My Sister & Maurice Sendak

Our first experiences learning to speak seem to involve rhymes. [Twinkle twinkle and Dr. Suess, anyone?] We recite as children, loving language’s sing-song chants.

One of the very first pieces I memorized as a child (to this day I can recite it) was ‘The Cow’ from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods by Robert Louis Stevenson, printed in 1913.

                                                           The Cow
The friendly cow all red and white
  I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
  To eat with apple-tart.
She wanders lowing here and there,

         5

  And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
  The pleasant light of day;
And blown by all the winds that pass
  And wet with all the showers,

  10

She walks among the meadow grass
  And eats the meadow flowers.

Can’t you see her?? In my child’s brain she was white and a funny shade of red (who ever heard of a red cow? I mean, really.) And she was named Flossie, or Maisie, or Bessie. Placid Maisie meanders in a huge field, chewing her cud and surrounded by fairy rings of little flowers.

I have to be in the right mood for poetry, but I still have the used copy of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry from my college days of long ago. (How long ago? Decades. A couple of ’em.) My edition of Robert Frost’s complete works came to me when my mother died. When I read Frost, his poems of New England keep me linked to her, too.

Emily Dickinson still knocks me out, and every word Shakespeare penned is poetry in exalted form.

Poetry is emotion and experience expressed in crystalline shapes, no matter whether it’s metered or free verse. Prose works by poets betray themselves through the beauty of the writing. Think of The English Patient. I read that book slower and slower, and found myself rereading pages over and over, savoring Ondaatje’s mastery with language. Or anything by Ray Bradbury: each of his strange magical visions contains a goodly dose of poetry.

Hmm. I just went back and read what I’ve got here so far… Scratch the comment about needing to be in a certain mood to read poetry.

The Muses pay a very special visit on those they gift with the ability to speak through poems. For me it’s the hardest of all forms of writing. Sadly, the poetic Muses Erato (love poetry), Calliope (epic poetry), Euterpe (songs and elegiac poetry), and their sister Polyhymnia (hymns and sacred poetry) just don’t knock on my door more than once a decade or so. An impulse to even attempt a poem is the sighting and citing of a rare bird. The last time, and it came over me in a total rush of surprise and inspiration, was the death of Maurice Sendak.

File:Sendak illustration.gif

(Photo from Wikipedia)

Mr. Sendak accompanied my childhood and probably yours too, and he was particularly part of my sister Pam’s early years. I remember his Nutshell Library books, extra small to fit the hands of children. There were 4 of them: Alligators All Around, Chicken Soup With Rice, One Was Johnny, and Pierre (A Cautionary Tale). Pammy read them repeatedly, relating especially to the contrary Pierre. A few years ago I spotted an interview with Sendak in The New York Times (click here for the interview).

The article brought back those little books and how much my sister loved Maurice Sendak. I promptly sent the link to Pam and we spent several weeks emailing back and forth about his wonderful art and our childhood memories.

In May last year, Maurice passed away. My sister was teaching in Japan; had she heard yet? For some reason I wanted to be the person to break the news to her. I debated how to contact Pam and gently let her know.

The next morning I awoke preoccupied with way too much to do. I began my tasks with the radio on. NPR mentioned that Terry Gross was doing a special Fresh Air show in honor of Maurice Sendak’s passing (a much older interview with Sendak and a more recent one recorded not long before his death). Despite really having no time to spare, I sat down to give 5 minutes to Sendak.

An hour later I still sat. By now tears were streaming down my face. Sendak’s wise, sweet old voice came over the airways, speaking of the secret fears of children, of his inability to believe in God after the horrors of the Holocaust (he lost his entire extended family), his more than half a century with the man he loved, Dr. Eugene Glynn, a NYC psychoanalyst his parents never knew about… Sendak told his story as the tears continued to pour.

I forgot everything, the chores that had seemed so important that morning, the things I had wanted to cross off my to-do list that day. The interview ended, I got shakily out of my chair, found some tissues and blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and sat down to write my sister. “Pam,” I said, “I just heard an incredibly moving interview with Maurice Sendak. He’s died, and I wanted you to get the news from me…. but really you need to hear this interview and listen to his voice.”

And as I sat, a Muse spoke. I wrote the first version of the following poem in one take.

Maurice

Maurice Sendak

Your words and drawings,

depictions transcribe

the soul&depths

of my sister, Pammy.

You died yesterday,

83 years old and not a day

older than the children now grown

adults weeping, mourning

your passing theirs passing

something of childhood gone beyond

retrieving.

Maurice.

I listen to recordings of your voice

You speak, the New Yorker

in you       so     obvious

I love your sense of place

your first generation voice

of Polish immigrants

of your humanity

your humility

your atheism

your embrasure of

a definition of the world

in which God is

everywhere

in the Wild Things

where they are

My Wild Things salute you.

My Wild Things weep.

Gnash our teeth.

Our King has left us.

Our island, and not just New York

is so much smaller with your passing.

We will cook a meal

Eat a supper and

wish

You were still with us.

(In loving memory of Maurice Sendak, June 10, 1928 to May 8, 2012.)

Copyright © 2013 Jadi Campbell

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22 thoughts on “My Sister & Maurice Sendak

    • Hi Valerie, it’s worth going to NPR’s website for the interviews with Sendak in their ‘Fresh Air’ archives. You can hear the affection between Terry Gross and Mr. Sendak. He speaks of hoping to die before she does, because otherwise he’d miss her terribly… that was the point where I stopped even trying not to cry. —Jadi

  1. Hi, Jadi–You left a LIKE on our blog – thank you – so I thought I’d check you out. Many years ago, as a student at LaSalle College in Philadelphia, I caught an exhibit of Sendak’s work at the Rosenbach Museum. Just wonderful – strange, gothic, and weirdly shortened, as though gravity were much stronger in Sendak’s world. IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE have more than earned their keep during reading time on our couch with our two kids. I too heard the Fresh Air interview, right up there with Gian Ghomeshi’s recent interview with Mandy Patinkin (http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2013/03/06/mandy-patinkin-will-inspire-you/) in terms of great radio.

    One quibble, a taste difference. I thought THE ENGLISH PATIENT was great line-by-line, but a terrible novel. The virtuoso prose got in the way of the story, which could have used a bit of work in its own right. I still remember images, but almost nothing of the story or characters, except for the thief’s absent thumbs. Ken

    • Hi Ken! Thanks for the wonderful, thoughtful response. I’m not familiar with Ghomeshi or the interview with Patinkin but plan tomorrow to go search them out. Thank you for bringing my attention to them. I am taken with your quibble about The English Patient: I was so engrossed in his virtuoso writing that I did indeed lose sight of the story (or, it became secondary, for sure). Also the movie is one of the few book-movie experiences where I found both to be wonderful. The terrific thing about blogging is exchanges like this one. All the best to you and your family and I will see you again soon in the blogosphere. Yours, Jadi

    • You’re so welcome! This is the first piece of poetry I’ve ever posted. I’m sticking to prose, but my readers are very kind to me. I’m pleased that you liked it. —Jadi

  2. Hi Jadi! It was a long, poetic post. I can’t even begin telling how I could relate with everything, ‘The Cow’, visitations of the muse and Maurice Sendak.

    “Prose works by poets betray themselves through the beauty of the writing.” Have you read Anita Desai?

    • Thanks for the wonderful response. I’ve never heard of Anita Desai – please send me a reccomendation and I’ll put it on my book list. I love the way the blogging community gives one another tips! And, it’s fun to meet someone who kows ‘The Cow’. That deceptively simple little poem painted a picture that has a permanent spot in my brain. I still picture that cow today. —Jadi

  3. Thank you for your charming post consists of interesting story and touching poems, Jadi Cambell. I love your poem about Maurice Sendak, an artist is descended from Poland.

  4. Hi Jadi, thanks for coming by and liking my post. 🙂 Your tribute to Maurice is beautiful, and your poem deeply touching. So glad you shared it.

    • Thanks so much – poetry is so deeply personal and the area of writing that feels the most fragile to me. As a result, compliments like yours mean a great deal to me. —Jadi

  5. Curious.
    Do you have a Riverside Edition of Shakespeare?
    Mine is sitting right in front of me as I write each day and I often recall my Class,
    my favorite was Hamlet, wrote my term paper on it.
    Good stuff~

    • Hi Gator Woman, I didn’t buy a Riverside Edition (the college standard) because I was given the edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent. I lugged it around to college classes for a few weeks and realized I was never ever going to write in it – so I ended up buying Signet Classic editions for each individual play and marking the h*** out of them. —Jadi
      PS: It was troublesome anyway as the professors always referred the Riverside Edition during lectures!

      PPS: I still have all my copies – and the little Signet Editions are the perfect size to fit in my purse when I have to take mass transit into Stuttgart. Thanks for commenting!

      PPSS: What’s your favorite comedy?

  6. Pingback: # 99 # 99 # 99 # 99 # 99 # | jadicampbell

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