Rachel Zucker is a unicorn: She is a famous living poet. Or maybe I should say, famous for a living poet. Obscurity is a badge of honor among many poets I know, who seem to see their art as operating on a unique ethereal level. In my MFA program at NYU, the poets always look at the novelists the way a selfless social worker might look at a craven hedge-fund manager. The poet’s art is for art’s sake, and their obscurity is the ironclad proof.
Thus, when Zucker was invited in January 2015 to speak to our low-residency MFA class in Paris (Paris, I know; I try not to ask a lot of questions lest NYU realize how deliciously extravagant it is), a ripple shot through the circle of poets. “Who is she?” a few of us novelists asked. She, it turned out, was a poet so dizzyingly famous that she had earned a profile in The New Yorker—this was imparted in the hushed tones of both awe and scandal. Having missed the profile, myself—and, well, almost all poetry and poetry-related happenings in their entirety in the modern era (and if I’m being really honest, in any era)—I came to Zucker a tabula rasa.
Or so I thought. For I also came to her as the hassled mother of a small child. The week before, as I prepared to leave for Paris, I had fetishized my flight—eager to be alone in a steel tube hurtling over the ocean, unable to nurture another soul for a solid seven hours in which my only “job” was to sit quietly in a chair. Heaven. And when Zucker began to read “I’d Like a Little Flashlight”—
and I’d like to get naked and into bed and be hot radiating heat from the inside these sweaters and fleeceys do nothing to keep out the out or keep my vitals in—some drafty body I’ve got leaking in and out in all directions I’d like to get naked into bed but hot
I knew then: Not only was I not a tabula rasa uncompromised by knowledge of her, I was in fact Zucker’s long-lost sister. We’d never met, but I knew her in my bones.
As she read, I was rapt. A wrenching detail about a sensory-deprivation tank (a place “to do what? play dead and not die?”) brought my tears forward. And by the end, Zucker had given me exactly what she described—“oh look here a bright spot of life, oh look another!”
She opened me up to her work and to poetry more broadly, which in this month of poetry is something I am very excited to honor. Because now, I think, maybe it is true: Maybe those poets do operate on a higher level:“But hot.”