The Poetry Project

Bernadette — Our Village

Lydia Davis

We live within sight—in the case of my family, anyway, and nearly, just around a bend in the road, in the case of Phil and Bernadette—of Snake Mountain, the reason for the village’s existence. Twenty-six years ago, a mining company had the intention of leveling this mountain to extract a rock called greywacke, valuable for paving roads. The town within which our village lies did not prohibit this, and our topography was in danger of changing permanently, amid ceaseless noise, dust, and many shaken and some possibly caved-in backyard and front yard wells. So a committee was formed to effect the incorporation of a separate village within the township. The village was formed, and it prohibited commercial mining.

The village is not large—with an area of a little over three square miles and a population of about 580—and it is made up of even smaller communities, three hamlets. My family and I shared with Phil and with Bernadette, until she left us so recently and painfully, one of those hamlets, one which was itself divided into two parts. Close to the base of Snake Mountain runs a wide, winding and active creek, full and precipitous enough, in certain spots, to have driven at least one mill wheel here, in the old days. My part of the village, although it is to the southeast of Bernadette and Phil’s, is called the Upper Village, because it is upstream from their part, the Lower Village, to the northwest. So the Upper Village is connected, via the creek—a few minutes’ walk away from me down the road—to the Lower Village, where the creek lies across a field and through a fringe of trees from their back door. Friends and family (and surely also some of Bernadette’s students) would cross the field to the bank of the creek and swim or just watch the water, which ran smooth there. (I would cross a neighbor’s side yard by the church, in the Upper Village, and swim in the creek there, upstream, where it also ran smooth, close to a spot where the churchgoers used to be baptized).

Their house is a distinctive part of village history, being once the home of the rabbi, when this place was a busy summer destination for a Jewish community, when vacationers would walk up a hill and down again from the train station—now a piano repair shop; to a hotel in the Upper Village—now an empty lot; or to a boarding house next to the hotel which, when my family and I moved here, was entirely open to the elements in its upper stories and sagging toward collapse, sun-bleached clothes still hanging in an open-air closet—finally collapsed and cleared away; and attend services in the synagogue, now a residence still standing in the Upper Village on the banks of the creek, a Star of David in its top window. Before the rabbi lived in their house, it was a church. Phil once took me, along with some other curious friends, upstairs into the attic floor to see the peaked beams in the ceiling of the old sanctuary.

Bernadette and Phil landed here in this small village by chance, my family and I landed here years later, also by chance, and for a while I did not even know they were here. Our fellow villagers probably mostly did not know anything about them, probably still don’t. There has been no public recognition yet, here, of Bernadette’s passing, and the loss that it means, to friends and family, and to a much wider world. Before I came to know her and Phil, here in the village, I had never met Phil and it had been many, many years since I met Bernadette, once only, briefly, inside St. Mark’s Church. Once I knew they were here, it amused me that after being New York City people, we had all landed in this little New York State place, a random place, but, like any other little random place, having its own firm and unexceptional reality and history. And it even heartened and encouraged me, out here in the country, if I felt sometimes too remote from the world, that fellow writers so closely tied to my old hometown city happened to have landed within the confines of this little village—just downstream a ways.

As Bernadette was in her own manner embedded in the village, though she and Phil would leave and return, leave and return, the village, its people and its small events, her immediate neighbors, some close and kind, were often embedded in her poems, naturally appearing there as part of the fabric of her day or week, of her thoughts and musings. She was in the village, and, in her own manner, a part of it, but also quite apart from it and part of a larger world, miles away, of communities far away and also in the past. If she integrated the events and people of the village into her poems, as she had integrated other places and people wherever she was living, they appeared as seen in the light of her wider, more cosmopolitan and knowing intelligence and experience. Maybe it was because she was not only of them, but always also a little apart from them, that she could write about them with such decisiveness and clarity, such humor and wry compassion, that they stepped or walked into the poems in such a natural way, the poems admitting them with a deeply embedded conversational eloquence, a deeply inherent lyricism. And now, just as pieces, periods, and aspects of the village are memorialized within her books, she is part of the history of the village, whether it knows it yet or not.

We had a pattern that continued for a while, toward the end of Bernadette’s life—although at the time we had no idea that this was toward any end at all, just part of an ongoing life—in which I would bring over to their house, to pass along, some books of poetry they might not have seen, books that my long distance book club had chosen and read, and that I doubted I would ever read again, just because—how long would my own life continue? And in return—not any planned exchange, only something they had access to and that I welcomed—they would give me a half gallon of milk, raw milk from a farm, not commercially available. This went on for a while, some poetry in exchange for some milk, until the source of the milk dried up.

Around that time, before and after, there were also some mid-summer parties in their hospitable back yard, with readings, friends, family, and students in and out of the back door, excursions down to the creek, and some parties indoors in colder weather, in their very warm living room, with large plants looming near the deeply comfortable sofa. But the two last gatherings were without Bernadette—one being her wake and one not too long after that, still full of good conversation, and good food, and with a small baby and a small dog in attendance, but also with her absence lingering there, and the sorrow of it.

#272 – Spring 2023