A poet who brings generations together The works of Baltimore's Josephine Jacobsen, who is 90 this week, will stand the test of time, writes a friend. Elizabeth Spires

August 16, 1998|By Josephine Jacobsen Pub date: 8/16/98

Poets, as Josephine Jacobsen suggests in her 1980 essay "Artifacts of Memory," are archaeologists. They mine the past and make connections to the present.

Recently, she and I spoke about survival - not personal survival, but the survival of one's work. Who might be picking up the

"Collected Jacobsen" a few generations from now? With characteristic modesty, she suggested it was extremely unlikely that her work, spanning almost 80 years now, would stand the test of time. I argued, as forcefully as I could, that of course it would. The conversation reached a friendly impasse.

I should have reminded her of what Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky once said about her poetry: "A work of art, in order to survive, ought to have something indestructible, a backbone that won't bend or break with the pressure of society, age, chaos, the memory's indifference, etc. ... Josephine Jacobsen's poems look on the page like a very durable vertebra. By looking at it - at her poems - posterity won't mistake us for dinosaurs."

Josephine, who celebrates her 90th birthday this week, has proven far more than merely durable. She has been consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, written nine books of poetry, four of fiction and one of nonfiction. In recent years, she has seen the best of her poetry, fiction and nonfiction collected into three volumes, and received a National Book Award nomination and other literary honors. A regular contributor of poetry to the New Yorker, she has several new poems slated to appear in the coming months.

She also has been a literary influence for many poets. I count myself among them. Several years ago, Josephine and I planned a trip to Ladew Topiary Gardens. At the last minute, it had to be canceled. A poem, "In Heaven It Is Always Autumn," resulted. It's about a visit that never took place - except in our imaginations. The "friend" mentioned in the poem, Josephine Jacobsen has led the way and left her mark, indelibly, on all of us lucky enough to know her and read her.

'Artifacts of Memory'

Archaeology, the dictionary says, is "the study of material remains of past human life and activities." More than that, it is the seed-bed of memory, and its fascination comes from the leap we take into continuity.

Trudging the sun-baked streets of Pompeii, bombarded by the guide's dramatic inaccuracies, what we really look at, look for, are resemblances with familiar things, this atrium where guests gathered, noisily conversational; that room where hungry and thirsty people ate fruit and drank wine. We know that when the hot ashes fell, people were selling and buying; taking a nap; bathing; worrying; arranging flowers; making love.

The knowledge is partly a tiny chill, partly a warmth of recognition. It is like a hand touching our shoulder. What we are really concerned with is not the dead, but the living: those people, then; us, now.

Theirs was a sophisticated generation, concerned with many of the things which concern us. But going back into time, our archaeologist brings up to the sun traces of an age buried profoundly in the past. It is, as a book title tersely put it, "The Testimony of the Spade." And again we feel, this time more strangely, the combined chill and warmth: this woman prepared food for her children; that man built a fire for protection and warmth; and when night fell they wanted fire and shelter and human company.

Art was imitation and magic; but something else, too. In the caves of Lascaux the innermost and highest paintings were too high to have been visible by any illumination then possessed; the artist was not painting for the observer. In the dizzying tables of centuries, how very close they are to us, the vanguard of a beleaguered and recent army of human beings.

Archaeology has a way of slipping out of its technical boundaries - it haunts all aspects of memory. Planting a garden, on an early June morning, a rubber soldier is unearthed; and that tiny object, grubby, one-legged, re-creates instantly a June a quarter of a century gone by, the heat, the flowers, the voice, the gesture. Was the rubber man buried by accident, or with ceremony? Like any vessel, or trinket, or tool, it speaks of its owner, demands our recognition.

It is the same with a blackened chimney, strangled by wild roses, with no house to warm. We are stopped suddenly by the hieroglyph, which will tell us nothing except that someone passed here and paused, for years or decades, a message we will never translate more accurately, but cannot fail to understand.

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