Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

On Research

Poet and playwright Jeanne Walker receives celebrated award

Oh, You Kid!

The body's coming later! the cop shouted,
handing her the arm and driving off,
while she stared at the chunk of forearm,
steadied the cold fingers, slithering like rubber.
She was the night nurse, my mother,
younger then than my daughter
as I write this, finally,
after fifty years, telling
how the lights burned low
to save juice for boys in Okinawa,
how the hemorrhage stained her white uniform.
I tell her that her nurse's oath
Must have billowed like MISS AMERICA
across her chest. Oh, no! she laughs,
she was pinned to that arm
like St. Peter in the Baptist window,
no faith, barely knowing how she got there.
She tells how she scrubbed,
but even undiluted bleach
wouldn't forgive that stain.
She had to throw her uniform away,
go without breakfast for a month to buy another.
It's coming back to her, now that she's eighty,
how nothing she did was ever wasted.
She's shifting into high gear.
She wants us to know how she stuffed the arm
into the freezer, and when the body came,
she helped sew the thing back on, Raggedy Andy style.
Years later, the man stopped in to thank her.
Oh, you kid! he shouted, and shook her hand
to show off his good arm.
She presses his handshake into my palm.
I pass it to my laughing daughter.
It is the vagrant lost-arm signal,
The secret message, proof
of how far down the road toward dead
a thing can be and still
get turned around in the other direction.

Poet and playwright Jeanne Murray Walker walked in her house from her son's eighth-grade graduation this spring and pushed the button on the answering machine. The message, from a friend, said, "Congratulations! I'm so glad. If I couldn't have won, I'm happy that you did!"

The UD professor of English pretty much knew that the message meant she had been awarded a prestigious Pew Fellowship, what Philadelphia's City Paper calls the "holy grail" of artists' grants-the largest artists' prize in the nation.

But, before rushing to check the mail and see if the $50,000 poetry prize for Philadelphia-area artists was really hers, Walker savored the anticipation.

"We went out to lunch as planned, then I took my son to his violin lesson," she recalls. Home again, she finally checked the mail.

It was true. She had indeed won a 1998 Pew Fellowship in poetry, one of 12 fellowships in various areas of the arts awarded this year.

"It's wonderful. It's the biggest award for poetry in the U.S. It's really astonishing that there even IS such a thing for poetry," she said. "I've been a finalist several times, and, this year, there were 500 applicants in the category. It was a surprise to be chosen from so many, and I feel very grateful."

The Pew Fellowships in the Arts, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the University of the Arts, makes awards in nine different disciplines.

The goal of Pew Fellowships is to advance the artistic life of the artists who receive them. There are very few strings attached, and no restrictions on what one can do with the money. One former fellow, a jazz musician, for example, used the money to buy a house with a practice room.

Beyond taking the summer off from teaching at various writers' seminars and retreats, Walker doesn't have any specific plans for her award. She's already spent two years writing under grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and UD's Center for Advanced Study, so kicking back to spend time thinking and creating, as some Pew winners do, isn't in her plans.

"It's always good to be back teaching, and the new script competition in the English department is just in its fledgling state. I want to be here to see that through," Walker said. "The creative writing track really depends on a few of us, and I have high hopes for the competition and that whole area."

She also will be busy outside the classroom. Walker has a new book of poems going to her publisher in the fall and will see UD's Professional Theatre Training Program produce her new play, Rowing Into Light on Lake Adley, in January. She's also developing a play about Queen Elizabeth for a theatre in Philadelphia.

-Beth Thomas