Irene Backalenick: Our 95-Year-Young Poet

Grandma Moses took up painting at age 78. Compared to Irene Backalenick, she was just a kid.

Irene is a poet, not a painter. But after a long career as a journalist — she wrote for the New York Times, then became a noted theater reviewer — the longtime Westport resident penned her first poem just a couple of years ago.

She’s 95.

Irene has been published many times. She has fans in far-flung places. Poetry, she says, has become one of the most important parts of her life.

Irene — a Providence native who worked as a secretary after high school, then 5 years later was accepted without any college prep at Brown University, and graduated summa cum laude — never thought about poetry until she moved to the Watermark at 3030 Park in Bridgeport. She found the retirement community to be exciting, vibrant and fulfilling.

She and another former journalist decided to start a writers’ workshop. They found an inspiring teacher, Regina Krummel of Norwalk.

The small group of 5 women — including former Westport writer Gloria Sugarman — meet regularly, and dine together even more often.

Irene Backalenick

Irene Backalenick

Regina pushed Irene to spread beyond the interview-type stories she’d always written. Irene tried her hand at a few poems.

A new career was born.

All bustle, bag, bravura
She arrives upon the scene
With stethoscope, suppositories
And mountains of good will
She grips the fragile patient
Reviews his vital parts
She mumbles, notes, equivocates
Fills the room with bluster
Writes down her precious thoughts
Then offers false assurance
And beamingly departs

Some of her first poems were written after her husband Bill died in June of 2015.

The art form was “like a release,” she says. Poetry gives her “a chance to be absolutely honest about my life.” She writes compellingly of “regrets — things I should have done, and things I shouldn’t have.” Her poems include things she never told anyone.

Irene’s poems are short. But they pour out of her. When she wakes at 2 a.m. with a phrase floating in her head she goes to her computer, and writes.

Friends and lovers
Treasures stored away
In the attic of my mind
Ancient friends and lovers
Neatly stacked in boxes
Or tossed about with random
Upon the attic floor.

Jerry, detonated long ago
On the beach at Normandy
And Lise of suburban days
With judgments wise and foolish
And David of my college years
Who found me in the bookstacks

A shaft of light stabs the pane
Brings them sharply into focus
I open boxes, dust them off
Friends and lovers once again.

Irene has been published in journals — online and print. She posts on her own blog, Awakening Poems. Altogether, she’s written about 175 poems.

In the autumn of her life, Irene Backalenick has become a prolific poet.

In the autumn of her life, Irene Backalenick has become a prolific poet.

Some of her best feedback comes from Facebook. The 95-year-old likes the immediacy, ease and intimacy of instant comments.

Irene has done presentations at the Watermark and Stratford Library. She thinks it’s important for poets to read their own work. “I’m very conscious of tempo and beat,” she says. “I want to hit the reader unexpectedly.”

Dementia nibbles away
At corners of the brain.
Rounding off sharp edges
Like hungry mice
With small sharp teeth
Steadily, relentlessly,
Devouring the tasty feast.

Nine months ago, she collapsed in an elevator. The diagnosis: irregular heartbeat. She got a pacemaker, was put on medication, and now feels much better.

The incident slowed her writing — but not for long. Thanks to the Watermark and her poetry, Irene says, “I have a new life.”

(That new life includes modeling. Recently, Chico produced a fashion show at her residence. She walked the runway.)

Irene asks if I’ve ever written poetry.

No, I say. My mind does not work that way.

“Maybe you can do it in your old age,” she encourages.

Just like she does. Although any writer or poet can certainly come up with a better word than “old” to describe Irene Backalenick.

(Click here for Irene Backalenick’s blog.)

12 responses to “Irene Backalenick: Our 95-Year-Young Poet

  1. Open letter to Irene;
    Have always admired you!
    You never cease to amaze me!
    I value you, your life, your family, your works!❤️🎈💜💚🍀💛💙🎾💕
    Really, a life well done!

  2. Love & Joy is what I feel in Irene’s presence! I am most fortunate to have known her now for several years and to see this exciting evolution…which now includes drawing. Irene is a great inspiration to so many!

  3. What an inspiring and uplifting post!!! Irene is who I want to be when I grow up!!! Go Irene!

  4. Wonderful,witty Irene–the first person I met in Westport some 56years ago and I liked her so much that we bought her house and here I am still–just me and Irene’s beloved stove..which we almost came to blows over. Thank you Danny for bringing her and her blog back into my life.Irene,I’m still using that stove and it is no longer “old” it is now an antique (there must be a poem in there someplace). I will be in touch with you soon. Audrey

  5. Thank you, Dan, for sharing Irene and her outstanding poetry with us all. We met her 23 years ago when we moved back to Westport and her husband, Bill, befriended my Ken (and they often had lunch for the next 22 years). Irene’s poems always evoke so many images in me, and she always includes a smidgen of humor along with some heart-tugging. She is a beautiful, vibrant “young friend” with so much to share with the world.

  6. Brilliant. Paintings in words.

    • Peter Gambaccini

      The Backalenicks are the reason my family moved to Westport instead of the nightmare of Long Island. I first knew her when I was five years old. I’ve admired her brilliant theater reviews and interviews and now this exhilarating new chapter as a poet. She’s a literary hero.

  7. Katie Augustyn

    Amazing and truly inspiring! I don’t know Irene but would love to meet her!

  8. Love this piece! Love 06880. So happy my friend Joan turned me onto it!

  9. Brava, Irene! Love the piece! She deserves the accolades. She is a dynamo, and her poetry is so textural, and vivid!

  10. Great job Dan…. Irene is a treasure!

  11. Miriam Frank

    to my beloved aunt Irene, this is from me, Miriam in Jerusalem, watching right now your gorgeous photo and rereading your poems, some are familiar from your book that I cherish. I long for the wonderful times we spent together and miss you very much.