The news was not surprising, but devastating just the same. Our friend’s cancer, which had lain in the weeds quietly for the last few years, had taken a turn for the worse. Much worse. It was now out of control. And nothing could be done.
How do you process that? I’m not very good at it. But Michelle Boisseau gave us as good a guide as any in the last couple of years with her upbeat demeanor and refusal to feel sidelined, defeated or defined by this vexing, insistent disease. That’s why most casual acquaintances didn’t even know she was ailing.
Cancer had taken two siblings prematurely as well as her mother, and then, in mid-November, it took her, at the age of 62. But through it all, Michelle aimed the laser focus of her poet’s eye and the wisdom of her philosopher’s heart to carry her — and her inner circle of family and friends — through.
In fact, a predominant theme of her most recent book was how we face mortality. “You can’t talk// your way out of this impasse, said the crows,” she wrote in “Among the Gorgons,” her most recent collection of poems. She called this spiraling life we all engage in, the life that always takes us to death, “The Obstinate Comedy.” Just like her, she might have found the phrase in the work of Leigh Hunt, a London poet and critic of the 19th century known for his association with Keats and Shelley. But the places her poem takes you — “ahead of me something was// taking up all the space”; “each tree a history of flying in place” — are singularly hers, alive with balletic language, and now ours.
Michelle was a professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a revered poetry teacher, and a shining example of what it means to lead a literary life. She wrestled with Shakespeare, with the ancients and with the fools of our day. She had a fearless sense of adventure — in both writing and making her way through the world. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017, only the most recent validation of her formidable talent. She was widely known for the college textbook she co-wrote, “Writing Poems,” now in its eighth edition.
Michelle arrived in Kansas City in the mid-1990s. Amid the course of her career, she performed the heavy lifting that led to the creation of the MFA program in creative writing at UMKC. That in itself is a significant legacy. But she would be most proud of her former students, the young writers she taught, nurtured and sometimes harangued as she led them toward the realization of the hard work of writing. As the great critic Elizabeth Hardwick put it, “Making a living is nothing, the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference — with words.” Michelle Boisseau knew very well how to make a difference with words.
She did that with her deep intelligence and with her wicked wit. Both of those things could spill out with abandon at a lecture, or a reading — or around a kitchen-table poker game. All who knew her will carry Michelle’s guiding and cajoling voice in their heads. As with all great artists, her work outlives her. For the rest of us, we “slowly hurry,// all of us alive together at once, speeding through// like comets we guide our own undoing.”
In early November Michelle Boisseau’s faculty colleagues at UMKC organized a tribute reading of her poems. Watch that on YouTube (search for “Celebrating Michelle Boisseau). Other tributes have poured in from all over, including this report from KCUR.