when i logged in to check my alumni e-mail a few days ago, i learned that diane wood middlebrook, a former professor of mine, passed away last weekend. she's come up in conversation several times since then, and though many, many people can speak more eloquently and personally of her than i can, it can't hurt to say a little more.

DWM, as she called herself, lived two blocks above us on green street in san francisco, in a gorgeous art deco building that looked like a cross between a cruise ship and a wedding cake. when i composed notes to her - to ask her if she'd be a professional reference (of course, she remembered me well, and she wished me luck), to ask her if she'd be an academic reference (yes, and i really was a good writer), and when i was bold enough, to ask her to coffee (she was partial to peet's, and she hoped i wouldn't mind waiting until the publication crunch for her husband was over) - i was sure she could feel my nerves jangling halfway down the hill. she was extremely kind, but she was also extremely intimidating: she was the first woman i got to know who truly kicked ass in the field i hoped to enter. she wasted no time: she told us (in english 187, plath and hughes, my senior year) that she started working at 4 am every morning, and kept a neon green background on her computer screen to shock her brain awake. she ran our little class like a boardroom, and by the end of the quarter she had all of us speaking quickly and confidently, like she did. when she learned that most of us hadn't yet read the waste land, she had a new copy for each of us (purchased herself) ready at our next meeting. she shocked me back into loving my work as it was about to end, and my papers for her just before i graduated were easily the best i wrote at college. no big surprise there: i love confessional poetry, and i wanted badly to impress her. for the last one, on ted hughes and birthday letters, i even spent an hour dorking out on cover art (in retrospect, it was pretty obviously my temporarily-rehabilitated-slacker's equivalent of a thesis).

she was funny, and frank, and quite salty. when i got my own fangirl copy of gin considered as a demon, her book of poetry, her gentle tone shocked me - between hughes and plath, i'd been sure she would sound like plath. i fantasized for three years about befriending her, about getting the conspirator's wink she wrote about in her poem about the white horse tavern here in new york. we moved east before she came back from london after finishing her husband, though, and my crush got lost as joe and i reshuffled our lives.

she was a remarkable woman, and i highly recommend getting to know her work. those of you who knew her, even as little as i did, know how lucky you were. as i do.


uncle paul said...

My advisor says that when he was a grad student at Stanford (in the late seventies) all the guys were utterly in love with DWM. No surprise there.

lauren said...

one of the letters responding to her obituary in the guardian focused on how stylish she was ("loving clothes was as natural to her as loving Wallace Stevens"). a peripheral point, but true: when she met ted hughes, his reaction was "nice suit."

maggie said...

what a nice memorial. I never met her at Stanford, but I met her husband and read about her in the introduction to one of his chemistry novels ;) He obviously adored her.