This is the fourth of a five-part, weeklong series to celebrate the life and work of Greta Wrolstad. Her book, Night is Simply a Shadow, was published posthumously this summer by Tavern Books. We have brought together a collection of memories, poems, stories, and reviews by those who knew and loved Greta and her work.
By Ashby Kinch
Re-reading the textual fragments of Greta’s life in the past several weeks--her poetry, her translations, some of her metapoetic reflections--has been an experience replete with powerfully damaging ironies, moments of brutal and precise evocation that lie just beyond my ability to comprehend fully. Many of you have read some things that I wrote about Greta’s personality, about her calm, patient, but searing intellect; about my admiration for her subtlety, for her complexity. Today, I will share some of these other things with you, not out of sadism, but out of that same spirit of engaging with trauma and injury and pain that was so essential to Greta’s personality and to her poetry. I read to you the opening line of the manifesto she wrote for the poetics class I taught last fall, titled "Empathy and The Atlas of Injuries: An Ethical Defense of Poetry.” I warn you that th
e words pierce the muscle of response:
She writes...“A few weeks ago I picked up an EMT textbook and found an appendix titled the “Atlas of Injuries.” I found it impossible to look at the photos without clenching my jaw, flinching, or holding my breath.”
It hurts to read now, not just reflecting on Greta’s loss but feeling that loss so fully, like a ghost appendage. And yet, typically for Greta, the manifesto moves, quickly, comprehensively, and powerfully, to a moment of empathy: she writes, "I believe that poetry functions in the same way as the atlas of injuries did for me in that textbook–that is, by fostering empathy–and it does so with an even broader scope.” Later, she adds "Language itself is the most proximate form of human communication because it makes the
individual imaginatively create the sensation it describes. The empathetic qualities of poetry lie in this absorption of words that are spoken, and perhaps especially written, by others... Poetry accomplishes this dissolution of emotional boundaries in all of its forms, not only in the elegiac, lamenting poems (although I admit to a morbid sensibility in my own poetry stemming from this obsession with pain that I am addressing).”
As we are hearing today, that deep empathy, built from a courage not to fear to encounter deep injury, whether physical, psychological, or emotional, formed the core of her writing. We need some of her own strength as we come to grips with her death.
As many of you know, I worked with her last fall on some translations of Anglo-Saxon lyric, a corpus of poetry whose driving force is meditation on exile and displacement. Devotion to the language was foremost in Greta's mind: she wanted to hear Old English aloud in those sessions, to hear me pronounce it and to say it herself, because, with the instinct of a poet, she knew the beating heart of a poem lies in its sound. Her culminating work for that class was a translation of the most beautiful of the Anglo-Saxon elegies, "The Wife's Lament." She recognized, as all readers of that poem do, that its narrative mysteries are insoluble, and yet its deeply penetrating account of the human soul at struggle remains compelling, despite our lack of understanding about who is speaking, and where, and why. When her hand touched the Wife’s Lament, the result was a nuanced and sensitive rendering of that Anglo-Saxon poem that never loses sight of the deep pain that drives its emotional core. Re-reading her translation is difficult, barely possible, really, but when I do it, I feel better for having touched again a piece of that searching, creative spirit that was so essential to her personality. Beneath the enigmas on the surface of the poem lie hard, crystal truths about pain. Her translation is beautiful because it downplays context, shears away what is inessential, and draws out this distinctive voice, the haunting and plaintive voice of a woman alone. Indeed, elements of the translation play wonderfully in her other original poems, like "Notes on Sea and Shore," itself a wrenching examination of some of the same personal and psychological issues, of similar patterns of imagery.
I left my land to seek comfort with him;
my woeful need brought me into lonely exile. 10
Then my lord’s kinsmen began to speak secretly,
devising a way to drive us far apart,
so that we would live most miserably on opposite sides
of this wide world, and I was filled with longing.
Then I discovered that the man I married
was unfortunate, unblessed. Mournful-hearted,
he thought of murder, his dark thoughts hid 20
behind a kind face. We had often vowed
we would never part, except in death–
we said nothing else would loosen our bond.
But now our friendship is no more.
But at dawn I leave this earth-cave 35
and walk alone under the oak tree.
There I must sit all the long summer days,
there I must weep for my misery,
my many difficulties. I will always
be troubled in heart, never finding rest nor respite 40
from the many longings in my life.
Now my lord remains
under a rocky slope ice-glazed by storms;
my love is weary, despairing. Water flows
on his dreary hall. My lord suffers 50
much heartache, he remembers too often
his comforting home. Woe to those who are full of longing,
forced to await their beloved, and live on ever alone.
Greta was a deeply compelling person, a complex gem with intriguing facets of personality that emerged under different lighting conditions. The more I have learned about her since her passing, the more I have been convinced of my first impression of her, which dates only one year, but feels like many more: that she is the kind of person who reveals hidden nuances over time, feeling out her relationships with others and letting them in on the secrets of her mind and heart only gradually. She had a wry smile, one that betrayed a depth of thought and reflection. She also had an infectious and endearing outburst of a laugh, which erupted in a kind of staccato surprise of spontaneity. She seemed shy at first blush, but it was not a shyness born of insecurity, but of reserve, of a kind of patient detachment as she sized people up, or sized up what others were saying before weighing in. She was the kind of person whose speech bore weight because one sensed that it did not come cheaply. She had remarkable poise, which expressed itself in a quiet but sure voice and a measure of intrinsic dignity of bearing. I was especially happy when she began, on gaining greater comfort in her community, to assert herself more in discussion, and I began to notice a trait that was there all along: a measure of willful determination, of resistance to common thought, of skepticism. These are, of course, the distinctive marks of a discerning, seeking mind, and one could see Greta waking up to her intellectual talents, recognizing her strengths and assessing her weaknesses, in that admirable and painful way that we all must do to gain strength for the pursuits of the mind and heart.
I occasionally saw a more whimsical side of her personality; she had a sharp tongue that got sharper as she got to know me better. And on one occasion a bit of Kiwi pride asserted itself. At a poetry reading to which I came straight from a rugby practice wearing an Australian national team jersey, Greta greeted me with, "The Wallabies are a bunch of wankers!"
I deeply admired Greta, and looked to her for inspiration in the way many teachers do: hoping her energy, curiosity, enthusiasm, and raw talent would push her to the great things of which she was capable. I mourn her loss, I pine for her absence, but I celebrate her, as well: I think with sharpened pain of the days unlived, smiles uncurled, and poems unwritten, but I celebrate the life and the lines we have had with her.
I think I can speak for many of us in Greta’s circle of friends here at Montana, in saying that the deepest sorrow is that we never got to know her as fully as we craved. So I finish with a final line Wuf and Eadwacer, an Anglo-Saxon poem that Greta and I read together.
“Thæt mon eathe tosliteth thætte never gesomnad wæs uncer giedd geador.”
“That man easily tears apart what never was fully joined, our song sung together”