When a loved one dies before his or her time, the loss is deeper, and the grief is longer lasting.
Leslie McGrath, author of five poetry collections including Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives (Washington, DC: The Word Works, 2018), was unafraid of discussing death. Even her own. On July 24, 2020, she told her Facebook friends good bye, that the cancer she was diagnosed with after retiring from teaching in late December, that most patients survive and return to a normal life, had spread to her abdomen in hundreds of smaller cancerous outbreaks which were far too many to treat. Having decided with her husband Bill long ago on a DNR (Do-Not-Resuscitate), they agreed she should return home for hospice care. She died August 7. She was 63 years old.
The Steiny Road Poet wearing her Word Works hat lived with Leslie for some weeks, the time spread over several years, at a retreat house in New Hampshire. Steiny found Leslie to be deeply thoughtful with a great sense of humor and a fabulous flair for cooking. Those weeks at Toad Hall, The Word Works was engaged in judging the Washington Prize, an activity done annually in the summer.
The summer Steiny met and worked with Leslie, Leslie had just finished collaborating with Ravi Shankar on Reetika Vazirani's posthumous poetry collection Radha Says (Drunken Boat Media). Reetika's death in July 2003 by suicide rocked the Washington, DC literary scene because it included her two-year-old son (by her hand) and occurred at the home of two prominent DC writers for whom Reetika had been house-sitting.
Reetika was a respected poet and had read in The Word Works Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series. When Leslie asked to present Radha Says at The Word Works Café Muse Literary Salon, Steiny was happy to help schedule that program.
Leslie started writing poetry at 40. She had been trained to be a clinical psychologist. In a conversation recorded in The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature & Culture with poet-editor Jennifer Barber (founding editor of Salamander Magazine and author of Works on Paper, winner of The Word Works Tenth Gate Prize—Leslie created the Tenth Gate Prize), Leslie said: "Editing and then publishing her [Reetika's] last poems, Radha Says, was a turning point in my own work, a kind of permission-giving to write honestly of my own anger and complicated feelings about my history of depression." What happened to women mattered greatly to Leslie McGrath.
"Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives," the title poem of her book speaks to women in general, but most likely to her daughters to whom the book is dedicated, warning them that the wisdom of the feminists, like Betty Friedan whom she quotes as an opening salvo to the book, is not useless artifacts. Leslie points to sanitary napkins and typewriters as the useless artifacts. However, what the feminists have discarded was "the old image of wom[e]n" according to Friedan in the quote fromThe Feminine Mystique. However, Friedan continued that women "could not erase the hostility, the prejudice, the discrimination that still remained."
FEMINISTS ARE PASSING FROM OUR LIVES
It's wonderful how they jog
in two-toned gel-soled racing shoes
their yoga butts barely jiggling
in rosy spandex leggings.
I was there once. I felt
the brash I've got it all, I had
the uncomplicated beauty of the young
before the years peeled it from me
like flimsy wallpaper. In my memories
women's work was pin money
to pay for ballet lessons, summer camp;
suffering children, suffering filing jobs
suffering their husbands
who poured from the commuter train
gin-flushed and slurring. You who
I raised on Our Bodies, Our Selves
believe that feminism's as passé
as the sanitary napkin and the typewriter.
You roll your eyes and smirk
at my pleas not to become housewives.
I've seen that beast
hook its teeth on the cleverest PhD
and take her down for decades.
That won't happen to us
you say, we've come too far.
We're protected under the law
a majority, a force.
No. Not that big.
Easily the poem also speaks to the insane despair suffered by Reetika Vazirani, who experienced her life as a writer diminished by her sex—a woman with a child while her famous partner poet Yusef Komunyakaa, father of her son and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, had none of the daily responsibilities she had.
"Daydreaming in a Time of Panic," another poem in Leslie's prescient book about the plight of women feels red hot under the current presidency of Donald J. Trump, a misogynist without moral compass whose aim in Supreme Court appointments is to rescind women's control over their bodies and do away with abortion.
DAYDREAMING IN A TIME OF PANIC
So you have found me heartsick, curled under
the throw someone's grandmother crocheted
and that I bought at Goodwill because I'm mindful and adjunct.
I'm not doing nothing here. I'm calculating the angle
of light that casts a long and chilling shadow
onto the largest screen on earth: millions of turned backs
of tweeters, texters, and trolls hell-bent
over devices designed to connect but which only sift
self from self and will continue to do so until
someone with a working moral compass, someone
who senses the hypnotic sleep of history coming round
and round again writes ALARM! ALARM!
gigantic and trance-piercing on the wind no blanket
will protect me from. These hands are busy
with my rosary of hurts, but oh if they weren't!
What would I become? Bell that warns the world.
What have I become? Talking mynah bird.
Easily this poem could be titled "Daydreaming in a Time of Pandemic." The poem depicts a woman under an unknown granny's crocheted blanket and who is mindfully contemplating her life. The granny is in the parlance of the feminists a foremother who is still minding a grateful "daughter." However, that daughter describes herself as "adjunct," an added part to what is essential.
Stepping out of the poem for a moment, Steiny acknowledges that adjunct resonates in Leslie's biography in that she was an adjust professor at Central Connecticut State University. While she was a beloved teacher of her students, one can see their glowing comments online, she was extra, not a tenured professor. In Trump's view, K-12 teachers should go back to teach their students in person without a blink to the possibility that they might catch the Covid19. The 2019 Digest of Education states that 76% of public school teachers are female.
While the woman of this poem sees the "long and chilling shadow" cast by "history coming round"—out of its "hypnotic sleep"—while the self-absorbed "tweeters, texters, and trolls hell-bent over devices designed to connect" keep their backs turned, she questions her role as a warning bell. In actual practice, she says she is just a talking bird—a mynah which sounds so close to minor—a voice of no consequence.
Steiny suspects Leslie McGrath kept her radar scanning the environment all her life. Much of Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives deals with mental health and mental difference and often in the context of activism. In "Shock Wave," a poem about the bombing of the Boston Marathon, Leslie writes about what happens in "the brain's chapel" when fear strikes.
(Boston Marathon, April 2013)
Blow black powder and shrapnel blow
then follows another kind of detonation—
this one inward.
In the brain's chapel
one pearled sulcus is aroused by sudden fear
while others snap into lockdown.
There are moments when survival depends on suspicion
and the mind's ear turns vigilante
gum heard as gun
coffee heard as coffin
dread as dead
There are moments that become eras
Like this one like this.
We Americans are currently living in an ongoing shock wave. Death and dread are constant companions in this time of unchecked illness which is not only the coronavirus but also insane behavior on the part of a president lacking the skills and sensibilities to lead and the people who support such a man. Leslie has called what we are living through (if in fact we can stay alive) an era. It's a small moment writ large.
It's helpful in the process of mourning that Leslie McGrath has left us a substantial body of work to ponder. We cannot expect our children, if we have any, to carry our spirit forth. This book reminds Steiny that she is responsible for her own legacy. Rest in peace, Leslie.