- Learning To Be on the PageThe Generosity and Insight of Judith Kitchen
Iread Judith Kitchen’s Distance and Direction in the spring of 2007 because I’d been accepted into the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. The MFA program had been founded only four years earlier by Kitchen and her husband, Stan Sanvel Rubin, and I chose it because of its deep bench of nonfiction writers—only two of whom I knew. Judith wasn’t one of them.
So, I immediately began reading. When I got to Judith’s work, I hated it. It was dense. It required such close attention. I didn’t understand what she was doing. I thought, oh dear god, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Who chooses a graduate school before reading the writers on faculty? By that time, I’d already met Judith at a summer workshop at the University of Nebraska. She and Stan had taken me and a group of other writers to dinner (and to breakfast and to lunch)—classic Judith generosity. It seemed incongruous that I would not—did not—like her work.
And so, with her voice—and something of her spirit—already in my head, I decided to try reading her work aloud, hearing it, letting it wash over me. This experience felt like walking down a limestone sidewalk in the middle of a white hot afternoon and catching a jazz riff waft out the dark doorway of some unknown bar. It’s so hot outside, the bar feels so cool, the music so surprising, that you step inside, order a dry, dirty Sapphire martini, and listen. Then, you discover the bar is Birdland.
Something clicked, hearing those words out loud. I’m not an academic—not even after my MFA—but in 2007, reading Distance and Direction for the first time, I really had no language for what Judith was doing. Yet once I heard her work, I understood intuitively, felt it viscerally, the way you sometimes [End Page 1] feel a poem hit you. How she was trying to draw connection between image and feeling, past and present. How she gave you just enough to get a glimpse of her as writer, but not enough to fully reveal herself. How Judith wanted the reader to draw her own connections. How, as Judith herself wrote in Seneca Review, “like a poem, the lyric essay must not only mean, but be.” It was the “being” that initially confounded me, and ultimately it was the “being” that excited me. All this time I thought we wrote to make meaning. What if we were all really writing simply to be?
The being is, I think, a key reason why Judith wrote. In a Seneca Review issue celebrating ten years of lyric essay and Deborah Tall, Judith said, “I wonder if reading a poet’s ‘best’ poem is any way to know the poet at all. Isn’t poetry, in the end, a way of experiencing the world? Another way not of meaning, but being? So that is what I hunger for in the lyric essay—the author’s way of inhabiting his or her own mind. Of responding, in language.”
When I look at her essay “Green” now, four months after her death, I see that she’s been inhabiting her own mind for years.
You are there, yes, in all your young fury, but I have vanished into thin air. You are memory, frozen in flesh. I have relieved myself of you, however briefly, to complete this landscape. I scan the hills you never climbed, coil myself around your fixed coordinates. The circus train in the far left corner round the bend, trailing its lavenders and reds, its curious displays that call out with the luster of distance. Even then, I knew enough to step back from the tarnished shoes and excess glitter…why is that small girl an “I” while you remain firmly locked in second person, perched in the high fork of the maple? Maybe because she did nothing but watch and, watching, became my future. Found it becoming.
There she is, alive on the page, becoming, being. All...