THE AFTERLIFE OF POEMS
In Memoriam Cynthia Jobin and Bart Wolffe
It is always sad when someone dies whom you like and admire. Even more so when, in consequence, their literary work disappears from view.
Just over a year ago two poets died whom I had come to know through the wonders of the internet. Both wrote fine poetry and had a respectable worldwide readership through their websites, as well as warm online friendships. One was Bart Wolffe, the other Cynthia Jobin. Bart’s poetry collections remain available for purchase and his blog is still online; Cynthia’s blog has been taken down and her only book was sold out.
At the end of November 2016, I received a startling email from Cynthia Jobin. We occasionally exchanged emails commenting on each other’s poems. Cynthia lived in New England, I in old England, and we had become acquainted through the internet. We gave each other a certain amount of encouragement and criticism, but it was neither a close relationship nor an extensive correspondence. Nonetheless, I was delighted when she sent me a copy of her one and only book: a hardback edition of her poems, published privately with an unexpected inheritance, entitled A Certain Age. I too sent her a copy of my own first book.
That November email was short and to the point: she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted a few of her internet acquaintances to know. She closed by saying simply “A new journey begun ...”. In trying to reply adequately, I encouraged her to think about the legacy of her poetry, to find someone to take care of her blog, her book, and poems yet to come. She responded by saying that she was puzzling what to do with the large number of poems which she had intended to be the second book. She was trying to decide who to send them to. Also:
“My heirs know nothing of poetry, the literary world or archives, and could without malice just dump it all into the trash.”
This, more or less, is what happened. I wrote back with a suggestion from my wife: that we could approach my own publisher here in Britain and ask if they would be willing to bring out a book. I offered to help in any way Cynthia might like if her energies failed her – in proof-reading for example, or even by assembling the collection and seeing the project through. Cynthia said she would love to take up that suggestion but she died almost immediately without sending me her poems. I learnt of her death only indirectly through a brief announcement made on her blog. And that was it. My letter of condolence to her family was returned unopened, “address unknown”. And then her blog was discontinued. There is almost no continued access to her work.
Cynthia Jobin’s poetry was skilfully crafted, educated and accessible. She wrote about the mysteries of Life, about her grief following the death of her lifelong partner, about the love of pets and the landscape of New England. There was a depth of feeling, but equally a lightness of touch and – often –¬ humour. Let me show you the clarity of her writing. These lines come from Patient Belongings, a poem grieving the death of her partner:
Your earrings and I,
with only the turned-off machines
pushed back against the walls to overhear
said our appalling last goodbye. Then
stunned to a disbelief way beyond sorrow,
we went home. In time
I gave the earrings to your sister–
as you know, she is a fool for jewelry–
and felt they should be hers.
But let me now turn to Bart Wolffe, whose legacy thankfully continues. Living in Zimbabwe, he was a published writer of novels, plays and poetry. He ran theatre workshops across southern Africa, brought a company to London and Edinburgh to perform his own plays and had assignments with the British Council, the Goethe Institute and Alliance Francaise. He left Zimbabwe in 2003 for Germany but finally settled in England.
Bart and I knew each other only through Wordpress, Facebook and email. It was Bart however who read one of my poems on local radio, for which I felt honoured. I should have met him since he lived not far from me and invited me to join a poetry group of which he was a leading member. I hoped to do so but – I am sad to report – I missed the opportunity. While my wife and I were away in New Zealand in 2016, Bart was taken into hospital, and then the announcement of his death came suddenly and unexpectedly.
I have a short book by Bart Wolffe, called The Crusoe Morality. In verse, it is a retelling of the Robinsoe Crusoe story, with a few unusual twists. Rereading it now, I wonder whether part of the appeal in Daniel Defoe’s tale lay in the sense of isolation or exile, for Bart was writing it as an ex-Zimbabwean in England. He wrote:
When the ship finally came
Crusoe refused to look back
At a shadow that was a man
Shedding salted tears on the already salty sand
Instead he asked the bosun
To point the way to England,
Closer, safer England.
Bart Wolffe’s blog is still online, at https://bartwolffe.wordpress.com. It says nothing about his death and remains as though it were his study and he had simply walked out of the room – leaving his final poem, Shelter From The Storm, for all to read.
The good news is that both Cynthia and Bart were persuaded to contribute a few poems to an anthology from my own publisher, Bennison Books, published through Amazon in 2017. This was Indra’s Net, about which I’ve written previously. There are some fine poems by these two poets in that anthology, which has sold in many countries. And in the case of Cynthia Jobin, there are also five short poems at poemhunter.com