Every year I am surprised by which books turn out to be (for me) among the most memorable of the year. The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry gathers poems by Jane Tyson Clement (1917–2000), whose work I hadn’t read before, with commentary and reflections by Becca Stevens, a singer-songwriter (I’ve heard only a few of her songs) who has set some of Clement’s poems to music.
Veery Huleatt, an editor at Plough Publishing and a member of the Bruderhof, is credited as the editor of The Heart’s Necessities, but she is in fact a coauthor. She provides a compact but rich account of Clement’s life, divided into chronological segments that appear at intervals throughout the course of the volume. The physical book itself, handsomely designed and illustrated, gives a first impression that turns out to be accurate in some ways, misleading in others; it suggests a book about creativity and art-making without hinting much at the spiky particulars of its principal subject.
In a note at the start of the book, Huleatt writes about her misgivings early in the course of the project:
What could Jane and Becca have in common? As I worked with Becca on this book, the connections between these two women sometimes seemed too tenuous, the differences separating them all too concrete. What could Jane’s life—a Manhattan upbringing, Smith College, courtship and marriage in the midst of World War II, a home and a big family, and then the radical decision to join the Bruderhof community, a rag-tag bunch of Christian pacifists—possibly have to do with Becca, child of a musical North Carolina family raised on Bach and bluegrass, a graduate of the School of Jazz at the New School, a musician who has collaborated with the likes of David Crosby, Troy Miller, and Jacob Collier, based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, but always on the go, taking her music all over the world?
But when I listened to these two artists, instead of looking at the particulars of their lives, a clear pattern began to emerge. The art of both women is a tribute to authenticity and personal integrity, the fruit of hard decisions taken to find and stay faithful to the truth about themselves and the world. In this book, and in Becca’s music, you can hear them in conversation, and in harmony.
I’m sure that for many readers, this “conversation”—“Becca describing how specific poems speak to her own life, passions, and creative process,” as the back-cover copy puts it—will be the draw that keeps them reading and prompts them to loan the book to a friend. For me, it was otherwise. I couldn’t get on Becca Stevens’s wavelength (no blame attaches to her, to me, or to the editor). But the interplay between Clement’s poems and the narrative of her life kept me absorbed from beginning to end.
Here is one bit from Huleatt’s account of the courtship of Jane Tyson (as she was then) and Bob Clement in 1940:
After that, Bob’s letter salutations went from a formal “Dear Jane” to “Janie darling— . . . I think of thee so much that thee even gets into the law cases—which is a pretty dull environment, and I hope thee doesn’t mind.” “I think of thee so much that it is almost like breathing,” Jane replied from Lancaster. (The “thees” and “thous” of their speech to one another was a Quaker custom.)
Tender, humorous, and with a light touch, Huleatt’s biography of Clement also conveys the strains to which any long marriage is subject: Bob’s slowness to commit, for instance, when a little more than ten years into their marriage, Jane was ready for them to join the Bruderhof. Teaching children in Bruderhof grade schools (as she did for decades) both in the U.S. and in England while she and Bob raised their own big family, and working in the community in addition to that, Jane had little time for her own writing (fiction as well as poetry). Yet she never abandoned it.
The last portion of the condensed biography is heartbreaking:
In 1996, Jane showed signs of dementia and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a tragic end for a woman so gentle and eloquent, to succumb to the inarticulate rage of dementia. Throughout her illness, Bob was faithfully at her side. He was her security when everything else was confusing—and he could sometimes still draw out her old humor and gentleness.
Jane died on March 21, 2000.
Unlike so many “spiritual biographies,” The Heart’s Necessities does not prettify the Christian life; neither does it fetishize “questioning.” The next-to-last poem in the book, “Hope” (written in 1987 “for the homeless and prisoners”), begins with this stanza:
Heaven is above me
no matter where I be:
in the depths of sorrow,
in the depths of sea.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.