The last time I saw my friend Sarah Knorr was a month before covid shut everything down. We met at my favorite bakery Sub Rosa on Church Hill, sitting side by side on a bench along the wall, sipping tea and nibbling a cinnamon roll. Through the bakery’s tall picture windows, we watched a horse-drawn funeral cortege round the traffic circle just outside, both of us smiling at this augury, the kind of correspondence poets live for. Sarah had recently stopped chemo. She said her flaming red hair was beginning to sprout again, but as always in public she wore a wide straw hat, movie star sunglasses, and a Kate Hepburn scarf around her neck. She asked, as usual, about my writing. She never mentioned, ever, her own.
This time last year we were all in covid lockdown, and Sarah lay dying in Verona, in the house my dear friend her husband Ken built atop a river bluff amidst trees alive with birdsong. He nursed her for months as her body failed, no visitors allowed because covid, then in mid-July she died, not of the virus but of the cancer she had danced with for so long (Sarah hated it when people used verbs like “battle” or “wrestle” or “fight” to describe the cancer experience. She corrected one friend with, “This is not a fight. It is a dance, and when the music stops I will sit down.”)
A few weeks later, Ken and Sarah’s estimable sisters Anne and Ginger invited me to look through three boxes of Sarah’s writings, and in those boxes I discovered pages and pages of poems, a few from as far back as high school, others written as recently as 2017, some published in literary journals. I’d known Sarah and Ken for twenty years, she had acted as a fierce and inspiring champion of my writing, and yet for reasons I don’t understand she never mentioned her own work. I knew her as a relentless advocate for people with disabilities, the person who could figure out funding, housing, or caregiving for the weakest among us, tirelessly untangling the state’s byzantine social safety net case by tedious case. Those were the things she talked about when she wasn’t praising some bit of writing I’d shared. Never her own writing ever.
As I sorted through her boxes, and the poems piled up on my desk, it quickly became clear what had to be done. Sarah was not a hobbyist or Sunday poet. She was a hard-working, steady, and focused artist. Her poems are tightly wrought and physically acute. They typically strike flint-like on sharply drawn images of quotidian life, sparking evocative links to myth, symbol and mystery. They reward close reading and re-reading, both individually and in correspondence with each other. They deserve an audience.
So I decided to collect them. It took nearly a year of mostly weekend effort, since I was teaching covid-inflected courses at VCU, but over time a sequence of 80 poems came together. As you might imagine, there were varied versions of many of these poems. I made the best decisions I could about which might be the final versions, winnowing as I went along. Some of the poems had been published in literary journals, so they were easy to figure out. Others were crossed over with edits, so I did the best I could. In no case did I alter a word or even a comma. This book is Sarah’s.
In reading the collection you will see, as I did, that Sarah was an accomplished lyric poet. Her voice, her cadence, and her vision clearly and consistently speak from poem to poem. The best lyric poems, through some magic trick, make personal experience universal. Sarah’s achieve that high bar.
One way to measure originality in an artist is to clock their influences. Many of Sarah’s poems work as compact parables, drawing insight from nature, as Mary Oliver’s do. Some draw from her childhood ranging over the family farm on horseback, attentive to rural lessons as Wendell Berry’s do. That said, no one but Sarah could have composed these poems. Her intimate acquaintance with cancer (she suffered surgery and radiation in her 20s, and lived with the expectation of recurrence) taught her how tentative and precious life is. Yet the poems don’t mope; they praise each moment of lived existence with a fierce, terse insistence.
In closing, I’d like to thank Ken, Anne and Ginger for sharing Sarah’s work and letting me take a shot at collecting her poems. Thanks go to Sarah’s lifelong friend Adele Castillo, who found a painting (by the local artist Carol Baron) of Sarah’s spirit animal the heron for the cover. And to my visual artist son Stephen for cover design. One last thing, proceeds from sales of Sarah’s book will go to one of her many charities. I’m so glad to be able to share this collection with you all. Here’s where you can get it, in paperback or e-version. Enjoy!