Friendship, for poets, has long been grist for the mill. Anyone studying poetry is likely to stumble upon literary friendships – William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge come instantly to mind, but also Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell, the latter of whom penned Bronte’s biography. Molly Peacock’s latest work, A Friend Sails in on a Poem, knowingly places Peacock and her friend Phillis Levin in this tradition. It is a determined, insightful memoir, brimming with memories, shared notebook entries, and selected poems.
For Peacock, friendship is not poetic material, but something woven into the writing process and, perhaps more importantly, essential to the endeavour of sustaining an artistic practice. However solitary the act of drafting a poem (which is very solitary for both of these established poets), the art of the poetic process, and the notion of being a poet, is happily entangled with the art of friendship.
In the opening chapters, Peacock explores their differing childhoods. She intertwines their burgeoning poetic talents with the contrasting social conditions and expectations they faced at home. Meandering through their histories, she lands on things as subtle as their childhood talismans – a pink eraser and a paint chip – as cosmic precursors to the instant connection they felt upon meeting. In prose that exudes respect, Peacock makes clear their different styles. Considering their respective poems on windows, she writes: “Phillis’s poem has seven stanzas. It is orderly and elegant as it unfolds. Mine has one. Everything crushed into one space? … A portrait of my mind then.”
Peacock and Levin have been each other’s first readers since they met in a graduate writing seminar in Baltimore in 1976. Since then, Levin has published five collections of poetry, and Peacock has written poetry, fiction, biography, and memoir. For decades they have exchanged drafts and ideas for poems over meals. They have also swapped apartments, seen one another through crises, and, for many years, shared a psychoanalyst, “a mother figure,” whose stroke prompted Peacock’s 2017 collection The Analyst. Peacock moves swiftly through her reflections on their young adulthoods, noticing that while life was happening, they were quietly committing to lasting rituals around their processes. Peacock writes, “our custom is ceremonial, comprised of food with a postscript of silently reading words on paper, then bursts of our responses and associations with very gentle ideas, never critiques.”
Peacock delicately maps the way their lives changed during middle age. When Peacock married and relocated from New York to Ontario, their friendship solidified into a long distance relationship, fuelled by phone calls and faxes: “The distance had changed. But the exchange had not changed.” To mitigate the separation, they began annual writing trips to a small town in upstate New York – “‘we’re replicating the MacDowell experience,’ Phillis says, ‘without the difficult people!’” The book culminates in a series of brief notes from these trips, charmingly mundane descriptions of wildlife, weather, and dinners. July 14, 2012, stands out among them: it ends, “we were both so moved about our friendship.”
“We are each trying to solve a problem, and would each come to [our own] solution, but together we come to a unique and more magical solution—through dialectic,” writes Peacock, quoting Levin. Lifted from a conversation about dropped stanzas, it is no mistake that the clearest articulation of friendship in the book comes to the reader through the combined voices of both writers.
It is difficult and rare to make art. Less common still is to have someone know it deeply. A Friend Sails in on a Poem is a reminder to notice those singular relationships, should they appear on one’s horizon. –Emily Mernin