Still to Love

For J. D. McClatchy

Langdon Hammer

 
 

He’d bought tickets for My Fair Lady months before, the day had come, and he wanted badly to go. Going out as planned—to the theater in particular, and to musical theater above all—was not merely desirable but a responsibility. You do what you say you’ll do. You show up for life.

Outside, late afternoon spring sun fell on young people in puff shirts and harem pants who had stopped to peer into the windows of a new boutique across the street just visible beneath the drawn shade, their backs to the darkened room.

Alphabetical in twenty-foot-tall shelves on the far side of the room were, I calculated, more than five thousand books. I offered to read aloud from one. Maybe one of the novels on the side table, Dombey and Son or The Portrait of a Lady? Elizabeth Bishop’s letters? Something by a friend—Lorrie Moore, Ed White, James Merrill? Or why not read his own work? Maybe that libretto lying on the floor in a fresh printout, the tender, rueful story of a woman whose life slips past while one wish after another, magically granted, turns out to have been a mistake, and irrevocable. Isabella you wanted to call it.

Nothing doing. “I have to get up. It takes me so long now to dress.” Then, in honest perplexity: “What do people wear to the theater these days?” Tubes connected his belly to plastic bags, one slack with fluid, another swollen taut with air. He kept pressing forward. His bedclothes slipped this way and that, dissolving and re-forming like the current of a river too deep and swift to cross—he, who had always been so tall and strong, “a smiling public man,” used to getting his way. I told him, once again, to lie back. He turned to me, narrowing his eyes, and said, “I will never forgive you for this.” 

After a while, Chip came home and sat next to him, he relaxed, we watched Jeopardy and Chopped, and he slept.

***

When he was a child, going to the theater was Sandy McClatchy’s greatest pleasure, whether with his parents and his sisters or by himself. (“Any way I could.”) He played Everyman in his Catholic high school staging of the medieval play, but he wasn’t an actor, or particularly “theatrical,” if that means having a penchant for moody gestures and melodrama. He was too busy and practical for that. Theater was a point of view, a way of understanding people, including himself. We are all characters, he might have said. We have our roles to play, to which we are bound, and of which we are at best half-aware, even while everyone else knows just what to expect from us. 

No wonder he responded instinctively to opera, and why he so loved writing for it, beginning with William Shuman’s A Question of Taste in 1988. As a boy at his first opera, he had presented himself backstage for the soprano Anna Moffo’s signature. Now he was in the business himself, and he relished it: conference calls, dress rehearsals, last-minute cuts and additions, not to mention the first-class flights to London and Milan, and big-league paychecks. With temperamental composers, calculating agents, and delicate or domineering stars, working in the opera was like being in an opera. He took a bow on opening night, clasping hands with the singers, maestro, and composer.

Although he worked on commission and didn’t pick his themes, his operas spoke for him. Take Ned Rorem’s Our Town, based on Thornton Wilder’s play. Sandy’s libretto preserves the play’s bare stage and its metatheatrical self-consciousness about the drama of everyday life in a small American town. In the third act, “Death and Eternity,” the heroine, Emily, has died giving birth. We attend her funeral. Then she returns, with the Stage Manager, to relive her twelfth birthday. Reunion with her mother and father, and the chance to reexperience daily pleasures (“food…coffee”), is overwhelmingly, achingly joyful. Why, simply waking up is “too wonderful to realize…” She breaks off there, and turns to the Stage Manager: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it every day?” “No, the saints and poets maybe,” he replies. The truth of that hurts too much, and she asks to be led back to her grave, crying good-bye to Grover’s Corners and the world. 

***

Sandy kept a commonplace book in which he gathered bits and pieces from his reading. Sweet Theft, consisting of selections from it, was the last book he published, and one that gave him special satisfaction. Chip Kidd’s cover design uses a photo he took of Sandy in his study. On the desk in front of him are a musical score and a notebook in which he’s copying something with his fountain pen. He is seated square to the camera, but he is holding a book open, so that it hides his face. 

Self-expression and self-effacement. It will seem odd, even laughable, to call this man modest who wrote a series of poems with “My This or My That” in the title; who could summon a waiter at a trot, or hush the students in a crowded auditorium and make them sit up straight; who served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But there was a shyness in him, with respect to literary ambition, that this photo captures.

He was first and last a poet, although it was possible not to notice that fact or to make little of it. Poets are inward types who listen even in company to language in the mind, and they need some privacy to do that. In Sandy, the man of letters disguised the poet. He found it easier to present himself as editor, anthologist, translator, librettist, or teacher than to claim the spotlight as poet. Poetry wasn’t something that you approached casually. You had to be worthy of it, and that was for poetry, not you, to decide.

His discipline as a poet comes in here. He complained about how much time it took him to write poems. He worked deliberately, starting with an idea or a theme, finding and polishing phrases, and finally, painstakingly fitting it into the cleverly apt verse form. “First thought, best thought” was never his motto. In some poems, the results are stiff or (his word) “gnarled.” But more often the language of his poems, uncommon in our day, is wonderfully final, made to be inscribed and remembered.

From his commonplace book, this remark by John Cage: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”

***

Sandy was a great gossip, a connoisseur of his own and others’ vanities. Yet he was also capable of a breathless idealism about human nature and possibility. At age thirty-three, he wrote this in his diary:

Apr. 3, 1979—I believe in a personal + immortal soul. It doesn’t “reside” in or “depend” on me. It’s an aggregate of things (people, places, experiences, sensations, obsessions, etc.), acquired over time. A set number? I don’t know. I’d guess there may be 15 or so “parts” (sections, aspects—revealed or discovered by their objective correlatives), of which I now know only a few—my family, AC, JM, Mahler-Wagner-Strauss, etc. I have the (staying) sense of inevitable connection + nurture.

A “personal + immortal soul.” The idea is close to Keats’s “vale of soul-making.” “There may be intelligences or sparks of divinity in millions”—that’s Keats in a letter—“but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.” Sandy is talking about the same project of self-cultivation through art, friendship, and love—the acquiring of identity. 

And he was in love. “AC,” mentioned just after “my family” in that diary entry, is Alfred Corn. Corn was two years older, a southerner, with an M.A. in French literature from Columbia. They made a dashing pair: Corn with his neat mustache, McClatchy with his coal-black beard. Sandy was an assistant professor of English at Yale. Alfred had just published his second book of poems, with an approving blurb by Harold Bloom. 

Their faculty apartment was a literary salon. After campus readings, John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, and other poets held court there. Books were king—literature was king. Ronald Reagan was merely an actor who had somehow become the governor of California. There was no Moral Majority. It was a decade after Stonewall, and two years before a column in the New York Times would announce “Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.” 

Love relationships, like literary careers, are hard to create and harder to maintain. When McClatchy and Corn broke up in 1989, they were as bitter and aggrieved as any finger-pointing divorcees. Even thirty years later, Sandy would fuss if he heard that Alfred might show up to the same occasion. Why exactly? Besides the grievance, I think he was embarrassed, perhaps baffled, that he could have been so wrong about his soul. 

Sandy in Vermont, late 1970s. Photo by Kelly Wise.

***

Sandy became friends with James Merrill—the “JM” in that early diary entry about the soul—after he wrote the poet a fan letter. The identification was intense. “I wanted to be him,” he told me once. The desire had everything to do with his struggle with, as he put it, “the whole gay thing.” He saw that Merrill had made of being gay, both the pride and the challenge of it, a position from which to write his poetry, and that was thrilling to him. 

Sandy’s devotion to Jimmy (the easy, fun name he called Merrill, which seems right for their friendship, rather than the more formal “James” that some friends used) led him to buy a house around the corner from Merrill’s in Stonington, Connecticut. When Merrill was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, he told only his partners and his lawyer. When, a few years later and increasingly ill, he was ready to tell a friend and to ask for help, he told Sandy. 

After Merrill’s death, Sandy became, with Stephen Yenser, Merrill’s literary executor and editor of his works. So it’s not surprising that he is often mentioned in connection with Merrill, and then as an adjunct or acolyte. But he was closer in character to other poets—to Anthony Hecht with his burnished, history-haunted poetry, or to the sensational, self-revealing Anne Sexton, who was the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation and, like Hecht, a friend. 

His most important model was probably W. H. Auden. Sandy shared Auden’s sense that the poet is not an oracle but a maker who works in words, knows their history and proper uses, can marshal them to diverse effects as the occasion demands, and views writing well as a moral obligation. The point was not to entertain or impress but to tell the truth. 

Yet, as Sandy admits in a poem called “Auden’s OED” (about the poet’s dictionary, which Merrill inherited and then passed on to Sandy, the appropriate owner), “The hard part is not so much telling the truth / as knowing which truth to tell.”

***

Though a cosmopolitan sophisticate, Sandy was also a patriotic American, and proud of it. His volume, his warmth, his eagerness, his insistence—very American. He read American history. He loved the Library of America books on his shelves (he’d edited many of them). He never missed the chance to vote. He liked baseball, or he liked to say he did. On the Fourth of July in Stonington, he paraded with his neighbors down Water Street and up Main, behind the fire trucks, to listen to the Declaration of Independence read aloud on the town green. 

Stonington was his Grover’s Corners. His poem “My Plot” takes place there. He had completed it a year before he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him. When its hourglass-shaped stanzas appeared in The New Yorker two months before he died, it had become a good-bye aria.

The title refers to his purchase of a plot in the town cemetery—a sensible decision since “The price is bound / to spike, the local real estate being / What it is / For both the living and the dead.” When the poet sees the gravedigger and asks who owns the plot next to his, it turns out to be a neighbor, “a woman I’ve known, / Good God, for decades,” who “has the dirt / On everybody—the ironies of the hereafter!”

The poem switches scenes to the local Costume Ball: “the laughter, / The band, the strings of lights, the married flirt / And the divorcée pretending to be perplexed— // My friends and neighbors were having the time of their lives. / In fact, it was life itself—fizzy and full / Of contrivances to keep itself afloat.” In a Warhol wig, the poet joins a conga line of “squeals and grunts”—at once a symbol of the social round and a Totentanz, the medieval dance of death. And whose hand does he grasp but hers, who will lie beside him in eternity? The revelers head to the beach, where the poet finds his neighbor again. They share a joint, then a few words:

“A little sad?” She nods and I know why—
       Midnight’s slew of stars, our motley friends
       The comedy’s cast with its delicious plot—
              Revelation,
       Forgiveness and love—the curtain’s not
       Coming up on someday soon, no amends
To be restored where she and I will lie.

I help her up. We’re both a bit unsteady.
       When I offer to brush the sand off the back
       Of her Jackie O culottes, she lifts her shades:
              “Whatever.”
 

The poem ends:

But the view from our private boxes will make nothing plain.

Where are the shepherd, the king’s lost daughter, the prince?
There was a letter and a sip of poisoned rum—
              Now, nothing.
“Bravo!” is a boy calling his dog to come.
We’ll never know how the story ends, since

The applause will only be the autumn rain.

***

The formality of Sandy’s poems was consistent with his daily habits and preferences, and a certain strictness. Here he is on his favorite cocktail:

I like a form to my poems, and to my day. The morning’s coffee and crossword, the evening’s martini. I use these both to measure and forestall time. Each must be made with precision, and enjoyed at leisure. The martini, for instance—without which no meal is a feast.

My glasses and what’s in them are always in the freezer. I dislike the birdbath most martinis are served in—giant flared cones, like a robot’s bra cups that dribble and spill. My glasses are stemmed and slanted, of course, but have a perpendicular half-inch at the top, a civilized restraint.

He continues in this vein, giving precise instructions for making the drink correctly, before winding up:

Whether its accompaniment is caviar or Goldfish hardly matters. The cocktail extends its haughty two fingers to the world. The first sip…and the day slides into perspective.

I liked to drink martinis with him, sinking into one of the armchairs in his living room, and talk. In winter, the fire blazed; in summer, the window air conditioner gasped and chugged. There were books piled four and five deep on table and counter, Buddhas and Roman figurines crowding the mantle, and a cloud of white orchids in the window, in place of a view.

One evening Sandy turned abruptly to Chip and said, as if I weren’t in the room, “He”—he meant me—“only wants pure clear alcohol, the higher the proof the better. He wants to feel it burn going down his throat.” 

“Stop,” Chip said. “Stop it!” 

***

There is an extraordinary fierceness to Sandy’s poems that describe the body—his own or others’—in excruciating detail. Sex, illness, age. The mechanics of the medical procedures he underwent. He wants you to face the hard facts with him, as if intimacy could only be secured by first seeing whether you will flinch and look away.

His poem “My Hand Collection” is a meditation on the wooden, clay, and plastic hands assembled on a glass side table in his New York City apartment. Unexpectedly it turns out to be an elegy. After mentioning the “living hands” of lovers he once held onto “as if for dear life’s sake,” the poem ends with this memory:

Looking back, I guess I am glad they let go.
  Theirs are not the hands that haunt me now.
The one that does belongs to a blustery,
  Timid soul at home in dull routines,
Forfeiting glamour and curiosity,
  A life sustained by its denials.
I reached for it only because B-movies
  Demand one pick it up off the sheet,
A shriveled, damp, and fetid wedge still clutching
  Nothing but a bed railing of air,
Its slackened tendons stiff and crusted with scabs
  And knots of scar tissue abutting
Deep-sunk hematomas, from which the knucklebones
  Jutted like cairns, nails cracked and yellow.
Though dead for hours, it was not yet cold.
  I didn’t know what to do with it.
So I held onto it without wanting to,
  Fearful of letting it go too soon.
It was what—now for the last time—I first held.
  It was a hand. It was my mother’s.

***

When Sandy died, I sent the news by email. People wrote back to me with memories, including Aidan Wasley, who had been Sandy’s student at Princeton, and then knew him at Yale. Aidan wrote: “He could certainly be prickly, impatient, and proudly undiplomatic, though part of his charm was his self-awareness about his own performance of hauteur. He knew you knew it was, in part, an act. And he especially liked to puncture your own pretensions even as he was offering you his helping hand. He reminded me of one of those grand super-engines from the late years of steam trains—strapping and streamlined and glamorous, rolling with majestic velocity through every occasion. But he was also sweet and funny and honest and just absolutely, insanely generous. I’m one of so many people he helped, and changed. Without Sandy, I wouldn’t be me.”

***

Although we’d been friends since I started college in 1976, it was only when he returned to New Haven as editor of The Yale Review in 1991 that I saw him often, and then only when I began writing James Merrill’s biography that we were in touch weekly, daily. 

He helped in every way he could. He gave me copies of Merrill’s correspondence. Put me in touch with Merrill’s friends and family, who opened their doors when I mentioned him. Whenever he came across a book or article or something else he thought I should see, into the mail it went.

Some missives amounted to a poke in the ribs. I opened an envelope with a Stonington postmark, and found a letter to the editor scissored from the TLS. It was from a biographer who had made a public request for information pertaining to his subject twenty-five years ago, and was now doing so again, while assuring readers that the biography “will appear.” I’d been writing Merrill’s biography for nine years. Sandy labeled the clipping, in his beautiful flowing hand, “A Cautionary Letter.” 

When I sent him chapters, which I did as soon as I finished a draft, he would write back a few hours later, having dropped what he was doing and inhaled my latest installment. He made a few remarks and pointed out typos. But mainly he wanted to reflect on the phase of his friend’s life he’d just read about, and to encourage me.

Only once did he say something wouldn’t do. I showed him my acknowledgments, where I’d settled for a bare-bones listing of names. He was at the top of the list, but I hadn’t even bothered with the formula, “There is no way to thank…” He was hurt by my terseness, and told me so. 

I suppose I hadn’t wanted readers to think that, because I was beholden to him, he’d told me what to write—or what not to. I reopened the file and enlarged what I said about him (and other people), although my statement remained brief. 

Impossible to acknowledge your deepest debts. Impossible to acknowledge the people you love. But you have to try.

***

In his preface to Seven Mozart Opera Librettos: A Verse Translation, Sandy observes, “The trials of love and their resolution go to the heart of Mozart’s fascination with opera, and seem to have been close to the core of his being.” The essay keeps circling back to love, both as it relates to Mozart’s character, and as it appears in his operas, building to this statement: “In The Magic Flute, the final freedom is love itself…. The lucky ones patiently make their own happiness, but it is important to remember that Mozart lavishes the sympathy of his musical attention on all his characters, regardless of their moral bearings. Tamino and Pamina discover that love’s dependence, one on the other, husband on wife, lover on beloved, frees them of repressive jealousies and ungenerous feelings. In joining together, they are free to be themselves, and something more than themselves…. Each is transformed in the process. In those who fail and in those who triumph, in those who cannot change and in those who do, we are meant to find an image of what is possible for ourselves.”

***

Sandy discovered the love that was possible for him, in midlife, when he met Chip Kidd. “Passion” was Chip’s pet name for Sandy, who, when he wanted to tweak Chip, liked to call him “Charles,” his given name. Sandy gave it a mock upper-class drawl, making the one syllable as long as possible. 

Chip was nineteen years younger than Sandy. A devotee of DC comics, preppy style, erotic manga, and rock and roll, he challenged Sandy’s high-culture taste. Sandy needed that shaking up, and, even while he pretended to grumble about Batman or Björk, he grew bigger and younger under Chip’s influence. Sandy’s poetry was changed too. How else to explain why it kept getting stronger, more his own?

As a book designer, Chip knows how to make you stop and pick up a book. He has a disarming talent for finding the image that makes the reader feel ill at ease, off-balance, and therefore interested. That talent, backed by a drive to get things done that rivaled Sandy’s, had made him, by age thirty, a star in the book world.

Chip’s covers drew out the terror and glamour in Sandy’s poetry. The jacket for Mercury Dressing, Sandy’s sixth poetry collection, published in 2009, is the most elegant and disturbing of them. A man, small in scale, reaches out with his right hand as if to escape or signal to us from the great sheets of silver—a boat’s billowing sails?—within which he is trapped.

Sandy and Chip Kidd, near Stonington, Summer 2009. Photo by Sylvia Lynch.

Sandy inscribed Chip’s copy: “My quicksilver messenger from beyond with news of love—you designed this book in every sense, since all of it was written by the light you lavish, all of it was written to please and honor you. Thank you. This book, like its author’s life, is dedicated to you. S.”

***

When I picked up my copy of Mercury Dressing a moment ago, to check the date, a card fell out. It was addressed to my wife and me, and came with a wedding gift from the best man:

May the wine this coaster holds

Bring you pleasures uncontrolled,
Both vintage ones, so long foretold,
And crisp surprises not yet extolled.
With love from Chip and Sandy. Skoal!

***

After two decades together, Sandy and Chip were married in 2013 in the Clerk’s Office on Worth Street in New York City, a short walk through Chinatown past a fishmonger, basketball courts, parking lots, and a noisy Buddhist temple (cymbals, incense, red banners) to Sandy’s apartment in the Beaux Arts monument known as the Police Building. 

He cared about his wedding ring. (“I’m sentimental.”) With his sister Joan to help him make the trip, he visited Florida in March 2018. He was very weak, he couldn’t hold his food, and the travel was a trial. In the midst of all that, his ring disappeared. Calls to the airline. Distress, distress. But it didn’t turn up.

When he returned to New York, his doctors stopped his treatment. He was told he had a year to live. The “year” passed in three weeks. He spent it mainly in bed. He fretted about the ring, and he died without it.

But it had been there all the time, just beside him. Before he left for Florida, it fell off his finger (he’d lost so much weight). The housekeeper found the ring in the sheets, and slipped it on the tapered point of the bedpost, beside his pillow, to keep it safe.

***

From his commonplace book again: “Käthe Kollwitz: ‘For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting, and satisfying.’” During the last third of his life, when I knew him best, I saw Sandy working daily to accomplish large and small, ambitious and routine tasks. He was frank: work mattered more than anything. 

I thought there was something mad—something manic and angry—about his passion for it. Even before he became sick, it was easy to feel that he was pushing death away. He gave himself no time or space to reflect. He was turning his life into a to-do list, a CV. He used to say he saw his future sitting by a pool in Florida in the sun. But he was lying. He knew that wasn’t what he wanted, and it was never going to happen. 

In fact, he was busy facing death, going out to meet it every morning at his desk. Death is the subject, implied or direct, of virtually all the poems he wrote over the last decade of his life. These include his translations of three lyrics by Wilhelm Müller that Schubert set for tenor voice in Winterreise. All the poems in the song cycle, Sandy remarks in a note, “emanate an uncanny power,” but none more than the last, “Der Leiermann” or “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” Its subject is an enigmatic figure “often taken to be Death itself.” That reading makes sense. But I prefer to see the beggar as an emblem of human endurance and the will to create. Even in the winter cold, beyond the outskirts of town, the hand of this music maker, this lyre man, “is never still,” always grinding:

O wondrous old man,
Will you take me along?
Will your hurdy-gurdy
Ever play my song?

***

Another late poem, “Prelude, Delay, and Epitaph,” ends with an epitaph for the poet himself. The simple pair of couplets could be chiseled on a slate marker set up in a New England cemetery. They play with the way the “I” lives on in poetic speech after the poet it speaks for is dead. This magical capacity is a consolation, but also a warning. As the poet’s language has outlasted him, it will outlast us. 

You who read this too will die. 
None loved his life as much as I.
Yet trees burst brightly into bloom
Without me, here in my darkened room.

Without ever ceasing to be the romantic young man with “a personal + immortal soul,” Sandy was a realist. He understood how things go. He knew how it would be in his darkened room, and how much there would be still to love.


Langdon Hammer, Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is author of James Merrill: Life and Art (2015). His first publication was a poem in The Yale Review in 1981.