Today we remember the poet Jane Mayhall, who died a few weeks ago at the age of ninety, and who wrote remarkable poems on such subjects as “Wastebaskets” (“in all that / heaven and debris, a lot of / my first gut ideas / were right”) or an obsolete subway token found in a shoulder bag, a symbol of the long-burnished imponderables in a New York life. Born in 1918 in Louisville, Kentucky, Mayhall attended Black Mountain College, where she met and married the maverick Leslie George Katz, and came to New York with him to found the Eakins Press, an important publisher of specialized books of photography, art, and fine writing. (Their friends and colleagues in the fertile mid-century period in New York City included Walker Evans, James Agee, and Arthur Miller.) Mayhall wrote several books during her long bohemian marriage to Katz (“our courtship had the grace of / infidelities, myriad moods— / so many skies”), but it was only in 2004, at the age of 85, that she published a full-length volume of verse, Sleeping Late on Judgment Day, which gathers her frank poems of wisdom and long love—notably, the poems of mourning and abiding passion she wrote to her husband in an outpouring of new work after his death in 1997.
Notes For Sixtieth Wedding Anniversary
Lofty, but not above it.
How could anything so rash happen?
The Baptist ice-cream, and a pitiful living room.
The pastor in seersucker, red-faced,
bewildered as icons.
It was a wild decision, youth and Mercury
at our heels. The Parish didn’t even have a piano.
But wedding strains, coached to overdo (and love
is private). The greatest concentration
Silence was the marriage ring we chose.
The cake I recall was Tastee brand,
you barely took my hand.
No urge for bridal costumes, heaven opening up
the purgatorial rites. And we
all stepped forth, in faith.
The worst disasters were golden givers of advice:
sausage makers. We liked to think of
living without a Name. And quandaries besmote—
Because we didn’t believe in obligations,
we never thought about divorce.
And we were blessed. Going to sleep with
you at night, to welcome the strange, uncoercive
incense of another day.