Poetry

Jane Underwood, Four Poems from When my Heart Goes Dark, I Turn the Porch Light On: “I Was Wrong,” “Song of Absence,” “Wild Fire,” and “Porch Light”

Introduction by Julie Bruck

Jane Underwood’s poems gaze at a fragile world of kith and kin, delivery guys, infusion nurses, leaves plastered to a sidewalk, inscrutable dead parents, and even victims of terrorism an ocean away. Forged in the aftermath of a metastatic cancer diagnosis, these intimate poems can’t help themselves: They keep stumbling into wonder, humor, absurdity, and tenderness, even in the most unpromising circumstances. Underwood knew just how quickly a life can become provisional, but while her poems look squarely at the body’s hard truths, they never stop cherishing the cracked world. The vision here is so precise and ear so acute, with a sense of juxtaposition so nimble, that even at their darkest, these poems radiate beauty.

For many in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jane Underwood needs no introduction. She founded and ran The Writing Salon in both San Francisco and Berkeley for 16 years until her death in 2016, touching hundreds of lives as a teacher. She was still reading and responding to student writing during the very last week of her life. Sometimes it looked as if the responsibility of running her business single-handedly was what kept her alive for so long. What was less known, beyond a small circle of her friends, was Jane’s enormous gift as a writer and her dogged energy for the work itself, with little or no attention paid to publishing. In 2010, she returned to writing poetry under cancer’s long shadow, and noted in her blog in 2012 why she’d been writing poems after a decades-long hiatus:

I focus only on the poem, and for however long I work on it, I am
free from worry, free from fear, free from all the constrictions and
restrictions and delusional convolutions of my daily routine(s). It’s
not as much about the poem itself as about the process of making
it. That’s the core. That’s the anchor.

That kind of engagement can’t be taught, and Jane maintained it all the way through her final weeks. She wanted a book to be her legacy. I’d been working with her on the manuscript, though less consistently as her health declined and had given her a list of questions about what she wanted this book to be, with possible strategies for each option. As her disease progressed, I couldn’t imagine her having the strength to continue with the project. But she did, and the manuscript left on her bedside table was a shining testament to both Jane’s will and her talent. As coeditors of the book, Karen Hildebrand and I had only to sweep up the wood shavings—Jane’s construction was complete and rock solid. She’d left the porch light on for readers.

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