Karen Laub-Novak 1937-2009 Portrait by Igor Babailov
Thank you, lady, for reminding me what it was like To fall in love with Karen Fifty years ago. It was her eyes that did me in, Blue as the sapphire stones She bought along the Indian Ocean. Blue, with sadness deep behind them, And merriment like candle's flames on golden foil.
Eyes incapable of malice, Radiant from her heart. We talked and talked, newly met, Though we had known Each other ever since forever.
We knew the darkness and the night — That may have been our deepest bond. We weren’t afraid of night. A woman who has suffered much, as Tolstoi wrote, Inflames a lover's heart.
I cannot say if Karen loved me. That was a word she rationed, As if in uttering it she lost her self – Which fighting to hold safe so many years, Impressionable and unconflictive (As she wished to be) she could not give away.
To say would utterly destroy her, poof! Like dust she’d blow away. No, it was crucial that she act with love But seldom say the word. Crucial that she trust. Crucial to stay the Self She had, so much embattled, won.
But oh! I loved her And loving her burst into joy, An oven suddenly ignited.
Who could not love her shyness, Her evasive smile of pleasure. Her self-dramatizing humor about herself? Her idle dream had been to be an actress A comedienne of dance and music, Light of heart and blithe. What she really wanted Was to be the next Picasso. Kokoschka had told her that she could.
She was self-mockingly insistent That her I married, for her mind, To which I readily agreed Although not wholly true. Yes, Without her darkness of experience, Without her wit, Without her flashes to the heart of things, My soul could not have been so deeply wounded. But I was stricken also by her figure And her shy, shy smile.
Still later, then, her works of art I saw, Which took my breath away. A woman always struggling, Always suffering, Conflicted, active, bold. Uncompromisingly, She stripped away the skin from straining sinews And showed live bones in pain (Or maybe only tension) And underneath each face the mask of death. She saw life truly In its awfulness and joy.
Fiercest angels did she wrestle. “Every angel,” her Rilke wrote, “is terrible.”
Parting (in 1962), I handed her my novel, About a soul stripped down to nothingness Yet rejoicing in the dark (Where alone God can be found). Her favorite books were Avila’s, And The Dark Night of the Soul. Mine, too.
She thought I'd been pretentious, She later wrote, For handing her my book. But she read it on the plane One end to the other. She slyly hinted that she liked it.
So we were free to love like children Who had learned to trust, Yet knew the fingers on the windowpane, In darkness and in rain. We were made to meet. Or so I felt in thirty minutes Across the booth from her in Harvard Square.
Most extraordinary thing: I had described her in my novel Two years before we met. Lovely girl, an artist, Upon Bernini’s bridge at midnight When the Tiber turned to silver Beneath a silver moon.*
So I knew that I had known her And would marry her. Knew, but didn’t say a word. For four days we did nothing But go out together. She was fearless driving Boston streets. That was what convinced me She was tough. More tough than I. Which was in my dream.
I knew I loved her, almost bam! It took her longer: Three close suitors in hot pursuit, Each one aspiring lawyer as if In answer to her lawyer father’s prayers. One did love her mightily, I later learned. Thank God she took a leap toward me.
We were apart all summer, She at the Worcester School of Art, And I in Europe, steadily describing to her All I saw, and quietly insinuating... We were meant to meet. A hundred letters sent in all-- Desperate to hold her heart.
Just last month, My sister found her photo, Sitting on my parents’ lawn In September, 1962. My brother Dick (whom K. had met at Harvard) Was on his way to Bangladesh, And Karen planned her drive from Iowa To pick me up, both Harvard-bound, To bid dear Dick farewell. (Little did we know it was forever.)
She sits upon the lawn her knees drawn up In short black shorts, a Vee-striped blouse Of orange and brown, and on her head A turban striped the same. A skinny, gawky kid in shell-rimmed glasses Sits as close to her as decency permits. Can that be me? Even then I asked myself, Can this be me? How can that fellow sit with such a one In total inner peace?
Our honeymoon some ten months thence, On Minnesota’s Forest Lake-- My beloved walked into the bath, A towel on arm but not a stitch of clothes, And closed the door. Let out a piercing shriek, fell back, Slid downward noisily onto the floor. Had burglers broken in?
Leaping to the door, I saw a bat attacking her. I pulled her out, and stepped inside To face the bat, and illumination struck my mind: “So this is what a married man is for?” Gulping folded up a towel to swing And watched its swoops As closely as a pitcher’s wicked curve When it buzzed in and dove at me. I caught it fairly, brought it down But in the motion felled myself.
Here Karen showed her wit, Broke in, a basket in her hands Which she slapped down upon the now-dazed bat. “How do we get it out of here?” I asked with weak male reason. She answered me with motion, Returning with a cardboard square To slip beneath the basket. Cool as a cop she marched it to the darkened door And flicked it up into the night. What a cool, cool girl, I marvel, Then and now.
She also showed me what a coward I could be When once at dinner little three-year-old Began to choke, in desperation turning red. I froze. Not K. She leapt across the kitchen Plunged her finger down the throat, Pulled out the villainous blob. Not the first or only time She moved with wit and bravery While I sat panicked, turning pale.
St Thomas (Aquinas) wrote, “Of all friendships, Marriage is by far the greatest.” I used to tell my classes that, And say that it is true. The only thing – I used to warn – is this: If you don’t like the truth about yourself, Then don’t get married. When you live close in, Illusions are expensive. So once the honeymoon is over, Your lover's duty is To puncture every one of yours -- One by painful one. My lover pricked an awful lot of mine. Especially my conceits.
Annoying faults my lover also had, So I did edit them, much to her pain. She had a low opinion of herself, So one more fault was more than she could bear. I added to her pain. I'm sorry that I did.
Oh, Glory! I loved Karen, Love her still. Irradiant soul. Valiant, courageous, strong, Yet soft and vulnerable. Beautiful with full and loving sensual beauty. Funny, amusing, telling tales about herself – Confessing all her silly faults Before I found them out.
She was wonderful to hug. She loved to hug. She needed many hugs – Or maybe I did.
And now she seems so close to me. I commune with her incessantly Since now she sees me even to my inner self. I hear her laughing quite a lot As I go bouncing light to light And wall to wall, a pinball In a slanted box. She enjoys My blunders. Always has.
It seems she has told everyone (Before she died) I worried her-- “He doesn’t know a thing around the house. “He cannot do it for himself.” It isn’t true, of course. I do okay. But in an obvious sense, b'god, The girl was right.
There is no other like her. She is unique. I was lucky, lucky, lucky, To be with her for nearly fifty years. That is why I look at photos, Read old letters, and let the burning Burn my soul.
Published in First Things Online February 14, 2010
* I here compress the actual plot.