Save 20% TODAY on Letters From Limbo.
—After Rodin’s The Cathedral
I watch my daughter imitate
the pose of Rodin’s Cathedral.
Her arms curved in slow gyration.
It is her way of understating
the dark bronze, how two arms
can captivate the imagination
in their dizzying swirl,
find balance between
light and shadows. In truth,
the hands are both right hands
turning in on themselves, an architecture
almost sacred, serpentine, yet protective
of the space within, of what the
bronze cannot hold. My daughter bends
uncomfortably away from me, resistant, as if
her whole body is questioning
what it means to be a girl.
for the first time—what is there
and what is not from the hollow
her hands make, all the empty angles
that never touch,
the almost-grasp of the intimate.
Her wrists slight and glistening
with summer’s patina,
her fingertips conjure her being
body and soul
closing and opening
at the same time.
A few years ago, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem hosted an expansive exhibit of sculptor Auguste Rodin. My daughter and I fell in love with his sculpture, The Cathedral. We were enthralled. And while she moved on, there was something intimate about two hands almost-grasping. It seemed to be the perfect metaphor for us as she enters her teenage years and we enter a new phase of our relationship.
SAVE 20% on REWILDING now through October 26th!
A strand of algae leaves its rubbery
translucent swatch on my skin. My first impulse
is to peel it off lest a horror
movie version of contagion unfold
and my skin turn zombie green—telltale alien,
more slime than flesh, attracting gnats, pinhead skitters
moving so rapidly all is flux.
My second impulse is to keep it as a totem
of subterranean life, a scrap chiseled
from things that are meant to sink. Deep is form,
like a snail that burrows into silt, shell
growing out of sludgy cravings.
A life-in-death feel. The croaks frogs make
drowning in natural desire. Believe me,
diving into this mosh pit, I do not
float softly through water.
Pond life is too shallow. No flotsam or jetsam,
sneakers, ice-hockey gloves, Chinese message
in a bottle. Even the dam’s stopped up,
no bigger than an oversized sink filled
nightly with dishes. No reputable
oceanographer will chart its depth—
another thing I’ll never know
about myself. Territorial and fiercely defensive,
rock bottom will not be reached.
To be essential something must be both deep
and wide. Eyes with skies in them. Upswept
lashes and brows. A western monsoon.
Dreams that stretch over many nights to mimic
the feel of sea-foam on ankles,
down to the cellular properties of summer.
Eva Hesse escaped Nazi Germany as a five-year-old, separated from her parents and placed on the kindertransport to London. They eventually reunited and immigrated to the US. Although “My Oceanography” is rooted in my experience, the inspiration for this poem is certainly my preoccupation with Hesse. Alienation, fragmentation and absurdity are recurrent themes in her work.
Similar to so many people, I suffer from not feeling like I belong anywhere—a combination of of my particular background and psyche and the general human experience. Although I did not set out to write this poem in a way that would capture Hesse’s immigrant experience, (one to which I can find connections as the granddaughter of refugees and immigrants who fled pogroms in Eastern Europe), once I assembled the book I began to see how the poems are saturated with this history. For me, writing is a largely subconscious, intuitive process. I immerse myself in a project, often for years, (this time, in Hesse) and it entirely takes over my being. You could say it’s like method acting! I’m hard to be around because it’s all I can talk about.
The neuropsychologist Alice Flaherty discusses creativity in terms of irrepressibility in her book The Midnight Disease. She says that writers often experience extreme feelings of empathy when they think that everything relates to their project, so much so that they might believe that the universe is bestowing upon them gifts or signs. She gives the example of a flock of geese flying up after she lost twin daughters and how she believed the geese were a sign for her to finish writing her book instead of giving herself over to her grief. An irrefutable network of coincidence and connection guides me through all my projects. In fact, I would say that the mania of feeling like everything I say or do is forwarding a particular work, brings it into existence. I often walk around the ponds where “My Oceanography” is set, but on this particular day a strand of algae stuck to my skin.
Pre-Order to save 20%!
You are the start of the week
or the end of it, and according
to The Beatles you creep in
like a nun. You’re the second
full day the kids have been
away with their father, the second
full day of an empty house.
Sunday, I’ve missed you. I’ve been
sitting in the backyard with a glass
of Pinot waiting for your arrival.
Did you know the first sweet 100s
are turning red in the garden,
but the lettuce has grown
too bitter to eat. I am looking
up at the bluest sky I have ever seen,
cerulean blue, a heaven sky
no one would believe I was under.
You are my witness. No day
is promised. You are absolution.
You are my unwritten to-do list,
my dishes in the sink, my brownie
breakfast, my braless day.
Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you planned, so it’s important to stop and breathe. No day is promised. We must appreciate the small moments—even when the kids are away, even when I am alone. It is in my moments of melancholy that I find gratitude.
Pre-Order Now to save 20%!
the uniform and ball
are white but Jackie is
Harlem separate drinking fountains
at the back
of a southern bus
my world is on fire
my world is Sunday
Jackie in his uniform
White enough to be America
but now Jackie shines
like Louis Armstrong
like a preacher
in the church
he’s the rock
the hidin’ place
the uniform and the ball
and Jackie Robinson Negro
My father labored
in the mine his
hands blacker than
face as black
coal his hands
a fair skinned
worked at home
read the Bible
and prayed &
For five days in late June, I trekked to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to attend The Frost Place’s Seminar on Teaching and Poetry, thanks to the generous scholarship provided by CavanKerry Press. It has been one of the best professional development experiences I have ever attended. Not only did I learn new methods for engaging students with poetry, but I also met with like-minded teachers who truly embody the heart and soul of teaching and learning. Both Dawn and Kerrin nurtured a supportive learning environment and encouraged us to continue to use poetry in our classrooms and in our own writing practice. The guest poets and teachers Diana and Joaquin inspired us with their philosophy and methods on teaching and showed the compatibility between developing our own work and developing our students’ work. Overall, my time spent at The Frost Place rekindled my creative spirit and my commitment to showing students how poetry can enrich our lives. Thanks again Frost Place and CavanKerry!
A gray hoodie will not protect my son
from rain, from the New England cold.
I see the partial eclipse of his face
as his head sinks into the half-dark
and shades his eyes. Even in our
quiet suburb with its unlocked doors,
I fear for his safety—the darkest child
on our street in the empire of blocks.
Sometimes I don’t know who he is anymore
traveling the back roads between boy and man.
He strides a deep stride, pounds a basketball
into wet pavement. Will he take his shot
or is he waiting for the open-mouthed
orange rim to take a chance on him? I sing
his name to the night, ask for safe passage
from this borrowed body into the next
and wonder who could mistake him
for anything but good.
When I wrote this poem, I was thinking of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. My son is at the age where he must be responsible for his own safety. We’ve had “the talk” quite a bit. The world is changing rapidly. Our preconceived notions of civility are being challenged daily. This poem is mother’s wish for “safe passage” as her son moves between worlds.
Swirling round stones regardless the roaring,
edged sideways, your knees—can you bend them?
Can you hold the angle without becoming cramped?
Can you continually step down, fingers pushing back
hair in strands, a cascading, hurtling continuity
over basalt rock slopes? Imagine the fall, wheels in your heels,
birds, lilacs, laughter, your wings, your talons, your arms spread
to embrace the landscape’s plowed fields,
cars swooshing past on the Interstate. Fall over stones
slip down to a trickle in a pool my body fills with
yours drop-by-drop icy cold at first then lukewarm
then aflame, ferns on the lower story, lilacs in the canopy
ringing rind and leaves. Such dampness seeps
from the edge of your boots, unless you remove them.
When I stand here I feel my limbs expand
like poses in yoga. The thunderous current
lifts my arms and knees.
I rise like a flock of starlings
scattering rhapsodies—the rigor, the truss,
the rib cage bursting through.
I wrote “Waterfall” at the Vermont Studio Center. It helps to be in a beautiful place around writers, artists and musicians. One of the painters, who was in residence at the same time as me, was working on these pieces of people with metal parts in their bodies. One image she made was of a woman with metal wheels in her feet, hence the line, “wheels in her heels.” Her work struck me and was related in many ways to themes that already preoccupied me, themes having to do with the transience of the body. So, when I stood on the footbridge outside my studio and looked down at the waterfall beneath it, I was imagining it as two people locked in an embrace, which is why the poem found itself written into couplets. I write a lot of my poems line by line in my head and I wrote much of this one in the moment. There was something about the stones that the water flowed over before it poured into the river, that looked sexualized. As a child, I can remember looking at inanimate objects, like a cement paver, for example, and recognizing something familiar in it. It was an odd feeling. There’s probably a name for it. Maxim Gorky has a story called “Blue Sky” about a boy lying on the grass and seeing human faces in clouds. It’s a similar impulse. Yet, recognizing familiar features in pavers and clouds also acts the opposite way. Your body seems less and less distinct and you can start seeing how humans evolved from nature and how connected everything is. I think this earlier poem ties into other poems in the book which seek to expand genre (the sculptor Eva Hesse, who many of these poems are concerned with, sought to move beyond the picture frame and make work that took up space on the floor, ceiling and walls) or the body to join history. In “Waterfall,” the speaker is longing to step beyond herself and though she mentions yoga, the experience she emulates isn’t nirvana, its ecstasy—”thunderous,” noisy. I’m basically a very simple person and little things can make me very happy, but in my writing I’m always on guard, fighting against my own complacency.
This poem and many others were triggered by the exhibition “Eva Hesse Sculpture,” May 12-September 17, 2006, The Jewish Museum, New York. “Ringaround Arosie” “Ishtar,” “Hang-Up,” “Chain Polymers” “Ink Wash on Cardboard” “Just Before” “Contingent” “Laocoon” “Up the Down Road” “Eighter from Decatur” and “Oomamabooma” are titles of works by Eva Hesse. Some of the poems describe objects in Hesse’s work and others imagine Hesse’s life experiences—particularly her marriage at a young age to another artist and their early divorce, as againt the background of her historical experience. These poems are to quote Berryman, “essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me)…who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about (herself) in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.” Lucy Lippard’s Eva Hesse, Da Capo Press, 1992, provided useful information along the way. Lastly, this book is in memory of sculptor Brian Wagner who first introduced me to the work of Eva Hesse and lent me all his Eva books that I never had the chance to return.
You targeted me and forced my extinction,
drew circles around the parts of my body
where you dared to aim: my neck, my wrists,
my breasts. How could I escape your asteroid
come hurtling? Too much of my history
is etched in stone. Like lichen or mica,
you subsumed even my shadow
and sealed over the crevices
where I roamed. You drove long stretches of highway
and read my desires in strip mining,
my sins exposed, determining
where to dig into the sediment’s
repository of old arguments.
Jaw hardened, fist banging down,
you did not say wait or anything else
that broke into words of love,
because you wanted to render
a bee’s hover and extract my DNA,
your artist’s eye trained on the darkest nights,
nothing but a chisel to pick away,
standing on top of that airless promontory,
bending over the rift to find a trace.
Measure my primitive atmosphere.
Preserve my dusky voice under glass.
– Harriet Levin
A few years ago, I was privileged to read at the Something Old, Something New (Jersey) 350th birthday celebration at the Hoboken Historical Museum. Curated by CavanKerry poets, Teresa Carson and Danny Shot, the program included several contemporary poets reading the work of one of New Jersey’s great poetry masters—William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg to name a few.
I was delighted to be assigned Whitman. He’s my personal Great. I’m hard pressed to say what I love more about him—his wildly generous soul or his wildly generous poems. It’s often said that Whitman’s greatest gift to us is his creation of a grand mythical figure whose voice he sings. Loudly and openly. He is Everyman. He is every cell in every body. He is the God Man—and he challenges us to the same.
When I think of all we have inherited from him—and the list is long, the most important to me as a poet and person, is that he gives us permission. Permission as writers, permissions as people. To glory in who we are. Unadulterated, unmasked, unadorned. And we revel in this counsel. As writers we want to be creative, honest, imaginative and original, but we have barriers to that freedom. We also want to attract readers and praise; we want to be good poets, but we’re often held back by what we perceive of as the unseemliness of our experience, our feelings and our motives. We think we have to turn away from who we are in order to create selves that are worthy of this elevated art. Regrettably, we believe poetry is holier than we are, so we must make ourselves worthy to write it.
Whitman debunks that. Poetry is not better than him; it is him. It is his bowels, his brain, his bicycle, his Brooklyn Bridge, his lilacs, wounded soldiers, lovers, trees. Not that he wasn’t as greedy for recognition as the rest of us, but he refuses to relinquish originality –by writing ‘inside’ the lines –to get it. Likewise, he doesn’t aspire to be worthy. He is worthy. While we often think of humility as a desirable trait in the person or poet, Whitman is anything but. Yes, he was vulnerable and often vacillated between approval and rejection of his more successful contemporaries (Emerson, Whittier, Longfellow…) and wanted at least to be counted among them–if not seen as their superior–but he was also steadfast in his commitment to his universe and subject matter–the whole world of what it is to be human. The whole world of what it was to be Whitman.
He takes on sex, heterosexual and homosexual, and writes proudly and abundantly of its pleasures capturing them in the most exquisite language and line. He elaborates on the wildly feral magic of love and wrote generously of it. He glories in the organs of the body as much as the lilies of the field. For him, there is no subject that isn’t appropriate fodder for poetry. In terms of craft, he blows out the more traditional poetry line, stretching it to the end of the page and then some—one wonders how far he’d have carried it if he were not bound by something as trite as paper size. He refuses to allow himself or his readers to take a back seat to life—he’s audacious, grandiose, honest, narcissistic, courageous, hedonistic, spiritual and compassionate without apology; in fact, he glories in his greatness—the greatness we all share as humans. He calls on us to be courageous—to break out of convention, to give ourselves over to our imaginations and our bodies –both so ready to create for us provided we keep dogma and judgment away. As did he. Having known him, my poems have never been the same—the nuns would definitely disapprove. Whitman is our mentor, our Everyman Poet challenging us to strip naked each time we sit down to write —be as big as we are, as raw as we are and can be. I happily bow to his wisdom.
Wherever you are, Walt, I trust you’re having one hilarious, outrageous, glorious day! Happy Birthday, Dear Friend, thanks for all the gifts.
You Are Not Grass
The last wild passenger pigeon was named
Buttons because the mother of the boy who shot it,
stuffed the bird and sewed black buttons for eyes.
People with Ekbom Syndrome imagine
they’re infested with mites.
It’s possible the entire Buttons [Read more…]
From Camden come, rise from the dust
fly to Zuccotti Park with your shaggy beard
and your old school hat come see what’s happened
to your home and your beloved democracy.
Let’s grab a beer or eight at McSorley’s
your old haunt, where 19th-century dirt clings
to chandeliers, let’s reminisce and plan
our trek through New York’s teeming streets
before we saunter to the Bowery or the Nuyorican
where exclaimers and exhorters still sling verse
of hope and despair to hungry crowds who
still believe in the power of the word.
We need your sweeping vision, Walt,
to offer our children more than low expectations
of life sat in front of screens or held in gadgets
that promise expression, but offer convention.
Let us not see America through rose-colored
blinders, but as it is, an unfinished kaleidoscopic
cacophony created by imperfect human hands,
beautiful in complexion, ghastly in reflection.
This new century has been cruel and unusual,
the ideology of greed consuming itself in a spasm
of defeat engineered by merchants of fear
and postmillennial prophets of doom.
We need to recognize healthcare
and education as basic human rights,
we need to restore the dignity of work
as well as the dignity of leisure from work.
We need to get off our flabby asses
to dance as if nobody is watching, to howl
to stir shit up, to worry the rich
with a real threat of class warfare.
We need to take back our democracy, from the masters of Wall Street,
banks too big to fail, insurance deniers, education profiteers,
from closet racists, and self-appointed homophobes,
the unholy trinity of greed, corruption, and cruelty.
Walt, give me the courage to not be scared
to offend, to tell the truth which is:
most Republicans are heartless bastards
more willing to sink our elected head of state
to protect the interests of the moneyed
than do what’s right for the greater good.
They are the party that has impeded progress
and sucked the joy out of any forward movement
for all my 54 years and they’ve only gotten more sour,
they scare me with their fascist posturing
while most Democrats are frightened
as usual to betray the welfare of the rich
(Historians of the future will laugh at us).
Yet, we’ve come so far in so many ways,
call it evolutionary progress if you will
though there’s so much work left undone.
We need a revolutionary spirit to unfold.
It’s time for us to dream big again
of democratic vistas and barbaric yawps
of space travel and scientific discovery
where we protect our glorious habitat
and build structures worthy of our dreams.
Imagine America based on empathy and equality
where we lend a hand to those in need
unembarrassed to embrace our ideals.
Walt, we’re here, citizen poets for change
across the United States and we believe,
we believe, call us dreamers, call us fools,
call us the dispossessed, your children lost,
our hopes on hold, left no choice but to stand
our backs against the corporate wall
ready to fight for what we’re owed,
for what we’ve worked, promises bought and sold.
Let your spirit rise, old Walt Whitman
take us with you to another place and time
remind us what is good about ourselves
basic decency that’s been forgotten
May your words guide our daydreams of deliverance
let the hijacked past tumble away
let the dismal present state be but a blip
may the undecided future begin today
let us become undisguised and naked
let us walk the open road . . .
Fore more of Danny’s fabulous work…
On the east side
Of the clearing
At the ox-bow
On the Sandy
There’s a fir tree
Growing up from
What remains of
An old maple
In the flesh of
That toppled thing).
Take this on faith,
You’d bleed for proof —
A bramble wreath
Obscures the seam.
Those trees with leaves,
All the hardwoods
Of this valley,
Those we watch turn
And drop their limbs
And sometimes fall,
Those we consult
And lie below
On self and time,
Those with soft skins
For us to score
With our titles
So we might see
So we might learn
Our lives amount
To only scars
So we might guess
So we might know
Those trees with leaves,
All the hardwoods
Of this valley:
Those trees wear crowns.
I imagine you on a May morning
breezing into his study, breathless
from your sprint across the fields.
The great man of letters—your father’s friend,
your friend—neither sighs nor hesitates
as he sets his quill pen on its stand,
pushes back his rocker from the writing table.
Abandoning his Remarkable Men,
his craggy features soften into a field of wildflowers–
smile bright and humble as homely coltsfoot,
eyes fond as the forget-me-nots you tie
in bundles, leave beside his door.
He never mentions these bouquets.
That would wilt the tender green between you.
Rather, he escorts you round his library,
introducing you to his dear friends–
Shakespeare, Carlyle, Wordsworth–
guiding you to Goethe’s Correspondence
with a Child, penned by a woman.
I loved him, too, at fifteen when I met him
on the page—fell for his elegance
of word and syntax, his way of gently
courting my understanding. I dreamed
of his seeing some spark of genius in me
invisible to boys I slow-danced with
at sock hops, their scratchy cheeks smelling
of sweat and Clearasil, their sloppy kisses
recorded in small poems in my journal.
Now I watch you leave his study,
the borrowed correspondence in your hand.
You pause to press the book’s skin to your face,
then read your way home to your own
white desk, your pen, your pages.
For more of Judith’s work: https://cavankerrypress.org/product/practicing-the-world/
Among the women in tank tops, backs arched, slow pacing,
Among the young men riding small wobbling bikes against traffic,
Among the rows of row homes, standing like beggars waiting for money,
Waiting furiously while they fall into gravity,
There must be some comfort.
A cat on the house-dressed lap of the woman at the window, purring,
A child born clean who can live on the milk of her mother,
on donated diapers, and sleep on the bed pushed to the wall.
But little comfort compared to what could be,
Compared to what is, six miles down Admiral Wilson Boulevard,
Where children learn Latin and spurt when their talent’s seen,
Where they play and fall asleep in quiet rooms lined with books,
Where they learn in book-filled rooms, not falling asleep,
Where they are never quoted in the paper as wanting to be
a doctor or lawyer when they grow up,
Because that’s not impossible, not surprising, not poignant.
On a street where half the houses are empty skulls,
The girls don’t see doctors until they are mothers,
And babies lick lead when they taste their fingers
or play in the dirt of the lot next door.
I sing the schools of Camden,
Where the pages of the books are softened and browned,
Where the facts in the books are no longer true,
Where the maps are the waterspots high on the ceiling,
Where the teachers are afraid, live elsewhere, leave early.
I sing the children who outnumber this city
Because they are the quickest, cheapest form of hope.
I sing the songs they might have written
if they’d been born one town over.
And on the Boulevard, I sing
More than billboards of girls with eyepatches
promising to dance on couches,
More than women at bus stops, where they can’t be arrested,
Waiting for men to use their tight-dressed curves,
More than men who walk the bridge from Philly,
without gloves or socks, in search of warm meals.
I sing day care, a movie theater and no discount liquor,
A supermarket, a bank that lends, no go-go,
And a fence down the median, so five more each year
Can live instead of dying for the cheaper sixpack.
For more of Tina’s work: https://cavankerrypress.org/product/abloom-awry/
The more I talk to people who’ve lost loved ones, the more apparent it becomes that—despite our beliefs about the afterlife—many of us watch for messages from our departed beloveds, signs that they not only continue to exist in some form, but also that they continue to love us. After my mother’s death, my husband Bruce called me to the window whenever he saw a cardinal—the bird Mom said visited her whenever she needed cheering. “Jude, your Mom’s here,” he’d call, and I’d come running to greet her. So it was only natural that I would hope that, after Bruce’s death, he would return to me, however briefly, via the natural world and its creatures.
Ever since the first snow
following your death
deer have been appearing
in our yard around the time
we’d return to the fire
to drink martinis.
When the first pair emerged
in their dusky coats, one gazed
so long into my eyes
I almost believed I’d entered
the dream I’ve been craving —
the one where you return
in a disguise I see right through.
In our early days I said you seemed deer-like
with your fawn-dark eyes, delicate wrists.
What about my study biceps?
you asked, flexing. Each night I enter sleep,
ears perked for your laughter
or for the soft crush of hooves on snow.
I drift back to the earliest days
of deer and human,
through hunger and wonder,
to the magic of sudden apparition
under the opal moon’s hypnosis.
Back to the ancient belief
that a deer’s luminous leap
could leave this world
and land in the next.
This afternoon when I found an antler
in the snow-dazed garden
I didn’t recognize it.
Rib-length, it was pronged
the way I pictured your bones
when pain pierced you from within.
Self Portrait with Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea
My mother named me
little old lady. Named me:
I lived in a different century.
I was born rural
in a city of mills.
My mother named me
place of unreachable hills.
A temperance movement of one,
I was sober
as spring water. I was old
then I was older.
My mother named me
I was her easy pregnancy, asleep
by eight, awake when convenient.
I held the fetal position
like a moral obligation:
her ribs were unmolested
as a Victorian birdcage. They pried
my soft bones like ancient pottery
from between my mother’s hips
while she slept. An orphaned monkey,
a baby of the ‘70s,
I sucked the bright orange nipple
of a sterilized glass bottle, held
by some other woman
while my mother came-to. She named me
Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea;
names I wear like tarnished jewelry
pinned to the inside
of my bra for safekeeping.
They take turns speaking
through my mouth, choose
my handbags, prefer flat shoes.
They embody the word habit,
placing a napkin atop my glass
of water, one beneath to absorb the sweat,
carry a magnifying glass
to read menus. With them
I’m always the youngest in the room.
And nothing changes. They name me not-yet-
born, but predict a natural birth.
do you believe us?
does it help you to believe in us?
The inspiration for this poem came in a recollection from my mother. Despite the fact that Sarah was one of the most popular girl’s names the year I was born, some female relatives complained that my mother had given me an old lady’s name. In her defense, my mother explained that from the moment I was born I looked and acted like a little old lady. The truth of this anecdote, however, runs deeper and is what I explore in the poem. My grandmothers, Rose and Lillianne, are included in the title. Rose was the one who pinned her jewelry to her bra for safekeeping and Lillianne was the family historian, tirelessly researching genealogy old-school before the internet opened up so many records to the hobbyist. I inherited my grandmother’s passion for history, family history in particular, and this poem is, in part, an homage to my female lineage on both sides. As the first poem in See the Wolf, it establishes the interconnectedness of the women in the collection and the fact that, even when these women are being victimized, they have more power as a collective organism than they would as individuals.
As the oldest child of a single mother who was the survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I think I accepted the ‘little adult’ characterization early. Being my mother’s easy, mature, and predictable child was something I could do to make her happy. My temperament was already well-suited to the role and I further cultivated it into a talent. So, the poem is a bit of ruthless self-reflection in that way. Some ghost of Sylvia Plath’s “The Disquieting Muses” haunts the poem for me as there’s a kind of sad inheritance being transmitted. Ultimately, though, this poem and the ideas behind it give me solace. I like to imagine carrying my female lineage around, for better or worse, allowing them to speak through me, relying on their wisdom and strength. There’s something very comforting in containing that collective ‘old lady’ energy.
Purchase See the Wolf here: https://cavankerrypress.org/product/sarah-sousa/
The Whole Mess… Almost
– Gregory Corso
I ran up six flights of stairs
to my small furnished room
opened the window
and began throwing out
those things most important in life
First to go, Truth, squealing like a fink:
‘Don’t! I’ll tell awful things about you!’
‘Oh yeah! Well, I’ve nothing to hide… OUT!’
Then went God, glowering & whimpering in amazement:
‘It’s not my fault! I’m not the cause of it all!’ ‘OUT!’
Then Love, cooing bribes: ‘You’ll never know impotency!
All the girls on Vogue covers, all yours!’
I pushed her fat ass out and screamed:
‘You always end up a bummer!’
I picked up Faith Hope Charity
all three clinging together:
‘Without us you’ll surely die!’
‘With you I’m going nuts! Goodbye!’
The Beauty… ah, Beauty–
As I led her to the window
I told her: ‘You I loved the best in life
…but you’re a killer; Beauty kills!’
Not really meaning to drop her
I immediately ran downstairs
getting there just in time to catch her
‘You saved me!’ she cried
I put her down and told her: ‘Move on.’
Went back up those six flights
went to the money
there was no money to throw out.
The only thing left in the room was Death
hiding beneath the kitchen sink:
‘I’m not real!’ It cried
‘I’m just a rumor spread by life…’
Laughing I threw it out, kitchen sink and all
and suddenly realized Humor
was all that was left–
All I could do with Humor was to say:
‘Out the window with the window!’
I originally was going to choose “Marriage,” the Gregory Corso poem that made me fall in love with poetry in the first place, but it was a bit too long for this space. “The Whole Mess … Almost” serves as an Ars Poetica for Corso, listing the ingredients that he likes to incorporate in his poetry. Of all the Beats, Corso is my favorite, no small thing considering how deeply influenced I am by the gang. I had the privilege of being friends with him, and I can report that in our relationship he was kind, patient, and generous, something that can’t be said by many who knew him. Most importantly, what I admire about his poetry in general, and this poem in particular is his mid-twentieth century romanticism, sense of humor, simplicity of title, and surreally imaginative wordplay. After all, in these difficult times, all that’s left is humor.
— Danny Shot
NA: I love how you open, Gloved Against Blood, with a quote from Proust, “For we are our loom,” and then write about your life and your ancestor’s lives, both as if they were images on a tapestry as well as the creators of the tapestry. How did this book begin? What was the first poem you wrote for it?
CV: The book began with the poem “How a Community of Women.” Although at the time I wrote this poem I had no idea that it was the beginning of Gloved Against Blood. I thought it was a stand-alone poem inspired by my mother’s family history. As my mother aged she started sharing with me stories of her early life. I realize now, in hindsight, that this preoccupation with her past and her lineage actually marked the onset of her memory issues. During one of my visits to Florida to see my parents, my mother and I happened to go out to dinner alone (a rarity). At that dinner I received an email from Sou’wester accepting “How a Community of Women” for publication. She was so moved to know that this poem that honored her history was going to be in print. It was a sign to me (and a green light) to explore this territory in greater depth and to document it in the best way I knew how – through poetry.
NA: That’s so interesting! Your mother was a little like Penelope then, weaving her story for you as her mind unwove her past? Can we post that poem here?
CV: Yes, it was important to me to bring Penelope into the book. Not only related to my mother’s memories but also because of the focus on needlework. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the precision of needlework with the fact that it naturally wants to, and will, unravel over time.
How a Community of Women
Resolved, That we will not go back into the mills to work
unless our wages are continued…as they have been.
Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.
Resolved, That if any have not money enough to carry them home,
they shall be supplied.
—Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834
How my French Canadian great-grandmother and great-great-aunts
toiled thirteen hours a day in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.
How weak the light when they left the boardinghouse each morning.
How screaming starlings flash mobbed them along the way. How they
sucked thread through the eye of their foot-long wooden shuttles
that fed the cotton to the looms. How they called that quick motion
of their lips “the kiss of death.” How they could not converse over
the cacophonic, clickety-click, clickety-clack of five-hundred howling
looms. How they walked back in ear-ringing darkness, had dinner,
then took up their needlework—crochet, crewel, cross-stitch, knitting,
mending, quilting, darning—close work, women’s work. My mother
taught me, her mother taught her, her mother taught her.
NA: It’s such a great metaphor! In the poem, “Triptych,” in which you reference Penelope, you talk about the mill your great-grandmother worked in. What was it like seeing it, or, as I imagine it, visiting your great-grandmother’s past? I am assuming you actually saw it? You wrote:
I’ve seen the steps she climbed each morning to begin another day
in the mill. They spiral like a beaded periwinkle
toward a far-off rectangle
CV: I visited the Boott Cotton Mills complex, which is part of the Lowell National Historical Park, while writing the poems for this collection. My great-grandmother (Mémé) worked there as a young woman before she married, but I have no details about her time there. All I know is that she left Quebec for a job in the mills and the one tangible thing that remains of Mémé’s life is her thimble that was passed to my grandmother, my mother and then me. Eventually it will be my daughter’s. My visits to the mills helped me imagine what it was like for her, to feel more connected to her and to put her time there as a young, hopeful immigrant into some kind of context with the rest of her life which was hard. For me it was important that the book reach beyond family history. I wanted to honor the mill girls, to tell their narratives and to weave a female story. My visits to the mills felt similar to visiting a memorial, almost reverential in a non-religious way. The idea that all those lives that toiled there—their hard work, best intentions, dreams and even just the mundane dailiness of it all—could be completely lost while the brick and mortar mill survived. And for some reason, those stairs spiraling up into the mill, affected me more than the looms themselves.
NA: For me, one of the most powerful poems in your book is “Lowell Cloth Narratives” in which you link the narratives of ex-slaves who picked the cotton to that of the women who wove the cotton. I wondered if you could say a few words about that poem? How you found those narratives?
CV: When I was doing research for the book I learned that the Lowell mills not only bought Southern cotton to fuel the mills but that they also produced Lowell cloth (a generic term for cheap, course cotton) which was sold to Southern plantations for the purpose of clothing enslaved African Americans. Many of the mill girls were abolitionists and yet their livelihood depended on slavery and they were charged with making the very cloth that the slaves wore to pick the cotton that fed the mills. The irony of this information was just so impactful for me—it took the top of my head off and haunted me. It became very important to me to include this in the book although initially I wasn’t sure how to present it. I Googled Lowell cloth and among the sites I found was one from the University of Massachusetts Lowell which included references to Lowell cloth found in 39 different Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the WPA in the 1930s. I studied these narratives and selected three to use in this hybrid poem that pairs the words of the interviewees (in italics) with what I imagined the mill girls might have wanted to share about their experience and the cognitive dissonance they must have felt by being anti-slavery on the one hand but dependent on it on the other.
NA: Could we post a section from that poem? Maybe the opening stanza?
Lowell Cloth Narratives
Based on Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Lowell cloth was a “generic” term for cheap, course cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell.
State: Arkansas Interviewee: Bear, Dina
I was born in slavery time—a world away
we wove we wove away. I was born in the field
under a tree. Thirteen hours a day we toiled
cotton into cloth. People wore home-made
what I mean homespun and lowell clothes.
It snowed in our lungs and every window
shut. My dresses was called mother
hubbards. We passed abolitionist poems
from loom to loom. I was too young
to remember anything about slavery—
blood and sweat blood and sweat. I went
barefoot until I was a young missie. We
signed the petitions. Folk did not know
how we was made.
NA: I love the layers of this book: your personal history, your family history, and American history woven together. You’ve created a masterpiece with this book. I imagine it was a huge challenge, bringing those pieces together in your poems?
CV: Yes, it was definitely a challenge! Bringing all the layers together ended up being more of an organic process that evolved over time as I immersed myself in research on the mills and worked on the poems. Interestingly, I never thought of myself as a history buff and yet it was local history that ended up providing the lens and conduit for me to write about personal and family history in a way that, I hoped, would be universal. Throughout the process I learned that I needed to stay open to where the book wanted to go versus where I might have envisioned it going. For example, when I learned about Lowell cloth I had to write that poem and I had to find a way to layer it into the book. I also figured out that I had to be patient with myself. Some poems needed to sit on the sidelines for a while until I was able to connect them with the others. At the same time, there were poems that I ultimately had to leave out because they introduced yet another layer that I felt didn’t serve the whole.
NA: So tell me about your writing process? And maybe–how it evolved while working on this book?
CV: My writing process is somewhat deliberate because I have a demanding un-poetic corporate job and I’ve learned that I need to make a place for poetry everyday in order to keep it in the forefront. This doesn’t mean I write everyday, but I make sure that each day I read, revise, write, attend a reading or workshop etc. I feel an urgency to stay focused because I’m making up for lost time. Shortly after completing my MFA, I married, had two children and took the corporate job I hold today—I put poetry on a back burner for twenty years. I’m a terrible multitasker!
My writing process did evolve as part of writing Gloved Against Blood because it required that I spend a good deal of time researching and reading source material. I found that I had to study the material closely, frequently re-reading it in order to find the content that spoke to me in a way that allowed me to enter it and write from it. While this was at times tedious, the historic content functioned almost like poetry prompts and provided rich scaffolding to build from.
I typically don’t write on the computer, but in a notebook, often in bed or on the couch. I travel for my job and I’ve also discovered that I can write on planes. It’s like being in a cocoon. I always revise on the computer.
NA: When did you know the title of the book? And how did you know you that the book was finished? Ready to send out into the world?
CV: I guess you could say that I had a false start on both the title and when I thought the book was finished. Initially, the book was titled Thimbleful. Under that title and with most of the poems that ended up in the book I sent it out into the world. It was the Runner Up in one contest and made the Finalist and Semi-Finalist lists in other contests. I pulled it back and decided to do a manuscript consultation with the wonderful poet and editor, Susan Rich. As part of that process I revised some poems, removed other poems, wrote a couple new poems, reordered the manuscript and chose a different title. What I realized in working with Susan was that I was so close to the manuscript that I wasn’t able to see it from an editor’s perspective. While it was hard to take a step back and trust someone with my work, it was the right decision for me.
NA: I love that title, too! I am also a Susan Rich fan. I think poetry is, at its best, a kind of community. Who else has influenced you or helped you as a poet?
CV: I love so many poets, but Emily Dickinson, Rilke and James Wright are the ones who have influenced me the most. I don’t read them often now, but they were monumental for me when I was a young poet. Mostly now, I read current journals and new books – there are so many wonderful poets out there that I am learning from everyday. Like you, I also feel that poetry, at its best, is a kind of community and I am very lucky to have a strong poetry community. This wasn’t always the case. During the years when I was more focused on my family and career than poetry I wasn’t aware of the vibrant poetry community in my area (Boston’s North Shore) and felt somewhat isolated. Once my children were in college and I turned my attention back to poetry I happened to meet January Gill O’Neil at a local coffee shop. I recognized her from a feature on debut poets that I’d read in Poets and Writers. She told me about the Salem Writer’s Group – an open group for all genres run by J.D. Scrimgeour. I started attending the twice a month workshops and met the many writers who have now become close friends. We share work regularly inside and outside of workshop, attend readings and retreats together etc. I also reconnected with a close friend from grad school and we’ve been exchanging and critiquing each others work via email for several years now. Finally, I want to say that social media, for all its pros and cons, can also be an important community for poetry and writing as long as you have realistic expectations. I like it for the exposure and connection it fosters with a diverse group of other writers and their work that I might not otherwise cross paths with. All in all I would be lost without my poetry community.
A faculty member at the college where I loved to be with students once emailed me the following: “You use too many exclamation points.” What’s the deal with the fear of enthusiasm? Seems to me it’s more essential than ever what with the damper dropped over the world by 45. So many parts of our lives deserve and need our enthusiasm. Our dogs let us know that all day: when we respond to them without delight, warmth, affection their ears droop. Cosmic signal, I’d say.
I emailed this snotty response: “You use too many periods.”
I have read editorialized essays where the complaint is Americans use the word “love” so much that it becomes meaningless, that it should be reserved only for those few people one truly loves. I say we can never use it enough. Many a tradition all but demands that we love and love and love, be it ice cream, an enemy, ones beloved.
My new year’s resolution? To use way too many exclamation points! I love exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
He Brings Home Everything
Under the house there’s room for a cat.
The porch is piled with clocks, bicycles,
broken windows, toasters, magazines.
The kitchen has minarets and steeples and
towers of old tins, cereal boxes, the top
one always with a face: Hopalong Cassidy,
Willie Mays, Daffy Duck. Every shelf
holds a montage of mugs, match boxes,
old platters, coffee pots, an entanglement
of whisks, forks, ladles, and spoons.
A hornet’s nest dangles from the ceiling fan
hanging next to a mobile of fish bones.
The bathtub overflows with children’s books.
Four years ago, he closed the door on two
full bedrooms. In his own room: puppets,
trains, kites, stuffed and wooden animals,
pop-up books, soldiers, clowns, snow
globes, penny banks, tin cars and trucks.
There is a rowboat covering a leak in the roof.
One of the things I’m preoccupied with is the idea of how genetics/DNA connects us to family we never knew exerting and expressing itself for better or worse in subsequent generations. My maternal grandfather abandoned my grandmother when my mother was two years old. I have often wondered what of him is in me, my siblings, and my children. -Cindy Veach
Acknowledgement: originally published in Crab Creek Review.
Gloved Against Blood is available now in the CavanKerry Press store.
The productivity of New England’s textile mills depended on a steady supply of cotton that was coming from the South, from the blood and sweat of African American slaves. Many of the mill girls were abolitionists including the poet Lucy Larcom whose lines are woven into this poem. I don’t often write in form, but this poem required it. Although Francis Cabot Lowell is long dead it was important to me to address him directly.
Dear Francis Cabot Lowell
—founder of the first textile mill that transformed raw cotton into cloth under one roof increasing productivity and the demand for cotton.
How is it you don’t see all down the row,
blood bobbins blood bobbins all down the row?
I’ve heard fields of white bolls, each puff turned up
to the sun, are beautiful by the row.
But at what price this accursed fibre
that threads your looms, your looms all in a row?
Every day I feel that I am sinning
against the light to stay still in a row.
Turn those fields ten thousand times—the blood of
souls in bondage will thicken by the row.
Francis, you are the sin—not these cloven,
white perennials planted in a row.
They bleed I weave. I weave they bleed. Why can’t
you see—blood threads your looms all down the row?
Acknowledgement: originally published in AGNI
We continue to share poems selected by author Cindy Veach from the new poetry book Gloved Against Blood.
The second poem on Cindy ‘s list is How It Resists.
As part of my research for Gloved Against Blood I read many stories written by mill girls that were published in The Lowell Offering and also visited the Boott Cotton Mills. I wanted to immerse myself in their world and write as best I could about their experiences. What interested me most was capturing the daily-ness of it. The parts that get forgotten. This was all part of a quest to ‘know’ my maternal great-grandmother who emigrated from Quebec to work in the mills.
How It Resists
And sometimes it’s too much—
these aisles of crowded looms,
their stanchions of white thread
spooling like udders,
my needy shuttles
of flowering dogwood—
for its hardness, for how it resists
splintering, for the way it loves
to be polished smooth—
the floor slants,
the room seems cockeyed,
too slim for eyes
to see the eye—
and the whole mill howls
as if cotton were milk—
the way two mirrors held just right
create an infinity of I—
Acknowledgement: originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review.
Author Cindy Veach shared a few of her favorite poems from the new poetry book Gloved Against Blood.
The first on Cindy’s list of poems is How a Community of Women.
This is the poem that triggered the collection, Gloved Against Blood, although at the time I wrote it I had no idea that this would be the case. As my mother aged she began to share stories with me that I was not aware of or was only peripherally aware of. She had spent decades raising six children and supporting my father’s career and her life before us was not top of mind for her. At the same time we moved every 2-3 years during my childhood and I have never been able to easily answer the question, “Where did you grow up?” I was without a hometown. And it made me feel less and un-rooted. Then the stories started to come and I latched onto them. Not just for me, but in an attempt to preserve the lives of the women who came before me to whom I feel inextricably connected.
How a Community of Women
Resolved, That we will not go back into the mills to work unless our wages are continued…as they have been.
Resolved, That none of us will go back, unless they receive us all as one.
Resolved, That if any have not money enough to carry them home, they shall be supplied.
—Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1834
Nin Andrews interviewed Joseph O. Legaspi on a range of subjects mentioned in his new book Threshold. The book is available right now in the CavanKerry Press book store.
Read the full interview below.
Nin Andrews: This is such a great book, mesmerizing from beginning to end. I love the opening poem, a lovely erotic poem in which you have this great revelation, i.e. that your father is not in the bedroom with you. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or cry. I wondered if you might say a few words about the writing of the poem?
Joseph O. Legaspi: I’d say react as you so inclined. I also find that particular revelation funny, yet beguiling, lonely, defiant. It was an instance in my feverish writing of the first draft of the poem in which I took pause, but the moment felt right to me. It’s a line against shame, really. The weightiest kind: filial, paternal. Growing up I had a fraught relationship with my father, that of awe, fear, and mystery. But then to adore his body, the masculine physique, to be drawn to it, threw me for a loop, adding a torturous dimension to desire.
Jennifer Martelli was kind enough to review the new poetry book Gloved Against Blood by Cindy Veach.
Read the book review below.
In her debut poetry collection, Gloved Against Blood, Cindy Veach stitches a masterpiece of bloodlines. In her ghazal, “Dear Francis C. Lowell,” Veach writes:
Francis, you are the sin–not these cloven,
white perennials planted in a row.
They bleed I weave. I weave they bleed. Why can’t
you see–blood threads your looms all down the row?
This Time the Ambivalence Is My Own
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
Though I had happily taken care of my younger brother during our early years as if he were my own child (ironically like my mother had but for drastically different reasons) and I had lots of babysitting jobs and several delicious nieces and nephews, I was not prepared to be a mother. Perhaps because of my mother’s obviously ambivalent feelings about her children—adoring us on the one hand and resentful and competitive with us on the other, I was never drawn to motherhood. I did not think I would love a child. I certainly did not want to give up my life and everything I had so worked for to care for a child or children. My experience was that men tended to leave all childcare to women, and they were the ones who got to be ambitious and the trailblazers professionally. Women in my generation (raised in the 1950s and 60s) set aside their own ambitions and wrapped their lives around that of their husbands and children. I wanted too much from life to be satisfied with such a secondary position in my own life. When I was much younger and considered a career in medicine, I never wanted to be a nurse; I saw her as the one who did the dirty messy jobs and was subject to the doctor; I wanted to make the decisions and be in charge. [Read more…]
Miss August by Nin Andrews’ was recently reviewed by Dante Di Stefano. Dante’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, and Prairie Schooner to name a few.
Read the review below.
Nin Andrews’ newest collection, Miss August, provides further evidence that she is perhaps the most agile practitioner of prose poetry writing today. Written from the alternating perspective of three characters, Sarah Jane Lee, Gil Rhett Simmons, and May Dee, Miss August chronicles the connections that these characters forge at Chinquapin Hill Farm in Lessington, Virginia during the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Andrews nimbly shifts between registers and dialects as she moves between the three characters, rendering a lyrical, but plain-spoken and arresting, version of three mid-twentieth century southern voices. The South that Andrews evokes obsessively confronts the legacy of what the locals call, “The War of Northern Aggression,” while denying the full truth of the foundational sin of slavery and the continuous transgressions of Jim Crow. In Lessington, the ghosts all wear confederate gray and “raspberry blight got blamed on General Sherman and the burning of the South.” Miss August ably addresses issues of racial discrimination, child abuse, mental illness, gender inequity, sexual identity, and class differences, in a coming-of-age story that resonates even more deeply in 2017 as the open wounds caused by misogyny and white supremacy continue to suppurate.
Head over to blog.bestamericanpoetry.com for the full review here.
Evil spirits, in a last-ditch effort to curse the couple, hovered at the threshold,
so the bride had to be lifted to ensure that the spirits couldn’t enter her body
through the soles of her feet.
Not literal this threshold, two parts wild animal—
something to be wrangled with—one part fir,
smattered with dents, and she a sucker
for first impressions, let him break her
hymen, spooling blood, the only one. Fir,
a soft wood, pale yellow, some would say
wan, the grain and knots right at the surface,
ill-suited for the soles of shoes coming
and going, mostly the cursed going.
The break: Independence finally.
Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
One would hope that in a dysfunctional family, the siblings might band together thereby gaining support from each other; perhaps even offer a more positive mirror through which to view themselves, but this didn’t happen for the most part in my family.
My older siblings were convinced that I was Mom’s favorite; she beat me less than she did them. Further intensifying their rage, Mom corralled me into following them home from school and reporting if they’d been smoking. Though I begged her not make me do it, I had no choice. She counted on me; it was for their own good, it was a sin not to obey—all her rationales. I couldn’t refuse. You didn’t say no to Mom. So I did her bidding and was ostracized; my sister had nothing to do with me until well into adulthood, and my older brother terrorized me for the rest of our days. How were they not to hate me? And while Mom was quick to enlist me as her spy, she’d turn to them, often in front of me and ask, “Why do you hate your sister? Your sister is your best friend.”
My only friend was my younger brother, who was equally lonely and tortured by the older two. Mom needed to pit us against each other. That way she’d ensure her position with each of us; we’d never prefer each other over her. The only way to accomplish that, besides bad-mouthing us to each other, was to make sure all the arrows (love, attention, affection) pointed towards her. Rather than encouraging friendship between us, she undermined it. We were competitors—enemies even. And so she divided and conquered.
To complicate things for me, though I had a few girlfriends, I was socially unpopular. As I explore in Confessions of Joan the Tall (a memoir written in the voice of my 12-year-old self), I was very tall (over 5’11″) by the time I reached high school, so from a very early age, I was teased unmercifully by the boys in the neighborhood as well as my older brother S and his friends. Clearly, I didn’t have a safe place outside of home either until I found temporary respite in my all-girls high school. It was heaven. I’d found peace.
My alienation continued through college but turned around completely once I started to meet men outside of my immediate community. I enjoyed great popularity with men and the leap in confidence that went with that success, though I was still very innocent and uneducated about how to choose the right ones. My first husband, for one. He fooled around pretty much from the beginning of our marriage. But I pretended not to know. No, I didn’t pretend—that sounds far too conscious; I didn’t know because I was deft at not looking beneath the surface of any supposed ‘truth’ I was presented. What he told me, I believed. Everything that conflicted with that, I repressed.
We were married for six years during which time, he got fired from or quit several jobs and often stayed out all weekend. Convinced that any minute he’d walk in the door, I wouldn’t leave the house. I tried to keep the truth from family and friends. I was so ashamed that I had a husband who didn’t want to come home, so I spent a great deal of time alone. I responded to him the way I did all my young life to my mother and S—namely that I could not get angry—no matter what he did. I just begged him to come home. When he decided to do so, he’d simply make a few jokes and make me laugh and that would be that. I’d happily make him some bacon and eggs. I was so relieved that he had finally come back home, that he did love me, that he wasn’t really rejecting me, that I accepted anything he did. Just don’t be mad at me. Just don’t leave me.
As in most cases of abuse, however, the hurt lived side by side with affection. At the same time that he was abandoning me for days on end, he was also professing his love, often and vociferously and showering me with praise. He was noticeably very proud of me and told me how beautiful I was. He liked to show me off to friends and colleagues and bragged about what a great cook I was, how smart. To one as needy as I, his admiration was seductive and necessary. I was also used to such mixed messages and ambivalence. Having lived all my life with a mother and older brother who told me, in word or deed, that I was loved and not loved often at the same time, the territory was familiar. So, I focused on trying to deserve their love. When love was uncertain and fickle, I didn’t become angry and blame them for not loving me, I blamed myself for not being worthy of their love and tried even harder to please.
Despite all my pleas, eventually, he did leave me. For the sister of a friend who was pregnant with his baby. One Sunday afternoon when he arrived home after being gone for two days, he tearfully confided that he needed me to go to Juarez, Mexico and get an immediate divorce so that he could marry her and avoid her getting in trouble with her father. Outrageous as his request was, my response was even more so. I begged him to stay with me and let us adopt the child. He refused. I came to my senses and refused to go to Mexico. I would not get a divorce; I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t want it. He left and we were unofficially separated. I was devastated. I wanted him more than I’d ever wanted anything (except Mom?). Under any circumstances. For many months I held out the hope that he would change his mind and come back to me. I’d have gratefully, happily welcomed him. I waited and waited. We were not divorced for another three years (initiated by me). I later found out that he married his girlfriend right after we separated without having been divorced from me. It frightened me to think of how available I had been for shabby treatment, how willing I was to accept any abuse in the name of love.
Popular as I had become before my marriage, I remained very underdeveloped as a person. I was easily impressed, swayed and dazzled by the charisma of this man and his utter confidence. He traveled through life so easily, presented himself for respect and inclusion everywhere. He was the exact opposite of me. While I continued to live in the world with a sense that I was unworthy and a disappointment to all who knew me—I wasn’t the friend, sister or daughter that the people I loved deserved, he took what was his own painful early life and lack of education and turned that into an almost Machiavellian manipulation of the world. He was outrageous yet very smooth, well-liked and charming, and made friends wherever he went. And everyone helped him—my best friend’s father got him a job selling insurance which he subsequently quit; my younger brother J helped him get into St. John’s though we later found out that he had never finished high school. When school became too cumbersome for him, he quit and started wearing my St. John’s college ring as proof that he had already graduated.
Like many abused women, I held out the hope that my love and belief in him would turn him around. It was always clear to me that he was chasing something or running from it; I later decided that he was living out his mother’s prophesy—that he was just like his drunken father who died alone in a rooming house many years after last seeing anyone in the family. But he would show her—there was always a swagger to his actions and a sneer under his breath. I also suspect he hated everyone he fooled. The very mention of his name in my mouth is foreign and anathema. I find it so difficult to relate to the person who married him. Her naiveté’. Her ability to be fooled. Her neediness, most of all. For so many years, I was ashamed of her. Now, I’m simply deeply saddened. (It strikes me that I’ve used that word several times throughout this series about my crippled family.) Her willingness to accept whatever came to her as long as she was loved. And if not truly loved, then lied to.
As I look back, I’m convinced that my commitment to marrying him was at least partially fueled by my mother’s complete disapproval of him. Marrying MK was my first emphatic “No!” to my mother. It was my Harley. Prior to that, she had successfully vetoed several decisions I’d made; at one point, I wanted to move from teaching to social work, but she insisted that if I did, she’d have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack. She was adamant and I, not surprisingly, relented. Always doubting myself, I wondered…maybe I wasn’t being fair to her by choosing a profession in which I might have to go into impoverished, crime-ridden areas and risk my safety. Maybe making choices that could bring me harm wasn’t fair to my loved ones. How could I choose a direction that would cause her worry? How could I be so selfish? (How could I act as if my life was my own? Interestingly, my only concern about making a potentially dangerous decision was that it might upset Mom; it never involved concern about protecting myself).
But when it came to deciding who I’d marry, I knew it was my choice and not hers. And she vehemently disapproved; she didn’t like or trust him—in hindsight justifiably so, but she didn’t give reasons that I could hear other than that he wasn’t an American citizen (ironically, he too was born in Ireland) and not educated and was only equipped for manual labor and bartending. I didn’t care about those things. I would have preferred that he be educated, but the lack of it wouldn’t deter me. I think that too added to his lure and attractiveness. He was rough like S and his friends. My mother thought that I was worth more than that—a blue-collar profile was beneath me. I completely disagreed with her reasons for rejecting him and thought that snobbery and bigotry were immoral reasons for judging anyone. Like her, I was immovable. All I knew was the way that he made me feel. It was like catching the prince. He was rugged and handsome, smart and funny, and all the girls thought he was gorgeous and were excited by his bad boy’ mystique as was I. Despite all the dates that I had had, he was my first real boyfriend; no one made me feel as special, beautiful and loved as he did. Devilishly handsome, exciting and a bit dangerous, he was delicious to one as repressed as I.
It was out and out war between me and Mom. I even left home to escape her tirades and to teach her that sooner or later she’d have to give in.
He was also my ticket to the world. No one left home until they married at that time. Though I had a car—it was the first thing I bought when I started to work—I wanted to leave Edgewater permanently. I wanted to travel. He had been in the service and had been to Germany and Europe and bragged about being the only enlisted guy on base to have his own car, a Porsche. None of the guys in Edgewater drove a Porsche (I always loved cars, particularly sports cars, and could identify every one by model and year), and yet when I met him, he was driving a VW bug—a red convertible. That also intrigued and impressed me. I’d never met a guy who had the guts to drive a VW Bug. No Edgewater guy would be caught dead in such a sissy car. But he did anything he wanted to, and no one dared laugh at him. I admired his confidence above all and what appeared to be his complete lack of concern for what other people thought. Paralyzed as I often was by my concern that I’d do the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings, I was amazed that someone could be so free.
And he was the exact opposite of the kind of man Mom always said I’d marry. She used to laugh about how I’d marry a very rich man who would be completely henpecked by me. I’d be draped in furs and carrying a little poodle, and he’d be running along behind me, a very short frightened man. I hated it and her when she said that. I never wanted to be that kind of wife; I never saw myself as a forbidding self-centered person who would gravitate toward a weak man. That was entirely unattractive to me. And I was hurt that she had such a picture of me. Admittedly, I had a strong sense of my own opinions and I voiced them freely at home—we were allowed to be vocal about anything that did not have to do with religion or breaking a commandment, and of course, feelings were never fodder for the Cusacks. But there was nothing beyond that that would suggest I’d want a one-sided relationship in which I controlled a very controllable man. This was her projecting her feelings on me, I think. In fact, in many ways, that’s who she was with Dad. With all of us actually. What she wanted she got, and that was a level of attention that shut everyone else out. So she designed a marriage for me in which I had all she wanted me to have along with a totally ineffectual husband—one who would clearly never be any competitionor threat to her.
And Mom competed with me too. She taught me to love beautiful things, particularly clothes, and love them I did. But when she saw that, she seemed to enjoy baiting me and slapping my face with it. Defining it as shallow and manipulative. Of course, I ended up feeling guilty and wondering if she was right that I was superficial and shallow. And would I end up marrying a man I could henpeck?
In retrospect, I believe my mother’s hostility stemmed from her envy of me. She taught me to love what she loved; she wanted me to dress like a model and carry myself in the world like one. She wanted me to have an education and a career. Above all she wanted me to be independent and strong and able to care for myself, in case my husband left or died. She always seemed intent on preparing me for this. “Keep something in your own name,” she always told me. I felt as if she was sculpting me to do exactly what she’d have done (or actually did do) with her life. But when I started to have those things—the clothes, the career, the education, the confidence in myself as an attractive woman—though the conscious part of her was thrilled, unconsciously I believe she resented it. So she created an image of me for the whole family that made a caricature of my interest in lovely clothes and my strong personality. And everyone laughed at the picture that she created. When Mom was cutting and sarcastic, you didn’t fight her, you joined in.
In any case, my need to defeat Mom, to escape confinement in Edgewater and to win the love of the almost mythic teenage guy sailed me unprotected into MK’s arms.
And eventually into a major break with the church. Despite the fact that MK left me and ‘married’ another woman, this man was my husband for life. I was barely 30 years old when we divorced and according to the church, I could not date or certainly marry again if I wanted to stay a member in good standing of the Catholic church. Should I choose otherwise, I’d be expelled from the church, refused the sacraments and risked hell in the afterlife. This made no sense to me. It wasn’t loving. This wasn’t the Jesus I knew. The Christ that I was brought up on would not want me to be unhappy. He’d have known how hard I tried to save that marriage and how innocent I was in this relationship. But it was the teaching I knew. The same narrow view of what is right and wrong and the same rigidity. Though I was encouraged to seek an annulment, I knew that we did not qualify for one. There had been no deception and our vows were made openly and freely. Eventually, I left the church completely. Having defied Mom, the ultimate power, standing up to the church seemed almost natural.
Finally and perhaps most critical, along with the end of my marriage and commitment to the church, I started psychotherapy, my strongest commitment that I had responsibility for myself, and to the extent that I could control it, I’d never let anyone hurt me again. And that included family as well as friends and men that I would date. In order to do that I would learn what was at the center of my desperate search for love and approval and my profound dislike of myself. I also promised myself I’d never do anything or expose myself to anyone who would make me feel bad about myself when I looked in the mirror. I was profoundly moved over how damaged I was, how available I had been for abuse and how little responsibility I took for my own care. True, there’s no insurance policy that assures us safety in life but to the extent that I could learn what danger was (person or circumstance), I would train myself to set off red lights in my head when I was exposed to it. I was deeply committed to getting well.
Not surprisingly, beyond my failed marriage, therapy led back to Mom. To Sonny, and the church. There was much work to be done.
Previously: “Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust V” by Joan Cusack Handler
Enjoy the final poem selected by author Joseph O. Legaspi from his new book Threshold.
Being one of five children, I cherished my time alone with my mother. I liked to think I was her favorite, that her spending time with me was intentional. She would tell everyone that she was taking me to help her with her errands, but then she’d steal me away into a cavernous movie theater—like being inside of a whale—where we luxuriate in the air-conditioned darkness, shielded from the equatorial sun. I loved being there with my mother, in another world projected in light, yet a whole world of our own.
– Joseph O. Legaspi