Caroline and Sarah

I’ve been following the terrible news about young Sarah Fox at a distance and with tightly-woven sorrow. It sits very close to home, and so I haven’t wanted to look it in the facts.

Tragedy defies ranking; there isn’t any meaningful way to say that this or that calamity is more or less powerful or grievous than any other. Much about Sarah’s death has captured the public’s heart, and rightly so. Much about her death also brings me back a jolting 20 years to the winter of 1984, when my friend Caroline Isenberg was murdered on the Upper West Side.

Like Sarah Fox, Caroline was an actress of gleeful power and effortless depth. We worked together only once, at college in a house production of The Ascent of Mount Fuji by Chingiz Aitmatov and the less-Googleable Kaltai Mukhamedzhanov. Her character had one set of tragedies to deal with and mine had another – among other things, I had a kissing scene with a quiet pretty girl who resolutely would not be kissed, play or no play – and we spent time giggling and dreaming together about a future as fine as that warm season, lushly decorated with late spring days and growing grass, and nights that sang when you strummed them.

Caroline graduated from Harvard with the class of 1984. I was living in Italy at that point. She moved to New York and was cast in a downtown play. She was stabbed to death on December 2, 1984, coming home from rehearsal. It was an attempted robbery that turned into an attempted rape, in the lobby and then the elevator of her building; she fought against him and he dragged her to the roof and killed her there. Caroline was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, small and compactly built, with a gale of red hair and bright eyes that brimmed with clarity and keen, easy charm. She lived for a number of hours on the operating table, but didn’t leave it. She was 23 years old.

I wrote this poem for her in Italy, and it was published in the Fall ’85 volume of Padan Aram at Harvard. If you are curious and have proper time and surroundings, I recommend that you read it aloud, which is how I write; it needn’t be declaimed, but the words have a taste to them. I am a great mutterer when I write poetry, and this piece in particular has a life in the mouth.

                Love Song for Caroline (1961 – 1984)

                These afternoons pass
                through a lattice of ivy and sun
                wild welts striping tame roses
                a listless wind
                stripping shrivelled petals
                stroking among the thorns
                not green now but horned, hard
                dressed and armored for
                the coming, coming winter.
                For years now
                I have not been to New York
                but I follow the old
                East Coast motions
                as a matter of iron habit.

                Imagine a series of clicks
                a flow along a wire
                the tumbling of those
                indispensable numbers
                the mechanical equivalent
                of crushing grapes into wine.
                This is how
                I heard of your death,
                from a sorry voice across
                an ocean and a sea
                and she said, the voice cracking,
                that there was blood on the rooftop
                that the police came quickly
                but still it was too late.
                when we die there is always this voice
                you can never see her eyes
                the police are always too late.

                It is December, a month cold
                with the cruel passing of flaming autumn.
                Now the shadows are pale
                and the roses seem wild,
                the flowers long since fallen
                long since blown away
                the graceful vines crusted
                and tough. This year almost
                the incandescent trees
                burned as red as your hair
                almost the freckling of leaves
                over white marble slabs
                stacked like seasons in their yards,
                was like your arms.

                This season was too wet
                grapes rotted on the vines
                before they dropped clotted and sticky
                under the harvest blades.
                Still the transubstantiation
                is already taking place
                and wine is brewing in buckets
                in tall wooden vats and demijohns.
                Over this paper I am crying
                I have been crying all day
                but there is no wine
                but bitter wine
                to make from these tears.

                                              Linus Gelber – winter 1984/85

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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