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Rachel Wetzsteon, poet mixed melancholy, wit

By Margalit Fox
New York Times / January 2, 2010

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NEW YORK - Rachel Wetzsteon, a prominent poet whose work was known for its mordant wit, formal elegance, and clear-eyed examination of the solitary yet defiant lives of single women, was found dead Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 42.

Dr. Wetzsteon, who died apparently late on Dec. 24 or early on the 25th, committed suicide, said her mother, Sonja Wetzsteon. She had been severely depressed in recent months, partly over the breakup of a three-year romance, her mother said.

At her death Dr. Wetzsteon was the poetry editor of The New Republic, a post to which she was appointed last fall. She was also on the faculty of William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.

Widely praised by critics, Dr. Wetzsteon’s work appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic, The Nation and elsewhere.

Hard-edged yet sinuous, rich with feeling but unsentimental, Dr. Wetzsteon’s poems have a distinctly urban disposition. By turns angry, melancholy, hopeful, and comic, they explore the sensibilities of women as they fall in and out of love. The city, in particular the West Side of Manhattan, is seldom far from view.

In the sonnet sequence that opens “Home and Away,’’ Dr. Wetzsteon trenchantly described an ill-fated affair: “And if a loving pair was what it took! to turn a cityscape from brown to bright,! both pair and city gained from the exchange -/it gave us history, we gave it life.’’

Reviewing the collection, Booklist wrote, “A virtuoso of form, she breathes an astonishing amount of life into her crisply composed poems.’’ It added, “Chin up, shoulders squared, she dismisses all notion of a panacea, earning our trust as well as our admiration.’’

Rachel Todd Wetzsteon was born in Manhattan. (The family name is pronounced “whetstone.’’) Her parents divorced when she was young; her father, Ross Wetzsteon, former editor at The Village Voice, died in 1998.

Dr. Wetzsteon earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale, a master’s from Johns Hopkins, and a doctorate from Columbia. She taught for many years at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92d Street Y.

Dr. Wetzsteon’s work was often rooted in her Morningside Heights neighborhood. In the title poem of “Sakura Park,’’ here in its entirety, she wrote of the small park near Riverside Church, known for its cherry trees:

The park admits the wind,

the petals lift and scatter

like versions of myself I was on the verge

of becoming; and ten years on

and ten blocks down I still can’t tell

whether this dispersal resembles

a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.

But the petals scatter faster,

seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,

and at least I’ve got by pumping heart

some rules of conduct: refuse to choose

between turning pages and turning heads

though the stubborn dine alone. Get over

“getting over’’: dark clouds don’t fade

but drift with ever deeper colors.

Give up on rooted happiness

(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve

(a poor park but my own) will follow.

There is still a chance the empty gazebo

will draw crowds from the greater world.

And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:

the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.