One Hand, One Heart

By Lou Ann Walker
Grace Schulman

“Strange Paradise”
Grace Schulman
Turtle Point Press, $17

A cool September in New York’s Washington Square Park. Young Grace Waldman was told by a fellow who’d helped move her into her nearby building that she should take her guitar out to the fountain. She began strumming, singing a Scottish-Irish ballad: “She was a lass from the low country.” A young man with “alert” hazel eyes and cropped auburn hair listened — what he would later admit to being an important aspect of conversation. 

At the ’60s music curfew, Grace invited some 20 folk singers back to her new apartment. The playlist? “Michael, row the boat ashore. . . .” The fellow with the auburn hair was still silent. But the new neighbors complained about the racket.

The next day Grace’s phone rang. The clever, silent fellow had copied her number from her new telephone — and asked her to come with him to see “West Side Story.” Of course he invited her for a Monday when Broadway theaters were closed. He showed, admitting to his perfidy. The two listened to the musical’s “One Hand, One Heart,” a hymn about marriage, on her record player. But there was no singing from him until he came out with a gravelly tone, “the pauses between phrases indicating that he was examining a subject from all sides.”

Finally, Jerry Schulman asked Grace if she’d enjoyed the folk singing from the day before. She responded she had. He admitted he’d “treasured it.” Whereupon she picked up her guitar and began playing the French ballad “À la claire fontaine. . . .” A song about love, love, love, and about never losing love. But underlying the lyric “jamais je ne t’oublierais” is the idea that lovers are in many ways — often? sometimes? — apart.

The marriage of Grace and Jerry Schulman was indeed complicated. Full of travail. And beauty. For the truths the couple lived, both together and apart, in their conjugal lives and in their work. For decades, Ms. Schulman, a visionary poet, had to fight her way valiantly out of the boundaries imposed by society on females. 

One of the important aspects of this book is Ms. Schulman’s formative years — the precise ingredients required to become a poet. Her mother was discouraged as she wrote copy in a back office for Ms. Schulman’s father’s advertising agency. It was especially painful because her mother loved playing with language, as well as reminding her daughter that Grace shared a birthday with Shakespeare. 

“You can do whatever you want — if you don’t give in to someone’s view of who you are,” her mother told her repeatedly in various sentence formations.

The young Grace became temporarily blind from an eyelid infection when she was 5. Her father frequently visited Hollywood on business and her mother, who would one day write a story about watching a husband kissing a starlet, went with him even during the eyelid illness. When Grace was staying with her grandparents in Brooklyn, two attentive uncles stepped in to entertain her, teaching her to “see” her toys by touch. Uncle Josh often played his mandolin.

An enduring strength of Ms. Schulman’s work is her never-ending search to find beauty in adversity. Her father was a Polish Jewish immigrant to the United States. Her aunt, who had been trained as a doctor, did not leave Poland. And during World War II she wrapped herself in the Polish flag and either leaped or was shot from a tower.

As a young woman, Grace met extraordinary writers — in unexpected ways. Marianne Moore was a friend of her parents who became a dear friend of Grace’s. “I was struck by the combination of [Moore’s] humility and gorgeous vocabulary. I liked her humor, ranging from deadpan to high comedy.” When Grace wrote an early poem and sent it to Moore, the great poet responded: “The flawless typing shows the work to its very best advantage and is in itself a great pleasure.” 

Grace’s puckish take on the pan is a delight: “It was my introduction to her way of dodging a negative response. She spoke truth tactfully, and with a positive spin.” 

Grace writes about being turned down for Harvey Shapiro’s Bard College poetry class — her poems were too schoolgirlish. She went on to journalism, working at The Alexandria Gazette in Virginia. Back in New York, she landed at Glamour, working in the same building as Joan Didion, who was typing copy for Vogue.

Her husband and other writer friends kept encouraging Grace to quit her Glamour job to focus on her poetry. At one low moment, she turned to Jerry after having tossed a hundred drafts of her poems written on an old Remington. “I’m no writer!” she cried out. To which Jerry responded: “No, you’re an actor: act like you can write.” 

The result of his encouragement and certainly her perseverance has had an enormous impact on American arts. Ms. Schulman would serve as the poetry editor for The Nation for some 35 years. She served as an important force as director the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center for over a decade. Not only has her work been published in virtually every important poetry literary magazine and journal, but also she was awarded the 2016 Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry by the Poetry Society of America.

And all the while Jerry was making contributions to science. Trained as a doctor, early on in their marriage he decided his true calling was research and went on to do extraordinary work on the flu virus — work that would save so many lives worldwide and eventually contribute to the creation of Tamiflu. And the cross-pollination between the two was important to both. Jerry introduced Grace to groundbreaking essays by medical writers. Jerry’s medical students took extensive notes at 92nd Street Y poetry events. Even though the two were separated during those particular years.

Music, silence. Tonality. More silence. These are the cadences of the Schulman marriage as well as Grace Schulman’s written work.

“Marriage is the highest mystery,” she quotes Novalis, the pen name of an 18th-century German Romantic poet and mystic, as she launches into this memoir about her extraordinary career, but what she is really puzzling out are the complexities of her 57-year-long marriage to Jerry, who died just two years ago. 

Just before the Novalis quote at the beginning of “Strange Paradise,” Ms. Schulman slips in an epigram from Marianne Moore, her mentor, quoting from Moore’s “Marriage”: 

          that strange paradise
          unlike flesh, gold, or stately buildings,
          the choicest piece of my life:
          the heart rising
          in its estate of peace

Is it by chance that neither of these introductory quotes from writers whom Ms. Schulman admires is from a poet who married? There are profound questions she posits throughout her work regarding decades of married and not-so-married life, when she and her husband separated, although never lost touch. 

Ms. Schulman’s beautiful poem “Crossing the Square,” from her collection “Days of Wonder,” takes us back to that first meeting with Jerry in the park. It’s a poem that emphasizes the changes, the complications, and, yes, the glories of all those years:

Squinting through eye-slits in our balaclavas,
we lurch across Washington Square Park
hunched against the wind, two hooded figures
caught in the monochrome, carrying sacks

of fruit, as we’ve done for years . . .

Now, trekking home through grit that’s mounting higher,
faces upturned to test the whirling snow,
in new masks, we whistle to make breath-clouds form
and disappear, and form again, and O,
my love, there’s sun in the crook of your arm.

Lou Ann Walker, a memoirist, is the director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton.

Grace Schulman lives part time in Springs.

Grace Schulman in Washington Square Park on Sept. 1, 1957.