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Cummings on a horse at Joy Farm

Cummings on a horse at Joy Farm

Joy Farm in Silver Lake, NH was the lifetime summer retreat of the poet E.E. Cummings.  Susan Cheever’s new book on Cummings, a poet’s life, published last month by Pantheon, focuses on people, places and poems that matter.

In her preface, Cheever describes how Cummings changed her life when she was a miserable adolescent flunking out of prep school in Connecticut. At that time, Cummings was a 64 year old celebrity poet who’d been invited to speak at her school.  After the event, Susan and her father drove Cummings back to Greenwich Village. During the trip Cummings did a wickedly funny imitation of the head of the English department he’d just met, saying that of course Susan hated the school – it was just a training ground “to turn out so-called educated wives for upper-class blowhards.” For the first time her father saw Susan’s side of things. The next Fall she changed schools.

As the daughter of famous writer John Cheever, Susan shows affinity for Nancy, the daughter of E.E. Cummings.  Susan’s take on Cummings’ connection with his long-lost daughter has the feel of a Grimm’s fairy tale. When she was a little girl, Nancy was spirited away by her mother and kept in the dark about Cummings’ paternity. Just before the Second World War, Nancy caught the last ship to America. She married into a family who was friends of the William James family who coincidently was friends of the Cummings family. In addition, Nancy’s mother-in-law rented a place in Silver Lake near the Cummings retreat at Joy Farm.  When Nancy visited her mother-in-law at Silver Lake during the summer of 1945, Billy James, Cummings old friend, told him that Nancy was in town, but Cummings lay low. The next summer during Nancy’s visit to Silver Lake, Cummings invited Billy James to bring Nancy and her husband to tea at Joy Farm. Nancy had no idea that Cummings was her father. A couple of years later in New York City, while Cummings was painting her portrait, she found herself becoming obsessed with him, and eventually blurted out that she was afraid that she falling in love with him.  After an awkward silence, Cummings asked, “Didn’t anyone ever tell you I was your father?”

Cheever gives us a poignant look at Cummings the man and shares with us many of his poems, including “my father moved through dooms of love” and “o purple finch.”   Revisit his poetry, and take a look at his barn on the barn tour, July 12, 2014. As Susan Cheever says, “Cummings always returned to his better self when he swung the car’s wheel up the dirt road to Joy Farm.”

-review by Joyce Stevens