“She saw something in all of her students,” remembered Emily Zogbi ’17 (English) of her mentor, the late Pauline Uchmanowicz.
“She saw our value, our potential, everything we could be if we just looked a little closer. She wanted us to look at ourselves the way she taught us to look at poetry: carefully, with a sharp, precise eye. To see the poem as a house to be built and cared for, you must know how every bit of it works, every detail, every word, in order to create something beautiful and strong.”
Zogbi joined New Paltz faculty, alumni and community members in training their poets’ eyes to capture the humanity and legacy of Uchmanowicz, a beloved teacher, scholar and master of the craft of poetry, who passed away suddenly on June 1, 2019.
Together, they transformed the Coykendall Science Building auditorium into a sanctuary on Oct. 18, reading poems and recollections that affirmed the healing power of words chosen carefully and delivered bravely, sometimes through tears—a fitting tribute to a poet’s life.
The speakers—students whose essays and poems Uchmanowicz read with the same attention she gave to the great poets and colleagues who benefitted from her intellectual rigor and generous editing of their work—captured Uchmanowicz’s most memorable qualities.
They recalled her quick, purposeful walk and marathoner build, her vintage flannel shirts and the metal barrettes she wore in her long, chestnut hair, giving her the look of an edgy college student, and the signature bright lipstick that stained her coffee cup.
They recalled her generous spirit and random acts of kindness. She routinely gave floral bouquets to colleagues; she gifted a student pottery from the campus sale that he’d admired, but could not afford; she paid for the coffee and picked up the bar tab.
Many of Uchmanowicz’s gifts endure. She once slid an envelope containing a crisp $100 bill across Zogbi’s desk at Codhill Press, an acknowledgment of the young writer’s worth during a formative stage in her artistic development. “This was an unpaid internship, she didn’t have to do it, but she did anyway. That someone like Pauline saw my time as valuable at that point in my life meant much more to me than $100.”
Uchmanowicz’s time during office hours, sharing literature and advice with her students, were other gifts, as were her penciled notes on course assignments. “I always looked forward to getting feedback on anything I’d written for her, whether it was poetry or a paper because her words felt like a gift to me,” recalled Robyn Turk ’15 (English, Art History). “It was something that I had earned and it made me feel good about myself, and I could keep it and look at it whenever I needed it.”
To those from whom she expected much, Uchmanowicz gave an abbreviated pep talk. “You did this to yourself,” she said to nervous teaching assistant Stephen Sobierajski ’07, ‘10g (English) on his first day of class, reminding him that his students would benefit from his knowledge and talents.
Years earlier, she’d returned Sobierajski’s undergraduate “Graphic Literature” paper without a grade and shrugged, “I think you can do better.” He did just that, rewriting the assignment and reconsidering his lackadaisical approach to his studies. “She could’ve given me the grade I earned the first time and left it there, but she wanted more and she didn’t beg, demand or threaten like people in my life had done in the past. She simply put it on me to do better and gave me a chance to do it.”
Uchmanowicz approached her own work with the same exacting standards, excising extraneous words in order to reveal essential truths. Colleague Tom Olsen admired her ability to see the “profundity in the absolute every day, quotidian world.”
Uchmanowicz’s poems, like the memory of her brave, uncompromising spirit, continue to inspire.
Recited by English Department colleague Stella Deen, Uchmanowicz’s poem “Swimming Hole” challenged all who heard it to live a bolder, more deliberate life.
By Pauline Uchmanowicz
This is the world we waited for made new:
A rock beside Fourth Lake, kayaks
etching pencil-line wakes
below leafy banks where half-clad
divers on boulders appear
like early Homo sapiens, paired
geese honking twice while we
tread water, still in the time
between made and unmade,
back-road shortcuts and mistletoe-
hemlock banter novel. I think:
Any moment you will lift
my fingertips to your lips,
loss and separation merging in
the brackish estuary of palm lines
joined as green eyes fix on brown.
But you resist like faces outlined
in the moon, mouths parted
starting a kiss yet forever apart.
Listen, I say. What is happening now:
This is your life. Hold it in your hands
You will have no other life.
To view a recording of the memorial service, click here.