The Writing Blues

Aidan at work on his magnum opus.

My children are ever so much more productively writing than I am. Vincent’s discovering the discoveries and challenges of reading and writing, and Aidan is doggedly working on his own mysterious pages.

I, on the other hand, have written exactly two poems since my mother died. That Salamander will be publishing one of them in their next issue is some consolation, but I’m feeling the pull and tug of the writing bug.

After Aidan was born, I buckled down and wrote a poem a week, and kept at it consistently, for a long time. Not all were worth keeping or working on, but the regularity of effort kept my mind chugging.

But now, sometimes, a lot of times, I just feel stymied. What to say that’s not about my mother and how intensely I miss her? (Which is responsible for the silences here as well.)

I’ve reached that stage where I’m weary of talking about my grief. I miss her. It hurts. Nothing helps, nothing will help, because she’s not coming back. Emotionally I accept that, but I’m just bored with myself.

I’m not unaware of my life’s many blessings, not least of which is a plenitude of love, my dear family, this unexpected gift of a new child in the spring.

I’m also grateful that I live a life saturated in literature: Tupelo Press, the Collected Poets Series, the support and love of poet friends — it’s a financially precarious life, but I love it and am thankful for it.

Which is to say, I love my life. To paraphrase the film, “Super 8,” (which I also loved), bad things happen, but I can go on. I can live, and can live happily.

I guess I’m just trying to find a way to write about this abiding sadness that doesn’t feel maudlin or self-indulgent or tedious. It’s one thing to bore myself; it’s unforgivable to bore others.

The Beaufort Scale

I’ve always been fascinated by the Beaufort Scale. It could be because the concept of measurement itself is intrinsically interesting, but how the Beaufort Scale grapples with wind is a sort of poetry. Its language is simple and elegant, metaphorical. And it’s served as a point of inspiration for:

As I was reading Weather Eye Open last night, a way of using the Beaufort Scale for a poem of my own occurred to me, though it’s not the Beaufort Scale itself I’d be using, but its structure, as a sort of model for organizing my thoughts about grief, from the still point at the eye of the hurricane. So to speak. “Projects” don’t really work for me as such, but I’m hoping that this might help give me some extra tools for handling such fraught material.

Also in the realm of good news, two poems were accepted by a journal I’d given up on hearing from, it’d been so long. Nice to break up those rejections here and there, yes?

Grief & Poetry in Progress

****"Untitled (Head of a Baby)" **** by Ron Mueck

Seventeen weeks since my mother died.

If my grief were a baby, it wouldn’t be eating solid food yet.

If my grief were a grapevine, the fruit would only now be ripening.

But my grief will not grow, or rot on the vine.

If anything has changed, it’s my understanding of how to approach it: carefully. At an angle. Not for nothing did ED say, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Summoning the memory of my mother’s last moments helps make her loss real, but I can only muster a glance from the corners of my eyes. To face this memory head-on is as devastating now as it was in March.

Approaching new writing can work like that, too. The glare of the blank page can be daunting if you don’t have an idea in your head, just the itch to get going already.

Ted Hughes draft

Yesterday I read a poem I really liked, but felt was marred by its final line. I sent the link to a friend, and he sent me back a line by line critique, and his own suggested edits. Which I disagreed with. So then I tinkered with it myself, and sent him my revision.

The most interesting part of this exercise was how similar it felt to revising my own poems, probably because this poem is stylistically and aesthetically kin to mine. I think so, anyway.

Point being, working on revisions of someone else’s poem can be a really useful warm-up to writing a draft of your own. Approaching a new poem from a roundabout.

I’m not going to post these poems here, because that would be awkward and weird, and I’d feel awkward and weird if the poet discovered them. (How rude!) Possibly I’m overly self-conscious about this.

But if you’re curious, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll send them to you, as long as you promise to keep it to yourself. Seriously. (How rude!)

And maybe then you could take a crack at it, too: an infinity of (secret!) parallel poems.

~~~

Update: No sooner did I post this than I came across this!: Breaking the Rules: A Poetry Workshop. I’m not such a revolutionary after all.

This week at Linebreak

Many of you will already have seen this on Facebook, but for those of you who’ve resisted the FB-lure, I’m happy to tell you that my poem is featured this week at Linebreak. You can read it here, with a terrific audio recording by Randall Mann. I love how he takes his time, savoring the line endings.

One of the other cool features of Linebreak is their weekly e-mailing. How neat to receive my own poem in my email inbox! Feel a little like a rock star at the moment. You can subscribe to get your own copy of each week’s poem sent directly to you by clicking on the link at Linebreak on the right side of every page.

While you’re tooling around Linebreaks website, be sure to check out their archives, which include other rock stars, such as Emma Bolden, Karen Rigby,  Sandy Longhorn, and a whole host of terrific poets. Yes, I am bolstering my own ego via proximity to their eminence.

Thank you, Linebreak!

Magical Thinking

If I’m mired in grief, it’s not for Mum’s death alone. Since March there have been so many losses:  four mothers dead, and only one of them mine, and another just 42, just last week.

This will surprise no one, but it’s not my grief that’s the most difficult, but the anguish of these bereft others. Because I know that anguish, down to each exquisite, excruciating detail, but I’m as helpless as anyone else to carry it for them, or even to get them to the other side. How can I? I’m not there yet myself.

And anyway, I don’t believe there is another side, just a coming-to-terms with the gaping lack that will forever lie at the center of your life. Learning to run like a three-legged dog — from certain angles others could forget what’s missing. The miracle that maybe a few times a day you will, too.

I delayed reading The Year of Magical Thinking a long time, thinking I might not be able to bear it.  But I found Joan Didion a kindred companion. It’s not so much that she’s unflinching — she flinches plenty, with plenty reason — but there’s an austerity to her tone, a matter-of-factness that refuses to apologize for itself:

‘I had done it. I had acknowledged that he was dead. I had done this in as public a way as I could conceive.

Yet my thinking on this point remained suspiciously fluid. At dinner in the late spring or early summer I happened to meet a prominent academic theologian. Someone at the table raised a question about faith. The theologian spoke of ritual itself being a form of faith. My reaction was unexpressed but negative, vehement, excessive even to me. Later I realized that my immediate thought had been: But I did the ritual. I did it all. I did St. John the Divine. I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest, I did “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” and I did “In paradisum deducant angel.

And it still didn’t bring him back.

“Bringing him back” had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer I was beginning to see this clearly. “Seeing it clearly” did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need.’

— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

From the descriptions of her husband and their marriage that she laces throughout the narrative, you see that their lives were deeply intertwined, that they loved each other’s very thoughts. Didion relates the wild weavings, the unspoken beliefs we harbor in the backs of our minds, with an understatement that only serves to underscore the depth of her loss.

Grief comes to us all, but every grief is as unique as the one grieved. There’s no way around, only through. Didion’s book is more than a chronicle of a year’s grief, but a critical delving of that journey in 226 taut pages.

I borrowed this book from the library, and renewed it once already, though I’ve finished reading it, because I find so much in Didion’s emotional experience and her delineation of that experience that resonates for me, so many passages I want to return to.

Knowing it ends before the death of her daughter, I found myself wanting a second book, wanting the tribute to her husband that this book truly is be given to her daughter as well.

And so she has: Blue Nights is being published this fall.

*

CREDO / Ariana Kelly

When I say loss, I mean loss.
Blue is elaborated by the blue jay,
black by the black fly,

but loss only licks the wounds
of more loss. Likewise,
the sea does not equivocate,

nor do the trees hesitate
in their implications.
Wind moves through the leaves,

italicizing them.

(from Poetry Northwest, Vol.VI, Issue I, Spring & Summer 2011)

“Every lament is a love-song.”*

Many summer Sundays growing up, my family would get up at dawn, skip church, and instead head out to the beach at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA. Not just my immediate family, but a huge swath of aunts, uncles, and cousins — Mum was a Georgia girl, but Dad was born & bred in Stoughton, MA, the youngest of 8 — that side of the family is massive.

The beach opened at 8am, so we’d get there around 7:30 — which meant we’d have to leave home around 6:30 — and park on the side of the road in the long line that had already formed. Then we’d wander up & down the length of cars, looking for our cousins to play with while we waited. As 8 approached, we’d all scurry back to our cars, willing our folks to hurry up and park. Whichever family cohorts parked first would commandeer a bunch of picnic tables to put together.

We came equipped with table cloths, paper plates, mugs, & plasticware; ropes to tie to the pines and hang our wet towels on; gas stoves for making tea & coffee and cooking bacon & eggs; my cousin Dianne always brought Dunkin’ Donuts; and of course hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. There were two big boxes of provisions at the house that were never unpacked, only added to.

First in, last out. The sun would be setting, we’d have changed out of our bathing suits into long pants and sweatshirts, and still not want to leave, climbing the empty  life guard chairs to avoid the clouds of black flies. But the beach closed at 8pm, so eventually we’d have to go.

But it wasn’t time to separate from the larger family, not yet. First, we drove to  Erickson’s, a roadside ice cream stand in Carver, not too far from the beach. My childhood tasted like banana ice cream — was there ever a sweeter end to a summer day?

It’s been eleven weeks since Mum died. The more days that pass without her, the emptier they feel. My southern mother loved the summer, loved the heat, the beach, even though she never learned to swim. She’d wade out to about mid-thigh, and then sit in the water for a while. That was enough for her.

The raw anguish and outrage has burned out to a dull and ragged ache. Things happen, good things, and I’m happy. I can be happy. But I feel the lack of her only more every day. If a happy thing falls** in the forest but I have no mother to tell it to, does it really happen?

The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to pretend she’s not — we’d have spoken, seen each other, so many times by now. I can accept the awful wrongness of it all, say, Yes, my mother is dead. But still my heart protests: it is awful, it is wrong. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.*

* from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

** from “Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Emperor of All Maladies hastens The Long Goodbye

But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!

*

I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.

Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.

One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.

Raina Wallens has a piece over at The Rumpus that wonders why 5 grief memoirs in a few years is considered so notable. For those of us in its grip, these memoirs of grief are vital:

Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?

Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.

The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.

*

I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.

I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.

But.

They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.

And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.

As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?

Mum with her oncologist at the cancer center's St. Patrick's Day party, 6 days before she died.