November 13, 2013
I was standing at the very back, and saw only a wall of people in front. I’d also missed the introduction. For most of reading, all I got was the voice, surprisingly strong, vigorous, the voice of someone still in his prime, reading poems none of which I recognized.
The wall thinned out a bit towards the end, and I finally got to see his head, also that he was reading sitting down. Not till the reception did I realize that, yes, he was sitting down because he was in a wheelchair. And the poems were all unrecognizable because they were all new, in a book scheduled to come out next year, pretty much an annual ritual for Ashbery, kept up for quite some time,
I’ll probably never hear him again in that big room, the mezzanine of the Beinecke Library. But I have to say: it didn’t feel especially sad.
Instead, I thought of two other authors: Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, recipients of the 2012 Furious Flower Lifetime Achievement Awards, both in wheelchairs, looking fairly comfortable. In one picture, a laughing Morrison reaches over and grabs Angelou’s arm.
And another photo, taken in 1994: a party for 150 at Angelou’s house, with the two of them joined by Rita Dove, all three looking stunning in evening gowns.
Somehow that arc, from 1994 to 2012, doesn’t seem too sad either.