Maxine Chernoff
“Love Letter: Lament”:
  for Stacy, 1962-2012

Stacy Doris exceeded all ready definitions and illustrated a generosity and ferocity of living and invention that I can only call genius. As my faculty member for a decade, Stacy purveyed great kindness to her students: sheer and utter brilliance of invention, an openness to poetry and its investigative methods that transformed the genre into gifts new and luminously transmutable by her insight and humanity. I saw that no better than when, after she fell ill in spring 2011, I took over the remaining three session of CW 600, her vocal poetry class. I didn’t know how she had interpreted the course content until I saw my nine hour assignment of terza rima, a verse form I hadn’t studied for 39 years. In order to help me teach the older models slated for the first session, the beautiful “Ode to the West Wind” and examples by Dante and Chaucer, I called on Dean Paul Sherwin, a Shelley expert, to lead that part of the discussion. Neither of us understood walking in that we would witness how Stacy had lovingly and fully trained her undergraduates by having them memorize and imitate poems in all assigned forms. Hearing them speak their poems, particularly Shelley’s ode and a week later, Yeats’ beautiful poem about death, “Cuchulain Comforted,” I saw transformation on their faces and heard in their voices an internal change that only a visionary teacher and poet can produce. I was never so moved by a group of students and their devotion to task: only Stacy could have brought them to this sweet result. Whether it was vocal poetry, the poetics of listening, the craft of translation, or MFA Poetry Workshop, every semester Stacy offered pure innovation, something discrete and singly prepared for the group alone, never repeated, lovingly shared.

          Stacy became a dear friend to me with increasing intensity as her illness progressed, and I felt blessed. We would go on outings post-illness to tea in the Noe Valley or a local foot massage establishment on Taraval or a tour of parks for Rayzl’s planned birthday, or a Spanish department store in Union Square to buy boys’ shirts so that her shunt would be easily and stylishly accessible for chemotherapy treatments. At the same store she made me buy red shoes and a purse I knew I would never use, but if Stacy wanted me to have it, I would. Everywhere we chose took on a special quality of invention and connection, and despite her circumstance, which she discussed with absolute and resolute honesty, there was more. There was deep commiseration offered by us both, me with her, which was natural in the circumstance, and she with me, which seemed more a stretch of kindness and empathy. Stacy cared deeply about people. Everyone felt enriched by her warmth and passion for fun. Even in the miserable circumstance, she laughed and engaged in the most startlingly original thinking and play. While she underwent treatment at Stanford, we spent an afternoon lying on perpendicular benches in a rose garden where we talked about science, cells, and biochemistry, about purpose and error in the universe. The sun was warm, the roses in bloom around us. There we were, two women with children and lives, wondering about the logic of the universe that had brought us to this moment. Stacy’s frankness and fearlessness were as constant a presence as the sun. She waxed poetic and scientific for hours. Sometimes she needed to be consoled but not in a usual fashion. Consolation for her was normalcy—intimate talk between us about language and love, birth and death, parents, children, dear Chet, partners, the complexities and subtleties and eternities of love.

           Her poetry escaped categorization. From heady catalogues to intimacy to complex parodies of many institutions from cheerleading to the French Revolution to the troubadour tradition, Stacy’s ambitious and playful exploration of how language is offered and torn and rewoven is the subject of every completely original book. Her invention was legendary and head-spinning for its virtuosity. She refused to be stuck in a single position or bored or to bore her reader. Her poetics of engagement and challenge, to make it new not only project to project but word to word, appears on every page.

Here is part of her joyous and sexy poem, “Love Letter (Lament)”:

“I warble then melt, rousing. This me infinitely. Thus. Your dark breaths course kisses, hand swooning between. I cut open, unravel, shower.

The honeysuckle marking, a long way down, we sink. First endless drifts, the path leading only deep, only nowhere, dark first, This thick smell on the wind, windowless, a jumble. Thrust me.

Burrow softer then, then bind me blind. Under the wall of thorns, clip violets. When your hand Thus I swoon. Loosening tangles in me—oh, where? In a cave, sunless, opened quick to plunder this. Now pebbles could swallow me. I’m thus wrenched and bundled.

If honey, This suckles. If hammered, This spins me. I clip deep juices, thin white body’s hidden stems.”

(from Paramour, p. 21)

           It goes on thus, fearless in its joy with the body and mind’s games, conjuring love, physically present, never fixed in time or place, moving bravely word to word, creating an atmosphere of consummate delight, just as she did in writing and living. She signs it “Geliebter” in one of the many languages she invokes, Stacy American and European poet, Jewish, French, whatever else she chose to be, Troubador.

          Of course I miss her and began the process of mourning when she told me a year ago how truly ill she was. She knew she had limited time, but every day in her presence was a deep opportunity to understand the best in a person. She was saintly in that way—not a dull, life-denying saint but a sainted figure whose joy sanctified everyone around her and invited engagement. Even if at times she felt alone or afraid as she moved toward the end of her life, her spirit never let on that it was absent hope and possibility and a vision of a larger grace that she willed everyone to join by her beauty of mind and courage.

—Maxine Chernoff

March 21, 2012

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