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Thursday, 22 August 2013 00:00

A man of letters, character and uncommon integrity

by Andy Croft

Franklin D'Olier Reeve: 18th September 1928 - 28th June 2013

During the cold war the US poet Frank Reeve, who has died aged 85 of complications caused by diabetes, was a unique and important link between writers in Moscow, Leningrad and New York.

He translated young Soviet writers like Akhmadulina, Shvarts, Naiman and Vosnesensky into English, helping to introduce them to Western readers.

One of his novels, Just Over the Border (1971), was based on the life of his friend, the Soviet critic Yulian Oksman.

In 1962 Reeve accompanied Robert Frost on his Kennedy-sponsored visit to the Soviet Union, translating at meetings between Frost and Anna Akhmatova, Arseny Tvardovsky, Korney Chukovsky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The high point of the tour was Frost's private audience with Nikita Khrushchev. It was, Reeve noted in Robert Frost In Russia (1964), "the dramatic confrontation of two irreverent and much-honoured men, each of whom was more affected by the other man than most people suppose."

Reeve was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, the son of Anne Conrad D'Olier and Richard Henry Reeve, into an old and distinguished New England family. His ancestors included two governors of colonial Massachusetts, a colonel in Washington's armies and a Supreme Court Justice.

Another, Annis Boudinot, was one of the first women poets to be published in the New World. Reeve's grandfather was the first national commander of the American Legion.

He studied Russian at Princeton and Columbia universities, where the poet and critic RP Blackmur encouraged him to write poetry. Another poet, William Meredith, introduced him to New York literary friends like Muriel Rukeyser, WH Auden and Josephine Herbst.

As a student he drove combine harvesters in the Midwest wheat fields, worked as a longshoreman on the Hudson River docks and became "a life-long socialist."

After graduation, he taught in Moscow and Leningrad as part of one of the first exchanges between the American Council of Learned Societies and the USSR Academy of Sciences.

He taught Russian language and literature at Columbia and then at Wesleyan, where he was chair of the Russian department. He also taught in Paris and at Oxford, Yale and Columbia universities.

His academic publications included translations of Ivan Turgenev, Aleksandr Blok and Aleksandr Griboyedov, critical studies of Russian and Soviet fiction and three anthologies of Russian and Soviet drama. He also translated Andrei Solzhenitsyn's 1970 Nobel lecture.

Although Reeve continued to teach at Wesleyan until his retirement, he resigned his tenure in the late 1960s in order to write. He was the founding editor of The American Poetry Review, secretary of the New York Poets House and was associated for many years with the New England Poetry Club and the New York Quarterly. The publisher Bob Giroux called him "one of America's most gifted and individual poets."

Reeve published a dozen books of poetry, including three about the adventures of The Blue Cat, an irreverent feline anarchist related to Top Cat, Schrodinger's Cat and the Cat in a Hat.

The Blue Cat was a witness to the cruelties and disasters of our age. He was in New Orleans, for example, after Hurricane Katrina: "The river rose, done took my house,/the Devil made off with my jack;/sail or swim like a fish-/how'll I ever get it back?/No way today/to wash the blackness from the sea;/ no way, no way/to take the blueness out of me."

The Cat even managed to vote in the 2009 presidential elections: "He laid down the pencil and pulled back the curtain/and folded the ballot (as instructed) in two,/and wondered if ever the good cat he dreamed of/would turn out to be half black and half blue./'Sure, I've been there before,' thought the Cat out the door,/'I'll never forget it;/ all my lives I've been hoping for change and I still/will keep fighting to get it.'"

At the heart of one of Reeve's last books, The Blue Cat Walks the Earth, was an elegy to his eldest son, the actor Christopher Reeve (above), who died in 2004: "The moon is failing, the leaves are falling/in their October round,/and we have sailed to the island of grief and sorrow/on barren ground/ where the young die before the old / and rivers run upside down./Dead, dead, his grace is dead;/from his face, the fineness fled; the body stiffed, untalented,/the heart a stone, a stone at his head."

Reeve toured with the Blue Cat, usually accompanied by Don Davis on sax and Joe Deleault on piano, and in Britain he was backed by John Lake and Phil Paton.

An oratorio, The Urban Stampede, with music by Andrew Gant was premiered at London's Barbican centre in 2000. His last book The Puzzle Master (2010) was a jazz opera about the fall of Icarus, performed in Boston in 2007.

Marriages to Barbara Lamb, Helen Schmidinger and Ellen Swift ended in divorce. Since 1994 Reeve lived with his fourth wife, the novelist Laura Cstevenson, sister of the poet Anne Stevenson, in Wilmington, Vermont.

Health problems in his last years did nothing to diminish his boyish charm or rugged good-looks or his concern for the future of poetry and democratic politics. In his early eighties he was still swimming in the nearby lake.

Reeve is survived by Laura, by three sons, a daughter, two step-daughters and 18 grandchildren. Christopher predeceased him.

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