Hillary Gravendyk: From Work to Text

Hillary and Charlie Legere, at a dissertation group meeting in 2009 at Sweet Adeline in Oakland
Hillary and Charlie Legere, at a dissertation group meeting in 2009 at Sweet Adeline in Oakland. Photo courtesy of Natalia Cecire.

by Natalia Cecire

I’ve been buying ‘poets cheddar’ from the cave. Hilariously, it’s their cheapest cheese.

—text on 12/29/2013

My friendship with Hillary has always been a part of my academic life.

I wish we could go see the terrible-looking Zola adaptation (Thérèse Raquin) in February when it comes out! It has Elizabeth Olsen!

—text on 1/05/2014

We were in the same cohort, the same section of English 200, and we slogged through intensive summer German together after our second year, making flashcards outside after class. We made up mnemonics together: “entsetzen” was “to surprise” because “ent” was “giant” in Old English (my helpful contribution), and if someone were to setzen a giant in front of you, you would definitely be surprised (Hillary’s excellent point). We wanted a mnemonic for the accusative prepositions and set it to the tune of “Frère Jacques.” Hillary couldn’t quite get out of the habit of pronouncing “des” in the French way. When the class read Struwwelpeter in German and the word “ungekempt” came up, we turned to each other in delight: “ungekempt!” The pleasures of language made us friends.

Summer intensive language classes are particularly weird because they are a mix of undergrads and grad students, who are there for very different reasons. The word “problematisch” was, predictably, greatly abused, which became an in-joke for me and Hillary for years after.

But back to [William Carlos] Williams. Yes, it’s super problematisch. Time for a very special lesson about primitivism.

—NC text to HG, on teaching the last poem in Spring and All, on 8/16/2012

Hillary, Katie Simon, and I dissertated side by side for a few years. We’d write for forty-five minutes, chitchat about our writing for fifteen, then go again. We had a dissertation group with Charlie Légère and Julia Bloch. Hillary’s chapter feedback was always the most opinionated. That was how I learned how useful opinionated feedback could be: you could either take the suggestions or violently disagree with them, but either way you learned something about what your commitments really were.

When I finally got a cell phone at some historically amazingly late date, we found that texting multiple times a day was a necessity even if we were also seeing each other in person, to the point that Benjamin asked us if we could have a little mercy on their phone bill.

A drawing that hung in Natalie and Hillary's office
A drawing that hung in Natalie and Hillary’s office

When she was writing her chapter on Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kiki Smith, which was also the research she would present for her job talk at Pomona, I once drew a helpful (read: useless) diagram of the ideas we were talking through, about the mediations of scientific representation. I was working on Marianne Moore at the time and was thinking about (plant and animal) specimens, and drew this specimen jar, through which one might come to think of one’s own (say) liver, or lungs, which are things that we mostly have never seen. To talk about the interiors of bodies—yours or mine—involves the mediation of some rando’s organs in a jar. Hillary laughed at my drawing and told me she was pretty sure that was NOT any organ that exists in nature, but we left it up on my bulletin board. After she had her first lung transplant, apparently one of the things she asked in the post-operative anesthesia haze was whether they’d saved her old lungs for me in a jar; she felt sure I would want them.

That was one of the times I couldn’t really text her; that is, I could, but it was a long recovery, and she was sedated for days, and even after that, not doing much communicating. She wrote about the way language left her during that time in Harm. That was classic Hillary, to turn an estrangement of language into a book of poems.

There have been other times when I couldn’t text Hillary, or I could but she wouldn’t be able to respond for a long time, usually during hospital visits, but also when one of our phones was on the fritz or one of us was traveling.

Just FYI, ive been in the hospital for a couple of days and still am. I keep forgetting to tell you. So… That’s why you haven’t seen me on Skype.

—text on 6/20/2012

After her first transplant we never lived nearby again: she moved to southern California, and eventually I moved to the east coast, which we both declared “bogus” since the time difference put a damper on our Skype sessions, during which we would write as we had during grad school.

I’m starting to question the wisdom of reading all of P[hilosophical ]I[nvestigations].

—text on 4/25/2012

Last night I dreamt that you and I won a joint summer Fulbright, in England, to the tune of 40k. You were looking into making a sea voyage as I was una

—text on 2/06/2014

ble to fly.

—text on 2/06/2014

We saw each other at conferences—we made a point of having tea at the Fairmont at the MSA (Modernist Studies Association) when it was in Victoria, and dodged a bullet at the MSA in Las Vegas by splitting a room that was not at the Flamingo. At the MLA panel on “The Poet-Scholar” that she convened in 2013 in Boston, just before she learned she was in chronic rejection for the second time, the room was full of people who had in some way met her through the pleasures of language.

Umm, didn’t do critical work today, but wrote a poem and made good progress on my novel. I feel like I’m gearing up for criticism though. I’ve done a l

—text on 7/12/2012

ot of reading around N[iedecker] and capitalism this trip, so that’s something.

—text on 7/12/2012

I’m looking at hotels for MSA. The Mirage is very close to the Flamingo, and reasonable. My chair says under no circumstances should one stay at the flamingo.

—text on 7/12/2012

HG: Don’t laugh, but would you be interested in seeing Love while we are in Vegas? It’s at our hotel…

NC: Seeing what?

HG: The Beatles cirque du soleil show

NC: What? Um, no.

HG: It’s supposed to be great, in a large part because of the remastered score.

HG: Awww.

HG: It could be fun…

HG: And it’s Vegas, you are supposed to do sthg tacky.

NC: I… Hillary, it sounds like hell.

NC: We are already going to a conference!

HG: Ok. Worth a shot.

—texts on 9/10/2012

Speaking of psyched: my MLA roundtable includes: Barrett Watten, heather [sic] Dubrow, Rachel Hadas, Jen Scappatone [sic], Stephen Burt, Juliana Spahr, and me. Is

—text on 3/13/2012

that not an awesome lineup?

—text on 3/13/2012

We worked together continuously after grad school, on teaching and criticism, sometimes talking about her illness but mostly just about work and ideas and our friends and Harry Potter postage stamps and life. Despite periods of absence, she was always back soon, with something to say about everything. I needed her opinions on things and she needed mine.

Next up, James Franco will be teaching a MOOC.

—text on 8/16/2012

NC: Hey, just got your message. At a talk, will call later. Couldn’t quite hear the message–was q about gaming? Canonical theorist is Alexander Galloway. See also vols by Nick Montfort and Nowah Wardrip-Fruin. Will try to think of more.

HG: Was actually about naming. I thought of Frege and Wittgenstein, but am stuck now.

—texts on 12/03/2012

[Warning: extensive citrus discussion ahead.]

NC: Btw, the ugli fruit peel came out really well, but it is still super ugli.

HG: Cool. I’ve never had ugli. What does it taste like?

NC: It’s basically a sweet, mild grapefruit.

HG: Hmm. I wonder where I could get it. Haven’t seen it at the farmers market

NC: It’s like the Satsuma mandarin of grapefruits. Bumpy, loose peel, low acid, sweet.

HG: Sounds delicious.

HG: I need some!

NC: I mean, honestly it’s nothing special. I bought it out of curiosity. It’s pretty good, but I would take Satsumas over it any day.

NC: The peel is much like Buddha’s hand citron, only ugli rather than pretty.

HG: Ahh

HG: Also can’t find Buddhas hand down here. Boo.

NC: Wtf?? Seems improbable. Must be a Claremont thing.

HG: Maybe. They have Persian limes, etc.

HG: I didn’t see them in Santa Monica either.

—texts on 2/22/2013

The last time I saw Hillary she made me watch the video for the Jennifer Lopez song “I Luh Ya Papi,” because its misguided faux-feminism was so hilariously awful. “I also love the fact that it’s ‘I Luh Ya Papi,’ like she can’t even bother to get the whole syllable out.” We laughed at this, “But,” she added, “I have to admit I kind of like the song.” On the same visit she decided to order some more of that tea from Victoria even though it was overpriced.

Hillary was part of my intellectual life and my everyday life for the last ten years, from working to texting to texting about work. I loved Hillary for many reasons, not least of them her enjoyment of terrible Roland Barthes puns. Perversely, when I learned that she had passed away, I thought, “I have to tell Hillary!” I’ve nearly texted her dozens of times in the last few weeks. About work, about columns in The Toast, about toast. When I remember I can’t, it’s as if she’s in the hospital again, as if it’s—probably—just a matter of time before she’s back, weighing in on everything that requires her opinion, which is everything.

Gotta go.

—text on 1/21/2014