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My Highest Recommendation

Rating: PG-13

Thank you for your assistance in helping us to form a more personal assessment of Suzannah Reeves, an applicant for graduate admission at the University of Iowa.  Please try, to the best of your ability, to answer the following questions: How would you rate the applicant's professional attitude—good, very good, or excellent?  How would you rate the applicant’s contributions within the classroom environment—good, very good, or excellent?  How would you rate the applicant’s intellectual ability, as compared to those of a similar level of academic experience, the applicant’s participation in the academic community, the applicant’s ability to communicate ideas both orally and in writing, the applicant’ imagination and creativity--good, very good, or excellent?  Please be as specific as possible.

To Whom It May Concern: I am honored to recommend Suzannah Reeves for your graduate program in creative writing, and can think of no student in my ten years of teaching at Elmira State who would greater benefit from the rigors of graduate study.  As a member of my undergraduate poetry workshop this past fall, Suzannah turned in work of consistently high quality, far eclipsing that of her peers in both complexity and scope.  Since my husband Marcus, the resident Big Name here, left for a visiting writing appointment at NYU, I have served as the only poet on faculty.  Yet, through my conversations with Suzannah, both inside and outside of workshop, I have felt a sense of collegiality I’ve rarely experienced with other professors in the discipline.  Last week the New Yorker sent Suzannah a singing telegram asking her to submit work.  And he was a sexy, erudite looking telegram in purple horned-rimmed glasses.  Okay, the part about the glasses isn’t true.  But Suzannah’s work will appear in prestigious journals before long.

Suzannah is an asset to any classroom environment.  In September, after I had just prohibited the students from using the word love in their work, and Baseball Cap Boy read yet another ode to his girlfriend and her Long Crimson Hair, and I was just about ready to ditch the classroom for the weight room, for the calm torture of the bench press, Suzannah said: “substitute the word colon wherever you use heart, and indigestion for passion, and then you’ll see if you’ve earned them.”  I listened as the sweet “ahs” of agreement spread through my classroom.  “I love you with all-consuming indigestion,” said Baseball Cap Boy, glaring at me, “from the ruined canyons of my colon.”  “Yes,” I said, “that’s right.”

Suzannah’s professional attitude can only be described as excellent.  She was an astute reader for our struggling literary journal, Insane Donkey, and came to every Reading Series event.  Back in October she gave a powerful reading of her work, moving through her poems with an even intensity, without snapping her fingers or lilting her voice.  I can still see her, looking out at the audience when she finished, her face framed in the red and blue stage lighting.  She is a tall girl with a confrontation of a face, as if her features—long nose, dark eyes and high cheekbones—are daring you to try, just you try to change her expression.   

Suzannah’s work is unsettling and spare, and I came to cling to it the way people in Elmira embrace the minor-league sports team when they win, punching downtown’s quiet away with their car horns, hanging red banners from dilapidated porches.  The first poem she turned in, “The Shape of the Game,” scrapes at the baseball field where her father taught her to play as a girl.  True, it’s a bit awkward in places—she’s still learning, of course--but you can glean her talent from this short excerpt:

The angles between bases blurred, and
crab grass gnawed at the paths.
Then I saw the field sink        (awk)
in fast release. The mound grew thick 
strands of milkweed His diamond     (poignant)
collapsed around me. The shape of it
fell back into the weeds.       (unpack?)
At night I can hear the bleachers creak  
a song like a banished version of a life.

The poem goes on, each line pushing firmly off the next.  I read it three, maybe four times, until the whole piece hung over me, a flock of images startling the quiet of my living room.  I put down the bottle of bourbon I’d been nursing and sighed.  I wanted to call Marcus and read her poem to him, a thing I’d do the first year of our marriage, when he was in Italy on a fellowship.  I wanted to step into my life the way it was ten years ago, when Marcus and I were first hired here, to shove aside the days I haven’t written like so many cracked bricks.  How would you rate my lethargy?  Good, very good, excellent?

Suzannah is firmly committed to the work of becoming a better writer, both in terms of craft and professional research.  In late October, when we began going to coffee after my class, our conversations always began with the books she’d discovered that week. I lent her my personal copies of Hirshfield and Rich and Dee Cervantes.  “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said, arranging whatever book it was carefully in her back pack, her high voice cutting through the mash of acoustic guitar.  The owner of the coffee shop always seemed to be playing a hackneyed version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  I think there is someone in upstate New York playing a hackneyed version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” at all times.  I worry about the day when I will find this charming. 

Suzannah is incredibly mature, both intellectually and emotionally.  I would order us mugs of thick chai and we would talk pedagogy and craft, then politics and movies and music.   It was pick-up stick talk—a laying down of ideas and then a taking of turns holding them, understanding the subtle play of weight and friction, the way one story can lead to five other ideas underneath.  We talked until the high school girl in the tight jeans blew the candle on our table out; until I forgot about the long dinners with Marcus before he left, our newspapers raised like murky surrender flags.  After my nights with Suzannah I fell into bed hacked open.  I didn’t leaf through the folder of yellowed travel brochures I keep on my nightstand, an old writing prompt turned lifestyle porn.  I didn’t call Marcus and hang up.  Suzannah is so dedicated to The Writing Community.  

Suzannah has informed ideas about the problems facing contemporary poetry in the academy.  One weekend she asked her classmates to each distribute 50 copies of a contemporary poem to other students and professors.  True, I noticed a lacrosse player folding Diving Into the Wreck into an airplane at Roy’s Spiedie and Rib Pit, but Suzannah’s assignment was nonetheless creative and well conceived.  Come November we began going for beer instead of coffee, to discuss these and other matters.  She drank in quick, small sips, her hands like pale wings wrapped around her glass.  I would walk her home, the two of us dizzy and silent, the cold numbing our fingers, the roads burned white with highway-department salt. She liked to lean into me while we walked, her thin arm linked around mine, letting me lead her over the dark trickle we call river here, past the university girls in their blue and pink tank tops, past the university boys in their blue and pink dress shirts, past the all-night pizza places and the club with the music that always sounds to me like a hundred pinball machines going at once, all the way up the steps to her front door.  She lived on a street with other student housing, in a house with lots of bedrooms and a sagging inflatable couch on the porch.  From the third floor I could hear a yuppy-hippy jam band mucking around in something by Phish.  “How can you sleep here?” I asked her once, immediately feeling old. “Lots of gin,” she said, squeezing my hand.

At her door she would pull quickly away from me.  “Fuck, it’s late,” she would say, fumbling with her keys.

There was a boy who waited for her, who probably still waits for her now.  A boy who ate potato chips and played video games while we talked. He was my student last year and I know his work is all K-Mart images and boorish politics.  Okay, Mathew, we know you vote Democrat and that we “need to remember/eleventh September.”  Can we move on now? 

How do you rate my peevishness—excellent or just very good?

Don’t worry, dear, distant Sir or Madam. Suzannah will leave that boy before she gets to your program. I told her as much one night.   It was Rodeo Week downtown and we were at a bar called The Stag next to the arena, where they have peanuts in deep wooden bowls on all the tables and a floor covered in straw.  The beer was cold and the air smelled earthy and fecund. Outside, we could hear the nervous clatter of the horses and bulls tied to the lampposts on Main Street, ranch animals brought to this sprained city to toss men around.  “I actually understand Mathew quite well,” said Suzannah.  “We get each other.”

“I understand ABBA lyrics quite well,” I said.  “That doesn’t mean I enjoy that music.”

Did I mention that Marcus is also away on a visiting-lover appointment? She’s a poet.  A poet with big poet hair and a desire to procreate with Marcus.  “Don’t get lost in the hair,” I told him in August, as he was filling a cardboard box with Hass and Lowell.  He had never taken his books before.  “Write me a letter from the roots,” I said.  He did not laugh.  

When I think of him gone it is like waking up to fresh snow, startling for an instant, then painfully ordinary.

“You don’t even know Mathew,” said Suzannah. She grabbed a handful of nuts and popped them open one by one with quick motions of hands and teeth, letting the shells drop to the floor.  She wore a V-neck shirt that cut low across her chest and suddenly I couldn’t stand the sight of her collarbone.  Cowboys kept coming up to our table and offering us drinks, their teeth so white and so straight.  Outside a horse whined into the night, confused or homesick or just cold.  I felt a strange heat pressing against my skin, rising from within my chest.  I took off my sweater.  One of the cowboys whistled, probably at my arms, which are bigger than the arms of most men.  He-man arms, as Marcus called them when we were fighting.  “Just be careful with yourself,” I told Suzannah, sounding vague and crotchety even to myself.
“I mean, I’m not marrying him,” she said.  She picked up her empty beer and set it down.  By then I knew she was not a girl to waste anything.  She detested filler of any kind, be it in poetry, conversation or in her motions.  She walked angled, purposeful paths across the campus. When she moved to pick up her beer again, I knew to put a hand on her shoulder.  She’ll need good friends out in the cornfields.  She’ll need people to make her tea and tell her it will be all right when she learns that love is splintered and difficult to hold.  Your program should take the students from big, messy families, the ones who know how to work knots out of shoulders, how to make a thick stew with noodles, how to whoop it up. 

You will, of course, take Suzannah.  “Maybe I should start sending to journals,” she mused in December, just before the winter vacation.  “What do you think?”

We’d just gotten back from the faculty reading, where I read the same work over and over again, and my face felt like a slab of clay with eyes in it.  I opened a bottle of red wine and brought out the glasses with the full, round bodies, rye crackers and a wheel of brie.  I keep a cold house, and Suzannah began to shiver, her clothes, a faded baseball t-shirt and ripped jeans, far too thin for our weather. I almost asked her right then to fly to the keys with me for New Years. We would have shucked off upstate New York’s cold for the warm bread of Florida winter. We would’ve gotten drunk with my friends from high school.  The dull quiet of this house would’ve rinsed from my skin. Come on, this is excellent depression, wouldn’t you say?

I went upstairs and found her a thick wool sweater in pine green, a color that flatters our freckles and pale skin.  “Start with the smaller mags,” I told her, sitting beside her.  “Have you done any research?”

Of course she had. “I have a list I’m considering,” she said, pulling the sweater over her head, her face still flushed with cold.  “Maybe we could go over them one day?” 

Can I say, in a letter like this, that I wanted to touch her ears, which were tiny shells like mine?

That I wanted to hold her just for a moment, though I knew that this was impossible? I moved closer to her, breathing in her smell of cigarettes and peppermint.

She picked up her wine glass and quickly set it down, picked it up, set it down, glanced over her shoulder at my door like a hunted thing.  She stood up, stretched those long, muscled, thighs.   “So,” she said. 

“Listen,” I said, fearing she would leave. I told her how my father taught me how to run until my by bones were made of air, and then, when I was eleven, I found him hanging in the garage, his face the color of the red clay we used in art class.  “I’m sorry,” Suzannah said, her tone low and solemn, refusing to match the matter of fact tone I’d learned to use with this story to make my friends more comfortable. 

I told her how, when I found my father, his face the color of the red clay we used in art class, my mother came into the garage next.  She looked at me and said, wild with grief, “You.  You did this.”  How poems sprung from that “you” like weeds when I was in grad school and how they’ve followed me around ever since, staring, like stray dogs waiting to be fed.  How only the lifting of weight, the monotonous assumption of burden, makes it go away.

“Oh, Marly,” Suzannah said, settling back into the couch, her hair tucked neatly behind her ears, the wine glazing her lips, the amber light of my lamps making her look warm and blessed.

Can I say, in a letter like this, that when she covered my hand with hers, across the empty cushion, I wanted to break it off so I could keep it?  

“How are your applications going?” I asked her, crossing my arms over my stomach, feeling where I’ve grown soft from too many dinners out of boxes.  I stared at the books in my shelves, slumped where Marcus’ had been.   I leaned back against the cool leather of the couch.  The cheese and crackers and wine looked far away on the coffee table.

“I’m going to start my own writing program one day,” Suzannah said after a while, her hand still on mine, her voice shaky.  “Buy some cheap land in West Virginia.  It’ll be half trade school.  They can learn a marketable skill along with writing, like cooking, or construction, or belt-making.”

She laughed, took her hand off mine and finished her wine.  My back began to ache and the comforter felt doughy and suffocating. I stood up and pulled my elbows behind my back until it cracked. 

“We’ll have a baseball team, of course,” said Suzannah, no longer looking at me, but at the mobile I’ve got hung from the ceiling, a silly thing of silver stars and moons I bought when I was twenty-four.  “We’ll have the best chai tea,” she laughed.  “We’ll have…”

The lamplight shone off her high forehead.  Her voice stopped shaking, the sentences shiny and firm as power lines, leading out the window, through the dark, across the country to places where the rivers are things to be reckoned with and the rodeos aren’t gimmicks.  “And a library with tons of lit mags,” she said.  “And high ceilings. And of course a kick-ass weight room.”  She picked up a cracker and bit into it, the crumbs sticking to her lips. “What do you think?”

Can I say, in a letter like this, that I wanted to slap the ambition right out of her?  That I wanted to throw her into my basement and lock her there, like a character in an R.L. Stine paperback, until I figured out a way to go with her?  That instead I said, “You are the most arrogant person I have ever met.”

I stood up from the couch and looked down at her.  She tucked her legs beneath her and lifted the comforter over herself.  “Ha,” she said, thinking I was joking.  “Yeah, I’m such a pretentious asshole.  Someone get me my CV so I can read it again.”

“and I can see that arrogance in your work,” I continued, taking another step back.  “All the perfect images, the fussy line breaks, everything just so.”

 Of course, I meant none of these things.  You should be wining and dining her.  You should send her a fruit basket.  You should send her Jorie Graham.

“What?” she said. She huddled into the comforter, wrapping it around her, her small hands clenched around the edges.  “What do you mean, exactly?”

 “Your poems are like Tupperware,” I think I might have said, the last night I spent in Suzannah’s company.  “They won’t hold up in the world.  Why the hell are you hiding from me?  Stand up.”

I ripped the comforter off of her.  I was undone for a moment by the sight of her thin, perfect body caught.  I opened my front door.  A pane of cold sliced into the house.  She got up slowly, rolling out her shoulders and taking off the green sweater.   She took her time zippering her backpack.  She smoothed her hair.  Then she smiled at me, the way I knew she would.  She did not flinch when I slapped her face hard.  She slapped me right back.  Then she backed out the door, pointing that face of hers at me.  “Thanks,” she said.  “Thank you so much.” Big, ugly tears dripped down her cheeks but she did not look away.  She would not give me her back.   Do you see what a fighter you’ve got coming?

It is late January, the start of the spring semester here, and muscled, oafish boys in white t-shirts and lithe, determined girls in white spandex have retaken the University gym, grunting and straining over free weights and treadmills.  I lift in the early mornings, when the weight room is empty and a gray, soothing light seeps through the windows. After two hours of hard sets I stumble into the coffee shop for an egg sandwich.  Yesterday I saw Suzannah there.   She looked tired but content, wrapping the leftover half her cookie in a napkin, slipping into her backpack, tucking a hardcover copy of Rich’s latest book,The School Among the Ruins, under one arm   I asked her if she needed a letter.  She asked if this was a trick, if I meant to sabotage her chances. She had every right to ask.  Still, I made a show of fussing over the ridiculousness of her question.  Was I a hyena in a past life?  Of course she had my highest recommendation. 

I walked her to the door and watched her fill the blank afternoon with her sure, athletic walk.  When she stumbled over a pot hole in the parking lot and her walk came apart, the weight of her backpack nearly pitching her forward, her book falling to the muddy concrete, I took one, two steps towards her and stopped. I jammed my hands into my pockets.  She bent down to pick up the book and I tried not to stare at the half-moon of bare skin just below the nape of her neck, above the hood of her sweatshirt, where a scarf should have been. She squared her shoulders and walked away, her chin tilted upwards.  As I watched her, I brought my hand to the skin below the nape of my own neck, and I pressed with my fingernails until it hurt. 

What I wanted to say in this letter:  Suzannah is talented and works harder than anyone I know.  Her poems came back to me again and again, excavated, reconstructed, sometimes burned down completely and recreated as more complex versions of themselves.  They still come back to me.  


Marly Katz