Today I took possession of Helen Bacand’s books and poetry files.
It was a difficult thing, and I had to have a few moments of sitting in the car, staring at the the windscreen wipers before I was able to pull myself together enough to drive safely. The papers were hard, but the thing that caught me out was her books. I hadn’t expected to be given them, so it was a surprise. A pleasant one, mostly – I’m covetous of books at the best of times, and this was the library of someone I loved, who shared my own taste in poetry. So that side of it was something that filled me with gratitude. (Which, in its own way, is also something likely to bring on the tears.) But then I caught sight of one of the books I’d given Helen, and had to work very hard not to loose the plot. (I was heading off to have lunch with Bruce and Jane – her son and daughter-in-law – to discuss what the family would like done with her work. So pulling myself together was quite important.)
It was actually a pretty good lunch. We went to Terra Viva – a place that Helen and I had gone to very often – and talked about Helen and lots of kind, inconsequential things, as well as the rather tougher business of what to do next. The plan is to spend the next three or four months getting her unpublished poems in order, and ready for a posthumous collection. I have no idea how much work there will be needed – whether I’ll have to do much hard editing, or really just tidying and collating. I do at least have the benefit of having spent seventeen years working with her, so I’ve got a pretty good sense of what she would have done.
But then I came home, and unloaded the four banana boxes of files and books and magazines. And sat down, and began to go through things.
What an astonishingly personal thing our books are! Hers were littered with slips of paper in lieu of bookmarks. I kept turning the pages, rereading poems that she’d obviously found interesting enough to want to read again. Quite a few that I remember talking about, in our fortnightly sessions. (The rule was, if you don’t have a poem of your own to share, you bring one by someone else, and talk about it.) I’m teaching a class on Glosa and Cento this weekend, and it struck me that I could probably assemble a cento from the poems she’d marked. Which would be one way of writing a poem in her memory.
But it really brought home that Helen is dead. In the four months since, I’ve heard her laugh dozens of times, or thought to myself that something I’d seen or heard was something I must remember to tell her about. But Helen is dead: I have her books. And her files. And her scribbles on bits of paper. And the damn Quinns plastic bag that she used to carry everywhere with her working copies of poems-in-progress, a selection of purloined serviettes from various cafes, and at least one ballpoint pen that no longer worked …