“Your poems live, the spirit’s breath and seed.
Hades, who would take all, spares them his greed.”
The words Helen Pinkerton Trimpi wrote after the death of her friend Edgar Bowers can now, with sad appropriateness, be read with Helen in mind. Her daughter, Erica Light, wrote me this morning:
“It is with infinite sadness I must let you know of the passing of the poet, scholar, Civil War historian, teacher, and friend to many, my mother Helen Pinkerton Trimpi, at her home in Grass Valley, California, at the age of 90. She made her peaceful transition yesterday, Thursday, December 28, 2017, in the morning with her family close about her.”
Helen was among the last of Yvor Winters’ students to leave us. With their teacher, they – Helen, Bowers, Thom Gunn, Turner Cassity – along with J.V. Cunningham and Winters’ wife, Janet Lewis, represent the supreme flowering of the art of poetry in the United States. Helen’s interests always surprised me. She published a book on Melville and another, Crimson Confederates, devoted to the students at Harvard who fought for the Southern cause in the Civil War. Last year, Wiseblood Books published A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016. Here is an excerpt from an email Helen sent me in May 2015:
“I have been devoting the last few months to reading what they call `Gulag Literature.’ I realized recently that while I was growing up in Butte, Mt., and experiencing what one thought of as `Depression’ hardship, I really had no idea that events going on in other parts of the world were beyond belief. So, I went to work on Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman and Varlam Shalamov. But I think I've had enough of prison camps, torture, starvation, hard labor, criminal morals, human inhumanity, totalitarian politics--all taking place during my comparatively bucolic youth in the 20th century. I need now to turn to something else. So, I am reading Trollope's Barchester series. I couldn't ask for a more different world to dwell in imaginatively than Barchester in the mid-19th century, after spending so many months in Soviet Siberia, in Moscow prisons, in prison camps in Stalingrad, Germany, and Kazakhstan, and labor camps far north in Siberia at Kolyma. The authors I've been reading, you will recognize are the three great Russians: Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales. Grossman's marvelous novel is one of the finest I've ever read. The Russians really do know how to compose true novels. Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is a series of extraordinary short stories, each reading with the sharpness and brevity of a poem, focused on a single character or revelatory event. Solzhenitsyn’s more famous record of his experience in Soviet camps is a complete filling out of the details of day-by-day life in an inhuman environment. I know you don’t read many novels these days, but if and when you grow old and need to expand your world, you might give those I mention a try.”