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    The Illiterate

    Touching your goodness, I am like a man

    Who turns a letter over in his hand

    And you might think that this was because the hand

    Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man

    Has never had a letter from anyone;

    And now he is both afraid of what it means

    And ashamed because he has no other means

    To find out what it says than to ask someone.

    His uncle could have left the farm to him,

    Or his parents died before he sent them word,

    Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.

    Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.

    What would you call this feeling for the words

    That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

    ––William Meredith

    Patrick Donnelly introduced a group of us to this sonnet a few weeks ago, at the bar having a celebratory drink after his lovely reading at VSC. He pulled it up on his phone, read it aloud, and all sound stopped around his voice. I've read it several times since. I didn't even see (nor hear) the Petrarchian rhyme scheme at first, so entranced with the words.

    So many beautiful lines, Afraid and letter-proud, keeping all the possibilities open by never knowing, never digging deeper. Except in the first line, he is knowing, Touching your goodness. Meredith wrote this in 1958, and didn't come out publically for another 15-20 years. At that time, becoming literate about the body and love, claiming the feeling for the words out loud, also could have been a criminal matter.

    Thank god we are almost past that point of lunacy.

    We should count ourselves lucky if we simply have to grapple with feeling ignorant or untutored in our silent hearts, normally and oh so humanly afraid and ashamed in not knowing what to call that which keeps us rich and orphaned and beloved. Clueless.

    This has special resonance as I start to read my grandma's love letters to my grandpa from 1937. My dad and uncles gave them to me after my grandpa died, 26 missives in their original envelopes, rubberbanded together. I hid them for almost a year, but when I had four hours to pack up my stuff at home to take to Vermont, it was one of the things I unearthed and brought. It still took at least six months of circling around them. Should a grand-daughter read the words penned by her 19 year old grandma in the months before and after she married? It seemed like a violation, to see the cursive that carried my grandma's voice in private letters to her beloved, a man I had a semi-difficult relationship with--how she was smitten with him. They begin to explain what was maybe never really clear to me: how deeply she loved him. I thought maybe it was young girlish love but I think it was maybe true love, the unnameable thing. They are a little painful, her desire to be loved back as passionately, her apologies for being herself. I can only read them by transcribing them –– a kind of gauze or filter, a protective device. To start, I even pulled out my bag of tricks, used fonts to replicate the letterhead she stole from her father, design as a way to control meaning. I don't know what I am doing with them, though I did start a poem using only her words from the first letter.

    Oh, I am only three letters in. And not all of them are from my grandma, there is at least one from my grandpa's sister, with Valentines enclosed (the 3rd). I can't do more than one a week, and I am transcribing them in the order found, though they are not stacked by date.

    But, and here's the kicker, the last envelope fell apart when I picked up the stack, after I started transcribing and was questioning whether this was some sort of insanity. And a little blue card fell out, with a typed p.s. that starts, "You will be glad to know I have decided to give up writing poems -- they get worse and worse...." I found out recently (or maybe relearned) that her father used to write poems as well. I am praying that one of her poems will be in the letters. Or maybe the letters themselves are the poems. Maybe this is nothing. But my grandma, she wrote poems. And stopped.

    So, you know, forward.




    1. unable to read or write. "his parents were illiterate"

    synonyms: unable to read or write, unlettered

    2. ignorant in a particular subject or activity.

    synonyms: ignorant, unknowledgeable, unenlightened, uneducated, unschooled,untaught, untutored, untrained, uninstructed, uninformed, unread, unlearned; informal clueless; literary nescient

    3. uncultured or poorly educated. "the ignorant, illiterate town council"

    4. (of a piece of writing) showing a lack of education, especially an inability to read or write well.


    1. a person who is unable to read or write.


    late Middle English: from Latin illitteratus, from in- "not, opposite of" + literatus, literally "furnished with letters"

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