Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Mark Strand

Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate Mark Strand died yesterday.

When I was a deeply depressed graduate student, I composed a pastiche of Strand's poem, "Courtship." I did not do so because I was a fan of Strand's esoteric work. I dashed it off while meeting with some fellow students. We were supposed to assemble a presentation of "a Twentieth Century poet." In the midst of a bitter, anyone-can-write-like-this-guy moment, I switched the point of view in the poem from male to female and celebrated both the difference and the opposition. A year or so after graduation, I was going through my poems one day and found it. On a whim, I tracked down where Strand was teaching (Utah, of all places) and sent him a copy.

Some weeks later, I received a handwritten reply which begins "Dear S. Kay Murphy! You have written an absolutely stunning pastiche." I was at once delighted and humbled. His letter went on to ask about my plans for the future and whether I would eventually pursue poetry writing or teaching. Classy. With all his accolades, he took the time to respond to a quirky stranger.

And he did so again when I wrote to him a second time, asking permission to pursue publication of the pastiche along with his original (since he seemed to enjoy mine so much). His reply, again handwritten, began "Thanks for writing back. Of course you have my permission...." What a sweetheart.

I had addressed him in the letters as "Dr. Strand," assuming that he'd earned (or been given) the PhD long ago. At the end of his second letter, he closed with this: "Dept. of Clarification: I'm not a doctor. No PhD. Wouldn't think of having one." Somehow, it made me like him all the more.

Strand lived to be 80. He was named the United States poet laureate in 1990, and in 1999 he won the Pulitzer for his poetry collection, Blizzard of One.  Our hope, as writers, is that our work will continue to live on after us, offering us a type of immortality. I have no doubt that Strand's work will continue to be included in anthologies for years to come. Somewhere out there is a young grad student in a 20th C poetry class struggling to make sense of the moderns, the confessionals, et al. May she land upon a poem of Strand's that hits her right between the intellectual eyes.

Note: "Courtship," by Mark Strand, can be found easily with an internet search.  "Courtship: A Pastiche," by S. Kay Murphy, cannot, as mine (thankfully) never made it into print.

My sincerest condolences to Strand's son and daughter, Thomas and Jessica. Your dad was a pretty cool guy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

About my failure to be gracious at the post office

One of my ex-husbands—the sweet, forgiving one—used to tell people (in my defense, mind you) that I had been "raised by wolves." He offered this as an explanation whenever I committed a social faux pas of some kind. He understood that I never intended to be rude, but there were certain lessons in grace and good manners I hadn't learned as a child or young adult, partly because I had to raise myself and partly due to my introversion. Social interaction has always made me feel uncomfortable and inadequate, and these feelings are reinforced every time I fail at responding correctly in social situations.

Friday at the post office was a great example.  After work, I rushed home to pick up my granddaughter's birthday present which needed to be shipped that day in order to get to her before her birthday. That same day, I had received an email from a school in Missouri ordering twenty copies of Tainted Legacy. Since I had to get to the post office anyway, I decided to ship the books as well.

Which is why I ended up staggering into the post office carrying one package containing twenty paperback books and another on top of it containing a Hello Kitty backpack ("Hello Kitty sleeping bag inside!!"). My biceps were fatigued by the time I had negotiated the parking lot and two doors to get to the line, and as I stepped up to what I thought was the end, a petite older woman looked at me and said, "Español?" I didn't hear her the first time, so I leaned closer, said, "Pardon?" and she repeated her question: "Español?" Finally I understood.

"No, I'm sorry," I said, stepping around her and into a line of six people. The sixth person in line was an older man wearing wool slacks and a sweater—on a ninety degree day. He had watched our exchange, and he stepped slightly to the side and faced the others in line.

"Does anyone here speak Spanish?" he asked the group. A voluptuous woman in a tight-fitting dress and sexy shoes stepped out of line.

"I do!" she proclaimed, and the man motioned her over to the woman who needed help. The two women chatted away in Spanish, the older woman asking frequent questions while the sexy woman answered quickly and, seemingly, authoritatively.

The gentleman had saved the day by simply speaking up for the woman who didn't speak English. Why didn't I do that? Why did it not even occur to me?
            And as Sir Galahad was stepping back into his place in line, holding a single envelope in his hand, he noticed my burden of boxes. He stepped to the side again and made a sweeping gesture with the envelope hand.

"You can go ahead of me," he said.

But I declined. "That's okay," I told him, "they aren't that heavy." The truth is, they were heavy, and my arms were already aching, and I still had five people ahead of me. So why couldn't I just graciously accept his offer and allow myself to be the other damsel who gets rescued? I don't know. I just don't know. Part of it is believing on some level that I don't deserve such kind treatment from strangers. Part of it is that accepting help of that nature undermines my badass tomboy persona.

The bottom line, though, is that these were missed opportunities. I could have been the one to find help for the non-English speaker, and I could have accepted the man's kind offer to cut ahead of him in line. In either case, I would have had to be a bit more mindful of the others around me instead of being, as usual, completely absorbed in what I was doing.

This is, I think, the key to being gracious. It's about being mindful always of the others around you, whether they are known to you or whether they are strangers. It's about seeing them and what they need, which requires focusing outward instead of inward. Be patient with me; I'm still learning.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It wasn't cancer this time. This time, I didn't see the look of panic-held-in-check concern on my doctor's face. I did not feel the stomach flop because the word "malignant" wasn't spoken. Nor did I have that dizzy whirlwind of a moment when I demand of myself the answers to a thousand questions, the first of which is "Who will raise my children?"

This time, in a fifteen-minute consult with a dermatologist, I learned about Seborrheic Keratoses (and also about how most women don't talk about it as these are spots which come with aging, and they seem to cluster around women's breasts). Up until I heard the doc say, "Actually, what you're seeing is not even a mole, it's something even more benign..." I'd been taking shallow breaths but trying to remind myself to breathe deeply, walking tall but experiencing brief flashbacks to the cancer scare twenty years ago when I became paralyzed on the couch for days, waiting for surgery, then test results.

This time, I was free. Free to go home, no follow-up appointment to wait for, no hasty plans to spend the day as a surgical out-patient. Free to hand out candy to trick or treaters and smile at the pretty, pretty princesses and the awesome teenage mutant ninja turtles without having, behind my eyes, the specter of my mortality. This time I could rise the next morning and take my dog on a long walk without having to wonder who would take on this blessed activity (admittedly a chore to some folks) if I were no longer around to do it.

I usually don't talk about my brief but scary bout with skin cancer twenty years ago because, well, when I do, I feel more than a bit of survivor's guilt. The original misdiagnosis of malignant melanoma sent me into a tailspin from which I was still trying to recover when it was determined that, no, this cancer wasn't going to threaten my life; it would hardly even inconvenience me. Since then I have lost a brother to the real kind of cancer, the kind that knocks you down for a while until you fight your way back up, demanding to live life on your own terms, not those dictated by the disease. I have a friend now who has just finished his last round of last-ditch-effort chemo. He, like my brother, 'should have,' 'would have' died many years ago. But Jerry, like my brother, has not been willing to go. They humble me with their courage.

Dan is in my thoughts today on this eve of All Soul's Day, as are others I have lost. As for me, Death was nowhere to be seen outside my door last night. Only trick or treaters.