Our friend Jay Hopler passed away on June 15, 2022. We’ll use this space to post memories and tributes to Jay by those who knew him.
In my first graduate school seminar at the University of Iowa, we read a lot of Walt Whitman. After much attention to the poet’s rhythms and expansiveness, we were assigned to write an imitation. I was not then, nor am I now if I’m honest, a fan of Whitman, and I approached the task sullenly if dutifully, and produced a workmanlike set of lines. Judging from their own efforts, most of my classmates shared my disposition. But there was this smirky introvert in the class, slouching across the table from me in Dr. Martens and an unremarkable button-down, who produced a fully original poem: a litany of the tiny farming towns of eastern Iowa. The lines stunned me with their wild syntax and function-shifted grammar, their imaginative turns from one particularity to another, their willingness to abandon sense for music. The poem took Whitman’s inclination to catalog and transformed it, through muscular and incantatory sound, into an aria on the glory of the mundane. So much minute care on such a throwaway assignment! As soon as class ended, I rushed to walk home with its author. Here at the beginning, it was already clear: for Jay Hopler, there were no throwaway assignments.
For the next twenty-seven years, Jay and I made a workshop of two—over ice cream in Iowa City, across the country while we each pursued independent lives and PhDs, and during the long years we sustained our marriage between Utah and Florida. He would call from the supermarket to ask, “Is there a one-syllable word for fluffy?” After a day of teaching, I’d begin dinner: “How would you explain the differences between allusion and citation?” He walked around the house muttering things like, “the wild rye rolls, the wild rye like an eye roll, the rye wild in its rolling, the wild roll of rye—” and then hollering, “Hey, Love?: Which of these has more mouthfeel?” When we were in the mountains, he’d ask me to identify every shrub and bird and peak we passed, often beginning in that very moment to harmonize my words into assonant phrasings. On road trips, we’d debate for hours about what, exactly, a poetic line is, or whether creative writing can be taught. We enjoyed a gleefully nerdy near-caricature of a two-writer marriage. We were each the other’s most ardent student, most tireless cheerleader, and biggest fan.
I don’t know how many times I have tried to write this reflection. I keep failing to find the through-line, making false starts and scrapping them.
Jay’s poetry bespeaks his lush, hedonistic pleasure in what could be sensed—both in words and beyond them. It’s fair to say that Jay lived in an intensified register of perception: flowers grew not in bunches but in combustions; the evening air was never soft but swoony; a good meal electrified the tongue. He would halt abruptly, anywhere, to gaze at a fall of light, which is why I always drove. That, and because he couldn’t navigate out of a paper sack.
Imagine spending your life next to someone who is alert to the smallest sounds, to slight changes in the wind’s direction, to the day’s changing palette of light. Now imagine that you’re without that someone, without that second antenna bristling to amp up your own signal. What sudden dullness, the world half-dampened.
Jay hated driving, fenugreek, the word vagina, military time, ear-itch, adverbs, weeding, the metropolitan bus system in Rome, blackout curtains, spilling food on himself, the German language, yacht rock, poetry readings, brushing his teeth, button-fly jeans, chamomile tea, Ron DeSantis, thick T-shirts, sunscreen, his teeth, fruit for dessert, skateboarding, being cold, taupe, high school, decorative soaps, decorative hand towels, the middle seat, e-books, cocktail parties, weak coffee, and beef even one degree over medium-rare.
Jay loved weather alerts, the smell of old campfire in clothes, Black Flag and Bob Marley, rosebushes, Rickenbackers, period rom-coms, board games with the kids, long vowels, mishearing lyrics, firm nectarines with salt, the Dolomites, the sonnet, TSA Precheck, Stephen King novels, topwater lures, maps, exclamation points, Arsenal Football Club, curse words, the smell of linden trees in bloom, guppies, 1950s B-movie horror flicks, Purell, the idiom of American noir, the German language, mustelids, Law & Order (original series), Bruegel (the Elder), the slim-cut Hugo Boss suit we splurged on for the National Book Awards fête, and mint Kit Kats.
Jay didn’t feel indifferent about anything.
I have tried not to be workmanlike in this, my effort to snapshot my beloved into remembrance, to thicken him out from page to person, but the words all seem half-dampened.
I have tried in recent days to find Jay in his poems, to imagine his voice as an enduring presence to companion me. We two always resolved to keep the eye on the “four-hundred-year poem,” the poem that readers would find rewarding centuries down the line, and we talked a lot about poetry as a machine for a certain kind of immortality. That’s a fine notion, I suppose, as far as it goes.
I have been trying to hold something of a person, but I only manage snatches. I’m finding that grief, like writing, is filled with false starts.
This spring, as a final relic out of our private workshop, Jay and I each published books that responded to his dying. In Still Life, Jay sorrowed and laughed and raged, and he felt finally that his poems satisfied his grief’s demands. I had believed that writing the poems in Fatal would satisfy the demands of my own grieving by stages along the way, leaving me fortified against his departure from me. I was wrong.
— Kimberly Johnson
Last night I dreamt you in a field of corn: National Book Awards tuxedo jacket over your shoulder, black bowtie undone at your neck, row after row of ready harvest handsome in panorama. Once, in conversation with my students, you said a poem was the only place the dead could be present tense, other than in dreams. Isn’t the same true for letters? I asked, & you replied, What poem isn’t an epistle?
Last night I dreamt you in a field of corn & this morning you were gone. Again. We spoke at length about this part, you & I—what would it be like to go first, to go at all? What might one endure in outlasting, outliving? You’d think I’d feel more prepared &, somehow, I’m relieved to find I’m not.
Last night I dreamt you in a field & now I can’t sleep, am resurrecting you here the only way I know how. I imagine you annoyed to be tugged back for such foolishness, can picture you saying, This is a real pain in the ass, smirking. We agreed on many things, including this: the eulogy is a failed genre, a faulty form, like the pantoum & poems about Arsenal Football Club. Impossible to do right, like so many things worth doing.
Once, over dessert in Lausanne, we bemoaned again the racket of embodiment: how fickle it is to be a body, how cruel the flesh’s ensnaring, how fleeting its availability to pleasure when it’s so busy trying to self-destruct. We were ready—both of us so unsure about our own prognosis—to wager that surely there must be some kind of reprieve in death’s arrival, & joked, darkly, about racing each other to the finish line. Nobody wins this one, I said. You pointed at Kim, then, whose laughter cut through the din of after-dinner chatter from across the room, & replied, I already have.
Last night I dreamt you in my field & this morning once, is all I have. You liked words like that. Once, as in after. Once, as in, as soon as—long ago & also immediately. Once, over tacos. Once, watching you get schooled by E in Dutch Blitz. Once you asked me to come, & swiftly, to support the ones you love. Once, for a whole season of your life, poems came quick & easy. Once you got sick again.
Once, years before, as I left town after visiting Huntsman, you flipped me the bird from a front window in Sugarhouse, sweet as blowing a kiss. Once, even earlier, after a Mark Strand reading, you made a joke about testicles & dangling modifiers that was so perfectly timed I still haven’t recovered. Once, over summer salads in the desert, we designed the worst full sleeve tattoo ever to include the face of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Once, in Florida, you made me the best goddamn cappuccino of my life, & followed it with a compliment that carried me through many droughts. Once, smashed behind you in the backseat between E & B on a steep hill in Geneva traffic, we teased Kim mercilessly that her driving wasn’t really the way we’d planned to die.
Once, we did plan to die. Do, still. Failed form, this life, & impossible to do right, even once. But worth it. Once—more than once—so many more—you made me certain of it.
Last night I dreamt you in a field & this morning you were gone. You win. You won. I love you, Bones, & you won.
— Meg Day
Jay was 100% pure gift. One of the few poets of my generation whose work I return to with the same feeling of challenge, excitement, and refreshment that draws me back to Stevens, Bishop, E.D., Hopkins, Keats, Wordsworth, Herbert, and Marvell—all poets who give me new worlds to enter and who also change my sense of place in the world we share, who thrill me with their quickness of mind, formal invention, and quirky vibrant panache. A visionary company, for sure. I include Jay Hopler in the count. He was plugged into the cosmic dynamo. His poems take my breath away and then they give it back, full of spring rain, morning sun, and the transformational gust of his tropical “green squall” imaginary, buoyant and full of figurative turning. Though he wrote many elegies, his poems moved, and moved me, with the prime force of renewal; they lift with what Stevens calls “the gaiety of language.” The source of it may be found in Jay’s working through sound, the way rhyme and other acoustic correspondences both propel and play against conjunction. Lines, images, perceptions, ideas fly together and fly apart in Jay’s poems unlike any other poet writing. His ear was fine and infallible. Hopkins comes to mind, but with the leaping spring of Basho underneath; the poems swing like Spiderman with his airpods in, listening to Paul Chambers on bass. Jay’s vision is tragical and comical, joyful and aching, shifting seamlessly between irony and ecstasy; it eschews easy dualisms with a genius for seeing it all in proper relation and balance. His talent triggered an envy that the poems fast transmuted into love.
My friendship with Jay began in 2014, shortly after I returned from a year in Berlin, where I had started learning German and trying my hand at translations of Rilke, Goethe, and Ernst Jandl. We struck up a correspondence around that work—Jay had been translating Else Lasker-Schüler, some of which I had published in Tikkun. He sent me his Trakl; I sent him my Rilke. We communed over our shared feeling for the sounds of German, which we both found filled with rich mysterious harmonic softness we preferred over the brighter melodies of Italian (which we had both studied during our respective years in Rome). Jay suggested we try a translation project together; but it would take another five years on the intermittent back burner, occasionally stirring, before we started adding the necessary stuff: what if we took his translated selections of Trakl and my translation of Jandl’s “der gewöhnliche rilke” (“the usual rilke”) and somehow made a book of it, with the idea of Rilke serving as a conduit and connector? In fall 2021, we met with Daniele Pantano on Zoom and he helped us formulate a plan that launched us on a collaborative translation of Rilke’s “Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft” (“The Book of Pilgrimage”), the second part of Rilke’s Book of Hours, which would serve as a kind of bridge we’d build together to connect Trakl and Jandl.
Jay had been battling cancer for a while at that point, but he was irrepressibly upbeat. “The hormone/chemo stuff is kicking my butt,” he wrote me, “but I can take it.” We started working on a Google doc of the Rilke. With the German text triple-spaced, we would insert our translation draft below each line, with enough room for both of us under every line. We took turns with alternate strophes, and then the other would suggest variations, with a commentary running on the side where differences were either settled and solutions arrived at, or we agreed to leave a translation problem open and unresolved for the time being (we knew we had to get to the end before we could work out some of the finer issues).
Jay was a master of style with a great feel for the volume, weight, and color of diction. “There is no such thing as a synonym”—one of my favorite of his quips, it makes the point with deliberate economy: every word is unique, and every poem is built out of the unalterable interactions of specific words; change a word, and you no longer have that poem, you have a different poem. I almost invariably agreed with his suggested changes to my drafts. I tended to move slowly from the literal to the analogical and idiomatic; Jay was always right there to begin with. My responses to his variations were typically “Yes!”, “Great”, “Superb”, “Like it!”
There were gaps in time when we were absorbed with school work (we were both directing MFA programs), and Jay was overcome with his treatment and recovery. The cancer was back and getting worse. “Bone scan season here,” one note began. I held his image in my mind of the last time I had seen him, on Zoom, in his knit cap and his ever-ebullient smile fronting a droll laugh. Then this, in late February (Jay favored the font “American Typewriter” in his emails to me—a kind of joke: we were of a generation that started out on typewriters):
I have lost the vision in my left eye, the hearing in my right ear, and partial control of my tongue. Apparently, all the nerves that control your face come out of the same stupid hole in the vertebra and that just happens to be where one of the tumors is growing. The radiology guys seem confident that they can reverse some, perhaps all, of the decline, but only time will tell. As you can imagine, I spend a great deal of time wondering if I’m going to have to dictate my poems to Kim before too long. But if that happens, then that happens; I’ll live with it and work around it (because the work has to get done).
The work had to get done. I continued to write to Jay, but he stopped replying. I feared the worst.
Jay’s basic translation ethos, he wrote to me, was “to make it not suck”—and he felt the difficulty of it, strung out tersely between “trying to convey the thing exactly from one language to another, taking as few liberties as possible” and the “moment when I throw up my hands in frustration, step into the poem with both feet, and do whatever I think has to be done.” “And the translations I seem to end up with,” he continued in his email, “seem to me unproductively weird; some lines are brought over word for word and others are fashioned completely out of my imagination. Is that translation, transcreation, transliteration? Is the reader getting Trakl or Hopler? I have no idea.” Jay expressed his admiration for Kimberly’s adeptness with translation from classical languages. “Kimberly translates from Greek and Latin poetry and is energized by the process,” he wrote, “she thinks I might not be psychologically suited to translation and she might be right.” “Translation, I guess, is at its heart an act of criticism,” he added, “and I might be too harsh and inflexible a critic to have much fun with it.” That was in 2015; six years later the emotional wind had shifted past uncertainty, and he found himself in Rilkean waters, flying at the hull. “I’m having a blast,” he wrote about our work together, “and I think we’re coming up with some really good stuff.”
Rilke’s “Book of Pilgrimage” runs for hundreds of lines (one of three long poems of this early major work); Jay and I got to the first 75 of them before cancer snatched his pen. How I wish, how I regret our not starting sooner and making more of our discoveries and affinities. Also, I was learning a lot from Jay, il miglior fabbro, at every stage of our work together. He was making me a better poet. Now it’s done, incontrovertibly done, even as this particular work is not. At the center of the sadness, I’m happy that we had at least this chance to do something together and that it gave him something he cared about to continue working on until the end. Now, in addition to the poems and whatever memory can hold (for as readers we have only the poems—the work he got done during an all too short fifty-two years), we hold this image of a consummate and continuing promise. Here are the opening strophes of Rilke’s poem, in our shared translation, raw and interfused with Jay’s greater comprehension, which he was living as we worked, minute by minute, while a mortal seed opened.
Rilke’s Book of Pilgrimage
The storm’s force comes as no surprise,
you’ve watched it grow;—
the trees leave. Their flight
creates striding avenues.
Then you know, the one they flee before
is the one to whom you go,
it’s Him all your senses sing
as you stand at the window.
The summer weeks stood still,
the tree sap on the rise;
now you feel it, its will to fall
into the Maker of all things.
You thought you knew the power
once you grasped the fruit,
now, again, it’s a mystery,
and you, again, a guest.
Like your house, the summer was,
you knew every inch of it.
Now you must leave, go out into your heart
as you might a plain.
So begins the great bewilderness,
the days go numb—
from your senses the wind withdraws,
the world like withered leaves.
Through bare branches—
your sky, it sees you there;
so be earth now and evening song
and the land where you belong,
be humble now, a thing
made real by its ripening—
that the source of all things
feels what it grabs: you.
— Joshua Weiner
For You Jay Hopler
It’s not yet a week past the night of Jay’s death as I write this, and it’s difficult for me to begin remembering him in a piece of writing, in part because of the sadness, in part because Jay doesn’t feel like a person of the past. Days so close to that night seem liminal, and not just for me as I grieve. What I mean to say is, I think this might also be a liminal time for Jay.
I’d like to reserve a seat for that liminality, wondering toward him, listening, talking to him in my mind, in my yard, where there are “rocks where no rocks should’ve been,” his lines separating from their poems, sympatico by sympatico.
Jay rarely has been geographically located for me, nor a physical presence, since ours was a friendship forged in correspondence. I think we saw each other in the flesh only three times. I first met him in 2009 in Marfa, where we were both in our own houses on a lonesome, generous residency. But I barely spoke to him in those weeks. The program coordinator told me Jay didn’t want to be disturbed, that he needed seclusion to write. So I kept my distance as instructed, not wanting to bother him, a little intimidated by the recluse who had written Green Squall. I walked past his house into the insect-only fields, waving to him in his study window. “There goes Katie in her sunhat,” Jay said when he’d see me pass by, wanting me to stop and chat, which is something he told me years later. Jay wasn’t a recluse, he just didn’t want to come to the orientation dinner at the start of the residency. He had grown so lonely in those weeks that he went into the fields in torrential rain, sat down, and cried. He laughed about it when he finally told me, so I laughed, too. Jay’s wonderful knowledge: the height of human emotion makes us comically, if tragically, loveable animals.
All those days we didn’t talk in Marfa! Well, we made up for them in letters. Our correspondence was largely devoted to critiquing each other’s work, especially since 2017, when his diagnosis came and he began composing Still Life against an unbearably short clock. We rarely wrote about our personal lives to each other—“Oh, I had a baby,” I wrote to him after two years of not being in touch—but he did write about his illness, ending those paragraphs by asking after my sister, who was undergoing similar medical treatments. The last thing he wrote to me before he died was to ask after her. I think of her often. Please give her my best, J.
When he first sent me Still Life in 2020—then titled neversummer—it was a bundle of mind-shattering drafts. He told me the table of contents was meaningless, as he really hadn’t ordered the poems yet, and then gave me just one instruction: If it isn’t that good, I need you to tell me. I promised him I was a true reader for him, that I wouldn’t let him get away with anything. As I read, and as I made notes, I was aware I was writing on an altar. This didn’t make me shy, it made me bold, which is what I knew Jay wanted, even if he disagreed with my notes. What’s an altar for if we can’t write all over it? Jay’s poems seem to say.
Jay’s illness sometimes caused long silences between us, so I hadn’t seen the final galleys. I received the published book a few days ago, and just holding it knocked the wind out of me.
Yesterday I looked over the notes I sent him late in 2020, and I could see that a few of my suggestions were no good. Then I looked at the book, hoping Jay had ignored them. Jay had ignored them. That made me smile for the first time since his death. Our correspondence was a series of offerings to each other; we integrated each other’s critiques, or we didn’t. We didn’t have to discuss why we did what we did. We didn’t discuss not discussing it, either.
Electric,, he wrote, in his perfect schoolroom cursive, by lines of mine he liked. Electricity. Or to the right of a long passage, Keep it set deeply in the emotional body & out of the head. And, the qualifiers are chipping away at the confidence that is otherwise in these lines. Advising a cut between two words, he said I’d then be able to create a double-tap of two one-syllable words that both ended in “k.” Not “took formidable work,” but “took work.” Double-tap: I’d never heard it said that way. It was so pleasing to hear his deep mind at work, which is why I share his words here, thinking others might want to hear more of his voice, just as I do, just as I have through other remembrances posted here. Abstractions—it will not surprise you to hear—make me nervous.
It’s obvious in Still Life that he feared not just his own death, but the death of his poems, stowed away in an unvisited nowhere:
forgotten on a high
shelf in a rare-books shop the collected poems
of jay hopler or rat fishing in Baltimore
the bell above the door keeps its mouth closed
most days no one bothers turning on the lights.
My notes in his last year became a lot like promises, sometimes explicitly. “I will,” I wrote under that last line about “no one” bothering to turn on the lights. I’ll turn on the lights, and not out of friendship, and not as a favor, but because Jay Hopler’s reverence for the reaching, raying-out potential of each word is so beautifully extreme. The extremity I call beautiful translated into the most strenuous labor for him. It must have. Jay’s unwillingness to allow language to fail him, to fail us, and, most of all, to fail itself, is the sublime gift of his labor. Jay’s poems often leave me stricken, yet not without the saturating feeling of being with him (really with him, not metaphorically) as I read:
[ . . . ] today friday stoned & alone I drove into the west desert & grieved
my own passing & never so much as today do i feel
in the middle of a 2-lane road
empty for 1,000 years in both
(from “poem after a poem by césar vallejo
w/ a nod to donald justice”)
In 2021, when Jay began referring to himself as dying, I was thumbing through a little storyboard notebook I have—I don’t write stories, I just like the square outlines I can fill in with bits of poems I admire or want to remember—and I found a square with an excerpt from Adrienne Rich, (“Did you think I was talking about my life? / I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall”), and, in the box beneath it, lines by Jay: “And am haunted by my history, the path / I’ve through this blooming world cut.”
I sent him a photo of this page, on which I had written the date, “5.28.19.” I thought maybe the date would convince him I hadn’t, in 2021, just contrived a way to tell my dying friend how crucially instructive and heart-sweeping I found his poems:
He responded on March 2, 2021:
You honor me, Katie. . . . to have you write my words so close to Rich’s makes me feel like I was real and did something.
Jay told me in the early days of our correspondence, You have to promise me that you’ll give it to me straight. It was his constant theme, so I’ll suggest one last edit for accuracy’s sake: not, “I was real.” You are real, my liminal, continuing, corresponding friend.
— Katie Ford
The last time I saw Jay Hopler was sometime in 2021, during a 4:20 zoom, where we laughed so hard we cried. I was regaling him with a current life saga—startling and disturbing, something that had been consuming me for months—and it was glorious, cathartic really, to laugh so hard at what felt like a crisis.
Laughing at crisis—with crisis—was always Jay’s M.O., his dark and mordant wit thrumming just under the surface of a seemingly aw-shucks personality. You can see it here, in a poem I first read in The Colorado Review, about ten years after we first met while in school in the early nineties. We’d lost touch, and when I found this poem, I felt a thrill:
There is a black fly drowning in that glass of beer.
There is a black fly drowning in that glass of beer.
How can no one notice it,
That black fly?
Black as a zero is useless.
Black as grammar school.
The man with the beer is a fisherman,
Small and gigantic
In his white rubber boots.
How sick we are, the three of us,
A little bit Threepenny Opera, a little bit Charles Simic and James Tate, music and bleakness and oddness and whimsy—a subversive little ditty—being sick of Paradise, oh!
I first met Jay at NYU when we read slush for Pequod. He had a perpetual underwater look behind round glasses, like an astonished fish just jolted out of sleep. I was in the graduate school for creative writing, and he was in undergrad English—I took him under my barely older wing, dragging him to poetry readings around the city. He woke up slowly to life, and four years ago, when I last saw him in the flesh, he was utterly changed: yoga had made him long and lean, cancer (in remission then) had thinned him out, love and a home with the poet Kimberly Johnson had put his feet on the ground. He was happy.
Jay had one of the most lively and performative voices on the page that I know. Most of us who write settle into narrow tonal and volume ranges, compared to how feelings rise and fall and hover to varying degrees in spoken speech: a voice rising or dropping in fear, excitement, anger, astonishment, intensification of any feeling. Because of this, I always teach Jay’s poems when I want to make a point about tone, and a point about the power of the volta: the turn, the reversal, by which poems can engage surprise and feel supremely human. I know no better poem to demonstrate these qualities than this one, where Jay’s gifts are on full display:
AND THE SUNFLOWER WEEPS FOR THE SUN, ITS FLOWER
There is a hole in the garden. It is empty. I envy it.
Emptiness: the only freedom there is
In a fallen world.
Father Sunflower, forgive me—. I have been so preoccupied with
my backaches and my headaches,
With my sore back and my headaches and my beat-skipping heart,
I have ignored the subtle huzzah of the date palms and daisies, of
the blue daze and the date palms—
Or don’t forgive me, what do I care?
I am tired of asking for forgiveness; I am tired of being frightened
all the time.
I want to run down the street with a vicious erection,
Impaling everything, screaming obscenities
And flapping my arms; fuck the date palms,
Fuck the daisies—
As a man, I am a disappointment, I know that.
Is it my fault I was born in shadow? Through the banyan trees,
An entourage of slovenly blondes
Comes naked and begging—
My days fly from me as though from a murderer.
Can you blame them?
Behind us, the house is empty and quiet as light.
What have I done, Mother,
That I should spend my life
The primary assignment I give my students for discussing this poem is: track and name all the feelings at play in this poem and relate them to acts of speech. What an enviable range! Narration, description, definition, prayer, atonement, self-blame, declaration, exclamation, curse, admission, rhetorical question, address, plea.
Louise Glück, in her forward to 2006’s Green Squall, the indelible debut from which these poems come, describes a typical Hopler poem as one where “the initial spurt of energy and animal vigor yields almost immediately to morose woe.” (p. xiv). I’d characterize a typical Hopler speaker as a philosopher-clown, full of bombast and lament.
Jay was also a great inventor of forms that turned on repetition and variation. One of my favorites of his invented forms holds “Of Passion and Seductive Trees,” also in Green Squall. In the course of the poem the speaker offers the beloved: his only box of drop-dead plums; his only box of ox-eye mums; his only box of hornet thrum; as well as prissy figs, narcotic clementines, red electric fountain grass, katydids, chic fantastic silverfish, among many other things. What, really, is the gift Hopler is offering the beloved? Dictional acrobatics on parallel syntactical bars, which is to say language, which for Hopler is the stuff of love.
Now we have a new book from Jay, Still Life, his third and last. It’s funny and full of philosophy and rage at his fate. Jay is still alive as I write this, and I know he will not be by the time you read it. I’ll let him have the last word, in the poem I sat with this morning, “poem after a poem by cesar vallejo w/ a nod to donald justice,” which ends:
jay hopler is dead his life was as easy as it got
& he had the scars to prove it
these are the witnesses: all the fridays & the rains & the sun
the road & every grain of sand
in that desert
— Dana Levin
Before I’d ever heard of Jay Hopler, I heard Jay Hopler. This was some 18 years ago, when he was on the cusp of releasing Green Squall, and he and Kimberly Johnson were reading at the KGB Bar where the Baltika beer was flowing and the bulb wattage was, in accordance with house rules, low and red. But insofar as the reading, Jay laid down some serious voltage. All it took was “Lightning— / Now there’s a sexy machete: a pounce of sky electric— / electricitied—inflamed” and I was sold. That’s my New-York-City-Frank-O’Hara-esque-“The Day Lady Died”-moment: Me not in the 5 Spot but the KGB where I leaned not on the john door but rather stood in a crowd with a cold beer in my hand as Jay Hopler read his poetry and everyone and I stopped breathing.
From that moment on, my sense of poetry was transformed by Jay’s singular poetics—his deadpan passion and hilarious pathos, his symphonic punctuation and syntactical precision, and, more than anything, his love of words. It didn’t matter how many times a word had been used—once he’d worked it into a poem it felt new, it felt his, and, more often than not, the word was new, of his invention, and in reading it you could feel the curiosity and joy that fired his imagination. Simply put, he put top dollar on language. And he showed that there are no shortcuts to great poetry—you do the work because you owe it to the words to get them right. As with all true artists, his care allowed you to feel safe in his art even as it threatened to upend your understanding of the world.
Two months ago, I attended Jay’s last public reading. This was in itself nothing short of a miracle. I’d been trying to get him out to San Diego since 2019, but between the pandemic and his cancer, it looked increasingly like it wasn’t going to happen. Even the week before the reading, Kimberly cautioned me that Jay might not be able to make it, that he was growing weaker and his response to the chemo was becoming more unpredictable. But somehow, with her heroic help and his iron-clad resolve, he made it to California and together they read again.
There was no beer this time (I’m now a high school teacher, not a grad student) and the light was due to the sun rather than 10-watt bulbs, but the effect was the same: Everyone and I stopped breathing. Though cancer had had its way with his body, Jay’s voice and mind were sharper than ever (did I mention he picked the school gate’s lock during his time on campus?) and in his urgency to create Still Life, he’d found a new register—one both funnier and looser, yet more heartbreaking and emotionally-naked.
As he read, it was clear he was a man in love: a man in love with his wife, a man in love with his craft, a man in love with the world. Jay showed his love through what he gave his attention to, which was everything—poetry and punk bands and the three Johns (Berryman, Donne, Keats) and fishing and Ashtanga yoga and teaching and “that girl that atomic girl [he] would one day marry.” He was hilarious and humble and honest and brilliant and gentle, and the English language is richer for having had him take care of it the way he did for as long as he could. How I wish that could have been longer, Jay.
— Adam O. Davis
“Of the two undiscovered countries, Life and Death,
Which one lies the closer to God?”
For Jay Hopler
I’ve been thinking lately about our work and how it will outlive us. But, more than the work, how generosity will outlive us. A friend of mine recently emailed to say: “it is on us to carry what he gave. You do that every day.” And I hope so. Jay was my teacher, and a brilliant one. I don’t think I could enter a poem when we met. But I immediately understood how brilliant he was upon listening to him. I pushed him hard to teach me all that he knew over the three years that we worked together. He probably wanted more time to write. I was greedy. He wrote very slowly and lamented that. I wrote quickly because I had small kids and I felt I didn’t have extra seconds to spare. His third book was written quickly because of his cancer diagnosis. In a way, we started off very far apart in our work. And yet, I feel like we met on several continuums over time. His work leaves you changed, & what more could one aspire to, or ask of poetry itself?
However, the gift that Jay gave me since he was first diagnosed 5 years ago is this: generosity is part of being an artist, and he was a self-described artist first. He didn’t owe me anything, but I relied on his opinion and his guidance and even his approval, if I’m honest. When I emailed him with news, he would say: “Chelsea! You’ve made my week! I’m so happy for you.” Every. Time. He evaded my questions about how he was. Instead, he offered guidance, whether it was about publishing or contracts or PhD programs. When I moved to Canada from Florida and had a baby (after writing my second book about infertility my last year with him in which we debated sentimentality and he ultimately confessed he was a sentimental poet by the end of the year), he wrote to me and said: “kids are great!” When I wanted to apply to a PhD program last summer and it required me to write a dissertation proposal, he went over my documents and wrote a letter for me. When I was accepted in March, I found out he was dying. I don’t think I understood until then what he had been teaching me over these five years. To engage in this work (of writing, of mentoring) is everything. The act, not the result. The engagement. The human connection. Maybe that is revolutionary in the face of death or even the finished product which I now often feel is empty so I must move on to a new project quickly. Somehow, it means more when someone is not obligated to care, and care is a form of attention that is rare between people. I am grateful for that.
I emailed him to say thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. It doesn’t feel like enough. That I am so damn sorry. How words fail us sometimes when we rely on language to live is something I will not forget. I’ll probably keep his response forever. Close at heart. That he had limited time and he was generous with it. That is something I will not forget. That I now feel parentless in a strange way I probably won’t forget either. It is very difficult to describe what has been lost: he was that brilliant. His mind. His poems. His soundwork. His originality of thought & phrasing. His love of his wife who was a constant presence in our classroom because he talked about her so often. As a writer, as a teacher, I aspire to live up to what he gave me. To live a good life. To be good to others. I hate that the last time I saw him I didn’t know it. I hate that he is gone so young. Every time an artist dies, we think of the work that will not be produced, but not as often of the small things they did that are not advertised.
When I was struggling with endings in my poems, Jay used to say: look away. What else do you see?
I’m not ready to look away yet. And I hope readers won’t either. But when I do, I’ll notice the light as it falls across the road. The conflict in that simple image. And I’ll remember.
— Chelsea Dingman
I first met Jay Hopler in 2004, when he was a finalist for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. Like others who were finalists during my time as judge, he was invited to Cambridge to talk about his manuscript, which at that time was sporadically astonishing but, I thought, thin in quite a few places.
He was, initially, suspicious, surly and defensive, and then, almost immediately, completely wonderful, ardent and funny and quick. And helplessly himself. I have known few people less capable of social deception. We went through the manuscript in exhaustive detail; we shared, it was obvious, a taste for and belief in exhaustive detail. I think, in more complex ways, we understood each other, recognized each other. When he left, we were mutually attached. I asked him to send me all the poems he hadn’t included, in the hope I’d find something he’s missed, some spark worth fanning.
Very soon afterward, I got an immense box. Inside, roughly 400 pages. Though the page count was daunting, the pages themselves were engrossing; many contained multiple versions of the same line, or the same stanza, or various attempts to combine disparate stanzas, bits from unrelated poems, reconfigured in the spirit of the nest-building bird. As I read through the microscopic changes and deviations, I came to see the enormous subtlety and resourcefulness of his mind, and his uncanny sense of juxtaposition and sequence. When I read the book again a year later it was close to what it became: electric, mercurial, and opulently gorgeous.
The finished book is, I believe, a marvel. And great work has followed. Not as much as I would have liked, but in some ways not enough is better than too much. Not enough makes of what there is something more cherished, more known, more often turned to. There were also in these years many visits, many wonderful conversations, many dinners. He was an amazing and profoundly original artist, and as profoundly lovable a person as I have known. Despite his writerly sophistication, there was in him a stubborn innocence; the world often disappointed him but it could not diminish him.
— Louise Glück
I wish I could write something as wonderful for Jay as Jay wrote for his father, “Eulogy (Currently in Revision)” from An Abridged History of Rainfall (McSweeney’s, 2017)…
To jump in the hole. To sleep like gold.
To kiss the fishnets and the crabpots and the quay.
To prick the cricket, to prick the cricket.
No. To pry open its one good eye …
I can’t… because I’m not as original a poet. When I read Jay’s second book I sent the poem excerpted above to students and friends who could appreciate its studied imperfect perfection. Even in his first book, Green Squall, one can see the poet that Jay would become—already was—and see the leap between that book and his second, and another enormous leap to his third and last, an expanse crossed with full knowledge of impending death—not a second or a syllable wasted. Life is too short to say what’s already been said, to repeat oneself, to not take risks. Jay’s wit, impeccable sense of line and stanza, postmodern economy of form, delicate ear, and acute honesty serve as models for the rest of us, still tied to earth.
— Natasha Saje