How to Live and How to Die
By Maria Popova
A year ago, I lost my darling friend Emily Levine (October 23, 1944–February 3, 2019). Figuring, in which she rightly occupies the first line of the acknowledgements, was just being released. The book would not have existed without her, nor would The Universe in Verse — several years earlier, Emily had swung open for me the doorway to the world of poetry in an incident of comical profundity emblematic of her singular and irreplaceable spirit, which I recounted with ample affection and no small dose of embarrassment about fifty minutes into the inaugural Universe in Verse.
After her terminal diagnosis in 2016, I began taking Emily on periodic getaways in nature. We called them poetry retreats — weekends of soaring, meandering conversation, inventive cooking (one instance involving a thallus of kelp collected at low tide, which we had used as a dog leash before dining on it), and delicious poetry-reading, which we recorded on a phone as tender mementos from these precious hours, not fully realizing in the moment the bittersweetness of the act.
This poem, originally published in The Sun in 2010, is the last poem Emily read at the last poetry retreat three weeks before she returned her stardust to the universe.
by Anna Belle Kaufman
When my mother died,
one of her honey cakes remained in the freezer.
I couldn’t bear to see it vanish,
so it waited, pardoned,
in its ice cave behind the metal trays
for two more years.
On my forty-first birthday
I chipped it out,
a rectangular resurrection,
hefted the dead weight in my palm.
Before it thawed,
I sawed, with serrated knife,
the thinnest of slices —
The amber squares
with their translucent panes of walnuts
tasted — even toasted — of freezer,
a raisined delicacy delivered up
from a deli in the underworld.
I yearned to recall life, not death —
the still body in her pink nightgown on the bed,
how I lay in the shallow cradle of the scattered sheets
after they took it away,
inhaling her scent one last time.
I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:
I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
in the mouth of the world.
Taste a little more of the raisined delicacy of Emily’s voice with her bittersweet reading of “You Can’t Have It All” — a buoy of a poem by Barbara Ras — then savor her extraordinary TED talk about learning to die.
Portrait by John Keatley
Published February 3, 2020