I just finished “The Equivalents” by Maggie Doherty which explores the beginnings of the Radcliffe Institute in the mid 1960’s. There the poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, the artists Barbara Swan and Marianna Pineda, and writer Tillie Olsen all met in this special atmosphere for a year. Each had a stipend and a place to work and they met with the other participants for weekly seminars where each shared their work. The artists were called “equivalents” since they didn’t fit the requirement of advanced scholarly work demanded of other members of the Institute.
I read the book a chapter a night, savoring it totally and loathe to finish it at all, much less quickly. But when I was done the only person I wanted to talk to about it was “J” my close college friend and fellow English major. We had attended the American poetry class together, talked poetry frequently and went to poet readings, including one given by Anne Sexton.
But “J” is in the euphemistically named “memory unit” in Cambridge, so called for those who have lost their memory. She inherited the early onset Alheimer’s that ran through her maternal line, with the first symptoms beginning in her 50’s. Twenty years later there is just her lovely form wandering the halls of the safe and caring atmosphere. She is not available to talk poetry.
The book allowed me to revisit our years at Radcliffe and Cambridge in the 1960’s. It explored the vast changes that took place in those years for many women. I could visualize our dorm rooms, our walks, our talks. Much joy came as I read. But in the end I was left just truly missing “J.”