Monday, February 28, 2005

There are many versions of Andrea

There are many versions of Andrea’s story. Toni spoke of how she always looked like a model, no matter how she was dressed. I recall that when she first came back to school as an older undergraduate her appearance put considerable distance between herself and other students and in a conference once she asked how she could make friends. “Wear jeans,” I said, and she did, and it seemed to work, though she still looked like an ad for Calvin Klein.

Toni mentions the workshops we had that included a group of enormously talented students and non-students. Besides Andrea and Toni, there were Rick Campbell, Donna Long, Lynne Knight, Catherine Reid, Mary Jane Ryals, Laura Sullivan, Michael Trammell, Helen Wallace—and others I know I am leaving out—all accomplished poets who have won deserved recognition for their work and have gone on to contribute importantly to writing and the literary community.

For the reading Toni mentioned where Andrea read, she had to have a prescription to calm her nerves, or else she said her knees would have been shaking so badly she could not have read. But it was that way with everything. Professors often assign far more work to a graduate student than it is possible to do, expecting the student to choose what is right for his or her needs. Andrea would stay up all night to try to do it all. But that was true in what others would consider mundane things. Andrea found she could make more money cleaning houses than any other way, and she was as thorough with that as with her graduate work and her writing. If her creativity was often off-set by her self-destructiveness, her perfectionist reaching in her studies and her writing were grounded by her never forgetting her humble beginnings and the love she carried for those who had loved her in early life, an eccentric aunt, and a black woman who became the voice in one of her best stories.

Altogether, Andrea won most of the prizes available for poetry in the Florida State University Writing Program. The Academy of American Poets Award for Undergraduates and later the same award for graduate students. Also, the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society Award for Poetry. Andrea was a member of the society, but the award was open to any poet, member or not, including faculty members. Then there was a poem she began as an undergraduate that I told her should probably be a story. Eventually she made it into a story that won the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Award. But it is not the awards she won, or even the works that won the awards, but the works that were not written that make Andrea’s loss irretrievable.

So many of the people that loved and were supportive and kind to Andrea had great difficulty with her not keeping faith with her ability and promise and with her friends. Between her pain treatments, attempts to heal, and pain killers substituted for treatments she couldn’t afford without health insurance, I spoke to Andrea only a few times during her last year and a half. Andrea felt her failure and the disappointment it caused those she loved who had loved her, those who like her had had to pull the antipodes together to achieve what they were achieving. She felt it to the end, I’m sure. And she understood, for she was always a severe critic of herself.

I recall my advice to her to wear jeans and my casual remark that a poem fragment might be the kernel of a story, because Andrea would remind me of them. Similarly, she was generous in the credit she gave to her friends, and many times they did deserve the credit. Enormously creative and enormously self-destructive is the way one of her friends and former lovers put it when I sent news of her death.

Of the many versions of Andrea’s story, the following reflects things she told about her life before leaving home to return to college. It may not be fair to the keeper of the wild zone. In the long run, it was not a free ride for him, as it would not have been for anyone. I tell it because it shows much about Andrea.

The Keeper of the Wild Zone

He just brought his things one night and wouldn't leave.
I didn't want this, but though I said, "No, No,"
The house had been emptier than de Milo's sleeves.

He fixed leaky faucets, clogged drains, fired the coals,
charred red meat brown, and told me: how to dress
to look my best--in skin-tight clothes,

when my thinking wasn't straight, like his,
why the job that gave me nothing was good.
It had something to do with the pay. So with his

unflagging help, I fled to my mom's and woke up in bed,
from which, dutifully, at last, he brought me home,
and prescribed, as cure, himself. I split, instead,

this time, to another town, books and jeans, and left
the teddies he bought with him, his low red road machine
my furniture, house, flowers, everything except

the wild one behind the mirror, he never knew
we kept, so tuned was he to the marble skin-tight dreams
of his Galatea, polished, made up, always askew,

with his stringents and insults, caresses and screams.
The truth? He was sweet, lonely, sad, like a stray,
or a child who wanted a toy that knew his name,

who wanted a home and keeper, without bills to pay,
otherwise, he'd rather live on a boat in the bay.
And sure, basically, we all want to have our way.

Van K. Brock