For Eloise Klein Healy
by Tara Ison
…It was so simple then,
writing with a stick on the ground,
drawing circles for clean hard games
that filled each moment
with happy predictability
and lasted until dark.
It’s not so simple for me now….
-Eloise Klein Healy, from “After the Last Call Home” (1981)
I knew Eloise Klein Healy long before I actually met her, roughly (oh, my) twenty-five years ago. That is, I’d seen Eloise about town, at readings, parties and community events, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival—it was impossible not to notice the glow (and throng) around the beautiful woman in a black blazer, the dazzling, joyous smile, the nimbus of silvery hair. It seemed whenever someone brought Eloise Klein Healy’s name up in conversation or pointed her out in a crowd it was accompanied by a murmur of, “Oh, Eloise…!” with a hand held to the heart, a smile and nod tinged with appreciation and awe. I started doing that, too. As if I knew her.
It seemed whenever someone brought Eloise Klein Healy’s name up in conversation or pointed her out in a crowd it was accompanied by a murmur of, “Oh, Eloise…!” with a hand held to the heart, a smile and nod tinged with appreciation and awe.And I knew the trailblazing resume, the glossy book jacket bio, the eclectic stats: she had directed the Women’s Studies Program at California State University Northridge, taught gay and lesbian studies at UCLA and at the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles, at the Idyllwild Summer Poetry Festival and the Lambda Writer’s Retreat. She hosted “Women’s Words,” an interview program on KPFK radio, and served as poetry editor of the Lesbian Review of Books. Sure, I knew who Eloise Klein Healy was.
And I knew her prize-winning poetry: her early books Building Some Changes (1976), A Packet Beating Like a Heart (1981), Ordinary Wisdom (1981), and Artemis in Echo Park (1991), those love songs to Los Angeles, to women, to peahens and baseball and dogs, to her hardscrabble Iowa childhood, to our relationships with landscapes “emotionally carved or artfully decorated,” to the “hungry wisdom” of poetry itself. “Love is how close you can get and even bleed/and even want to pick it up again,” Eloise writes in her poem “Cactus,” and reading her poetry is often like that; it pierces and illuminates, all at once, and stirs a craving for more.
And so in 1997 when I heard Eloise Klein Healy was creating a new low-residency MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, a program that would emphasize principles of social justice and a commitment to inclusion and diversity—words easily tossed around academia these days but not quite so boilerplate twenty years ago—I waited ten minutes after the publication of my first novel and then wrote her a letter begging for a job as a fiction mentor. She turned me down, gracefully—the implication being that it was still a bit… early in my writing and teaching career for me to join her esteemed faculty—but encouraged me to stay in touch. Perhaps we could work together further down the road? I was crushed, but determined to prove myself worthy of her, and of Antioch.
By the time she hired me as core faculty (at last!) in 2001, I’d already taught in several creative writing programs, but when I began at Antioch I realized something was very different here. Eloise indeed had created a program that embraced—insisted upon—the artist’s role and responsibility in the advancement of social justice, a writing program whose core ethic was community, not competition. This was the tone she set, the spirit in the very air, but also carefully structured into the innovative curriculum she had designed; no MFA program I knew of required a field study, a translation course, seminars in arts, culture, and society. Eloise’s Antioch embodied—not merely used as catalogue-speak—inclusion and diversity; the unofficial motto was: Your story is worth telling. We are here to help you tell your story.
I don’t remember the moment I actually met Eloise for the first time—but observing her leadership and being under her tutelage improved my teaching, my administrative skills, my style of communicating, my understanding of how to navigate the tricky conflicts and sticky perils of life. It changed my way of being a woman, a writer, a person in the world. At some point I realized I wore on my wrist an imagined bracelet that read WWED?, and the question What would Eloise do? invariably led to answers that took the high road, that showed a path to possibility, to empathy, to hope. There is, simply, an aura of grace about Eloise. I am not entirely sure what that word means, but you know it when you see it, when you experience it; I would watch, amazed, as Eloise made time for every single student in the program, listened to their feedback, knew every personal history, made sure that everyone knew their stories—their dreams, their experiences, their life, their words—were of value.
Maybe that is grace.
* * *
The resume continues: in 2002 Eloise published Passing, a finalist for the Lambda Book Award and the Audre Lorde Poetry Prize, followed by 2007’s The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho, winner of the Golden Crown Literary Society Poetry Award. In 2006, she created Arktoi Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, dedicated to publishing high-quality literary work by lesbian authors, one more challenge to accepted and canonical notions of what should be written, what and whom should be published, and, in her own words, “who is allowed to create culture.”
I recently met the poet laureate of West Hollywood, and when I mentioned my friend Eloise Klein Healy, he swooned—no other word for it. “Oh, Eloise…,” he said, the hand to heart, the smile and nod. He told me a friend of his had sent a manuscript to Arktoi Books, and received back the longest, kindest, most generous, and most helpful rejection letter she had ever seen. I remember how Eloise agonized over those letters—editors must reject manuscripts all the time, they have to clear off the desk—but Eloise’s only concern was how to be as helpful, encouraging, and validating as possible. So even if she wouldn’t be publishing their manuscript for Arktoi, these women understood their story was worth telling.
In 2013, A Wild Surmise: New and Selected Poems & Recordings by Eloise Klein Healy was published to great acclaim. And in 2012: Eloise was named the inaugural Poet Laureate of the City of Los Angeles, her beloved city loving her right back.
* * *
“It’s not so simple for me now,” Eloise wrote in 1981’s “After the Last Call Home,” looking back on the uncomplicated, unself-conscious wanderings and wonders of childhood. The speaker wants to remember:
…the nights we stayed outside
against all warnings
and played in the dark,
buoyant with a sureness
taken in like air for a deep dive,
the nights I stayed out in the darkness
after the last call home
what my life wants
to speak over and over again…
But of course, the speaker—truly, anyone living their life—must at some point face the heavy absence of life’s surenesses, the frightening unpredictabilities of adulthood.
A few months after being named Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, Eloise was hit with a bout of viral encephalitis, a nasty, brain-scrambling kind of bug. The resulting aphasia affected Eloise’s relationship to language, her ability to translate thoughts into the right words—a most complicated and unpredictable unpredictability for anyone, let alone a poet. Every day since, Eloise, with the help of her spouse, Colleen, and her therapist, Betty, has worked to rewire the language networks in her brain, to fight and find her way back to playing what her life wants to speak, over and over again.
Eloise’s Antioch embodied—not merely used as catalogue-speak—inclusion and diversity; the unofficial motto was: Your story is worth telling. We are here to help you tell your story.In the early post-encephalitis days, I struggled to comprehend Eloise’s jumbled speech, her absurdist use of nouns, her nonsensical verbs. I’d ask her to repeat a thing sometimes, or please come at it from a different angle, tell her I just couldn’t understand what she was trying to say. I’d joke that she sounded like a language poet, speaking in impossibly oblique phrasings that sounded beautiful but I could make absolutely no sense of. I would often grow impatient, wanting to answer questions for her, finish her sentences or edit in my own tidy nouns and proper verbs and thus make our communication easier—for me.
In “The Living Fragments,” a poem from The Islands Project: Poems for Sappho, Eloise described her mother’s challenge, near the end of her life, to communicate in words—and her own struggle to “read” her mother, to piece meaning together when “Her sentences broke verbs into bits,/her syntax shards of a time sequence/shattered in a swallow….
“When did I go crazy?” she would ask.
She wasn’t crazy. She had many minds.
They all made sense, just like a word
on a fragment of papyrus means something
even when you know the rest are missing….
So I read Sappho’s fragments
with a trained eye….
Eloise’s speech was equally shattered, reflecting many minds, all of which indeed made sense—to her. I reminded myself of my WWED? bracelet, tried to imagine what Eloise would do if our places were swapped. And so I tried to just listen, to the spaces between the words, to the fragmented music of her syntax. I tried to imagine the missing bits of papyrus, and then listen again, listen some more.
And it was there, as always, the hungry wisdom, the poetry of Eloise’s heart and mind.
* * *
I’m not lost and I’m not leaving.
I’m out here in the night
with all the planets
in their deep rings of darkness
playing “for keeps forever” in the sky…
Eloise wrote toward the end of “After the Last Call Home,” and no, she is still not lost, and still not leaving.
I like to think that just as Sappho trained Eloise, Eloise has taught me, continues to teach me and so many of us, to listen—not just to our own words, to the poem we would write in the way we would wish to write it, but to the words of others writing their own poems, in their own way, writing what their lives want to speak.In 2016, Publishing Triangle honored Eloise with a lifetime achievement award for her contributions to both the gay and lesbian and literary communities. In 2018, her eighth book of poetry, all new work inspired by her therapies and exercises, will be published by Red Hen Press. And a new series of poems will come to us after that, poems that translate her “aphasic dreams,” as she calls them, into a universal language of struggle and loss—but also of possibility, empathy, and hope, of a “new life calling, calling, calling.” Nothing has changed from what Natasha Trethaway, Poet Laureate of the United States, has said: “Eloise Klein Healy’s straightforward and dry wit underscores her wisdom and peacefulness that comes from a deeply humane emotional and intellectual knowledge.”
I like to think that just as Sappho trained Eloise, Eloise has taught me, continues to teach me and so many of us, to listen—not just to our own words, to the poem we would write in the way we would wish to write it, but to the words of others writing their own poems, in their own way, writing what their lives want to speak. To read the world with an open and patient mind. I am still listening to her, still in appreciative awe of this Eloise, my mentor, wise woman, dearest friend, who teaches me, and so many of us, grace.