Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Death of a Reader

What happens to a writer when her favorite reader dies?

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin said that poets need readers like drunks need vodka. As a poet, I can attest to the truth of this statement. On December 27, 2013, the unthinkable happened—my sister, Tamara Shanahan, champion of my work and my favorite reader, died of complications from a mass on her gall bladder. I lost a sister that day, but also something more. The loss of my sibling is compounded by the loss of a nigh irreplaceable set of loving eyes on my work and a precious and intimate communication through words, not only written, but also appreciated.

I called my sister Tamara “Theo,” after the equally supportive brother of Vincent van Gogh, who cared for his brother, nurtured his talent, and more than once sent urgently needed funds to the artist. Tamara was always available to listen to a new poem, and perhaps, just perhaps, over-praised a few. She also bought my books and CDs by the dozens, handing them out to her friends and neighbors; everyone at her chiropractor’s office got a copy of my CD, The No-Net World, special to us because its cover is a vintage photo of my parents.

Her favorite poem was about older women:


Ladybug, the autumnal, menopausal forest is aflame,
Burning with your yearning and desire: go home.
No season of mists or mellow fruitfulness for you, only
The hot flash of Eros dying, growing old.

Fall now, the deep loam envelopes your breasts,
Dugs that hang low. The crimson leaves as
Veined as your hands, varices red and blue,
Glitter with last dew, the brilliance before death.

Can you, withered Phoenix, rise?
Female over fifty, do you have your music too?

But she also liked my bawdy “The Other Woman’s Cunt” and encouraged me to be bold and perform and publish it.

Tamara used to liken us to “city mouse and country mouse,” with me living in Manhattan and active in various artistic scenes, and my sister living quietly in Queens, enjoying her family and neighbors. We attributed adventurousness to me, always seeking the new, and conventionality to her. Yet what seemed unadventurous in her was perhaps the greatest adventure of all, in her thirty-year long committed relationship with another human being, David Rosen, whom she loved with every particle of her being and was loved by in return. And that love also shone on her late daughter, Irene, and, no matter how obnoxious I was, on me, too.

Part of the balcony at my readings will never light again, a page from my manuscripts will always be missing. My favorite reader has left the house, never to return, and with her, a part of my literary courage and inspiration.

Dedicated to the memory of Tamara Shanahan (August 7, 1948–December 27, 2013).

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