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08.29.07

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Phaedra

Lady of Letters: After coming to poetry relatively late in life, Maude Meehan made her mark on the local literary community.

A Light Extinguished

Remembering the Santa Cruz poet Maude Meehan

By Stephen Kessler


Maude Meehan, popular matriarch to an expansive community of Santa Cruz poets for most of the last 30 years, died Aug. 18 in her Eastside home. She was 86. Recently Maude had suffered several small accidents that exacerbated the indignities of old age, yet she retained her mental vitality and her passionate engagement with life. Her death came suddenly, peacefully and unexpectedly; she simply sat down and expired.

By coincidence I happened to call Maude the morning of her last day, and she seemed annoyed at her physical diminishment, complaining of her frustration in having a lucid mind only to witness the assaults of time and chance on her formerly powerful body. She sounded, to put it bluntly, rather pissed off at her condition, as spirited as ever in dealing with her aches and pains.

Yet despite her difficulties she was upbeat and interested, as usual, in what I and my wife were doing, eager to hear our news. This was typical of Maude, always enthusiastic about her friends' lives and hungry for information.

Maude and her family arrived in Santa Cruz from New York City in 1972. Her husband, Don—known to friends as Ace—was an avid surfer in addition to being a respected surgeon. Their home near Schwann Lake was a frequent gathering place for parties, workshops and after-the-reading gabfests for a wide assortment of literati, local and imported.

When Ace died of a heart attack in 1992 it set Maude back in a way I'd never seen before; they'd been together more than 50 years, and the sudden loss of her great love required that she summon reserves of strength she may not have known she had.

But it was no surprise to anyone else that she spent the rest of her life continuing to be the unstoppable activist, mother, writer, teacher and comrade she'd always been. "Maude was a generous mentor and friend for 30 years," said poet Amber Sumrall, "always chock-full of stories, humor and empathy. Her feelings were never tucked away. We laughed and cried together many times. She believed in living life to the hilt, not putting anything off in case it never came round again."

After I had left Santa Cruz in 1990 for several years it was not uncommon to receive a phone call from Maude saying how much she'd enjoyed and appreciated something of mine she had read in a magazine—an uncommonly gracious gesture from a fellow writer.

Active for decades in the peace, civil rights and social justice movements, Maude was that rare person of deep political commitment who could also laugh at herself and everyone else. "Maude had so much integrity and was also so irreverent," Ellen Bass, another Santa Cruz poet, told me. "She was always willing to do the work, take the risks, walk the walk of her beliefs—but she was never self-righteous about it. She was so loving and she had such joie de vivre."

It was at Bass's workshop in 1974 that Maude belatedly discovered her vocation as a poet. From then on she worked rigorously to refine her skills, believing, as Sumrall put it, that "a poem should be the end result of a distillation process; each word had to count, even the "a" and "the." She believed poems should be concise, accessible and spare."

Over the next three decades Maude published four books of her own poetry: Chipping Bone, Before the Snow, Washing the Stones and As If the World Made Sense. Her work addressed both social and intimate themes—politics, war, love, family—with a levelheaded realism that rang with honesty, clarity and wisdom.

As a teacher and reader of others' poems she was a tough-minded critic, insightful and exacting, demanding both craft and heart. Many people will remember her as exemplary not just as a writer but as someone who aged beautifully, never giving up her lusty appetite for pleasure and sensory experience.

"She was a great gal," said Gary Young, with the kind of economy Maude would have appreciated.

"This is a difficult time," Sumrall added. "I feel as if a major light went out and there are no replacement bulbs."


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