gone spelunking in my mind and turned up how I was feeling.

The poem begins with a reflection of home disguised as a reflection on burial:

Where they will bury me
I don’t know.
Many places might not be

sorry to store me.[1]

I don’t know where I’ll be buried either. I have always felt funny about the idea of home. Now that I’ve lived away from Texas for a while, the idea of calling myself a Texan has softened; I have become more attached to the place for not having to experience it daily. I struggle to say it’s my home, as I wasn’t raised there, but lived in four different places before I turned 11. In the last four years of my life I’ve lived in six different cities between the US and the UK. Nowhere feels mine — not enough to be buried there, anyway. Burial says something about you, and it often says something about ‘home’ that doesn’t always reflect our real homes: H.D. is buried in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she was born, lived for nine years, and then moved away for the rest of her life. Something like closing out your life where you began it? Do we want that symmetry? But then my parents want to be buried at an army base near our house in Texas, nowhere to do with where either of them grew up, because it’s free. My Texan ancestors are buried in a random field surrounded by a chain-link fence.

‘Temporarily in Oxford’ grabbed me not only by being kind-of about Oxford, a place I thought would house my whole future, but by starting from the Midwest while I was standing in Kansas and trying to look outward. The final stanza pushed to my other sense of home, to my love of a man who lived far away — in Oxford, in fact — noting, ‘It would be handy not | to have to cross the whole Atlantic | each time I wanted to | lift up the turf and slip in beside you’. Not only was this poem looking for home, but it was doing so using my map, centring itself around my axes.

I googled the poet, Anne Stevenson, and found that she played the cello, just like I did, and grew up in America and then had moved pretty much permanently to the UK at 21, like I was planning to (and like I did). She’d studied English in the Midwest, though she was in Michigan and I was in Kansas. When she died a year ago, my mom posted about her on Facebook, and said that she was ‘struck by the similarity in [our] lives’. Someone commented, ‘Sounds like an interesting lady.’

She was an interesting lady. She had three husbands. She had incendiary opinions. A friend of mine once met her at a party and told her he was studying Seamus Heaney. She asked him if he thought Heaney would ever live up to Yeats’ legacy. My friend tried to come up with some intelligent answer when Anne, profoundly deaf, interrupted him to shout: ‘Well he hasn’t!!’ Diana Collecott, who was a close friend of hers, reported to me something very funny Anne told her about her experience of motherhood that I think would be libellous to write here; from her poetry I think it’s safe to gather that it was never straightforward or easy for her.

When I finally met Anne at a poetry reading in Durham in 2019, I asked her if she would read ‘Temporarily in Oxford.’ She said, ‘That’s a naughty poem. I wrote it about an affair I had.’ I looked around the room, at her husband, at everyone there — you’re just going to tell everyone, Anne, just like that? She was incredibly open, it seemed to me; not ashamed that she’d lived a storied life. (In my fantasy I’m bidding for the contract to write her biography; nobody snipe me on this, I have a PhD to finish first.)

David M James, ‘Plate 49’ in Poets in a Lens [accessed 9 September 2021]

When I found out Anne had passed, I cried. I’d met her once, but she felt like an extension of myself: a woman who’d gone ahead of me and tried to puzzle out all the questions I had first. I was so immensely grateful I’d been able to meet her at all, but I felt heartbroken I’d missed out on really knowing her. I got out her little poetry collection she’d autographed to me and held it in little shaky hands. I’d wanted to interview her—now I’d never know what she’d think about my research.

A year later, I’m pretty confident she’d hate my research. In her essay ‘Some Observations on Women and Tradition,’ she writes, ‘[Y]ou specifically ask if, as a woman writer, I feel left out. My answer is no.’[2]


She then goes on to suggest that maybe it was easier for women to write before they were asked to make money doing it too, when women writers were spinsters supported by their families. Hm.

On the whole, she seems deeply unconvinced by postmodernist literary criticism, specifically feminist literary criticism, and more specifically the idea of ‘women’s writing’ as a generalised category. Given that my PhD thesis is about women’s writing in a generalised category sort of way, I’m somewhat glad I can receive these forceful blows of Anne’s opinions from a distance, written down, instead of delivered to me as I try to politely make notes while drinking a cup of tea.

That being said, whether she liked it or not, Anne’s poetry sheds an enormous amount of light on the experience of writing as a woman. Her poems deftly explore an anxiety she felt her entire adult life, about whether it’s possible to be a woman, with all its mid-twentieth century trappings, and a writer. In ‘Writing as a Woman’, she notes:

Though I have never considered myself to be a specifically feminist poet, many of my poems are about being trapped in domestic surroundings. I dread, and have always dreaded, that marriage, a home, and family, would sap my creative energies, that they would devour my time and my personality, that they would, in a venomous way I can’t easily explain, use me up.[3]

Ironically, as well, Anne did suffer as a woman writer. She struggled to gain the recognition she so deserved; her obituaries remembered her mostly for her biography of Sylvia Plath, a book she felt roped into writing and regretted afterwards. The letters Anne exchanged with Elizabeth Bishop while she was writing her instalment of the Twayne’s United States Author Series on Bishop confess her dislike of literary critics; yet it is her criticism that made her name, in part because of that very volume. Despite her many honours and publications, her work hasn’t found much of a critical foothold. Sometimes I wonder as well if she made a difficult bed for herself, trying to shout that women, too, were complex and sometimes bad people, at a time when the (albeit needed) revisionism of feminist critics wanted to make martyrs of maligned women like Plath.

David M James, ‘Plate 13’ in Poets in a Lens [accessed 9 September 2021]

As a poet, Anne was a keen and unflinching observer, both of her surroundings and her own life. Her distaste for the critical approaches I myself espouse came from a dogged insistence to report the world in its detail, to not blur things over into one easy theory. Reading her poetry feels like someone has reached out and snatched the world like a butterfly in their hands, unfurling their palm slowly to show it to you up close.

Her resistance to being lumped into a category with anyone else also comes across in the way her poetic voice seems to shuffle around the edges of a scene, reporting what it sees but never letting itself go, being absorbed. In ‘Travelling Behind Glass’ (maybe the perfect metaphor for this phenomenon), she presents an image of herself driving down a winding highway, past farms and lighthouses —

            ‘I imagine a life here, | felicitous,’ she writes, ‘And everything could be true, | the walled farmhouses, | the stone bridges, [. . .] possible, until stopping | makes them property: [. . .] and I with no name in this village, no one to meet.’[4]

Her particular gift was one of being able to imagine herself as so many other selves, living so many other lives, made possible only by remaining always in motion. To become rooted through rootlessness is what intrigues me about her work — how does one make a place for oneself by the very fact that one is placeless? And what about when you stop, when you die? When you must be placed? Where will they bury you?

Coming to Durham in 2018, I slowly came to know myself; to become comfortable in my own placelessness. I had not gotten into Oxford, like I’d dreamed, but found myself slowly creating a new life for myself in Durham, one that I — even as it was happening — couldn’t comprehend not having. In the blissful year I spent working on my MA, I managed to create a home for myself at St. Chad’s College, spending countless hours in its walled gardens chatting with my friends or writing my dissertation sprawled on a picnic blanket. While I could never say I was ‘from’ Durham, Chad’s felt like it was mine. Last month my former housemate from that year (now promoted to best friend) came to visit and talked endlessly about how she is always drawn back to Durham; she has lived in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands since we finished our masters degrees, but she keeps being pulled back into the orbit of Chad’s. There is something really there, for both of us.

When I came back to Chad’s for my PhD, I got onto the topic of Anne’s death with my friend who had met her. ‘Do you know where they buried her?’ I asked. ‘I can’t stop thinking about that poem; I want to know the answer.’

‘Oh, they didn’t bury her at all,’ my friend said. ‘She was cremated. But they scattered her ashes in St. Chad’s garden.’

Without even knowing, I’d followed Anne home. Our answer was the same; ultimately, our restless feet touched the same ground. I had wondered if coming back to Durham was the right choice, but that felt confirmed now. I was to study Anne in her own space, on her own hallowed ground — where she too had built a life, written poetry, and made friends.

In the year since she died, I feel I have begun to know her, or maybe the self she created in her work, through her poetry and the anecdotes of her friends. I hope she forgives me for wrestling her into a thesis about women’s writing. I wish I could thank her for bringing me here.

30 August 2021

[1] Anne Stevenson, ‘Temporarily in Oxford’ in Anne Stevenson: The Collected Poems (1955–1995) (Oxford: OUP, 1996) p. 71 (1–4).

[2] Stevenson, ‘Some Observations on Women and Tradition’ in Between the Iceberg and the Ship: Selected Essays (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001), pp. 22–28(p. 22).

[3] Stevenson, ‘Writing as a Woman’, Between the Iceberg and the Ship, pp. 3–21 (pp. 8–9).

[4] Stevenson, ‘Travelling Behind Glass’ in Collected Poems, pp. 44–50 (pp. 45–46).

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