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Rachel Wetzsteon

1967–2009

Born on November 25, 1967 in New York City, Rachel Wetzsteon studied at Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and received her PhD from Columbia University.

She is the author of three collections of poems, including Sakura Park (Persea, 2006), Home and Away (Penguin, 1998), and The Other Stars (1994), which was selected by John Hollander for the 1993 National Poetry Series. Her poetry was also informed by her critical writing, including a book on W. H. Auden, titled Influential Ghosts: A Study of Auden's Sources (Routledge Press, 2007).

About her work, the poet David Yezzi writes:

For all of Wetzsteon's prosodic and emotional control, her poems never lack for red corpuscles. Far from damping emotion, her measured lines intensify it through the coiled anxiety and longing seamlessly controlled in them.

Wetzsteon received an Ingram Merrill grant and the 2001 Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She taught at William Paterson University and the Unterberg Poetry Center of the Ninety-Second Street Y.

She lived in Manhattan, New York, where she also served as poetry editor for the New Republic. Rachel Wetzsteon died on December 25, 2009.

By This Poet

3

Sakura Park

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter

like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on

and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles

a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,

seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart

some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads

though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade

but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness

(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.

There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.

And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.

MacDowell

For once I fought back,
answering Oh yes, someday
when a restless muse asserted
This golden age needs treatment on the page.          
It was the strangest lesson—
all that ink to make me think
shadows were real, this silence 
when one true heart so manifestly was. 
Time passed. Themes amassed; 
I scoffed at amber, basked in oxygen.
Now in this little cabin
where no sightings slake my cravings
and my pen gets back its need to conjure,
on the ingots I have stored, oh pine, opine.

At the Zen Mountain Monastery

A double line of meditators sits
on mats, each one a human triangle.
Evacuate your mind of clutter now.
I do my best, squeezing the static and
the agony into a straight flat line,
but soon it soars and dips until my mind’s
activity looks (you can take the girl...)
uncannily like the Manhattan skyline.
Observe your thoughts, then gently let them go.
I’m watching them all right, unruly dots
I not only can’t part from but can’t help
transforming into restless bodies -- they’re
no sooner being thought than sprouting limbs,
no longer motionless but striding proudly,
beautiful mental jukeboxes that play
their litanies of joy and woe each day
beneath the shadow of enormous buildings.
Desires are your jailers; set them free
and roam the hills, smiling archaically.
It’s not a pretty picture, me amid
high alpine regions in my urban black,
huffing and puffing in the mountain air
and saying to myself, I’m trying but
it’s hopeless; though the tortures of the damned
make waking difficult, they are my tortures;
I want them raucous and I want them near,
like howling pets I nonetheless adore
and holler adamant instructions to—
sprint, mad ambition! scavenge, hopeless love
that begs requital!—on our evening stroll
down Broadway and up West End Avenue.

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