Rachel Epstein remembers John Haines

I would like to share something with you about my relationship with John Haines. This is not a simple matter given the intimate sides of friendship and the private/public lives we all live. It is only a poor attempt.

I think it was in 1995 that I attended a poetry reading at Borders Books featuring John Haines. A tall, elegant looking man approached the entrance door the same time I did. He opened the first door and I opened the second. With a subtle nod and grin, he thanked me.

Fourteen years later, I am waiting for the same man to appear at the Anchorage airport. I had invited John to speak at the Alaska Writer Laureates event at the UAA Campus Bookstore. After checking each passenger arriving from Fairbanks—those with backpacks, strollers, wheelchairs, alone—I saw no sign of John. I asked a security guard to page him. She suggested I go to baggage claims to make an announcement. Down the escalator there was a small man with a cane in a wheelchair. An airline attendant was with him, looking around. John. When I approached, he asked me why I had not waited for him at the exit…

Once we were in the car things got better. We started to talk. John asked me about my family and I asked him about his family. He said I reminded him of a colleague from New York and then somehow mentioned Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish Jew murdered for her political views during the commencement of the Weimar Republic. From that moment our friendship was cemented and my life changed.

From April 2009 until February 2011, every other week like clockwork, John and I exchanged cards/letters. Each tidbit was a little treatise on love. John had much to say about literature, poetry, social history, women, teaching, students, academia, 9-11, homelessness, and writers he respected. We shared different views and similar views. John was especially fascinated with the life of Irene Nemirovsky and her book Suite Francaise.

John spoke two more times at the UAA Campus Bookstore: “Tea and Conversation with John Haines” and at “Rosa Luxemburg Remembered: A Panel Discussion”. Here is John’s reading from that event.

In Memory: Rosa Luxemburg, 1871-1919

Dear Rosa, I want to say: Come back, we need you now. We know you are gone, have been for near a century.Yet you are here, have been and will be, for those of us who read, who listen and remember. We need your thought, your love, your unfailing memory of events and losses, with no remembered love forsaken.

As you have spoken in a letter to a friend: “Oh, this ‘sublime silence of eternity’ in which so many screams have faded away unheard. It rings within me so strongly that I have no special corner of my heart reserved for the ghosts. I am at home wherever in the world there are clouds, birds, and human tears.” (Letter to Mathilde Wurm)

Towards the end, like a relentless plague, John’s financial torments, declining health, loss of senses, and pain became overwhelming. Age caught up with him and there was little he could do to manage it. He died on March 2, 2011 in a hospital in Fairbanks with friends nearby.
John Haines came from and returned to Alaska many times during his lifetime. He valued friendship and a place that felt welcoming. Those who knew him and experienced his generosity, outspoken manner, fragile make-up, and kindness, sense the magnitude of consciousness in his work and can ponder John’s legacy. It is a legacy yet to be determined. For those who are unforgiving, who are drowning in the youth of Winter News, who are still scarred by John’s bluntness, I can only offer you John in his own words: “Ah, what the hell”; and “Love, always”.

3 thoughts on “Rachel Epstein remembers John Haines”

  1. Beautiful essay, and I'm glad you shared this. I also saw the more positive side of John Haines. I only met him twice, once in Homer and once at UAA. But I could see his compassion and love for his fellow man. He cared about what was happening and wanted the world to be a better place.

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