by Todd Walton, July 20, 2016
“The two figures, male and female, are naked and gracefully huge. Their raised right feet begin a dance that never continues.” — Ann Menebroker
I moved to Sacramento in 1980. I was 31 and experiencing a bit of success with my writing. I bought a piano and an old house in a quiet neighborhood and thus began my fifteen-year residency in that river town. I still own the piano and play her every day.
Immediately upon settling in Sacramento, I got involved in the vibrant poetry scene, though I was not a poet, and my first new friends there were poets, one of them Ann Menebroker. Known as Annie to her many pals, I met her when she was forty-four, a beautiful charming woman, shy and brave, funny and deeply serious—a humble and brilliant maker of poems. She died a week ago at the age of eighty. I got the news from our mutual friend Martha Ann, and I have been crying off and on since.
Annie was never anointed by academia, but she published over twenty books of poetry and her poems appeared in dozens of poetry magazines all over America. She was revered by hundreds of poets and is, to my mind, one of our greatest unknowns—unknown in the sense of never being ballyhooed by the grand poohbas of the American literary scene. Her poems were consistently good and often great. She was highly self-critical, but knew she had a gift and continued writing poems until the end of her life.
Annie was poor and for many years lived in a tiny house on an alley. She cleaned houses, worked in art galleries, and for a decade or so was averse to reading in public, a phobia she eventually got over, thank goodness. We began to correspond via the post office while I still lived in Sacramento, though we lived but a few miles apart—we enjoyed keeping up with each other in that old-fashioned way.
One of my favorite memories of Annie was a poetry reading she gave at Luna’s, a Sacramento eatery. Somebody on the bill with Annie brought along an electric piano, and when it was Annie’s turn to read she asked me to accompany her. I stood behind her playing ever so sparingly to not interfere with her marvelous words, and she seemed to subtly sing her lines to the quiet music, her voice deep and warm.
When I moved from Sacramento to Berkeley in 1995, our correspondence accelerated and today I possess a big box full of letters from Annie along with many of her published works. Most amazing to me was that she had this same scale of correspondence with dozens of other people, mostly poets. She made the news of her daily life, no matter how mundane, into delightful impromptu poetry.
In 1991 Annie wrote, “I have never thought anyone would truly be interested in who I was, as I figure I’m just another female bloke who has gone through life, ass-end first, often, in my struggles to grow wiser.
“I was child-like in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s. I may be growing up in the 90s. I drank and partied with poets by night, and tried to maintain this image of the better parent by day. I probably mixed both worlds to my disadvantage, often. The odd thing is, Todd, as wild as I considered myself, my kids have this image of the very good, caring mother. I hope that’s true. But I was pretty weak and confused.”
In 2003 she typed, “I do not like writing longhand. I used the typewriter as a teenager to write letters, and that—my dear—was so many years ago!
“My thoughts somehow run, where my body sits and lies! I feel I am someone else when I am working on a keyboard. That I exist in a more favorable disguise as a person of knowledge and wit and strength.
“Take away my keys and you take away my engine of existence! I am nothing!”
In 2004 she wrote, “A man on the street moved me, and also nearly intimidated me. I gave him $5. I had $11 in my wallet. I’d come to the grocery store and paid for my groceries with a check. He had spoken to me on my way in, and I liked something in his being, his voice. He practically demanded me to give him $5, but not in an intruding way. So I did. And he got all strange. He wanted to talk and talk and talk to this older woman who was suddenly talking to him and giving him $5. He wanted to write something to me, but couldn’t find any paper. He wanted to hug me and/or kiss me. I kept smiling and saying No, no, it’s fine. Please, may your day go well. We talked in the spirit of the street and he insisted on grabbing my cart and walking with me to my car to put my groceries in the trunk. I thought he would never leave and I wasn’t afraid, but people were staring at us and I was afraid they would insult him by asking me if I was being ‘bothered.’
“He said a few times, ‘Who are you?’ He said something else and told me never to forget, and I came home and was writing a letter to a woman poet down south, and told her [the thing I was never to forget] and she said, Annie, that’s a small poem. So I put it on top of a poem about winter I was working on but I’m not sure if the longer poem is any good, or that what I put on it makes sense. It was something silly, about the survival of a goose, what he said. I got it all mixed up. Does it matter? No.”
Several of Annie’s fine and inimitable poems can be found on the worldwide web.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com)