Remembering Monica Berlin

a black and white photograph of a woman with her head in her hand, looking off camera

Dear Monica,

Something I think about often is how you once said that sometimes when you write a letter, the person you are writing to may never write back. That’s just part of the gamble of setting out to address another. This was how you used to explain to us that even though you required that we write weekly letters to you, you would not be able to return the favor. I suspect this was your way of gently letting us know that while you were merely one person, we, your students, were a body of many, and it would be near impossible for you to keep up a letter writing practice as rigorous as the one you asked of us. At the time, I found this sentiment beautiful, likening it to writing into a void, as if you were giving me permission to relay my deepest thoughts to you, no questions asked. Perhaps this is how you meant it, yourself an ever-expanding jar ready and willing to fill itself up with the many trials and tribulations of our young adult lives. Or maybe, perhaps, what you were quietly teaching us about was grief.

Today was the first big snow of the season. I woke up this morning to find that the trees in my backyard had been dusted in that familiar white powder yet again. My dog, who is still very much a puppy, barked incessantly out the window for quite some time, trying to alert us to this sudden and strange change while my husband carried our five-month-old son from window to window asking him to look. That’s snow, he whispered. It’s snowing. I poured myself a cup of coffee and perched on the edge of the couch. It has been almost two weeks since I’ve heard the news of your passing, and even though it’s been some time since we last spoke, the presence of your absence looms large.

I’m telling you this—the bit about the snow, the dog—because it feels relevant, because it feels like rooting myself in this place, in this time. So much of our time together was based on a specific moment in my life, my being formed by four years spent at a small, Midwestern college in the middle of Illinois at which you, a poet, also happened to teach. I remember you asking us to bear witness, to root ourselves in the world around us, as if rooting was a way forward both in our work and in our lives. Recently, I’ve begun to read through your book of poems, No Shape Bends the River So Long, and I am struck with how much place there is inside its pages. It’s bursting with so much water, so much river, but it’s also bursting with voice.

And of course, this voice is a double voice. Both yours and that of fellow poet, Beth Marzoni. The two of you collaborated on these poems, and it is now next to impossible to figure out where one voice ends and the other begins. I think this is what I like best about the book, this duality that melds two distinct minds into something entirely new. It suggests that through collaboration, we might discover a new way of saying.

Do you remember the class in which we spent the first half doing nothing but reading that week’s book of poems in its entirety? In my memory, it was winter, and all of us sat at our desks in that half-dark classroom taking turns reciting poem after poem until suddenly, we were done. I was always a quiet student, never much for talking, but I remember jumping in to recite a poem by Richard Jackson because I had read it and loved it. I was nervous about mispronouncing “Parmenides,” but I read it anyway, and when I finished you whispered something like, “Nice,” and the class moved on. It’s not much, but it is a moment that I think about frequently, my fear coupled with your soft reassurance until another student’s voice took over. What was created there in that classroom each week as we read out loud the work of others was a new lexicon of being. Our voices coming together to recite the poems of one person, turning them into a bigger, communal voice.

And isn’t the letter a form of collaboration, also? Even if one fails to receive a response, isn’t the act of writing a letter still a way of speaking out to, communicating with another? I think back to the letters I wrote you over my years at school. There must have been dozens of them, each one printed out the night before they were due and delivered by hand, lovingly, to the box on your office door on the third floor of Old Main. Dear Monica they always began, my voice reaching out to a you, to you. I remember treating those letters with a sacredness I reserved solely for the things I held most dear. In the end, it did not matter that I never got a reply (though, eventually, I did). The act of writing to you was enough.

And if we are to think about the act of letter writing as a form of grief, what then? What can be gleaned from addressing someone, knowing full well they will never reply? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the heart that is collaboration. That in reaching out with my voice towards your voice, somehow our shared voices can find one another and collectively intertwine. Though I have not written to you in many years, I still retain the familiarity of addressing a letter to you, of allowing my thoughts to spill out into that vessel you so willingly chose to hold for each of us. A selfless act that no doubt asked more of you than we could ever even imagine.

Back then, there was so much that I wanted my letters to you to hold. I was precious about them even though perhaps I should not have been. That’s not to say that I should have treated them carelessly, but rather that I failed to recognize how in being precious about something, often you find you might miss so much. What you gave to us in your request for correspondence was the ability to reach out toward another, to invite the other to listen, even if it might never prompt a response. That anyone could be dear if we only chose to address them as such.

Until next time,

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