I only met Judith Kitchen once. It’s my loss. Kitchen, who died last week at 73 of cancer, was a rare spirit, both on the page and in the world. Teacher, essayist, critic, she and her husband and partner Stan Rubin ran the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., where I spent a couple of days last year visiting.
She was also the author of a novel, a collection of poetry and four books of nonfiction, including the luminous “The Circus Train,” which came out at the beginning of this year. The title piece, novella-length, is one of the most astonishing extended essays I’ve read. Moving back and forth through memories, invoking her literary hero Samuel Beckett, it is a meditation on mortality and meaning from the edge of the abyss.
“Here’s what I want: to stitch it all together,” she writes. “Give it the dilated eye of attention. To make it add up. But of course it doesn’t add up, no more than any other life. We take from the box of photos those that lead, one to another. We leave behind the singular, solitary moments that go nowhere except into, and out of, themselves.”
Do we need to say that the miracle of this passage is that she isn’t writing about death exactly, but rather life? Or, more accurately, about meaning, about the way we are always stitching it together all the time? This was the subject of her 2012 book “Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate,” which uses family photos as a hinge for an interior investigation — into love, doubt, family and time. “This is not art,” she writes there. “This is the black and white of birthdays and summer vacations. Grandma’s Sunday best.”
Not art, no, but time, but living, but the bits and pieces by which we have no choice but to define ourselves. Kitchen lived it as she wrote it, asking questions, keeping focus, working until the end. Over the summer, she came up in conversation at a dinner party; “She’s dying,” a friend said, “but I’ve never known anyone so alive.”
It’s true: Even from a distance, Kitchen redefined death for me, or at least, how we might face death with courage and with grace. This is not to say she wasn’t frightened; “[W]ill thinking be my solace, or my curse?” she wonders in “The Circus Train.” “I have relied on the brain — its tickings and tockings — for an entire lifetime. Can I trust it to take me easily into death, or will it resist, fighting the body until the bitter end?”
I think about these questions also, but for me, they remain (for the moment, anyway) abstract. Kitchen was not writing with that luxury. She was fierce and she was loving — and she was rigorous, with no one so much as with herself. I want to say that she was kind (she was certainly kind to me), but kindness seems too soft for her intensity.
“Visual artists have ‘statements,’” she once wrote, “in order to articulate something of what they do instinctively. But a writer’s medium is words, and if the writer has anything to say, it’s best said obliquely. Understated. So let me call up a visual image for what I want my work to be doing: there’s a juggler in the park, wearing a red hat, and he’s tossing a knife, an orange, and three purple balls into the air, deftly catching them, passing them under his legs or behind his back, twirling and catching, then, balancing a stick with one spinning ball on the tip of his forehead, he holds the knife blade-side-up so that when the orange falls it is sliced cleanly into two equal halves which he catches in both hands and holds up to the light.”