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this dust of words

___________________________

Thirty years after he last saw her, English professor John Felstiner went looking for a brilliant
former student, Elizabeth Wiltsee. What he found left him shaken and searching for answers.

by John Felstiner

Illustrations by Greg Spalenka

"CLICKING OF A TYPEWRITER: ALL ELSE SILENT, DARK."

To open up an undergraduate honors thesis and find


this nervy fragment at the top of page one, and this
later on: “Man: island. Island washed in the sea’s
delving”—to find this from a 21-year-old lets you
know you’re hearing an utterly uncommon voice and
sensibility. But I’d known that already, for more than
three years. Liz Wiltsee took an experimental
freshman English course with me in January 1967,
and after that we became friends. Her keenness of
word and spirit, her skepticism, her luminous smile—
you had to be grateful for such a student, even
among a wonderful class at the climax of the 1960s.

I would see Liz at parties, at dinner in the old Grove


House, and in her junior spring, 1969, she took a
small seminar with me on Yeats, Eliot and Neruda—
I wish I still had records of that class! Then the next
year she must have told me she was going into
teaching, for I’ve found a recommendation letter
from February 1970. “Sharp intelligence, humor,
honesty, singular passionate devotion to the
humane causes and ends of literature, open-eyed independence, and a tenacity and
accuracy in research of all sorts” were what I saw in Liz, but also: “This independence even
carried her too far, I suspect, in her decision to make her own sense of things. Last spring her
paper for the seminar was excellent but idiosyncratic to a degree that I was doubtful of its real
import.”

Never mind. Liz wrote her senior thesis on Samuel Beckett, who’d won the Nobel Prize that
fall—on his astounding trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Maybe I
wasn’t her chief adviser; otherwise I’d likely have said so in my recommendation. Maybe it
was the English department’s indispensable teacher and novelist Dale Harris, soon to be
obtusely dropped by Stanford, who died of AIDS in 1996. Anyway, I know I read that Beckett
essay, because my written evaluation of it survived along with the recommendation. And by
rare chance, Stanford’s Archives still hold what may be the only extant copy.

this dust of words, Liz quietly called her essay, all 64 unnumbered, unchaptered pages in
which Beckett’s fluent, terse, elusive passages cited on every page carry no quotation marks
and thus almost blend into her own writing. Since the Beckett paragraphs, except for their
source novel’s name and page number after the last word, look like all the essay’s other
paragraphs, it’s momentarily hard to tell whether an “I” is speaking for Molloy or Malone or
Wiltsee. And at times her sentences, tracing Beckett’s existential ventures, take very closely
after his: “Man: island. Island washed in the sea’s delving, torn by waves that break in the
heart, despite protective walls of rock. Sands drawn to the waves as the turd to the flush. Man
is there, awash in the sea, as best he can be somewhere.”

No doubt I came to this thesis primed for Beckett. At college in 1957, I’d gone with a
roommate to the Boston premiere of Waiting for Godot, played by four black actors. Its tragi-
hilarious palaver so swayed us that we’d stage private Godot readings at the drop of a hat.
And my 1958 copies of Molloy and Malone Dies have the patina of a well-worn psalter or
breviary you might keep by you for devotions. “Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea”: I
was caught in the coils of a man who could coin such sayings. Or this: “All I know is what the
words know.” Hired at Stanford in 1965 by Tom Moser and Albert Guerard to take up a
course on British humorists, I jumped right in by teaching Beckett instead—how in one breath
he does homage and damage to Keats’s sublime “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”:

He said to me, said Gaber, Gaber, he said—. Louder! I cried. He said to me, said Gaber,
Gaber, he said, life is a thing of beauty, Gaber, and a joy for ever. He brought his face nearer
mine. A joy for ever, he said, a thing of beauty, Moran, and a joy for ever. He smiled.

But if such subversive rhythms could expose our classic truths this way, I wondered what was
left for Liz Wiltsee to do.

I need not have worried. Her thesis began with two epigraphs. One, in Beckett’s French, says
his work deals only in “fundamental sounds,” so “If people want to give themselves
headaches over the overtones, they’re free to, but they’ll have to get their own aspirin.” The
other epigraph quotes a half-line from Proverbs, “In the multitude of words there shall not
want sin” (and Liz does not add the rest: “but he that refraineth his lips is wise”). Page after
page, novel after novel, tracking Beckett’s transparent yet luminous, staggered yet cadenced
speech as it makes “forms becoming and crumbling into the fragments of a new becoming,”
Liz walks the same tightrope he does between sin and wisdom, wordfulness and silence.
“More and more the words look towards silence, peace, as home,” she says. “But words that
have broken silence have to find a way back, adding something more to something to make
nothing. How? Is’t possible?”

Save for Proust and Joyce, the master’s own masters, she refrains from any literary
reference, terminology or secondary criticism. Nor does she volunteer anything so addled as I
seem to have done in my old copy of Beckett’s trilogy: “Molloy is a prism inside out.” Instead
she simply (!) slips into Beckett’s prose and cons to ruminate after him. Not silence but the
trend toward silence; or in the Latin tag she cites early on, dum spiro spero: “as long as I
breathe, I hope” (or more loosely, Where there’s breath, there’s hope; I speak, therefore I
am). Finally, in her last paragraph, taking her leave of “this man for whom love and lucidity
are on the same level,” Liz in her own Beckett-like diminuendo ends with “thanks to all the
words that have helped us get this far, not very far, far enough.”

It’s clear this dust of words struck me sharply—clear not only from what my 1970 evaluation
says but also from how it reads, far more freely than was customary, especially from an
assistant professor back then. And my comments speak directly to “you,” rather than
reporting on the quality of “her” analysis, as academic detachment dictates. Since Beckett’s
novels (I said) already constitute “a radical critique of language,” of its frail yet necessary
grasp on reality, then “what is his critic to do, and much less I with his critic?” But “there is
throughout beautiful writing, uncannily full of minted thought. I’m astonished,” I told her. “I
don’t know where you go from here, but you’ve learned some clear and endurable ways of
speaking.”

WHERE SHE WENT FROM THERE—well, it makes a deep-reaching story, one her family
and friends have now told me. Born on February 17, 1949, in Cincinnati, Liz lived in Manila for
nine years (where her father was sent by Procter & Gamble), then Geneva, and graduated
with the first National Merit Scholarship from Milton Academy, outside Boston. “Exceptionally
fine effort and achievement,” her school reports would say, especially in Latin: “brilliant work,”
“close to perfection in every regard.” At Stanford she lived first in Branner Hall, then in Grove
House, a stimulating and countercultural commune started by history professor Mark Mancall.
Most likely in 1967, during Stanford’s early upheaval over the Vietnam War, in an alternative
curriculum called the Experimental College, Liz took a James Joyce seminar offered by Joel
Kugelmass, ’67. One night—and this I do dimly recall—she and some friends took off and
drove 22 hours down to Mexico and turned right back.

Highly gifted in mathematics and science as well as language, she was a salient spirit, often
sweet, but often “very solitary, very lone,” her classmate Myron Filene tells me, “very alive
though very introspective, too. When I think of Eliz I picture her wide grin—one of the
happiest faces I have known.” She was “vehemently nonpolitical, though sympathetic to the
radical cause,” another friend says. Myron calls her
“radical in a deeper way.”

Part of her junior year found Liz off campus in Menlo


Park, in a house called The Ark; during her senior year,
she shared with some Stanford friends a Palo Alto house
they named Toad Hall, on Bryant Street near the creek—
it’s gone to condos now. There, among other things and
to their landlord’s dismay, they brewed a strong beer.
Some of them took the Modernisms course, featuring
Beckett’s fiction, offered by Yosal Rogat, a brilliant law
professor who died untimely in 1980. One evening, I’m
told, Yosal came to dinner and met his match in that
brilliant beer.

At Toad Hall, Liz stayed in a garage-tool shed with an


electric heater. “She always had cold feet but always
went barefoot,” says her friend John Longstreth, ’70, and
would read Beckett aloud to housemates at length, or else sit in her red robe puffing on a
pipe, watching and listening. “Sometimes hostile, sometimes frightened that nobody liked her
. . . She could let you have it right between the eyes,” John adds, to my surprise.

One of the housemates, Bill Siska, enlisted his friends in a whimsical film noir for his 1970
master’s in communication, about some ’60s youth who get caught up in dope-selling with
two Mafia types. The more voluble of the two (played by David Chase, MA ’71, who went on
to create The Sopranos for HBO) fancies Liz and chucks her under the chin: “I like a chick
with class!”—at which Liz smiles tolerantly. Later in the film he mistakenly shoots her in a
shakedown. “She practiced the death scene for weeks,” Bill says.

I knew (or maybe remember) nothing of Toad Hall—but now I’ve seen this film, and there she
is, just as she was, untouched by the three decades since, long blond hair and clear warm
features, calmly puffing a pipe, humoring the sleazy landlord, radiantly picnicking high on
Alpine Road and, in the credits, eating a chocolate and smiling. Had I noticed that deep poise
in her, around the Quad?

Liz wrote a play about the Toad Hall scene and a novel—a skeptical roman à clef, according
to her housemate Steven Watson, ’70. That year she was “not happy or unhappy,” says
Sandra Peterson, ’70, who lived there as well, and recalls that often when they’d all go out to
do things, Liz would stay back to read in her room.

My wife, Mary, and I liked Liz and must have trusted her, too. In the fall of 1970, we moved
onto campus with our daughter, Sarah, born in June 1969, a week after I read Liz’s “excellent
but idiosyncratic” seminar paper. Liz occupied the semifurnished garage room of our Eichler
and helped with child care; Bill Siska remembers dropping her there now and then. When I
talked recently with her father, George Wiltsee, he mentioned that, yes, they’d known she
“lived with a faculty member”—to me, now, a strange and poignant perspective. At one point,
Liz showed Mary a story she’d published (in a student magazine?), asking if it seemed okay,
as one of the story’s women (deplorably bourgeois) was drawn from her. Mary could not (and
in our resolutely feminist egalitarian marriage did not care to) recognize herself in any of the
women.

Although my recommendation, stiffly addressed to “Gentlemen” as I now find it, says “I’m
delighted that she is going into teaching,” Liz did not go into teaching. After not attending
graduation, she worked as an au pair in London, traveled to Spain with her boyfriend and
stayed the better part of a year in Madrid, then went to Paris as an au pair. Returning to Palo
Alto, she worked in the Stanford Press proofroom, frequented Chimera Books and wrote a
fine (but unpublished) novel, Jane’s Story. In a 1974 photo, visiting Myron Filene in Portland,
she’s looking up from berry-picking and smiling brightly.

In 1977, Liz moved to Seattle, staying first in Rainier Valley. A February 1980 letter to Myron
brims with alertness and activity and expectation. “I’m demanding more of life as I get older,”
she writes, “blunting the edge I had 10 years ago when all we demanded of life were ideals,
what ought to be.” Living near Green Lake and working at the Seattle Public Library, she
rattles on about a snowstorm: “It was so bright with all the snow, streets full of kids sledding
and skiing down the steep hills, exotic snowmen being built. Fun, all that week.” Dinah, a
single parent she’s living with, has “the inner strength that comes of putting your life back
together almost from scratch,” and “recognized the Chopin pieces I’m trying to learn.” Renting
a piano is “another fantasy come true,” along with “tavern-beerdrinking-pool” and “Greek,
playwrighting. . . . Also I want to fall in love and have children, two, a girl and a boy . . . dream
on, Elizabeth.”

By 1982 or so, Liz was back East, in Guilford, Conn.,


and looked for work at the Yale Library. Whatever jobs
she took simply gave her the means and time to go on
writing and reading. With her mother, Anne, suffering
from cancer, Liz moved in with her parents in
Wayland, Mass., and was “very comforting,” George
says, during this difficult period. After Anne’s death, Liz
lived in Newton and Lexington, working at a Harvard
library. Always she gravitated to books. In 1986, Bob
Yeager, ’70, a literature student who’d gone into
teaching, met her in Cambridge looking “frail, thin, very
edgy . . . she criticized me for staying in academe.”
Not long after that, Liz contracted a case of measles
but refused treatment. Running a 105-degree fever,
she passed out in a coma.

In July 1988, at a Pennsylvania gathering of Stanford


friends who were all turning 40, she seemed to one of
them “so fragile, vulnerable, very drawn and thin—
birdlike.” A snapshot from that weekend shows her
looking disconsolate, sitting alone and staring at the
ground. Around this time, Liz began to think her phone was being tapped; she spoke of
hearing voices and felt vulnerable for her political writing. Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 10:23 AM
Comment: The deterioration of the
In the fall of 1989, dissatisfied somehow, she packed up her goods and drove a rented truck human mind is such a mystery. It’s like a
back to California, hanging out with her brother Chris, ’72, in Santa Clara. Then in 1990, she virus affecting a computer eating away
began sharing a house near the beach north of Santa Cruz, while doing what the Stanford valuable information. Memories. I look at
Press recalls as “excellent” proofreading—for her that meant editing, as well. All during the the picture of her head downcast and
1980s, Liz had been writing quite lively, politically aware plays, offering them to theater back slouched and wonder what must be
companies around the United States, keeping each rejection slip. She had also sent out going on inside her. Someone who
articles and letters on the Philippines and studied Chinese—page after page of Mandarin possesses an intelligence way above
word lists. normal. Only to end up losing the
benefits of this intelligence to help her
Finally, in 1994 or so, not managing very well, Liz moved to the town of Watsonville. There, in have a more comfortable life.
strawberry and apple country, she took a spare room in a nice little house and spent many
hours in the public library.

Gradually Liz was beset by mental illness: an experience of voices and the feeling that “the
world was spying on her,” as Myron Filene puts it. His cards and notes went unanswered and
eventually unclaimed, coming back “Addressee Unknown.” Her landlady had to turn her out,
and in 1996, this Stanford honors graduate “with great distinction” (her transcript reads), this
woman gifted in science and literature, a prolific author who’d taught herself Chinese and
ancient Greek, became a homeless person. Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 10:26 AM
Comment: I can’t help but contemplate
For three years, Liz spent her days wandering, reading in the library, sleeping in the portico of how such a smart and gifted person can
a Catholic elementary school opposite St. Patrick’s Church, going inside only to wash her hair deteriorate like this.
in the bathroom. She ate at Loaves and Fishes, the church’s hot lunch program, sitting apart
and refusing other charity. Few people knew her name, and some thought she was a mute.
But a beneficent citizen, Toni Breese, managed to befriend Liz, often giving her a jar of
peanut butter for the weekend. Sister Teresa Ann Leahy, principal of the school, says Liz was
in some ways “a great teacher about homelessness and pain.”

With Walter Washington, a language arts teacher at the school, Liz would chat over coffee
and doughnuts on Sunday, and she told him about majoring in English at Stanford. Walter, a
black man who’d had some travails of his own, thinks she opened up to him partly on that
basis.

Watsonville native and Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Steve Bankhead, who walks his dogs
in the early morning in a local park, would sometimes see Liz at the Little League field, sitting
alone, warming herself in the stands behind first base, and “smiling serenely at the empty
diamond.” Depending on the weather, she might sleep in the shelter of the first-base dugout.
At other times, Steve found her among stacks of books in the library. Vicki Allen, the librarian,
recalls Liz often spending the better part of the day at her table, reading classics, fiction,
translations, smiling and nodding. Did Steve ever speak to her? “No,” he answers quickly, and
he dearly regrets that.

Though Liz’s family sent money and visited her, she didn’t want help—“Don’t you dare
institutionalize me!” Once a thorough skeptic, by 1998 she was regularly attending morning
Mass, sitting in a pew well at the back. Visiting in June 1999, her brother Chris found her
looking much better and more equable.

On July 4th or 5th, 1999, Liz left Watsonville, telling Kathleen, another homeless woman, “I’m
going home.” On the 6th, Sister Teresa, who was driving on Pacheco Pass Road east of
Route 101, saw her walking with her few belongings. Probably on foot all the while, Liz made
her way 45 miles to San Luis Reservoir in Merced County. In September, her family told
police they hadn’t seen her all summer.

In mid-January 2000, a duck hunter near the reservoir found a sleeping bag, clothing, papers,
among them Liz’s passport, and a snapshot of Walter Washington holding a black cat. On
February 1 around midnight, a quarter-mile away, fishermen discovered some skeletal
remains, which were sent to a Virginia lab. Thanks to a Watsonville deputy sheriff’s wife,
Marsha Tanner, secretary at St. Patrick’s Church, the two finds were connected. Forensic
analysis declared the cause of death “unknown.”

Elizabeth Wiltsee, the Smiling Lady, was remembered with an 8 a.m. Mass on March 18,
2000. In the Watsonville church, packed with schoolchildren, teachers, and townspeople,
Liz’s familiar faded red-and-white sweatshirt was draped over her empty pew seat. Her father,
George, and brothers, App and Chris, met those parishioners who’d known Liz and were
shown her haunts. Her prime sanctuary, Watsonville’s public library, with the help of a
savings account discovered after her death, will dedicate the Elizabeth Wiltsee Study Room.

SO FAR, THAT'S MY SENSE of Liz’s story. But recovering it has grown into something more.
The story’s Stanford phase, 1966-70, I might have summoned up sketchily anytime since
then. But recently I’ve near-feverishly needed to complete the rest.

Over the years since 1970, when there was a recommendation to file under the w’s, I’d
occasionally come on my pagelong, rapidly typed evaluation of Liz’s Beckett thesis and catch
my breath in pleasure at the memory. Now and then, wondering what bright career she’d
pursued, I’d resolve to get in touch but would then neglect to do so. Last December, my son,
Alek, called from college wanting some leads for a Waiting for Godot essay. Looking through
a study of Beckett, I chanced on the phrase “this dust of words,” got out those charmed thesis
comments from my file, and called the Alumni Association, eager to learn Liz’s whereabouts.
No luck, no listing. I spelled the name slowly again, and suddenly customer service rep
Pauline Baukol said, “Oh, here’s something . . . but she’s shown as deceased.”

It knocked the breath out; something in me buckled. Such writing, such wit, plus such keen
recollections from a generation ago, my first years at Stanford. Liz was only 50 when she
perished, much younger than I am: this flouts the Order of Things. “No, no, no life?” Lear cries
to Cordelia, “Thou’lt come no more.” Yet the memorial page in what would have been Liz’s Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 10:41 AM
30th-reunion book holds 63 names—hers being the last and for me the most stunning. I Comment: I am imagining how Liz’
couldn’t take in this death, couldn’t square it with the sunlit foothills outside my office window teacher must feel. Finding out that one of
and the marvelous students in my life this year. his best students has passed away like
that. How can he start comprehending
Of course any loss stirs pain and reflection. One week earlier, a memorial gathering for Albert that the once intelligent girl who has
Guerard had reminded me how deeply I still value the humane attentive spirit he brought to caught his attention in class now deceased
literature at Stanford, especially in the late ’60s. But Albert lived till 86, in the fullness of years. and lived the last days of her life under an
illness that imprisoned the beauty of her
mind?
And unlike the sudden loss of someone you’ve been in touch with, what made this loss
of Liz Wiltsee most hard to absorb was how silently, how invisibly it had occurred,
under cover of three decades incommunicado. In an old New Yorker piece called
“Sadness of Parting,” reposing in a barber chair with his eyes closed to the stroking of Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 10:45 AM
scissors, E.B. White hears from far away a customer leaving. Comment: Sometimes I think of myself
slowly fading away from the world.
“Goodbye,” he said to the barbers. “Goodbye,” echoed the barbers. And without ever
Together with that I think of all the things
returning to consciousness, or opening our eyes, or thinking, we joined in. “Goodbye,” we I would’ve done by that time. Have I
said, before we could catch ourself. Then, all at once, the sadness of the occasion struck us, made a difference? Whose lives have I
the awful dolor of bidding farewell to someone we had never seen. touched? And it’s funny that a girl who is
as gifted as Liz does not seem to give the
With Liz, I had seen her but never said goodbye. least bit of importance with how her gifts
can contribute to life. She must be
What was there to do, lacking even her absence? Foraging memory, placing lengthy phone dealing with something terribly
calls to her family and college friends, over and over going back to my evaluation and uncomfortable for her to not see the gift
recommendation, luckily finding the senior thesis and rereading Beckett, fruitlessly querying of who she is and how she can make the
colleagues, obtaining and viewing the 1970 film, locating news clippings from her last months, lives of others more beautiful. Somehow I
seeing the photos and writings her family assembled, visiting Liz’s Watsonville one year after am in silent admiration that she is trapped
the memorial Mass: all this became the way of living with a strange loss, the means of writing within her own mind only aware of things
“to find a way back,” as Liz said of Beckett’s quest, to make her absence present—so much within her reach. But what kind of
so, that my teaching and students in 2001 began at times to seem a shade unreal, as against meaning does that give her life? Still it is
the bygone intensities I was inhabiting. quite ironic that after her death, her life is
realized to have brought so much meaning
Naturally this writing also meant musing about teaching and students. It’s a curiously split in retrospect.
existence: you’re working at once for yourself and others, but with greatly varying degrees of Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 10:47 AM
awareness and control. In the moment, there’s almost no telling what good or ill you’re doing Comment: I felt the bitterness of the
students—and later’s another matter. As a teacher and person you would seem to be sentence sweep the words with so much
growing, yourself, while students come and go, reliving your growth again and again. Yet intensity. I feel the confusion and the
students also come and come; like the lovers on Keats’s Grecian urn, they’re uncannily struggle of trying to make sense of
forever young while you unremittingly age. Beckett would say it’s a mug’s game, and it can everything. Both teacher and student
seem thankless, like making children’s meals day-in, day-out. possessing high intellectual capabilities
now at a loss because of one of life’s
Two years ago, a man from the Class of 1970, who knew Liz well at Stanford, heartliftingly mysteries.
inscribed for Mary and me a book he’d just published: “I loved you then and I love you now.” Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 10:54 AM
What a blessing to have prized a student long ago and still keep his friendship a generation Comment: Coping with grief and loss is a
later. journey that is both painful and liberating.
I’ve gone on that journey a lot of times.
In fetching back so zealously to Liz’s college years, I couldn’t help wondering about our Both the journey of grieving for someone’s
connection back then. Thus it was with a kind of pathetic gratitude, toward the end of a phone death and both the journey of grieving for
conversation, that I heard a friend of hers say, “You know, she liked you a lot.” a relationship that needs to end. I am not
sure how much of my experience has
Whatever Liz herself may have felt, I can barely believe the freehanded manner in my 1970 come into full circle. But I know the
evaluation of her thesis, particularly its unwonted admission at the end: “I can confess now feeling of hovering over old things,
that I was sorry at the beginning of the year, or was it last spring, that you were doing Beckett. photographs, mementos trying to make
I figured that rather than another semiparodic raid on the void with words, cathartic to you, sense of what impact the loss of someone
why not instead carve out or construct some objectively pertinent, socially recognizable area meaningful has had on your own soul.
of literary evaluation? But I was wrong, wasn’t I?” I wonder what intonation—wry? tender? Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 11:08 AM
cheering?—Liz heard in that last question.
Comment: A significant teacher-student
question clearly showing what an impact
I was wrong, wasn’t I? Cathartic, maybe, but objectively pertinent, socially recognizable?
they both had on each other. I find this
Those would have been misguided aims to impose, as I seem to have recognized. Yet now I quite haunting because there are words
wince at a comment in my February 1970 recommendation. “This independence even carried left unsaid and questions that remain
her too far, I suspect, in her decision to make her own sense of things.” Surely I meant this as unanswered. Caught in a voice that will
a strength, as praise? remain silent forever.
Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 11:25 AM
Looking into Liz’s thesis once more, with a hindsight we would so gladly relinquish, it’s
possible to hear something further behind the words, both Beckett’s and hers. Take the Comment: Sometimes we need to watch
sentence of Molloy’s from which she drew her title: “I’m all these words, all these out for the things we say about the lives
strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their settling, no sky for their of others
dispersing.” Granted, Beckett even at his most buoyant must always be courting Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 11:26 AM
nothingness, chipping away at silence. For certain spirits that does the trick. Comment: There is something about
nothingness that threatens the core of
every man. For the faithful, it is what
gives them liberation.
Here now is a rare moment, near the end of her thesis, when Liz speaks of herself. She has
cited John Donne, for whom no man was an island because each was a piece of the main.
“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.” But she has also written “Man:
island” and insisted on “Island washed in the sea’s delving.” Then she asks, “And my blithe
questions, who and what and where and why—sent to know, where nothing is to be known.
See, they return. It tolls for me.”

“I’m going home,” Liz said before setting out on Pacheco Pass Road. “Before she left
Watsonville,” her obituary reads, “those who knew her said she had become far more
calm, collected and peaceful, and seemed to have developed some inner purpose.”
That may hold some comfort. To my mind, the very last phrases of The Unnamable, the
third volume in Beckett’s trilogy, sound fitting: “It will be the silence, where I am, I
don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go
on, I’ll go on.” Or the end of Liz’s own essay, where in a rhythm kindred to Beckett’s
she gives thanks to “all the words that have helped us get this far, not very far, far
enough.”
Kathy Ponce! 2/15/09 11:29 AM
Comment: Beautiful memoir of someone
John Felstiner has taught in Stanford’s English Department since 1965. His books include who the world barely knows. Maybe only
Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; Selected a handful from her own universe. But she
Poems and Prose of Paul Celan; and a Norton anthology, Jewish American Literature. was everything in that universe. Someday
I muse, I hope I leave this world being
everything and being the best I can be,
even in my own reduced universe. So
when I peek down from heaven or from
any place unseen to the world that exists,
I can say that my life has been significant
enough to live in the words of others.