THE REVEREND ROBERT JOHNSON told me three weeks ago that he once heard someone ask Reynolds Price, “What church do you belong to?” Johnson, while waving his son’s Redbone Coonhound off of me, said that Price responded, “I belong to the church of getting through time.” Price chronicled his graceful “getting through” in several memoirs, most notably A Whole New Life: An Illness and a Healing, in which he covers the discovery of his paralyzing cancer in 1984 and the symptoms, surgeries, and struggles that followed. He was a faithful member of his church until he succumbed to complications from a heart attack one Thursday afternoon, three years ago this month.
Price thought, however, that the tumor snaked around his spine might be the one to excommunicate him from his church. “I’ve survived, though with paralyzed legs from the tumor that gave every sign of killing me when it was discovered in 1984,” Price wrote in a letter to a reader and fellow cancer patient. “The means of my survival worked outward from a sense of God’s awareness of my ordeal and his willingness to watch and to brace me, generally in deep silence, in my own fierce hope to live.” Price later decided to publish his book-length response to this reader, Jim Fox, as Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?
Only a few months after the initial discovery of his cancer in 1984, The New Yorker published the first poem from Price out of the three that the magazine would eventually share with its readers during his life. On December 24, 1984, Price described the Christmas Eve of two friends, perhaps lovers, in his poem “Rincón: The Strangers,” later republished with slight variations as “Rincón 2” in The Collected Poems:
Christmas eve afternoon in the hot toy
Plaza, beer — me learning
Lycidas, you coaching my lines,
We apparently invisible: no passer,
Woman or child, concedes us.
Dinner on the cliff by the suicide curve,
Tropical lobster (all tail),
Men’s room with a ripped-off basin
Trembling on its pipes. Vast sight
Of the sea, calm lid on “the bottom
Of the monstrous world”; outrageous stars.
Our first midnight mass since Vatican II
In the glum beige church swarmed
Solid — steady jolts: no syllable
Of Latin, dignified slab-altar hung
In carcinogenic colors, whiskered
Ladies at ease in the chancel
Machine-gunning dialect scripture
Grim as death lists.
When a prepubescent boy and girl
Advance in white, kneel, embed
The shocking-pink Child in actual
Straw as a man in azure leisure-
Suit squats to flip a loud switch — red
Lights wink antiphonal relays on the stable
We think it’s over now; our eyes
Think Sleep. Our neighbors in the crush,
Men with horn farmer-necks, spread
Barrel arms and seize us; you laugh
“We’re mugged!” Dry kisses at our ears;
Then standoff faces again, quarter-smiles,
Intermittent tan teeth; their hardwon salutation
Spent on tall pale strangers.
Well, we bear its health back
And sustain it three days.
The narrator of the poem and his or her partner begin their afternoon in the “Plaza, beer — me learning / Lycidas, you coaching my lines, / We apparently invisible: no passer, / Woman or child, concedes us.” Price’s reference to one of John Milton’s well known poems in the opening stanza remains not so invisible. The inclusion should also not surprise Price’s followers. He offered a class on Milton at Duke University, where he taught for more than 50 years before his death on January 20, 2011.
Milton’s “Lycidas” first appeared in a collection of poems that the Englishman wrote to lament his Cambridge classmate Edward King, who drowned when his ship sank in 1637. “The air was calm, and on the level brine / Sleek Panope with all her sisters play’d. / It was that fatal and perfidious bark, / Built in th’eclipse, and rigg’d with curses dark, / That sunk so low that sacred head of thine,” Milton writes. (According to The John Milton Reading Room of Dartmouth College, “bark” is a small ship, and “th’eclipse” refers to the notion that a “ship built during an eclipse might be imagined to be either cursed with bad luck or simply ill-built as a result.”) Milton weaves water, pastoral, song, flower, and body part imagery into his elegy for King, whom he honors as “Lycidas,” to move the reader like the waves that Milton imagines his friend “walk’d.”
Another king, who to some also walked on waves in three gospels (Price provided his own translations of Mark and John and wrote an original gospel in Three Gospels), hovers over Price’s poem published on and about the eve of the birthday of this “shocking-pink Child in actual / Straw.” Price’s narrator jumps from drinking beer in a plaza, to eating lobsters in a restaurant with a wrecked restroom, to celebrating Midnight Mass in the presence of a blinking-light nativity scene, to getting bear hugs from neighborly farmers — all in 37 lines. Milton’s “Lycidas” encompasses even more disjunction in 193 lines, but as with “Rincón 2,” a divine cohesion emerges from the reading experience. Mark Womack, a Milton scholar many years Price’s junior, writes about “Lycidas”:
For the dozen or fifteen minutes it takes to read Lycidas, a reader’s mind effortlessly finds order in chaos and takes sense from nonsense. The poem Lycidas is an enabling action for the human mind that empowers us to move, albeit in baby steps, towards the superhuman capacity that would allow us to comprehend death as well.
Price’s poem presents chaotic baby steps (using an image of an actual baby along the way) toward a superhuman capacity to understand not death but birth between “‘the bottom / Of the monstrous world’” and the “outrageous stars.” Though he portrays this birth as a renewal of health after a long day between partners in the post-Vatican II period of the mid- to late 1960s, Price himself learned of the birth of a darker being a few months prior to his publishing this poem in 1984. One might use his images “Of the sea” and “Grim as death lists” to describe what Price called “The Eel” — the malignant tumor that eventually left him confined to a wheelchair.
On July 26 of the same year, just shy of five months before the release of this Christmas Eve verse, Price penned a poem for his daybook that shares the name he gave to the serpent of cancerous cells along his spine. In “The Eel,” later published in the appendix of A Whole New Life and in The Collected Poems, he wrote: “Mother, this man is all eel. / […] He wants no more; / His final triumph stokes him with permanent / Fuel for the years of wait.” Some might say the same about Price’s “shocking-pink Child,” who, for them, fuels the annual Advent season of waiting for the celebration of his birth.
Price mentions this specific time of year in his poem “Rescue,” which he published in 1981 and later in The Collected Poems, and mentions it with a great sense of premonition. He manages to create images not only of this season of waiting but of Milton’s elegy after his classmate’s drowning in the ocean’s depths, of the cancerous sea creature that brought his own death, and of the paralysis that cancer along his back would later cause. Price writes,
Something I never told you — I watched, hardly blinking,
Each moment of the morning you were nearly drowned
Or taken by moray, shark, barracuda
As you tested yourself in the half-mile channel
Between our room and Advent Island.
He plays with “Advent” here as both the name of the island in Panama and the name given to the weeks leading to the “scrub evergreens raided at Christmas” that he mentions a few lines before. Later in the poem, Price writes, “You managed to haul / Your legs aboard.” His narrator never speaks again of “That paralyzed witness of your capture by the sea, / Its release or abandonment of what it had left you.”
Milton tells us that the sea left nothing for Lycidas, or King, after his capture. It initially left something for Price, however. By the time that he released “Rincón: The Strangers” in The New Yorker in December of 1984, the creature had managed only to grab hold of Price’s legs. I asked Price’s niece if she recalled anything from Christmas that year, and she responded, “I think the best source of information about Christmas 1984 is from Reynolds himself.” Price’s narrator believes, then, like Reynolds himself in his first months of embracing his diagnosis, that he can no longer get through time. “We think it’s over now; our eyes / Think Sleep.” But the “Barrel arms” of men wake the narrator and his partner with hugs, “Dry kisses,” and “quarter-smiles” like Price’s own fierce hope to live under God’s watch.
Price would attend his church of getting through time for another 26 years, waiting to experience this rebirth, or to “bear its health back” like the characters in his poem, before the sea, too, ultimately left him nothing on January 20, three years ago. The waves fortunately left us Price’s poem and a reminder that one way to get through time is “hardwon salutation / Spent on tall pale [and not so pale] strangers.”
“Rincón 2” reprinted with the permission of Scribner Publishing Group from COLLECTED POEMS by Reynolds Price. Copyright © 1997 by Reynolds Price. All rights reserved.
Win Bassett is a writer and graduate student at Yale Divinity School. He’s currently working under a grant to explore Reynolds Price’s papers at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter @winbassett.