Life of a Poet

Vassar Miller is broke, hospitalized and facing an uncertain future. Doesn't one of Texas' most esteemed writers deserve better?

Nancy Evans has worked as an in-home caregiver assisting the elderly and disabled for more than 30 years, so she's accustomed to dealing with human frailties in their most personal and physical form. But the scene she walked into when Adult Protective Services dispatched her to a modest home in Montrose on July 1 was memorable.

Evans found the 69-year-old woman she'd been sent to help disheveled and disoriented.

"She was shaky, sweaty and didn't know she was in the world," Evans recalls, "but she knew something was going on wrong."

What Evans didn't know when she walked in the door that morning was that the elderly woman was the acclaimed author of eight volumes of poetry, had once been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is, by any informed estimation, one of the finest writers the state of Texas has ever produced. But not a whole lot of people in her hometown do know of Vassar Miller and her work. And those who do would, like Nancy Evans, have been shocked if they had seen her that day last summer.

"It was awful," says Evans. "The house was dirty. People were in and out trying to buy the house and Vassar was screaming and hollering. They were in there trying to sell off books and stuff, trying to sell anything they could sell. What I should have done was walk back out and get in my van and leave, but I looked at Vassar, and this poor little lady is distressed."

The chaotic scene also left an indelible impression on a prospective buyer who visited the house that day. As he later described it, "Mrs. (sic) Miller was screaming at the top of her lungs the entire time we were there -- there were about eight large black women and one tall skinny black woman in the house all sitting in the living room and dining room complaining about not being paid. Several women asked me if I wanted to buy any of Mrs. Miller's belongings or her books off her shelves in order to raise money. They proceeded to tell me that Mrs. Miller was completely wiped out and they couldn't take care of her any longer without being paid .... You can imagine how I felt when I left there -- knowing that Mrs. Miller was out of money to take care of her with all these people like a pack of wolves waiting to get paid and no one to pay them."

Vassar Miller was indeed almost "wiped out," although she didn't fully realize it. Nor did she know that the house she had lived in since 1968 was for sale. She had long ago prepared a living will stating clearly that she wished to die in that home on Vassar Street, a street named after her mother. But Vassar Miller, who by her own admission has never much cared to deal with money, had invested her power of attorney in other people for more than 30 years, and legally she was not required to know that her house was for sale.

Nancy Evans worked her shift that first day from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m., and when it was time to leave she found that there was no one present to relieve her. She says she called a worker at Adult Protective Services, who instructed her that it was not her responsibility to remain past the hours for which she was being paid. She had already overstayed her shift, but finally, at about 2:30, the women who had been trying to hawk Vassar's home and belongings that morning returned. Evans asked who was coming in to relieve her and was told by one of the woman, "Oh you just go ahead, don't worry about it."

Evans left, but when she showed up for her shift the next morning, she found the front door unlocked and the house abandoned, except for Vassar, trembling and soaked in sweat.

In the four and a half months since Evans first laid eyes on her, life has changed for Vassar -- somewhat for the better, although her future is an open question. Her house, at least for now, has been taken off the market. A probate judge has named Harris County as guardian of Vassar's estate, of which the house is the only major asset. Longtime family friend Sallie Wright has, as the only person to step forward and request the responsibility, been appointed guardian of Vassar's person. Wright has also assumed Vassar's power of attorney from Johanna Williams -- the "tall skinny black woman" singled out by the prospective buyer of Vassar's home -- who had acted as the poet's secretary and unofficial guardian for three years, ending with her unsuccessful attempt to sell her house. Williams continues about her life at a wary distance from Vassar, having been advised by her lawyer to steer well clear of the woman who once entrusted herself totally to Williams' care.

A virtually penniless Vassar Miller, meanwhile, is biding her time in Methodist Hospital, nursing a leg that she fractured in a fall from her wheelchair, her future in the hands of other people and institutions who all claim to have her best interests at heart. The object of their concern remains uncertain when she'll be released from the hospital room she loathes, and uncertain, when she is released, whether she'll end up back at the house in Montrose or in a nursing home.

Vassar knows which option she would choose. Her desires have been refined to one painfully modest objective: she just wants to live out her days in the home bequeathed to her by her father on the street named after her mother, surrounded by her dog and books and other belongings. But sadly, and perhaps unavoidably, that option may no longer be practical, and in any case Vassar doesn't have the power to make the decision.

"It's very frustrating," she says haltingly. "I feel trapped. I'm at the mercy of everyone."

It wasn't always like this.
Vassar Miller was born into well-heeled River Oaks society on July 19, 1924. Her father, Jessie Gustavus "J.G." Miller, was a successful real estate developer, and her mother, Vassar Morrison Miller, traced a lineage back to Sidney Lanier, a 19th-century Southern poet. The younger Vassar was destined from the start to be exceptional: she came into this world with cerebral palsy so severe that doctors told her parents that she would never be able to turn over by herself.

Most commonly caused by a lack of oxygen to a fetus or newborn infant, cerebral palsy is a non-progressive and as yet irreversible condition that impairs the brain cells controlling motor function. It may strike in mild form, or it may be, as in Vassar's case, debilitating.

All of her life, Vassar has suffered from a spastic speech condition that renders vocal communication difficult. She chokes out phrases and with an effort that contorts her frail features, almost as if her words themselves were causing her pain. All of her life, she walked with a spastic gait that made a constant struggle of the sort of basic ambulation that most people take for granted. Those outward manifestations of her condition are easily confused by the uninformed with retardation; an especially cruel misimpression, since the evidence of her work and her spoken words -- for anyone willing to make the necessary extra effort to understand them -- indicates a woman of uncommon brilliance. All of her life, Vassar Miller has said that her disabilities bother other people more than they bother her.

Vassar was one year old when her mother died. Her father continued to pay her the special attention her condition demanded and, against the prescribed odds, Vassar took her first steps at age seven. When Vassar was eight, J.G. Miller remarried, bringing a stepmother and, later, two stepsisters and a stepbrother into Vassar's world. It was around this time that her father began carting home an Underwood typewriter from work -- an event commemorated in Vassar's 1981 poem "Subterfuge," from The Sun Has No History.

I remember my father, slight,
staggering in with his Underwood,
bearing it in his arms like an awkward
bouquet
for his spastic child who sits down
on the floor, one knee on the frame
of the typewriter, and holding her left wrist
with her right hand, in that precision
known
to the crippled, pecks at the keys
with a sparrow's preoccupation.
Falling by chance on rhyme, novel and
curious bubble
blown with a magic pipe, she tries them
over and over,
spellbound by life's clashing in accord or
against itself,
pretending pretense and playing at playing,
she does her childhood backward as
children do,
her fun a delaying action against what she
knows.
My father must lose her, his runaway on
her treadmill,
will lose the terrible favor that life has
done him
as she toils at tomorrow, tensed at her
makeshift toy.

The discoveries Vassar Miller made on the clunky iron Underwood signaled the second extraordinary distinction of her life: a love of words and a craftsman's precision with their arrangement that would eventually catapult her quietly into the front ranks of American poets. She would go on to graduate with a master's degree from the University of Houston, publish eight books of verse, from 1956's Adam's Footprint to 1984's Struggling to Swim on Concrete, and edit, in 1985, Despite This Flesh: the disabled in stories and poems. She would earn a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1961, and recognition from the Texas Institute of Letters on three different occasions, in 1956, 1961 and 1963. She would be named Texas' Poet Laureate twice, an honor she today describes with her characteristically candid tongue as "an embarrassment," since those who preceded her at that honorary post possessed, in her brutal estimation, "no talent."

It's a not entirely vain opinion. In an incendiary 1981 essay in the Texas Observer that consigned the better part of Texas literature to the dungheap, Houston-raised novelist Larry McMurtry reserved admiration for only one Texas author -- Vassar Miller. McMurtry didn't dare spare his own work in writing, "I think it no hyperbole to suggest that her dozen best poems will outlast all the books mentioned in this essay .... That she is to this day little-known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture."

But if her name and her work never entered the public consciousness with the force and fanfare that the masters of more popular art forms have come to expect, Vassar nonetheless managed to cultivate a society of friends and admirers that enriched her own life and the lives she entered. Friends remember that she loved to throw dinner parties, where she entertained literary colleagues and an assortment of educated and professional acquaintances, until her advancing age rendered the effort impossible. She traveled widely and gave occasional readings, for which she would hand out Xeroxed copies of the text so that listeners could follow the words. Barely mobile on foot, for a time she could be seen in an electric cart she owned tooling across the Southwest Freeway overpass near her home or up and down Richmond Avenue.

Spiritually questing in her person and in her poetry from an early age, Vassar is often described as a religious poet, by both those who seek to ghettoize her work from the mainstream and those who hold sincere admiration for her poetry's unsentimental spiritual aspirations. Her circle of friends reflects the religious impulse as well; when her health permits, Vassar attends services at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and Covenant Baptist Church, as well as weekly Quaker meetings. The Reverend Helen Havens of St. Stephen's, who Vassar counts among her closest friends, remembers a recent past in which Vassar "would not only come on Sunday mornings, she would come on Wednesday when we have a noontime service, and that was very special to her. Sometimes it was only Vassar and me, and she loved that. She was always afraid I'd do away with the service because we didn't have enough 'customers.'"

Not having "enough customers" is a familiar obstacle for even the most esteemed of poets, for whom success is measured more by the sheer fact of publication and reputation than by any substantial royalties. But for years, an independent Vassar Miller was afforded a luxury unknown to most practitioners of her art. In 1967, her family established a trust fund to provide for her "comfort, health, support, maintenance and other needs" into her old age. For as long as she can remember, Vassar says, "I have never worried about money." She says it without pride, but with a hint of the disdain for material comforts cultivated by those who have been blessed with the talent and means to pursue loftier goals, and, perhaps, at this point in her life, with a dawning touch of regret. The document that created the trust sounds almost mocking now, with every one of its provisions in doubt.

Vassar was looking for help with her writing, not her finances, when she met Johanna Williams about three years ago. An articulate, soft-spoken woman who has worked at various times as an Amway representative and a clerk in the office of a justice of the peace, Williams was introduced to Vassar through a mutual acquaintance. "I started out," Williams remembers, "just being a friend to her, and she asked me if I would do some typing for her after that. So I started doing typing for her and then she asked me to do other clerical things. She was losing her handwriting ability, and I would do editing for her on poems she was writing. I did secretarial things for her."

Gradually, and by necessity, Williams began taking on additional responsibilities. Vassar had broken her ankle, an accident that marked the beginning of the end of her ability to walk. It left her unable to get out of bed and requiring full-time assistance. So Williams handled the mail and made sure that either she or help that she hired was on hand around the clock. Finally, in May 1993, Vassar signed a document giving Williams power of attorney and the ability to handle Vassar's financial business; that power had been held for the previous 30 years by Vassar's half-brother, David S. Miller, from whom Vassar is estranged.

Vassar baldly asserts that her surviving family members "don't like me," and that alienation from her family, coupled with the social distance imposed by her disability, has resulted in a fear of abandonment that sometimes finds expression in the selfish manipulation of others. Her keen intellect and the verbal brevity necessitated by her palsy combine for brutally frank expressions of happiness and displeasure. Even her friends and staunchest defenders acknowledge she can be a maddeningly difficult.

Johanna Williams says she simply stepped in to help Vassar when others were unable -- or unwilling -- to do so.

"She asked me," says Williams, "would I help her do some things that would at least allow her to stay in her home as long as she could, and that's what I did -- do for her what she couldn't do for herself because she was physically unable, although she had a good sense of what she wanted done and could make decisions on her own."

On one important matter, however, Vassar declined to make a decision.
Carl W. Schumacher Jr., Vassar's trust officer at NCNB, sent a long string of letters warning that her trust was being drained at a rate that would soon leave her destitute. Vassar says she read the letters, but didn't attach any weight to the warnings. It may simply be that she had been sheltered from the prospect of poverty for so long that the reality of the threat did not sink in.

Williams, though, says she understood the threat clearly. "The writing was on the wall. She'd been given advice by her banker and her C.P.A. several years prior to me even knowing her that she was going to have a problem with living expenses. It was nothing new to her. My thing was that if she was able to live on her own as long as she could, then she had that right. And she knew what she was doing. She didn't want to move. Anyone who had any knowledge of her before that knew that she was in trouble. She knew that she was in trouble, but she chose not to do anything differently."

Reverend Havens also understood that Vassar was in trouble, at least financially. "We have known here at the church for two or three years that her money was dwindling. So to us it was no surprise when it ran out. We knew it was running out. And it ran out just about the time we thought it would."

As the trust drained, and after Williams says she went to several churches seeking assistance and borrowed funds from friends of Vassar and friends of her own, Williams called a meeting of Vassar's surviving family members to discuss options. The very short list that emerged pointed toward the sale of the house to raise funds to place Vassar in a nursing home.

The house was placed on the market. Williams signed the listing agreement as owner. She also visited several local banks, attempting to secure a short-term loan against the house, pending its sale. That ultimately fruitless effort led Williams to contact Sallie Wright in Washington D.C., who is named in Vassar's will as heir to the Vassar Street house. Wright's connection to the poet is deep: her mother is a longtime confidante to Vassar and is honored on the dedication page of her 1984 book Struggling to Swim on Concrete; Vassar is godmother to Wright's teenaged daughter.

A proud, superbly organized woman in her late thirties, Wright's resume includes stints as a writer, editor and worker in New York's appellate court system. Like Vassar, she springs from a moneyed, genteel background, and she retains the condescending habit peculiar to her class of referring to the hired help as "the blacks"; a tendency sufficiently pronounced that she will occasionally catch herself and offer the disclaimer that she isn't prejudiced.

In June, when Williams asked Wright to co-sign on a loan against Vassar's home, Wright balked. Suspicious of Williams' motives and concerned about Vassar's financial circumstances, Wright wasted little time in trying to sort through the situation. She quit her consulting job in D.C. and moved to Houston, where she and her daughter took an apartment so they could be near Vassar.

She also began collecting a paper trail on Vassar's relationship with Williams that, while inconclusive, has led her to believe that Vassar's trust funds were mismanaged and possibly misused. She questions whether the $5,000 to $6,000 in monthly expenses reported by Williams were justified. If that money was being used to cover Vassar's care and the maintenance of her home, then why, Wright asks, does Jones Apothecary claim an outstanding bill in Vassar's name of $4,209.83, dunned in a letter stating that the account "started to fall behind in April of 1993" -- one month before Williams was granted power of attorney and began, by Williams' account, spending up to $700 a month of Vassar's money on medicine.

Wright also claims to have amassed evidence that during Williams' tenure as Vassar's acting caretaker, Vassar's house and health insurance were allowed to lapse, utilities went unpaid, debt on a Ford MasterCard of which Vassar claims no knowledge was run up to $3,500, and the house was allowed to fall into its present state of disrepair.

But the document that caused Wright the most concern is an "accidental death and dismemberment" policy written by C.N.A. Company and paid for with monthly deductions from Vassar's BankOne account. Vassar was enrolled in the policy in April 1994, two months before Williams' power of attorney was revoked. Williams is listed as the beneficiary of the policy.

Williams denies that there's anything unusual about the arrangement and rejects the notion that there was any way she could have benefited from it. She says she took out the policy only to cover the costs that would arise with Vassar's death. Vassar's own family, Williams says, could not, or would not, help her financially.

"It wasn't a major expense and didn't require any physical," she says of the policy. "It was a logical thing to do in order to make sure that when she did pass on, that at least we could bury her in a decent way."

Wright has also raised questions about the quality of Vassar's personal care. Vassar claims to this day that she was treated well during Williams' tenure, but according to caretaker Nancy Evans, who ended up working for Vassar for four months, "When I first went there she was like a zombie. I had to help [J. David Bybee, Vassar's physician since 1970] get her off all the medication. The doctors had ordered it and the providers were giving it to her. It was awful. Tranquilizers, anti-depressants, she was just a mess. It was two or three [medications] doing the same thing, so I said 'Dr. Bybee, is it necessary for her to take all these medicines?' because it just knocked her out. When the medicine was ceased she just improved. She started laughing again."

Bybee says the problem simply may have been that Vassar was being cared for by inexperienced help. "They were trying to get by with practical nurses. I don't think there was any intentional malfeasance," he says. "Every time I went over there I reviewed her medicine list and as near as I could tell they were following instructions. There was some discretion. She had some medicines like tranquilizers that were on an as-needed basis, and I'm not sure how often she received those. But I didn't get the feeling they were trying to keep her a zombie or anything like that."

Vassar is presently drug free and alert. She keeps a sharp if sometimes shaken wit about her, and reads from a heavy stack of books by her hospital bed. Ask her if she was kept on heavy medication by her former caregivers and she will respond that she cannot remember.

However Vassar fared when she and her trust were under Williams' care, her simple wish to remain in her home has continued to be frustrated in the wake of Williams' departure from her life.

On June 13, in an attempt to block the pending sale of the house, Wright had Vassar revoke Williams' power of attorney and grant it to Wright. On the same day, Vassar deeded her house to Wright; a measure Wright says she encouraged on the advice of attorney friends who told her it was the safest way to insure that the house would never be sold out from under Vassar. A month later, and 11 days after the madhouse scene on Vassar Street, an anxious Wright applied in Harris County probate court to be named guardian of the person and estate of Vassar Miller, and the escalating suspicions that something in Vassar Miller's world might be desperately wrong took another turn -- this time toward Wright.

In standard response to the application, Judge James Scanlon appointed an investigator to the case. At the guardianship hearing, Harris County as well, on the recommendation of the investigator, applied for the guardianship of Vassar's estate. Vassar was present in the courtroom and testified to her awareness of the proceedings and her desire to have Sallie Wright appointed as guardian of her person and her estate. Dr. Bybee testified that Vassar's physical condition and questionable business decisions warranted the naming of a guardian, and that Vassar was intellectually intact and mentally competent to testify on her own behalf.

But Texas probate law allows for any interested party to present testimony relating to a proposed guardianship, and another interested party was present in the courtroom that day: Muffie Moroney, a University of Houston law professor, chancellor of St. Stephen's Episcopal and an acquaintance of Vassar's dating back to the 1950s. According to those present, Moroney objected to Wright's application for estate guardianship on the grounds that it could pose a conflict of interest.

According to James Wyckoff, the attorney ad litem appointed by Scanlon to represent Vassar at the hearing, the possible conflict of interest presented itself in several forms. "First there was a will [leaving Vassar's house to Wright], and nobody's saying there's anything wrong with that. Sallie had also taken power of attorney from Vassar and had set up a foundation in Washington that assigned royalties in the future on books to that foundation, and Sallie was executive director of that. But then in addition to that there was a deed to Sallie that was signed by Vassar .... Sallie explained that to me by saying she wanted to protect the house so nobody else could sell it, so Vassar would be able to stay there. But you can see from an objective standpoint, standing back and saying, 'Wait a minute, is Sallie going to protect that asset no matter what, because she knows she's going to get it when Vassar dies? And if Vassar needs money, would Sallie sell the house?' That's your possible conflict of interest."

Wyckoff hastens to emphasize that he's not accusing Wright of any wrongdoing but merely speculating on the reasons a judge might make the unusual decision to deny guardianship to an applicant who had, as they say at the courthouse, the aware and competent endorsement of the proposed ward. "Everybody," he adds, "as far as I can tell, is really interested in the best interest of Vassar, but there is a possible conflict of interest, and I think that's probably why the court did what it did. And I think Sallie was highly offended."

What Scanlon did was split the decision, awarding guardianship of Vassar's estate to Harris County and guardianship of Vassar's person to Sallie Wright. The judge's call surprised assistant county attorney Mary McKerall, who represents Harris County Social Services in guardianship proceedings. It stunned Wright, who had never met Moroney. And, of course, it completely discounted Vassar's stated wishes.

As a result, Harris County, without any but a bureaucratic connection to Vassar, is responsible for managing all of her financial matters, including any sale of assets and mandatory court approval of expenses for Vassar's care. Sallie Wright, denied the authority to put her financial resourcefulness to work on Vassar's behalf, is left responsible for her health care and the establishment of her domicile. Wright can decide that Vassar stays in her home, but Harris County controls the money and will have to approve any expenditures to that end, and therein lies the rub.

Wright bristles at any suggestion that she is motivated by personal gain. She piously but convincingly claims that her actions on Vassar's behalf are inspired by Christian and moral duty and the obligations of familial friendship. She has little to win, she says, by protecting her inheritance of a small, grossly neglected house that requires thousands of dollars of renovations. She is galled that anyone might even insinuate that personal profit could be her design, especially considering the personal financial burden she and her family have already assumed for Vassar's care -- a burden, including a round of last-minute airline tickets, that Wright places in the ballpark of $40,000 and counting.

From Wright's perspective, her attempts to set up a foundation to generate revenue for Vassar's care, her efforts to determine what happened to Vassar's trust funds and her promise to Vassar that she will be allowed to remain in her home are being thwarted by bureaucratic red tape and a court that did Vassar no favor by overruling her wishes.

"Applying for guardianship," Wright insists, echoing the stated motivations of everyone involved, "was my attempt to help her and to protect her. Now that she's a ward of the county, she's at the mercy of Harris County Social Services, who have employed extraordinarily nice people, but Vassar needs an entire staff to administer her problems and to clean up the ill that's been done to her and her estate. And I think the aim of social services, or the objective, really, is they look at each person as a case. There's a beginning, they do something and then there's an end. They have other people to deal with, and they have poor people to deal with. I think they mean well, but I think the mentality is, 'let's solve this case, on to the next case.'"

Johanna Williams sees the problem differently: Vassar's money, like that of too many people, simply ran out before she died. She maintains that the only party abusing Vassar Miller's trust is Sallie Wright, and that her own work on the poet's behalf went unappreciated by Vassar and Wright. That, she suspects, is because she's "not the right color" and doesn't have "the right family ties."

For her efforts, Williams says, she's been rewarded with Wright's "wild accusations."

"You do what you can do for people who are in need and then you end up getting stabbed in the back and taken advantage of by circumstances that are totally beyond your control. But I don't regret what I did for Vassar, I just regret the fact that it had to come to this, where her hopes were elevated beyond all good reason. She was given [by Sallie Wright] a 100-percent promise that absolutely nothing would ever be done to remove her from her home, and that she was going to be taken care of, and that foundations would be set up and that all of her needs would be taken care of. And it just has not happened."

In Methodist Hospital, Vassar Miller awaits Sallie Wright's decision to return her to her home, a decision hinging upon Wright's ability to concoct and present to the county a feasible plan for providing and paying for the 24-hour care that Vassar presently requires.

Harris County, meanwhile, has received court approval to announce the pending sale of Vassar's estate's small, fractional property interests, excluding the home, in an effort to provide the estate with liquid funds. Wright is afraid that without some form of further assistance, the house will have to be sold next. Wright says her concern is not that she will lose the inheritance, but that Vassar's one modest wish, the one Wright has promised Vassar will come true, won't be honored.

The house sits locked and empty, a small one-story shell containing Vassar's library and meager personal possessions. In the backyard, moss is growing on the small statue of a saint standing among the fallen leaves in a corner beside the empty doghouse. Inside a tiny garage apartment, the electric cart in which Vassar once controlled her own movements sits idle.

The faithful packed St. Stephen's Episcopal Church this recent All Saints' Sunday, filling the pews and standing-room alcoves. After the Holy Communion signaled the close of the parish's regular morning service, the congregation stayed on for St. Stephen's' 65th anniversary ceremonies. Representatives of various church groups stood at the front of the wood-paneled hall, placing an assortment of documents, photographs and icons in a bronze box that was to be sealed as a time capsule in the cornerstone of the church's new entryway. One of the last objects to be set in the box was the handwritten manuscript of a poem entitled "Thanksgiving after Holy Communion," written in 1974 by Vassar Miller. The Reverend Helen Havens introduced Vassar as a friend and inspiration to the church, and a fellow parishioner wheeled Vassar's chair-bound form to the front of the hall, where she watched silently as Havens' husband read the text.

You come to me like a bird
lighting upon my palm,
nesting upon my tongue,
flying through the branches of my being
into the forest of my darkness.

Your wings have troubled my atoms,
set intangibles striking
together in crystal music
as the light flowers out of my body
as my body bloomed from the light.

Vassar seemed at home in that sanctuary. Surrounded by friends, admired and respected both for her art and for her deep dedication to the church, she carried a dignity appropriate to her accomplishments and the example of her long life.

But the pomp and circumstance of All Saints' Sunday, unfortunately, is an exception in the life of Vassar Miller. When she left St. Stephen's, wheeling across the sun-streaked parking lot on a mild fall day, she returned to the hospital and an entirely different life, one to which she is not yet and may never become accustomed. It's a life in which Vassar is no longer the actor in her own decades-long drama of art and religion and achievement, but instead the almost inert object of a vastly more fractured and pedestrian narrative. At 70, an age at which she should rightly be living out her last years in comfort and dignity, Vassar has lost control of her home. Her very person, as well, is legally the domain of a third party. Her money is gone. She has needs ranging from food to shelter to medical supervision, and responsibility for meeting those needs has come to lie in a multitude of helping hands. Each hand claims to be working on behalf of Vassar's best interests, and yet no one, Vassar least of all, is satisfied that those interests are being served.

In the wake of this continuing failure, Vassar's protectors have become frustrated and suspicious, trapped in a bureaucratic deadlock of decisions awaiting decisions awaiting decisions. Waiting amid this flurry of fragmented activity, in a circle of quiet that must surely bear little resemblance to the meditative clarity she has sought through almost 40 years of writing, Vassar Miller is, as she has been for three years now, physically unable to compose poetry. As witness to the turmoil raging around her and on her behalf, she almost certainly carries inside her a poem that, in a mere dozen lines, could cut through the bureaucracy and accusations and well-intended maneuverings to shed a crystalline light on the "best interest" that has so far proved elusive to her most ardent protectors.

If only she could write it.

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