Nests in the Wall

When I heard the rustling and scratching of animals in the wall cavity near my bed, I thought of this poem I wrote several years ago, originally published in MockingHeart Review:

For My Therapist, After the Diagnosis

I’m writing you these lines to say goodbye
before you forget you ever knew me.
Under the eaves, a house wren trills its cry.
In the morning, it wakes me from those dreams
where you’ve forgotten you ever knew me.
Birds whirl around your room, and then you die.
In the morning, they wake me from those dreams
of needing you to teach me how to fly.
Birds whirl around your room, and then you die,
even though you’ve swept them from the roof beams
out the window. Birds have taught you to fly
through this world, stitched with invisible seams.
Even though you’ve swept me from your roof beams,
I come to ask you where you’ve gone and why
this world is stitched with invisible seams.
You wake, then forget, leaving threads untied.
Once more I ask you where you’ve gone and why.
Under the eaves, a house wren trills a cry
that wakes me from these threads I can’t untie.
Dear friend, I’m here again to say goodbye.

***

One of the last times I met with my therapist, a beautiful elderly woman who became like a mother to me, she was seeing clients in a home office. She had suffered a car accident, and she thought the accident was contributing to her memory loss.

That day in her office a bird flew into an adjoining room, so Joanne (a made up name to protect her privacy), got a broom and swept it through the open springtime window.

Around the same time period, we had a bird’s nest near our bedroom window, probably a wren, hence this poem.

I thought of Joanne the other day after reading Robert McFarland’s “word of the day” post on Twitter:

Mentor, a tutelary spirit who guides someone who is usually less experienced.

He asked readers to share someone who has acted as a mentor in our lives, and aside from a few excellent poetry teachers, Joanne’s spirit came to my heart-mind.

When she sold her house and moved to an assisted living home, she stopped seeing clients, of course. And I was bereft, not in the way I was when my father died, but a long, slow, heartache that still hasn’t quite healed.

Now we have another nest in the wall, but this time, it’s a squirrel. We have a wildlife management company working on relocating the animals, and we’ve sealed up the hole, but there are tin patches that we’ll need to replace with new siding once the weather warms.

Joanne was the first person in my life who reflected my own spiritual beauty and worth back on me. She taught me to show compassion for myself, to value my inner hopes and dreams. I will always be grateful for her guidance.

I can’t replace the void that Joanne’s illness left in my life. Since her retirement, I haven’t found a therapist who relates to me the way Joanne did.

My mentor is my inner guide, my own true nature, often elusive. To connect with my inner voice requires patience, stillness, faith, and hope.

Gold light on trees, December 2018, @christineswint

Driving My Father Through the End Times, a Sestina

For six months we drove to the clinic every day–
infusions to cleanse his septic blood.
Sometimes we’d stop for coffee along the way,

and I’d try to go inside the shop alone,
but he’d insist, he could walk on his own,
so I’d help him out the passenger seat and we’d shuffle

into QuickTrip, get donuts, too, then trudge
toward the clinic for the cure, a dose a day,
antibiotics for his heart that wouldn’t heal on its own.

He refused surgeries, transfusions of blood.
He even drove to church to do his prayer shift, alone
at two AM, a 24/7 adoration of the Virgin, his way

to ease the shame, I guess, maybe for his wayward
youth, he didn’t say. I’d chide him as we stepped
from car to curb, tell him not to drive alone,

to let the others pray for him this time, a daily
vision of healthy cells washing his blood.
Always the father, he never did listen or own

his eldest daughter had some sense of her own.
On these drives we’d talk politics and the way
the country was heading, the bad blood,

the fear one candidate stoked, but walking
was painful, and he grew weaker by the day.
He watched the news from his recliner when he was alone,

but he didn’t live to hear the words I alone
can fix it. He believed what he saw with his own
two eyes on cable news, the lies they spun every day.

He wouldn’t have it when I said propaganda was their way.
I tried to show him how they twisted the truth, stomped
all over the facts. But his kidneys were failing, his blood

ever thinner. In the end, all that mattered was blood
relations, forgiveness, love. In hospice, I left him alone
the night before he died. Still thought he’d walk

out of that place. The nurse said he was afraid on his own
in the dark. Even with opiates, he couldn’t find a way to sleep.
He asked for me. I drove right over. He stopped breathing that day.

There was a blood moon, auger of end times, in the days
before his death, a lone orb pointing the way,
an opening of sorts, a door for him to slip through, quite easily, on his own.

***

I wrote this poem last year and was thinking of including it as part of a manuscript I’m working on, but it doesn’t quite fit the project.

My father died in the spring of 2016, right after the Republican primaries. He was still following politics up until maybe the last month of his life. When the primaries came around, he was too sick to think about voting.

He watched cable news quite a bit when his decline set in, although he read a lot, too. When I told him that Fox News was biased and prone to hyperbole if not outright lies, he downplayed it and said, “Oh, they can’t do that, they have to report the facts.”

My father was an old school, corporate conservative who saw the Republican Party as the party of wealth and prosperity. His parents, my grandparents, were blue collar union workers from PA who always voted Democrat.

I think he wanted to be different from his father, who did not receive any schooling after eighth grade.

I’m sharing this poem now because of the recent red moon we just experienced, and also just because I want to.

Sestina spiral.

Getty Images, Allure Magainehttps://www.allure.com/story/super-blood-wolf-moon-january-2019

Yoga on the Porch

This past April, my father passed away after a six-month illness. It’s too soon for me to write about the experience we went through as a family, but I can talk about my own health.
I had been experiencing early morning anxiety since November, around the time my dad got sick, and then I started waking in the night with panic.

By the end of April my nerves were completely shot and my “fight or flight” response was firing 24/7.

I ended up finding a wonderful doctor whose integrative approach is helping me recover, and in the meantime, I’m spending my mornings practicing gentle yoga on my back porch. 

My backyard is completely wild and overgrown, a place that could definitely be tagged as a wildlife refuge in the middle of the suburbs. All I hear in the early morning is the wind in the trees and birdsong. 

May we all experience healing and wholeness, the feeling of wellbeing, of feeling safe and secure and at peace.

Poems About Motherhood

When my sister first told me about the documentary she worked on at CNN, “Atlanta Child Murders,” I didn’t know if I would watch it. I remember that grisly time in Atlanta, when so many children were found dead in woods and rivers.

But I was a teenager then, and I was in a self-involved frame of mind. I didn’t consider, like I do now, the horrendous grief of their mothers.

Now I’m the mother of two young men. I worry about them whenever they drive off in a car, which is why I didn’t want to watch the documentary.

But I did watch it. And the mothers’ grief moved me the most. I realized that I’ve been mourning in advance for what might happen to my sons. Better to grieve with the women who lost their children, rather than wallow in the imaginary fate of my boys. It’s a lesson in compassion.

I wrote a poem in memory of the murdered children, a pantoum about worry and grief that starts with a sentence from a Buddhist parable: “The living are few but the dead are many.”

The lesson of the story is that we aren’t alone in our suffering. One mother’s loss is the loss of all mothers.

A Review of Slamming Open the Door by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

The professor of my contemporary poetry course has given us each a chance to present a book published within the last ten years. My presentation was over Slamming Open the Door, (Alice James Books, 2009) by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. We discussed the book mostly in terms of its overall effect as a project. The topic is every parent’s worst nightmare–the death of a child. Ms. Bonanno’s daughter Leidy was murdered by an ex-boyfriend, and the book chronicles some of the moments of the family’s trauma, from the night she and her husband find out what happened to their daughter, to the trial, and the memorial service.

It’s a gut-wrenching book that is successful as a collection because it stays very honest–the speaker allows the reader a glimpse into her experiences, without decoration or maudlin metaphors. The poems read as though they were written in the moment, yet they are grounded in concrete images. The pacing and sequencing of the poems are also effective. There are flashbacks to when Leidy was adopted, as well as to her graduation party, where the killer  first appears.

Slamming Open the Door does not come out of an academic tradition of poetry, even though the author is a contributing editor of The American Poetry Review. Although American literature includes countless examples of poems about grief, most of the poems in our literary canon are either formal, or pay great detail to the flow of the language.

To me, writing  highly stylized poems would not accurately portray the raw grief of a mother whose daughter has been strangled to death. On the other hand, staying true to the bestial nature of raw grief requires a certain measure of control that Ms. Bonanno maintains throughout the work. These are poems that had to be written, as the speaker explains in the first poem of the book, “When Death Barged In.” If the book were mine, I imagine I’d have to force each line to appear on the page, while at the same time feeling the utter necessity to write them down.

The intended audience seems to be anyone who has suffered an immense loss, whether it be the death of a child, or a spiritual loss of some kind. Anyone who has lived through tragedy would  sense that for a brief moment in time, the speaker was able to relieve herself of her enormous grief by sharing it with others. I hope the writing was therapeutic for Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. Her family, and Leidy, are in my thoughts and prayers.

I first heard about Ms. Bonanno’s collection while listening to Terry Gross’s interview with her on NPR. I highly recommend listening to the interview–Ms. Bonanno reads several of the poems with feeling and inflection. Her sorrow and rage come across in the reading, as does her self-effacing sense of humor.

In his New York Times review of Slamming Open the Door,  poet David Kirby brings up the concept of subjects for art that some have considered taboo, such as the Holocaust, but  he then defends Ms. Bonanno’s writing by saying that the raw nature of the poems redeem them from any criticism that she might be exploiting her tragedy to make art.  One of my classmates mentioned that art is often born from an apocalypse, as Elie Wiesel proved with his memoir, Night. Our professor also cited the poetry of Paul Celan as an example of poetry that has come out of the Holocaust.

One of the reasons I chose Slamming Open the Door is because I’m searching for a way to write about my own life in the form of poetry. I ask myself, how does one write about an event without turning it into a plea for pity or a tract against others? How do we make sense of past events without, in my case anyway, unduly exonerating ourselves? Ms. Bonanno didn’t allow herself to escape uncriticized in her poetry memoir. She put herself under the spiritual microscope as much as she did her daughter’s killer.

Poet Andrew Hudgins,* in his essay, “The Autobiographer’s Lies,”  writes about using one’s own life as material for poetry. He discusses the idea of how looking at the events in our lives distances us from the story and gives us the ability to look at ourselves as characters in a play or a novel.

In her interview with Terry Gross, when discussing her poem “How to Find Out,” Ms. Bonanno states that she felt she was acting out a role she had been given by fate: “Mother of the murdered daughter. So in effect, I use – I speak directly to the reader in second person in the poem “How to Find Out” as if now that I’ve gone through this, I’m capable of teaching the next actor in the play.”

Of course, in actuality there’s nothing really that could prepare us for this type of monstrous grief. The directions Ms. Bonanno gives us are almost ironic, because the subtext is that there is no rehearsal for how we will react to the murder of a child. No cop dramas on TV, no courtroom scenes, not even honest poetry can ever completely prepare us for a scene we never want to be in.

The most we can do is read the poems and try to put ourselves in the speaker’s place. Because on a spiritual level, what happens to one of us happens to us all. As Annie Dillard has said, we are all swimming together in the same tide of time. For this reason, I’m very glad Ms. Bonanno has had the courage to write about her experiences. We who read the book will put on our sack cloth and cover our faces with ash along with the speaker, on a spiritual level.

Slamming Open the Door is a mother’s wail to the universe. That huge loss we know is coming, the day our child  leaves home to strike out on her own, descended upon this mother like a monster, and part of her life’s journey now is to slay the beast that this loss has created. The book has become the speaker’s rite of passage,  a boat to transport her to the side of time where she can get up in the morning and go to work with at least a glimmer of hope that the grief will someday subside.

Because of the brutal honesty of this book, the sequencing, the simplicity of the language, and the many concrete images, Slamming Open the Door is a highly convincing, successful collection.

* Thanks to Dana Guthrie Martin for sharing this essay with me on her thought-provoking blog, My Gorgeous Somewhere.