Sleeping Late on Judgment Day
Sleeping Late on Judgment Day has a Walker Evans photograph of an old-time mailbox on the cover, chosen, author Jane Mayhall says, because of her friendship with Evans and a comment made by Conrad Aiken that he often dreamed “he would find God in a mailbox.” These poems beautifully represent a late-life wisdom and transparence, as Mayhall reflects on her life-long marriage with Leslie George Katz, to whom the book is addressed, and her coming to terms with his death. The poems are layered and complex without being obscure; they represent an original voice, belonging to no school or literary current.
Jane Mayhall was born in Kentucky and attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, but these poems seem to come from a lifelong New Yorker who was in and around all the literary movements there. She and Leslie lived together for sixty years in Brooklyn, near Arthur Miller, and in other places in New York. The city provides the ambience of the poems, which reflect an intellectual and spiritual curiosity and a boundless energy. Literary and visual artists from the 1940’s and 1950’s appear in this work, briefly but vividly evoked in a few words or lines.
Highly intelligent, sometimes tight as a wire, these poems keep their verve even toward the end of the collection in which she explores the enigma of loss, describing the illness and death of her husband of sixty years and her life as a widow. Her other books appeared in the 1960’s and early 1970’s; she has, however, published since in the most prestigious venues, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, etc. This is a collection of well-ripened poems rich in image and suggestion. Mayhall has a gift for perfect pitch—the poems are highly personal without being invasive, and always with a steel backbone.