Snagged in the antlers

I’ve been dreaming of my mother as a younger woman, the way she looked when I was a child and teenager, although in these dreams, she’s also somehow elderly and dying. The night of the summer solstice, she was sick in bed staring at a crack that had just formed on the ceiling. It looked like a man with antlers, and she was afraid of him. The next morning I, of course, went down an internet rabbit hole reading about deer-deities and Horned Gods. Underworld guides and mediators. Huh.

I thought more about the dream as I caught up with fellow poetry bloggers and read Ann Michael’s post “Constricted” about literary blockages related to sorrow. I’m pretty healthy right now, aside from the usual trouble sleeping and some chronic tendonitis (ah, middle age), but I feel the draggy reluctance to work, cook, or take walks that I associate with illness. The heat and humidity, my husband said. Sadness for my daughter, who is going through a rough breakup, is in the mix. But grief for my mother is also moving through my body and mind even when I’m not aware of it. It’s a more complicated, subterranean, barbed process than I would have guessed. I hope she’s okay out there and not frightened by whatever she’s processing. I’m not religious, or even a monotheist, but I do think we continue after death, and I feel an inner orientation to her as I did to my father during the months after he passed. I had the strong sense that he was being called to come to terms with his life and refusing the work. Being angry and avoidant would have been very much in character.

Meanwhile, after my post-Bread Loaf bout of poetry revision and submission, I’m trying to concentrate on near-final edits to the essay collection I’m publishing this fall, Poetry’s Possible Worlds. It’s about reading twenty-first century poetry, but it’s also about my mother catching my 85-year-old father in an affair with a woman forty years younger (it was 2011 and I was 43, pursuing a Fulbright in New Zealand). My mother promptly divorced him, discovering along the way that he’d lost their retirement savings. Within a year, my father remarried, fell ill, had more divorce papers served to his bedside, and died. I had LOTS of dreams about him, although my grief was different because, while I loved him, he was an impossible person to like. My relationship with my mother was full of stresses–a new poem of mine in SWWIM gives a glimpse of that–but still, I loved her wholly.

So, um, maybe that’s another reason I’m struggling to focus. The book is emotionally hard right now. Plus, the previous version ended with my mother’s recovery from lymphoma, the disease that just recurred and killed her. I haven’t revisited the book’s conclusion yet.

In short, I am negotiating my need for mental rest in relation to my work drive, which is probably the overarching theme of this blog (and my life?). My best strategy for sidestepping a sense of obligation has always been travel, which has not been possible for a while, but: I’m going to ICELAND soon! Like, next week! Just with my spouse, for fun! I hope to return to you in two weeks with my Celtic deity nightmares replaced by musings about glaciers, volcanoes, and overpriced Icelandic microbrews–although the revisions will still be waiting.

I don’t know what I’m doing again

That’s a line from “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” a pantoum in Blackbird and The State She’s In, and it’s an example of one of my own lines becoming an earworm, which happens to me all the time, although I probably shouldn’t admit it. Being at sea suits me sometimes. I like learning. It’s why I’m always trying unfamiliar forms and genres. I just published a short essay, “Hand of Smoke,” in Speculative Nonfiction, that’s about being a student and also demonstrates me in a state of experiment–what am I willing to say about myself in the plainer mode of prose, and is this a risk I can succeed at? Enjoying being at sea can shipwreck into stress pretty quickly.

The future is rushing at me fast, after a couple of months first in the bubble of my mother’s illness then riding grief’s first hard wave. My badly named college is graduating its class of 2021 tomorrow. The Board of Trustees has apparently already voted on whether we’re dropping Robert E. Lee from the name, but they’re not announcing the decision until June, citing security reasons. Either decision could change my relationship with the job. Would I search for a new position rather than continue to work for a place resolute in its association with white supremacy? Not sure yet, and I know I’d wait a year in any case, because I’m still cashing in on W&L’s college tuition benefit for my son’s pricey education.

The town is emptying out, the weather is steamy, the peonies are wilting, and there are only three months left of my sabbatical. I have an essay due to editors on Monday–it ain’t ready–and a twenty-page packet of poems for the Sewanee Writers Workshop in July. The following Sunday, Breadloaf Environmental Writers Workshop starts, and I have homework! I’ll be dedicating myself wholly to poetry during those times, but otherwise, I really only have five solid writing weeks left. Which is more than many people get in a year, I know. But I have three teaching preps in the fall, two of them new, plus editing and reviewing commitments to Shenandoah and the Fulbright Foundation, so my writing life is going to shriek to a stop come September.

The other side-effect of my mother’s death, though, is a changed perspective on what’s urgent. Apparently I CAN put everything aside for big swaths of time to take care of others and myself. I’d lost that muscle memory since my kids became independent. It’s a lucky thing to like your work, but work doesn’t always like you back. When it’s too much, it really is fine to say screw it. Literature is watertight and unsinkable.

Grief metaphors flying

In what’s probably a common response to grief, two scripts are running through my head constantly: “I wish I” and “At least I.” I’m so glad I interviewed my mother about her life for my writing; that I spent a lot of time with her in April, memorizing her the way you do when you care for a sick person in intimate ways; and that we made a fuss of her 80th birthday in February 2020. My siblings and I did two things that she loved. We bought her one of those motorized reclining chairs–lift off without moving a muscle!–and we treated her at a restaurant in Philadelphia where all the waiters sing opera. For a Mother’s Day gift in 1994, before I moved to Virginia, we had escorted her to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and then a fancy dinner out, but she wouldn’t have had the energy for that much travel anymore, so the restaurant was a sweet compromise. I’ll always remember her thrilled face upturned to the waitstaff during solos. “Let’s do that again next year,” she said. My head is also full of all the adventures she didn’t have, especially the travel she didn’t get to do to Bermuda, the Mediterranean islands, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of European capitols. In emigrating from England to the U.S. and then zipping around the country with my father when she was younger, she did travel more than many, but except for a trip to England that a bunch of people supported in various ways, she was both too anxious and too cash-strapped to fly in her later years (my father burnt through all their retirement savings, but that’s another story).

This week since her death has flit by strangely. I spent time with my kids, both based in Philadelphia, before driving home. I’ve written a little: a poem my hairdresser dictated the title for (he’s both a literary person and wise about grieving, and the title is “First in Line for Takeoff”); some notes of my memories of her last days; her obituary; responses to condolence notes and gifts; this blog post and the last. I’m thinking about other writing-related work: submitting mss for the virtual Breadloaf Environmental conference in June and the live Sewanee workshop in May; the Mother’s Day promotion I was going to do for Unbecoming; a short article on Eliot due at the end of May; whether it would be consoling or ridiculous to try working on my creative mss-in-progress again. The book of essays I will deliver to Tinderbox Editions before too long–Poetry’s Possible Worlds is scheduled for November publication–currently ends with my mother’s recovery from her first bout with lymphoma in 2015. Does my coda need a coda? I can hardly bear to think about it. And, of course, I’m spending a lot of time doing nothing. There’s so much to think about and avoid thinking about. I’m most comfortable perched at an intellectual distance from big feelings, noticing how the people around me process it, for instance, and my own preference for matter-of-fact conversations about her death. That’s part of what makes me a writer–metaphor itself involves displacement as well as insight–but it can also be maladaptive.

Oddly, I just published a poem about letting go this week. “The Red Door” (who knows where that image came from?) appears in the new issue of Nelle (not online but pictured below), along with a slightly longer poem called “Early Cretaceous Walks Up to the Bar,” inspired by an apparently phosphorescent gar in the Hillsborough River and very much about standing at a distance from feeling. A friend once pointed out there’s a lot of running water in my poems. O river of life, you can be a very tired metaphor, but maybe a big weird fish flying through redeems it.

Virtual Salon #13 with Sonia Greenfield

This intense week, I’m featuring a new collection by activist-editor-poet Sonia Greenfield (check out Rise Up Review sometime, too, for brilliant poems of resistance).

Letdown consists of 64 numbered prose poems about pregnancy, birth, raising a special needs child, miscarriage, grief, and recovery. No poems can be assembled into tidy chronologies–they slip and blur, associate and meditate–but the book has a strong emotional arc, through an underworld of pain, to emergence into love and compassion. I love that the book ends in empathy for other parents, but that’s enabled by Greenfield’s own difficult rebirth: “Though I am better now, sometimes I can feel a kite string tied inside cut through me when what I want yanks.”

Maggie Smith gets it right, too, when she calls Greenfield “a master of the prose poem.” Each has a boiled-down lyric intensity. Many investigate the meanings of words, putting the lie to the literary-critical truism that pain short-circuits expression. Poems about diagnostic language, the tone-deaf consolations and blame friends offer, and her sons words are very powerful. Her son is on the autism spectrum and the recurrent description of his “weird energy” could describe the book, too. This collection channels a strong charge of loss and love. As she says, “It takes a while to strip expectations away, to peel off the layers until we’re holding our child’s happiness in the palm of our hand, as pure as the simplest silicate mineral, and say it is enough.” This is a testament to celebrate.

1. If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

We would eat cannoli and Dick’s Burgers (drive-in burger place in Seattle), both of which I craved when I was pregnant. We would eat quesadilla, because that’s my son’s favorite food. We would eat falafel and gelato and zeppoles (in the book), and we’d wash it all down with coconut water and whiskey (also in the book). Then we’d finish up with an Alka-Seltzer, naturally.

2. If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would tell the friend that I had to go back on anti-depressants because of how scattered and unfocused I am, that I feel like a pinball bouncing off the contours of my life. And, no. I haven’t been able to write much– just a couple poems. But things will change, I tell myself. 

3. How can your virtual audience find out more?

If my virtual audience wants to know more, they can visit my website at soniagreenfield.com, and I’m also on all the social media with no fancy names. Just Sonia Greenfield with an @. 

Information and energy

It’s pretty cold and dark out there. Confederate flaggers are stomping around my small town; the news from a larger world remains frightening. Perhaps insanely, I’m always looking for omens of something better ahead. As I walk home from work, I notice the sky is just a bit lighter, and wonder what hopes I can pin to the lengthening daylight.

Friday was an especially tough day. We had to put down our most gentle, elderly cat, the confusingly-named Female (rhymes with Emily). She’s the one we took over caring for a few years ago, when Chris’ mother couldn’t manage anymore. Lately Female hadn’t been eating–you could feel the knobs of her spine when you tried to stroke the poor thing–and I swear the way she looked at me, she was asking for help leaving the world. Chris took her to the vet, who said it was time, and then brought Female home to be buried in the yard. I wanted our other cats to have the news, so I brought her body inside for Poe to sniff; he leaned in, then recoiled. The kitten Ursula, whizzing around like a meteor, never noticed. fem lemon blam

The one class I teach on Fridays, Protest Poetry, was also hard. On Wednesday I’d taught poems about the death of Malcolm X and while most of our discussion was productive, there had been a couple of bad moments–nothing ill-meaning, but students making insensitive comments as they thought aloud about deliberately disturbing poems. I had anticipated the need to discuss a homophobic slur in Amiri Baraka’s “Poem for Black Hearts,” and that went fine, but I hadn’t anticipated pushback, for instance, against anger itself. (We’d been reading about Emmett Till, the Baptist church bombed in Birmingham, a mounting death toll and litany of abuses–in what world is anger not inevitable and utterly just?–but as present politics continue to teach us, we don’t all live in the same world, and many of the students in my classroom are like Ursula, full of verve but not yet alert to the reality of other perspectives.) I responded in the moment, but in retrospect I realized I hadn’t responded strongly enough. So I began with an apology, asked the students to freewrite about a recent time they felt angry and what they did about it, then handed out “The Uses of Anger” by Audre Lorde. The discussion that followed was raw, messy, respectful, persistently oblivious, emotional, and awe-filled by turns, and I ended up having a couple of intense follow-ups with students afterwards. It didn’t do all the necessary work but it was a start.

Despite all that, while my January so far has been certainly been INTENSE, on balance 2019 has been good. There were also some really splendid local events this week, most of them centered on the first of two residencies by our Glasgow Distinguished Visiting Professor Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She is teaching a one-credit master class in poetry and the eight lucky students taking it are buzzing with happiness. She was also wildly charismatic and inspiring in her public reading–really lighting up a packed room. I’d done a lot of advance work to increase engagement, such as running a book club discussion in December of her newest collection, Oceanic, so as the programmer/ organizer I sighed with relief when I saw the crowd, but it was the quality of the event itself that made it all feel worthwhile. It was that rare cosmic conjunction: community payoff that was genuinely in proportion to the months of hard work! I feel grateful to her and also just deeply satisfied and happy about it. More strong feelings.

“Anger is loaded with information and energy,” Audre Lorde writes, and further on: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” There’s more information in her powerful essay than I’ve been able to process, but I treasure that insight about the deep connection between anger and grief. My heart is full this weekend, but not in a bad way. I feel anxious always; sad and thoughtful; but also joyous about good conversation. Hopeful about what else this young year might bring.

urs

Dead Father Poems

The best condolence note so far was an offer from a former student who grew up in New Orleans: “Let me know and I’ll put the voodoo on her.” It came with an anecdote about an effective curse on a scheming widow. Her jinxed swimming pool cracked as if buckling under an invisible burden of guilt. This is one good outcome of teaching poets. They rarely make the dough to create scholarships in your name or loan you their tropical islands for vacations, but they do know just what to say.

A few notes from the last few weeks:

  • Please don’t be disappointed in me but I did not read a poem at my father’s funeral. It was a brief military service at Washington Crossing National Cemetery, involving a small but very mixed crowd: my brother, sister and brother-in-law; my spouse; my kids and their cousins, ranging in age from five to sixteen; my father’s most recent wife, a woman my age who had served him divorce papers in hospital a week before he died; a few of her friends and relations; and a couple of people from the senior center where my father played bridge and began an affair with his widow-to-be. I knew I would be the only speaker and decided I just needed to say a few true things plainly.
  • Writing a eulogy is appallingly like writing a blog post. You have a limited window of composition, although you may have been mulling over the material for years (I basically had a day); it has to be pithy; it’s an ephemeral piece but you know if you screw it up those mistakes could dog you for a long time. This means you choose a theme, pound it out, revise once, put your dress on, and blurt. The audience is as blank-faced as the ether but afterwards a few post comments or hit the “like” button.
  • My words were sort of literary. I spoke about our afterlives in the tales others tell about us. A storytelling motif seemed appropriate, given that I’m a poet, my dad was not honest, and neither of us feels/felt certain about any other kind of heaven. It allowed me to tell a factual story about his life, bringing in memories of other family members, acknowledging the bad while honoring the good. That’s what I tried for, anyway.
  • Of course I was THINKING about poems, two in particular, both of them monuments. Lines from Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus” kept rising before my eyes, with a vision of a tiny woman sitting on scaffolding, scrubbing down a giant statue of her father with pails of Lysol: “I shall never get you put together entirely… Thirty years now I have labored/ To dredge the silt from your throat./ I am none the wiser.”
  • And, of course, there’s Dylan Thomas. I told a poet-friend months ago about the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and she replied, “Talk about ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’!” Just days before the funeral I was talking to someone else about villanelles and she agreed that, perfect as it is, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” seems stupider in its basic sentiment the older one gets. I am now trying to write a villanelle containing the phrase “Enough with rage.” I have low hopes for it but need to give my two cents to Mr. Thomas. (It makes no sense that while I believe my father can’t hear me, I CAN talk to dead poets. I’m entitled to irrationality for the time being, right?)
  • Did you know that poets.org has a mini-anthology of “Dead Father Poems”? Go to the “Do Not Go Gentle” page and look left. Scott Hightower’s “The Father” is pretty great.
  • This post sounds flippant, I’m guessing, and angry; to use Thomas’ language, there’s more cursing than blessing. I am angry at my father’s widow, who behaved badly at the funeral. Letting us see the will without a legal injunction shouldn’t be too much to ask, and she should have directed the flag and condolences to his children, given the circumstances, instead of sending over her sister to whisper promises that “you will get what you want, just not today” (meaning: I’ll tell you anything to keep you quiet in front of my friends). She should let his grandchildren have some worthless keepsakes; otherwise, three of the six don’t have a single pleasant memory of the man. She should be a less awful person.
  • But, you know, people are awful, and she can’t do us any long term hurt. My father can’t hurt us anymore, either; it’s done, and I can see my way towards forgiving him. It would dishonor everyone to forget mean things he did and said, but I think there’s a way to let the bad stuff float off without disappearing. To live at a scenic distance from it. It will involve a lot of writing and remembering and attention.
  • What it doesn’t seem to involve so far, though, is grieving as I recognize it from other losses, not to mention novels, movies, and all those fierce dead father poems. I heard my spouse telling someone: “She had to put her feelings in a box and we don’t know where the box went.” He could be right; I’m waiting for the alleged box to burst, but I don’t think my feelings are unfolding that way. I worked hard before he died to surrender hope he’d transform into a loving person. “No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel/ On the blank stones of the landing”: I suspect Plath never did stop listening, but I did attain strategic hopelessness, after lots of grieving. One sad true thing: I don’t miss who he was, just who he never was. I’d like to be done with rage and with Lysol.