She’s Lived Her Life Out Free (Al Stephens Notes)

by jkatejohnston

More Old Diaries that Mention Al Stephens

28 July 1997

Dear Max:  Tomorrow is my birthday, and I’ve already picked out the dress Teresa is going to buy me: long, bias cut, black print with pink roses and soft green leaves. I had a fantasy about Al Stephens seeing me at Beth’s wedding saying, “You look stunning!” and me laughing and saying, “I know!”

13 August 1997

Dear Max:  Beth’s wedding was so fun and nice. I danced with Beth. “How do you do this?” I said. It was some kind of Latin music. She showed me a few steps and then added, “Or you can just wiggle your butt and look like you know what you’re doing.” We decided to go with this technique. A few minutes later I told Mr. Stephens what Beth had said, and he said, “That’s what I try to do all the time.”

20 November 1997

Dear Max: Yesterday I went to John Wilson’s poetry class because Al Stephens was going to be there and because they were talking about Elizabeth Bishop and just because. Oh Max, I get so excited. Why can’t I be nervous and quiet? Instead I try so hard to be interesting, and at one point I said something about the end of a Frost poem, how I always thought it sounded sarcastic, and poor Mr. Stephens looked like I’d just stuck a dagger right though his heart. I’m sure his pacemaker had to be completely readjusted after the class. LMT and Kate Dennis said sensible, modest things. John is always plain, funny, and notices a lot. Mr. Stephens didn’t say anything except “Seals die.

Afterwards I felt so blue, I think mostly because I’ve never gotten any smarter and never will. I used to take classes from Al Stephens and be so determined to understand everything and not get things wrong all the time and keep a clear head. Now I am pretty well resigned to being a half-wit. I had to leave fifteen minutes before the class ended to go my City College class. I was doing conferences with the students about their portfolios and since the portfolios are graded by the English department faculty, not by me, I was giving them all this good advice on how to jump though the departmental hoops and it felt like such a revolting game. I kept saying, “I know it’s ridiculous, but it’s probably a good idea to start off with a topic sentence.” Or, “This is really good, but maybe you should write a brief introduction to tell the reader what you’re planning to write about. I know it seems stupid, but it might help you pass.” And I thought of what Mr. Stephens told our Hemingway class when someone asked how to write the introduction and conclusion. “Just start right in with what you have to say and when you’re finished, stop.”

18 May 1998

Dear Max: Yesterday after the horrid massacre of the brain cells [faculty meeting at City College], I was alone at Annie and Todd’s, lying on the couch in the late afternoon sun, reading poem after poem by Mr. Stephens, fast, just taking them in sort of desperately. And then in the middle of one for no reason I could tell, the blood rushed into my face and the tears into my eyes. I had this glimpse of super-excellence and also some feeling of how almost impossible it is for that vitality and attention to keep alive in this world. Mr. Stephens suffered all his life, I think. He didn’t know how to get numb and stupid. The rest of us know how, I’m afraid. We know it very well.

Note added 11 August 2013

Reading over that last bit makes me think again of Fran. She didn’t suffer all her life. And who was ever so alive? As Al wrote, “She lived her life out free” and that line standing alone seems so complete and right, but the sentence goes on into the next line.  Well, I’ll just put the whole thing in again. My mind keeps coming back to this poem.

A Portrait

…she wakes, and with the same
quick start and buoyancy
heads without hesitation
along her usual ways — those
trim routines she fashions
through ordinary days —
yet in an instant, game
for the unscheduled jaunt,
spur-of-the-moment spree.

So far as I can see
she’s lived her life out free,
somehow, of the bad passions
(but knows well — forgivingly,
I’ve learned — the ones in me);
free of the wants that claw
and gnaw at others so
for this and that; has no
taint of that vanity,
ambition for her sons

She’s no worrier. Is brave,
those close to her can attest,
as her youngest son knows best,
whose life she dived to save
in the Rogue — a fast river
well-named from those it drowned.

She’s quick to understand
the good that comes to hand
in the course of things, for what
it’s worth. Her gaiety
at any flash of wit
confirms its quality.
And I saw just last night
her yet again fresh delight
at seeing the moon rise …

(Alan Stephens, Selected Poems, 274)