Professor Elizabeth Stone, the heroine of Grace McCleen’s incandescent second novel, is a classic campus contradiction: both quite brilliant and utterly clueless. Despite having a lauded book on Milton and a stack of learned articles to her name, her fellow human beings — indeed, her own self — remain a closed book.
“How did people know what to do with their bodies?” marvels the 53-year-old, watching a lunchtime crowd lounge on a sunny lawn. Yet even she senses the figure she must cut. “A spinster, bespectacled, sensible shoes, skin and lashes of a pallor that suggested dim rooms and silence.”
By the time we meet her, a bout with cancer has confined her to a very different set of rooms whose silence is swirled with fear. When her doctor unexpectedly gives her the all-clear, she dives into an ambitious new project grounded in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” A study of language’s musicality, of the way in which words can also communicate nonverbally, it will, she hopes, yield a “poetics of sound.”
But McCleen has other ideas. Eliot is an acute observer of time and its passing, and sure enough, Elizabeth’s research takes her back to the university town — unnamed, though a lot like Cambridge — where she spent her undergraduate years and where unfinished business awaits.
Elizabeth is not the only verse scholar in “The Professor of Poetry.” There’s also her mentor, Edward Hunt, an accidental hipster from up north who chain-smokes his way through tutorials on Thomas Wyatt dressed in denim and shapeless pullovers. While she was still his student, they embarked on a chastely passionate friendship that ended abruptly after he confided deeper feelings.
McCleen doesn’t make Elizabeth easy to like and this is part of the professor’s charm. She doesn’t “do” summer, most definitely does not do love poetry, and would like to teach Virginia Woolf a thing or two about semicolons. The key to good writing, the professor believes, is detachment, and this she strives for off the page, too. No wonder her students nickname her “the Stone.”
McCleen debuted with the award-winning “The Land of Decoration,” which told the story of a motherless child ostracized by her father’s religious fanaticism. It finds echoes here in Elizabeth’s early girlhood, which was spent alone with her bibliophilic, unbalanced mother in a house by the sea. Shortly before her seventh birthday, her mother vanished and Elizabeth was fostered by a vicar and his mannish wife.
That loss holds the key to her chronic standoffishness. As the narrative flits back and forth across the years, Elizabeth and Edward are drawn together and pushed apart, pushed apart and drawn together, then as now.
Childhood loss, illness mental and physical, high modernism: it sounds like something concocted in a creative writing workshop, but this is a novel far more deftly realized, an intricate tapestry in which past and present mingle to mesmerizing effect. Filled with visual echoes and wordless longing, it is almost Escher-like in its simple complexity, proving the truth of Elizabeth’s thesis by making the silences almost as eloquent as the words that fill it.
And what eloquence! There are sentences here of such agile cleverness, charged with wit and beauty and enchantment. Oddly, they occasion one of this book’s rare weaknesses. For all its linguistic and conceptual sophistication, narratively, it’s a slender romance that ought to be read swiftly. The prose insists we linger. It is to McCleen’s great credit that the resulting tension seems almost deliberate.