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September 24, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Neglected Poets 4 — Rebecca Parfitt

Rebecca Parfitt with my granddaughter Tesla Rose

So far I’ve profiled three what I’m calling Neglected Poets:

Ed Smith, who buried his vehement poetic gift under fundamentalist dogma for three decades, came back to poetry all too briefly, and died from lack of health insurance before he could impact the larger poetic consciousness;

d.a. levy, who created a literary insurrection in sixties Cleveland and shot himself in the third eye just in time to be forgotten;

and Donald Schenker, who wrote on fire for the last few years of his life after getting a terminal diagnosis.

All of them guys. But most of the best poetry today is written by women.

Rebecca Parfitt (born 1942) has a trajectory more typical of a female Neglected Poet: writing seriously and well for decades, sharing her work with a small writing group, occasionally publishing a poem when an opportunity happens, doing the odd reading with friends, but basically subordinating literary ambition to having a life: raising a family, fiercely dedicated work in the trenches as a domestic violence counselor in a shelter for battered women — friendships and relationships, siblings and finally grandkids, coming up, from time to time, with a few luminous poems. This one is to her sister who died:


Mary’s Birthday


all this green

every spring

those sharp yellow

forsythia bushes

mouse ear buds


over by the river

past where the


bury their dead

a wall of water

will drown me

all these tears

all these

blades of grass

all this flapping

of mallard wings


you come back now

every spring

like this

I hold you

on my lap

you are new

I am three


come back now

with this green

I am tired of

you being dead


I can’t learn

how to be with it

nobody can


I love in this elegy on the posthumous birthday of Becky’s younger sister Mary Parfitt Johnston (1946-1987) how the short lines, insistent units of breath, build with a pleading rhythm into that natural explosion of the wall of water and flapping wings as the dead sister, the new baby, comes back and doesn’t.

Mary was the middle and magical, by all accounts — I never met her — child of the five Parfitts: four feet eleven, tough as nails and gentle as snow, san-dan humite champion in Shotokan Karate, married her sensei, a lover of horses and haiku, and dead at 41 of God’s injustice: a brain tumor. Becky followed Mary into the Shutokan dojo and practiced for twenty-five years, reaching ni-dan.

Full disclosure: Rebecca Parfitt is my girlfriend.

Becky and I met fifty years ago this month, when we were entering freshmen at Swarthmore College. She sat on my lap at the cast party of King Lear, when I was Edgar — Tom’s acooooold! and she did sets, but nothing came oif it: she was always going with Joe who became the father of Susannah, while I was always with my girlfriend du jour.

Becky and Iremet at iur twenty-fifth Swartthmore reunion in 1989, finding that we had led parallel lives for a quarter-century, plunged willy-nilly through the sixties, a time of poetic poverty and revolution, even having our daughters, Kia and Susannah, two weeks apart, in the moment between between the first moon landing and Woodstock. We’ve been going together at a 2,000-mile distance for the last twenty years. The long-distance works better than you might expect. We are extended step-grands to each other’s grandkids, who haven’t met yet, but we have plans.

Baseball is probably our strongest common interest. We’ve gone to games in Pocatello, Billings and Binghamton and are regulars at Road Rage Stadium where the independent Rockford Riverhawks play. I’ve told strangers in countries where they don’t even play baseball all they need to know about Becky’s character by recounting that she’s a Red Sox and Cubs fan, fiercely committed (until the miracle of 2004 — the Cubs are still waiting — anyone can have a bad century) to nearly 200 years of of wait till next year.

Becky gloated when the Crimson Hose beat the Gigantes twice in our presence at Phone Booth Park in June of this year. Her father once went fishing in Quebec with Ted Williams, and the Splendid Splinter sent a hand-scrawled postcard to his kids, which Becky treasures.

I don’t want to make outsize claims for Rebecca Parfitt’s importance as a poet. When I asked if I might profile her as a Neglected Poet, she answered “justly.”

There are dozens — probably hundreds — of women poets of Becky’s ability and stature in this country, and mostly, I don’t know who they are. That’s the point. There is a continuum among poets of any gender of willingness to hustle one’s wares. Becky has published by her count fewer than 20  poems. I have published over 700 poems and translations since I started counting in 1979. Some women poets I love, such as Alison Hawthorne Deming, Dorianne Laux and Sharon Doubiago, as well as our Swarthmore ’64 classmate Robin Chapman, are far more active in pursuing deserved literary ambition. A few gifted male poets are just as shy as Rebecca Parfitt. But there’s a pattern.

Here’s a poem that comes from Becky’s work with battered women.


The Counselor Wants to say

he’s a bad man Christie

he’s never going to stop

getting his way with hitting

and choking     he doesn’t

love you    he doesn’t know how

it doesn’t matter why

maybe his father belted him

maybe his mother forgot

to fix any food and nobody

ever hugged anybody    so what

nothing will change that    you

can’t change that    and he is

never going to stop and say

hey I’m one mean dude and I

am losing everything

this lovely lilting woman

any hope of being a real father

to three beautiful little boys

I Better Change My Ways.

It’s not going to happen.


don’t tell even your mom

where you’re going — we’ll

give you the number of the best

shelter in any town in this country

change the kids’ names    change

your name    start a new life

it’s your only hope Christie

he’ll kill you    or worse

he’ll torture you and he’ll

torture the boys    mark my words

they will grow up to hate

themselves and you    and every

woman they ever touch will bleed.


The counselor smiles

at the toothless round baby

in his Chicago Bulls sweatsuit.

The counselor waits.


A cry of despair from the real America. And those spaces within the lines — swallowed pauses, erasures blocking out the jagged speech rhythms of a hard-hitting denunciation that doesn’t quite gets said but is communicated very well —

Rebecca Parfitt’s first grandchild, Lila, was born in 2005, six weeks before Becky suffered an aneurysm, a slow cerebral bleed that could well have killed her. She was luckily caught in time, rushed to emergency, skull-stented, intubated, three weeks in intensive care and six weeks in hospitals, and emerged miraculously to pretty ample recovery — Becky’s all there, and she’s dizzy much of the time, maybe a smidgen more ditzy: senior moment, beautiful moment.

Lila was followed by Isaac in 2007. Becky is my mentor as a grandparent. She is dotty about her grands, entirely committed, shows up, listens, talks on their level, makes cookies, enthusiastically supports her kids’ child-raising style. When my granddaughter Tesla Rose came along in 2008, I almost knew what to expect. Becky wrote this poem during Susannah’s first pregnancy, after the ultrasound.


After the Ultrasound


for my grandchild


All night it rained softly

all night the seals pop their shiny heads

up out of the water and look softly

at me

We lean over the boat railing

Look, seals! The children swimming!



I will bring you to the water

I will sing you songs of nonsense & longing

We will walk the cliffs

naming the flowers as we go


darling minnow

deep sea explorer

jutting knee of you

tiny throbbing heart of you

pebble knobs of spine of you

fingers fluttering toward your mouth

(just wait until you taste peaches)

pinpoint toes         oh my little seal

the wonder of it!


I’m sorry WordPress’s flush-left default doesn’t allow me to reproduce the way the lines of After the Ultrasound are indented down the page, flexing a little to the southeast at the bottom of the poem so that if you squint at the page — at the screen — you can almost make out the form of a human being in there. Maybe. Becky says she didn’t intend that effect at all.

By the way, Lila likes peaches just fine and a kindergartener at five, she is a devoted reader of Pippi Longstocking. Lila recently found the perfect way to emphasize her autonomy when she announced to her grandmother that she is a Yankees fan. Gritting her teeth, Becky promised to buy her a pinstripe tee-shirt.


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