Life Sentence

Life Sentence

“What I did was deplorable. The world has enough

misery in it without my adding more to it, sir.

I can assure you that it will never happen again.”

Jeffrey Dahmer, American Serial Killer, to Judge Gardner

 

Do not leave dark loneliness.

My lot in life, my only gain remains loss.

My personhood is a palsied thing, a blood flower

budding between teeth—love cut at its thin, red stem.

 

Stay slender and lean. Flesh veiled sinew must be savored.

I am the bone bleacher, carcass curator,

strange one collecting roadkill alone, a son of science.

 

Still the jogger’s joints…Sedate! Suffocate

strangled sex with Mr. Mannequin.

Embalm mankind! Dissolve this desire

to fornicate and fillet, then deliquesce.

 

I am the headhunter, casting skeletal confetti like stars.

I rest upon godless chests that go breathless.

Death’s beatless drumming pounds my corpse awake.

 

I created this horror from mad gut-hunger:

Skin strips, skull-drippings, beings undressed,

packaged parts, two of hearts—my anatomical exhibition,

a gentleman’s museum.

 

Police piece together life by polaroids

and an aetheist’s altar to absence—

hands cut at the cuff, mouths moaning mute,

memberless roots grow my empty ecstasy.

For what I did, I should be dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Poetry

For Jesse, whose words still sing.

The rendering of a moment as it unfolds in time; the essence of an object or experience in concrete language that makes the familiar and mundane once again new[1]; inhabiting the senses through verse; a literary utterance on the spirit of our time; the pleasure of linguistic and imagistic patterns in rhythmic lines; the quintessential music of syntactical and semantic spheres; the hum and resonance of all that has come before and all that will continue to be: all these and more, are poetry.

There is, of course, no way to impart all of this to students in a short, five-week, one-credit Understanding Poetry seminar, even when we host guest readers/lecturers to embody such elevated abstractions or mysteries. We spend the first class discussing our preconceived notions of the genre, and consider the ways we might define it, asking which of its characteristics distinguish it from prose? For guidance, we look to the great poets’ definitions, noting that even these experts cannot agree though their words offer us some parameters. Ultimately, if the students can come to their own evolving definition of poetry, if they are willing to give poetry the time of day, to turn to it in the darkness, to listen to its buzz and beat, then that is success. If they keep it in mind, confess to it, pray with it, then we might be alright.

All this is too lofty, though, isn’t it? It lays an untenable burden onto poetry’s slight shoulders. How can we affirm this feared and misunderstood genre’s significance within but also beyond university (where even English professors have to defend it to colleagues)? In addition, what use do we have for poetry in a blue age of screens? (Yes, there are poetry apps, but they aren’t that great since the demand to improve upon them is likely low.) We think of poets and poetry readers as a wan bunch, antiquated with feather pens and flimsy livelihoods (see Mark van Doren’s essay about this; don’t take my word for it). Other poet stereotypes such as “a loony, a misfit, a dreamer” don’t entice suspicious readers among us, either (Zavatsky 1-2).

Luckily, I did not know much about it when I came to poetry. Like most children, I had what my mother read to me, then what I read by nightlight after bedtime: nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss story-songs about green eggs and ham (with tightly knit metrics), Disney books, and the relentless repetition of a children’s Bible. I loved singing along to records, so poetry’s bouncy sounds attracted me. Soon enough, I was reading and reciting poems for a school contest in the third grade; I won a second-place trophy that is now long gone, but one of the poems, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I still know. A poem that speaks to, or for you will often stick to you. Later, I was reading Dickinson, Hardy, Bogan, cummings, Bukowski, Harjo, Espada, et al. I was writing poetry, and joined a group that would read at coffeehouses and bars. I was in a poetry club my first year of college. Then, I met professors like Mindy Ross, Jan Schmidt, and Pauline Uchmanowicz who encouraged my curiosity in artful, polysemic lines. Their classes reminded me of what Anne Sexton, one of my favorite poets, imparted to her students: that poetry is largely shaped by developing selective imagery and telling, imagistic details by intuiting “what to leave out” (Sexton & Ames 335). What’s unsaid, the space on the page, the silence suspends us. There we might reflect and fully feel the currents in stillness.

What is more concrete than a poem, more measured? William Carlos Williams reminds us that there are “No ideas but in things,” (“About William Carlos Williams” ) and Ezra Pound before him warns us to “Go in fear of abstractions” (“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’t’s”). Pound submits to his own dictum in the 33-line-turned-3-line poem “In a Station of the Metro,” where the blurry commotion of transitory, ephemeral faces in a subway station transform into pale petals stuck to a wet tree branch; this imagist moment of indistinct features, stark contrasts of light against dark, and the juxtaposition of the industrial with the natural creates a striking snapshot. My poem “First Snow” attempts imagistic compactness in short lines: “Storm silence slows/ Slim veins of water, stills/ branch sway, weekend rush. / Banks rise: bodies breathing” (3-6). Archibald MacLeish provides complementary instruction in “Ars Poetica” that “a poem should not mean, / but be” (lines 23-24), placing emphasis on inhabiting description as opposed to offering exposition on the subject. Poetry’s condensed language in compressed space demands that every word works. Samuel Taylor Coleridge asserts that prose is “words in their best order,” while poetry is “the best words in their best order” (Mills). The arrangement and unfolding, the multiple layers of meaning and word play, the furthering of poetic argument through the symbiosis of content and form—all this requires indefatigable revision. Poetry is all in the details and the timing.

What about the visceral, physiological response that poetry has on us? As Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry” (Spengemann & Roberts). There is some suspense as a poem unfolds, and as we love a twist (with the hope of potential resolution), we expect something wild or unexpected to occur. This often brings horripilation, a term one of our distinguished professors, Dr. Robert Waugh, taught me when he lectured on horrific poems for Understanding Poetry. Current research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Eugen Wassiliwizky confirms the chilling effect that poetry has on readers or listening audiences, even when it is not macabre; essentially all the study participants experienced internal chills, while forty percent had visible goosebumps (Delistraty). Yet what is more striking than this physiological phenomenon remains that poetry induces a specific neurological reaction—engaging particular parts of the brain not prompted by other mediums such as film or song. Musicality is clearly essential to poetic language, but songs and poems are distinct, even in our expectations of them.

While Wassiliwizky concludes that the “poetic lines that most emotionally stirred people were the most memorable for them later,” poetry “transcends this type of methodical scrutiny” (Delistraty). The very reasons people detest poetry might be traced not to alphabet songs or nursery rhymes of childhood, but to the earliest academic floggings of poems in classrooms. As Bill Zavatsky notes in “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Poetry,” the “Hunt for the Symbol means the death of poetry. Would you discuss the movements of a ballerina by taking your students to an anatomy class and have them watch leg muscles being dissected? […] but dead parts don’t get up and dance. Neither does the poem after autopsy” (1).   In light of this, my Understanding Poetry class begins with Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry”:  the speaker comments on the antagonistic rigor with which we approach the genre, the way we train students to attack the text like a hostage, or “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. […] to find out what it really means” (lines 13-16).  The compulsion to make meaning is common among us. For academics, it is perhaps especially difficult to sit in unknowing, or to admit to those we are supposed to provide answers for that perhaps there are none, or at least there is not a single one—all we can do is imaginatively inhabit the stories/experiences of others and cultivate compassion.

Well-crafted poetry requires us to notice, to listen. A poem unfolding, line by line, is a discovery. Unlike utilitarian writing, poetry creates that indescribable anticipation mentioned in Wassiliwizky’s study:  [Poetry] valorizes the unconscious, opening us up to new perspectives. […] When every aspect of a poem comes together—form, cadence, emotional appeal—it doesn’t just provide the literal chills that Wassiliwizky examined. […] it instills a feeling of a great unknown” (Delistraty). It unsettles us, wakes us from our daily tedium.  Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” suggests the significance of a single tool for the sustenance of family, a farm, and beyond; it meditates on an object in slender, specific, ordinary language. The poem annoys many who feel there is no artistry without linguistic or symbolic obfuscation; others distrust its deceptive simplicity. It must mean more, this quick glimpse about a common thing that we would otherwise ignore. Poems make big things small and microcosms immense.

Jorge Luis Borges observes, “Verse should have two obligations: to communicate a precise instance and to touch us physically, as the presences of the sea does” (Ormsby). There is nothing more unknown or vast than the sea, except the cosmos, but that feels farther from us. We don’t feel or fear its weight as with a wave’s undertow, a tsunami, the feel of sand being sucked out from under our feet. Nature attests to how small we are, how little we know, how much we cannot control. Even tidal flow becomes a metronome, an interior reverberation of heartbeat and blood pump.  In a few lines, a poem can soothe us with its rhythm, overwhelm us with existential dread, contest political dogmas, or stir in us awe or the excitement of new love. Once students see that poetry functions for more than dissection in papers for a deadline (or grade so seemingly tied to their self and capital worth), they become more amenable to it. Of course, lyrical language resists ease and seems serpentine. Poetry uncovers and discovers us with its alchemy; it’s no wonder so many don’t like it.

As one of my former students writes, “The world will never be perfect nor will it be just, but it is a beautiful and amazing place.  Poetry is one of the mediums that can remind us of this fact when the sadness becomes too much […]. Poetry is a medium of social critique, mourning, and joy. […] [O]ur lives would be far less interesting without it; in addition, there would be no music to sing out with” (Keplinger). While poems are not quite songs, Dr. H.R. Stoneback reminds us of the intersection of “Poems, Songs, and Ballads” in his annual lecture for the Understanding Poetry course that he created over thirty years ago. From the perspective of singer, poet, and scholar, he reminds us of the innate joy of nonsense words and sounds (that some over-reaching critics have analyzed as evidence of post-war, nuclear anxiety). Stoneback argues that much our wonder and playfulness is lost in such grave misinterpretations. The people, their dialect, and their emotional and topographic geographies shape folksongs and poems in oral tradition. Such transmission colors the words that leave or call to us.

We come to the communal text of poetry innately tied to some preternatural understanding that, even when words are never exactly enough, they are almost all we have. Ultimately, poetry “is first and last the document of a human experience” (Zavatsky). As poet Ocean Vuong recently remarked during a reading on our campus, through poetry we can reclaim our stories, our histories; the “language leads back to a life.” Great works of art can inspire us to be ourselves; they will sit with us in sadness and joy, meditating on mortality and humanity. Regardless of milieu, poetry confirms we are not alone in the expansive dark.

Notes and Sources

[1] I often turn to the Defense of Poetry by Percy Shelley, who states, poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar: it reproduces all that it represents…”

Works Cited

“About William Carlos Williams.” Poetry Archive.

Collins, Billy. “Introduction to Poetry.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.

Delistraty, Cody. “This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry.”  The Cut.  11 May 2017.

Keplinger, Jesse. “Poetry: Tears, Joy, and Song.” Understanding Poetry Essay, SUNY New Paltz, 2013 Oct. 18. New Paltz.

MacLeish, Archibald. “Ars Poetica.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.

Mills, Billy. “Finding the Right Words to Define Poetry.”  The Guardian, 25 Jan. 2008.

Ormsby, Eric. “Jorge Luis Borges and the Plural I.” The Free Library. Foundation for Cultural Review, New Criterion  Vol. 18, No. 3 1999.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’t’s.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.

—. “In A Station of the Metro.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

Shelly, Percy Bysshe. “A Defence of Poetry.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.

Spengemann, William C. and Jessica F. Roberts, eds. Introduction. Nineteenth Century  American Poetry. 1965. Penguin Classics, 1996.

Stoneback, H.R. “Poems, Songs, Ballads.” Understanding Poetry Lecture, SUNY New Paltz, 17 Oct. 2017. New Paltz

Vuong, Ocean. Poetry Reading, SUNY New Paltz, 9 Nov. 2017 New Paltz.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.

Zavatsky, Bill. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Poetry.” Academy of              American Poets, Academy of American Poets.

Understanding Poetry In-class Writing Prompts

-What is poetry? What characteristics seem to distinguish it from prose? Consider the definitions that we’ve considered by canonical poets as you develop your own definition.

-What are some functions of poetry? Why do these matter, ultimately? How do these functions or its purpose anchor its place among other genres and art forms?

Understanding Poetry Final Essay Prompts

  1. Consider the function of poetry (choose one or two only) as an art, one of music, meditation, distillation of a moment or slowing time, storytelling, political or social critique, historical record, or as communal text. Why is this function significant to our larger need to connect, right injustices, and understand ourselves, one another, our world/the natural world /our space in the universe? Analyze examples from class.
  2. There is no one agreed-upon definition for what poetry is, yet, how do we define it, traditionally, in the academy? Is this definition fully accurate based on what we’ve explored and heard from our presenters? Offer a more complete vision about what constitutes this genre. Focus your claim by referring to one or two of the quotations by poets on what poetry is. Ultimately, what should ideal poetry be or do, according to your argument; where does your definition reside within this larger and ongoing conversation? Analyze examples from class.
  3. Consider the possibilities that poetry can explore, from the effect of both lyric and/or narrative poems, or the power of brief, epigrammatic forms (as with Uchmanowicz), object or thing poems, persona poems (as with Patricia Smith), nature and eco poems (as with Carr, Schmidt, and Waugh), explorations of family and self (as with Doherty), coming of age and identity (as with Ocean Vuong) the ballad tradition/songs (as with Stoneback). In relation to one of these categories, consider poetic architecture, traditional form poetry versus free verse.

How does structure enhance and further meaning; what might the form mean in relation to the emotion/tone/content of the poem?

  1. How do you respond to local poets’ poetry on the page versus hearing the poems aloud? What transforms in these various modes of delivery? Poetry is an auditory art that emphasizes musicality; discuss the power of performance, and the sounds of lines in the air all around…Consider the relationship between a physically present audience and the performer, and the ways poems transform from page to stage. Analyze examples from class or a local performance.

Creative Writing I Assignment

Write a 6-8 page memoir about a pinnacle moment or time. For your portfolio, translate your nonfiction/prose memoir into poetry. Distill the emotional center into a core image by writing your memoir as a Haiku or Haiku series.

 

Watership Down author Richard Adams dies…

One of many great losses this year…Read more about Adams here.

Watership Down was an extremely influential story from my childhood. It anthropomorphized animals, as we are want to do, but held a mirror to the destructive, power-hungry, greedy, and very human ills that we must keep in check to preserve harmony for all creatures.  It also is a poignant reflection on mortality, with a resounding note of resilience-that we can carry on if we challenge the dangerous and dark impulses within our fellow beings for the greater good of all… What more timeless narrative exists than this?

Sad Bones and Old Wounds: Leaving Home and Going Home

This post is a draft in progress...

***
Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison. -Anne Sexton, "Wanting to Die"

In a studio apartment decorated with all the charms of home, my grandmother sits high on her much coveted bed, with its fluffy pillows, and crisp blue and white flowered quilt. We’d always love to have sleepovers with her just to have the chance to sleep on that bed, soft, high, pillows piled like clouds! Not to mention the cookies…there were always cookies!

Now the bed reigns in this new apartment in a nearly new assisted living facility. It’s clean and bright, with family photos scattered across every surface: the faces of each of her seven grandchildren smiling from school portraits; the faces of her long-gone siblings, at least seven, from family parties and days of their youth in the Bronx. She has outlived most of her family, except for one sister at least ten years her junior now struggling with kidney failure. She has outlived her husband for twenty-one years. She has outlived nieces and nephews, who willed her their savings that is helping to pay for her care, here.

The room has at least six plants on the windowsill, and another in front of the door on a table. There is artwork framed on the walls, some professional, some by my cousins. There are decals of flowers on the wall next to her bed, and the wall near the door as we walk inside. It’s cheery. This room has been her home for the past six months, following a mini-stroke about five months prior to that. The room is in the Memory Care Unit for patients with dementia, or those who like to wander; many residents wear anklets to monitor their location. The doors to this wing are always locked. Only key visitors and staff have the special, ever-changing code to unlock doors to the  main room with its grand fireplace, or the dining rooms, or the other wing where the mailboxes and other sections of the facility. There is a small courtyard near the common area, which allows residents to gather to watch television, or to take in some sun, or to do crafts in the adjoining activities room.

This place smells faintly good with a side of urine, impending death. Mainly, it breathes hope. Of course, many people here do not have family left,  or family nearby to visit them, or to check on their care as often as would be ideal. At our recent visit, my grandmother remarked how lucky she is to have so many people come see her, or call. She had just been released from the hospital after a bout of pneumonia that turned out to be much more.

My aunt and uncle, who now have power of attorney, live fifteen minutes from the assisted living facility. My mother and other uncle, who live in my grandmother’s home, (her primary caregivers) are two and a half hours away when there is not much traffic. I, the oldest grandchild, am about three plus hours away, and a few other cousins in New England are five or six hours away. Still, we are finding ways to manage the distance.

Assisted living costs:  Independence with monitoring, room and board, a meal plan, activities, health services, physical and other related therapies, laundry…all bearing resemblance to college. Only here there are nurses to weigh you and make sure you are taking medication that you might otherwise forget, which then makes you refuse to take it because dementia and other neurological conditions confuse, make you paranoid, distrust authority. After her stroke, grandma often accused us of trying to poison her when suggesting she take her usual blood pressure pills, or later the medicine that was supposed to quell the onset of dementia and paranoia caused by the stroke. She never took it for long, even after all the tests, even after explaining it may have allowed her to remain in her home for a while. Realistically, at 87 the house had become a hazard to her, its stairs, its drafts, its carpeting, its suspect shadows.

After the stroke, we had to deadbolt the doors up high, so she could not wander out into the darkness and get hit by a car or forget her way home.

“You are locking me in like a prisoner!” She’d scream at my mother, or “I can’t go anywhere…you are all trying to kill me!”

She began hiding knives under the couch cushion to protect herself from us. She tried to hit my mother with the broom, or her purse, whatever was handy…

Logically, you recognize that she did not mean it, and it was not her fault for fearing you irrationally. It did not make it hurt any less. I remember when she thought I had turned on her, too, another part of the conspiracy to imprison her. She glared at me, with furious tears, saying, “Not you, too! Why would you do this to me? You are all going to hell.” I said that was fine…I’d go, but that this was to help, not hurt her. I’ll never forget the disbelief on her face.

After the stroke, my grandmother had no sense of time. She would forget immediately when it was, even after you told her only a moment ago, “It’s 4 PM, almost time to start making dinner.”

She’d say to my mother, “Is it time to make dinner? Can I feed the dog now?”

She would ask what time it was again, then look at the clock to be sure we were not trying to trick her.

She’d go to the windows at night, while we were watching television, or after we’d all try to go to bed. We’d find her staring out into the darkness, but she could not understand it was nighttime. She stopped sleeping, so we stopped sleeping. We knew we needed help.

Now that she’s gone, everything must change.

We had had first Christmas without her a few weeks ago. My mother put up the beautiful tree adorned with assorted ornaments, some that still shined from my childhood, others with photos of some of her grandkids as babies, several long-gone pets, and those we gave her for Christmases past. My grandmother loved birds, so lots of cardinals sat perched between the mutli-colored LED lights (which, with a click of a remote could be switched to white, or other twinkle patterns or static glows…she really loved that remote). There were ornaments from my cousin Erin’s world travels, and some funny Disney characters, along with that lady Maxine. My grandma got a kick out of her, and even had a Maxine cookie jar for a time. While the place was fairly decked, it was not as over-the-top as my mom and grandma’s usual holidayness… Later, my mother admitted she did not want to put the tree up but my uncle had asked her to do it. “This will be the last time,” he said.

The house is to go up for sale soon, with legalities that require it. Had my grandmother lived a bit longer and her Medicaid had kicked in, this may not have been the case. I am certain that knowing her home was being forced out of her children’s hands would have devastated her as much as it is devastating all of us, now. My grandparents had been there for forty years, come up from the Bronx and made their way to a better life in this corner lot, split-level ranch with a modest yard, trees, bird baths and squirrel feeders, swings and hammocks, a shed and garden that the family helped build, tend, or tear down over the years.  Their back patio was where my cousin and I had our summer birthday parties. That yard was where we ran through our Donald Duck sprinkler, climbed a mimosa tree, made hair wreaths from weeping willow fronds, went sledding, played in a kiddie pool, or later walked the various rescue dogs we always fell for (even when one bit my grandma and put her in the hospital).

This was first year in a long time when my mother waited for me to come home to make my grandfather’s family’s Hungarian strudel. This was  tradition that we did not do ever year (it’s a lot of work). I remember watching my grandfather making it in the orignal kitchen, with its dark wood-paneling, when I was little. I remember even better my mother making it in one of our old apartments on a small table in the living room, how I would have to help cut and place the dough in greased bowls around the apartment so it could rise: all those colorful correl and pyrex bowls sitting on steam radiators covered with dishtowels. The oven was a tiny, ancient thing that never baked anything evenly…I don’t know how she made it work for all those years before that apartment caught fire from an electrical issue on the other side of the house (we shared the building with the town judge’s law office). I was later away at school, busy trying to determine how to survive and graduate, then teach and graduate again…each end of semester meant longer and longer papers to finish, and all those student papers to grade. Getting home before grades were due was nearly impossible so I was not involved in the strudel except when eating it and stealing some to take back with me.

Still, a few years ago, I asked my mother for the recipe with some notion that as the oldest grandchild (even living in a small apartment with an outdated oven) that I would someday need to make it on my own. I still have her note on the fridge, but the truth is she just wrote a list of ingredients. When I called her out on this she admitted that no one had really written down the recipe…and that my grandparents had also only an old scrap of yellowed list paper specked with crisco and apricot filling, no doubt, with the ingredients on it. So this year, I decided to participate in the making but to primarily write down the directions so the rest of us would have something to follow. After all, as a writer, I was drawn to the task. I also took some videos to add visual guidance and for posterity, which I’m sure my mother would not appreciate. My mother reminded me not to put too much filling on the thin layer of dough as we rolled each onto the flour-and-sugar piled cutting boards. I really like a bit more filling, though, so I added some extra and, to be fair, I have no real idea of how much is too much having not made the stuff in years. We are stubborn in this family, especially me, so no one was surprised at this. As she had predicted, the strudels with extra filling (it really was a slight amount) split and cracked in the oven. Did they taste delicious? You’re darn right they did. Did they look slightly less appealing? Barely, since you cut them into small pieces like little rugelach and sprinkle them with powered sugar. The thing about this strudel is it is nothing like the flakey German or Jewish versions you might know. Those are delicate, sweet, moist. This dough is thick with sour cream and comes out like a dense hybrid of cake and bread, hence you must roll it thinly. It’s a hearty dough for keeping your poor family full, not some frivolous dessert. I ate a lot of strudel this Christmas: for breakfast with my coffee, as a snack between meals, sometimes as dessert or a late night snack watching crappy cable on my grandmother’s couch where she always sat and had her cake or Ritz cackers. I took a bunch of strudel home (traditional apricot, my favorite, and rasberry, a new flavor we had never made) and ate it daily for two weeks, even when I was not that hungry to keep home close.

 

 

 

Flip the Script and Alternative Adoption Narratives

I recently had a conversation with a friend and colleague over lunch about the complicated dynamics of family, which shifted to my adoption and relationship with my biological mother, and then explored adoption/orphan cliches in literature or film, etc. I’m not a scholar on orphan narratives, but it’s easy to see that many of the famous ones by Dickens or Rowling or a Bronte are somewhat reductive and two-dimensional. Child is orphaned and does not belong, is unwanted by the new family even, is a burden, but is able to rise above and beat all odds and become super-human; or, has a secret benefactor and will become rich in ways no one could imagine; or, must be rescued and re-parented by an older spouse or love interest, is morally good, and remains an exemplar for all her suffering. This, of course brought about the many problems with only a few, oversimplified narratives, and the significance of more nuanced representation regarding all aspects of adoption. This topic is not new to many of us whose business is words, or making up stories, or thinking about the way we choose to tell stories: our own or others on their behalf. Implicit in this process is something very revealing about perspective and, therefore, power. Who gets to tell whose story in what way, and why?

Before this devolves into a well-worn rant about all that, let me return to my purpose: to share a few resources on the subject. Lost Daughters is a collection of intelligent women writing their own adoption stories, recommending other readings, and more.  Click here for a short NY Times Blog by one of their authors. They are responsible for a series entitled “Flip the Script,” which does not merely settle only for the well-known, eternally grateful adoptee narrative, but rather explores the confusion, anger, shame, fear, sadness, rejection, loss, etc. surrounding the act of adoption.

My own story is mainly one of gratitude, but also one of struggling with rejection and abandonment in my relationships. You an read a bit about that on this blog and specifically about my adoption in a piece called “Chosen.” I was given a better chance at having a supportive family, an education, and more because my mother placed me for adoption. But my story is also one of the challenging transition into an adulthood relationship with my adopted mother, and the uncharted path of forging a relationship with my biological mother since we first confirmed our genetic connection several years ago.

There really are few to no models for adoptees that portray the process of getting to know their birth-relatives. It’s surreal, messy, and leaves a connection, a burgeoning friendship hanging in the balance between obligation and fear, love and being left behind. Suddenly, there are exciting or awkward or revealing conversations with this all-too similar stranger whose loss you can never repair or repay; a guilt that may gnaw at you; a joy of finally feeling understood, or whole, or like you belong to someone, somewhere but then again, do you? Can an adoptee suddenly belong to the woman and womb from which she was exiled? And what does this mean for the home, the familiar people and places that were already provided for the adoptee?  Must the adoptee make a choice between the two worlds/bodies of nature and nurture, and even if she did would she still float in a sort of limbo, with cautious toes in the water of those muddy wombs? Each protects and provides, and post-reconciliation with the birth family sometimes leads to the sets of parents feeling the pangs of rejection for the first time.

Adoption is labor, and it is love, but at the core of both is loss. Something born must gain independence, and something loved must leave. Is the loss worth what is gained? I hope for many, yes, but how can we know until we listen to their stories for ourselves?

I hope you’ll check out the Lost Daughters and alternative adoption narratives. Acknowledging the complicated emotions and experiences of others is the most compassionate thing we can do. The scared child inside all of us, I think, might agree on at least that, no?

One Poem… Two Versions

I drafted this recently, and it has changed quite a bit, especially in line and stanza breaks. I was working in couplets primarily. I am trying it as a single stanza here to see how it sits. Another version is below…

 

Father

 

You are the way I clench my teeth

without feeling connected–

the bit sticks in my jaw, follows

jugular to pools of fused clavicles;

the way I bite the insides

of my mouth, making maps to you;

or lick and chap my lips:

dry and worn working hands

clapped together, praying for release,

Amen.

***

Father

 

You are the way I clench my teeth

without feeling connected

 

the bit sticks in my jaw, follows

jugular to pools of fused clavicles;

 

the way I bite the insides

of my mouth, making maps to you;

 

or lick and chap my lips:

dry and worn working hands

 

clapped together, praying for release,

Amen.

For Nanny

Missing my Nanny who moved to assisted living today. Her house is still the place where I grew up, the last remaining tie to my childhood self that I have access to, the rooms where I painted, colored, played games that my cousin and I would make up as we went along; it is the place where I began telling stories, and creating fantasies; where I was enamored with nature in the backyard watching the birds she and my grandfather would always feed peanuts to, leave seed for, or the animals my uncle would catch or tame from snakes to hawks; it is a place of family parties in the summer, of too much coffee cake; it is also the place where I’d get to stay in the softest of beds, stay up late, and be spoiled; it is the place where we’d always return after shopping every day; where there are always holiday decorations for every occasion, sometimes all mixed around the house at once; it is the place of too many televisions turned up too loudly, the place where I can always bring my wash, get a full meal, and watch SNL or Law & Order; the place where gardens and cars and dogs and cats and jokes and questionable politics have always resided. Right now my grandmother is probably confused, upset, feeling alone and afraid…but I hope she knows we are all feeling that too in her absence, and that while everything has changed all of what we remember, feel, and hold keeps us fastened to one another, to a love that is a sum of the past but also an ongoing propulsion into tomorrow. I hope that my grandma enjoys something each new day until it becomes familiar, and is as safe and cared for as she has made sure all of us have been for all these years. ❤