Working with Poetry and Alzheimers

working with poetry and alzheimers
Poetry at CareOne

When people pick up a copy of my chapbook, The Stolen From, or of the anthology I edited, Forgetting Home, their natural assumption is that I have first hand experience of the nightmare that is losing a loved one to this hateful condition. But that is not how these two books came about.

The truth is that in May 2011 I received a call from an association called Arts Horizons of New Jersey, asking me if I would be interested in running poetry workshops in a group home for older adults living with Dementia and Alzheimers. Although I didn’t have the first clue what this would entail, I agreed to give it a try. Over four years later I have visited the home, CareOne in Moorestown, almost every month and while I wouldn’t call what I do there poetry workshops exactly, I’m certainly working with poetry and Alzheimers.

The Power of Poetry to Engage Memory

Organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project have long recognized that poetry is an exceedingly useful way of connecting to the memories of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The fact is that the memories we lay down in our childhood and teenage years are among the most resilient, and for many of us that is when we are having poetry read to us in elementary school, or studying poetry in high school.working with poetry and alzheimers

The poems that work the best in this way are the most oft-quoted Shakespeare sonnets, the most memorable Emily Dickinson poems, and “popular” classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or, most notably, “A Visit from St Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore. (I recorded a true story of a resident’s reaction to this piece in my poem “Welcome Visitors,” the last poem in The Stolen From.)

The act of being able to remember such well-known poems makes residents feel empowered and gives them some semblance of normality.

The Power of Poetry to Prompt Storytelling

But poems don’t have to be famous to help these older adults connect with their memories. What I typically do at the beginning of each session is read 4-6 poems written around a similar theme. Then I use that theme to attempt to draw out recollections and stories from the older adults listening to the poems. At a training session given by the National Center for Creative Aging I learned how photographs could be used in this way, and it seemed to me that poetry could be equally as powerful. Themes I have used include the various Holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, Mother’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day etc.), seasons, places, food, schooldays, careers, and so on. Sometimes, the theme successfully generates quite long recollections which I honor by writing down. Sometimes I have to prompt recollections by asking open-ended questions e.g. “How did your family celebrate Halloween?”, “What career or jobs did you enjoy doing most?” “What did you like best about the New Jersey shore?” Again, I honor the memories by writing them down.

Sharing their own stories bolsters the residents’ sense of identity and self-esteem. Being involved in the discussions makes them feel less isolated and generates a sense of well being.

The Power of Poetry to Encourage Creativity

Finally, we write a poem together. I would be lying if I said that the residents actively write the poem, but the poem uses their valuable input and takes shape on the easel in front of them. There are several types of poem that I have found most effective in this setting:

  1. The Acrostic — For example, if our discussion has generated a list of careers/jobs the residents enjoyed (Secretary, Teacher, Realtor etc.) I write the word vertically down the page and encourage them to call out words or phrases for each letter that describe someone who might have that career.
  2. Haiku — I don’t insist these be 5-7-5 syllables, just that they make a short-long-short pattern on the page. These can often be constructed directly using the memories written down earlier.
  3. Monorhymes — The capacity to generate rhymes for a given word is unrelated to memory. I give them a word and collect suggestions for rhymes, then we write the poem and try to use as many of the suggestions as possible.

Participating in a creative/intellectual exercise gives the residents a sense of accomplishment plus they have fun!

So, the workshops inspired me to write poems about my observations, and I decided to self-publish these as the chapbook, The Stolen From, plus the experience gave me a connection to Alzheimer’s, and I decided to do what I could to help alleviate the suffering by publishing the anthology Forgetting Home. Meanwhile, I still go along to CareOne every month, where some of the residents have been there since I started. They may not be able to tell you my name, but they do know that they enjoy what we do.

My Life as One of King Charles II’s Mistresses

King Charles II's Mistresses

At the National Portrait Gallery earlier today, I was delighted to run into Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709), one of the inspirations for a Sisters & Courtesans poem. Married to Roger Palmer, she bore the king at least five children. but then the king did have fourteen children by several different women, although no legitimate heir. Above is her Peter Lely portrait. (Also on display were portraits of Nell Gwynne, perhaps the Merry Monarch’s most famous mistress and supposedly the only one who loved him for himself and not his position, and Louise de Keroualle.)

My Life as One of King Charles II’s Mistresses

There is a portrait of me—I look pretty,
perhaps a little too much skin on show,
but Peter Lely captured me, a glow
I had when twenty, mischievous and witty.
I could have had my pick of the whole city,
but then, the king was quite the man, you know.
And for the seven months he was my beau
I was content. Indeed, it was a pity
my husband found us out, and sent me down
to his estate a hundred miles from town.
But, silver linings! When the black plague struck
I wasn’t there. Nor was I, with more luck,
when our fine mansion burned down to the ground.
My husband’s corpse, alas, was never found.

Read more about writing Historical Persona & Character Poems.

Read more about the Merry Monarch and his mistresses!

Why Write Female Historical Persona Poems?

female historical persona poems
Veronica Franco (1546-1591)

“History is more or less bunk,” said Henry Ford famously, and so, quite often, did my father, a graduate in History from Bristol University. His actions typically belied his words—he would be pushing our eclectic collection of Edwardian silver napkin rings around on our Elizabethan oak dining table, attempting to explain the military tactics of a famous battle, his eyes gleaming.

What he meant was, “Don’t study History, study Physics.” This may stun readers who know me now, but I was an obedient girl back then, and so I did as I was told. I dropped History as soon as I could for the sciences, and went on to study for a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, London. And everything else, as they say, is history.

Except it isn’t. I continued to be fascinated by history and to read history texts and historical novels—the well-written kind like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. My favorite period is, indeed, the Tudors and Elizabethan England, but I am also borderline obsessed with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and with the early years of the Colonies. I married a man who loves History—his obsession is with the Founding Fathers and Political History—and our bookshelves are full of history books. Then five years ago I became involved with the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline, founded by Dr. Kim Bridgford.

About half of the fifty-plus essays about women poets currently on the Timeline concern American or British late twentieth century or contemporary poets, whose cultural context requires little explanation. But the rest span a broad swathe of historical eras from the dark ages to the second world war, and come from cultures as diverse as T’ang Dynasty China and Fourteenth Century Paris. A historical background is essential to these poets’ biographies.

I am a housewife, of sorts, and something else began to be clear to me as I co-ordinated essays on poets such as Kassia, Hildegard of Bingen, and Veronica Franco (pictured above.) Before Anne Bradstreet, housewives really didn’t write poetry. They didn’t have time. Women’s poetry up until the 17th century is almost entirely represented by women who had chosen a religious vocation, were royal or extremely wealthy, or existed on the margins of polite society—entertainers, mistresses, and women who otherwise used their bodies as currency. The idea behind Sisters & Courtesans was born.

Why Write Female Historical Persona Poems as Sonnets?

As I explain in Female Historical Persona and Character Poems, it’s not enough to decide who you are going to write about, you also have to determine how you are going to write about them. For me the super-flexible sonnet was the obvious choice, partly because sonnets are sexy, and sex plays a huge role in Sisters & Courtesans (not always just in the Courtesan corner either!) To illustrate my thought process further, here’s “My Life as an Honest Courtesan in Venice” (loosely based around Franco and her contemporary Gaspara Stampa):

I must confess that I can barely walk
in these new shoes, the platforms are so high.
Advancing regally, I pause to talk

(and rest) when an acquaintance passes by.
These split brocaded sleeves force me to hold
my arms spread out as if I mean to fly.

My heavy pendant heart is solid gold.
I hope it’s the epitome of class—
for that’s the point of all this, so I’m told.

I may be nouveau riche, but I can pass.
Don’t ever dare to lump me in with whores
with their thin skirts and ornaments of brass.

And as for those new sumptuary laws
I am exempted by a special clause.

Female historical persona poems need to wear their history much more lightly than the courtesan wears her ridiculous fashion in the poem above, and the sonnet forces the writer to do this. In approximately 140 syllables there simply isn’t room to explain the role of the Honest Courtesan and how she differed from a street whore. But this is where the persona becomes helpful. Because the poem is in the voice of the courtesan, and she is reflecting on her position in society and what it takes to maintain it, we can get a sense of the full historical context from her insecurity and vanity. And if you want to know more about sumptuary laws, you can always google them!

I wanted to create a Timeline of my own with Sisters & Courtesans, not of women poets—very few of the personae claim to be poets themselves—but of the history of women having control over their decisions, whether those decisions primarily affect their lives or their bodies, and of the correlation between control and happiness.

Other people can be the judge of whether or not I succeeded, but my Dad loves the book, and that means a great deal.

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of Verlaine

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of VerlaineIt’s been just over a year since I published Selected Poems of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, and it’s actually not been a bad little seller. Of course, it doesn’t sell as many copies as Quincy Lehr’s Heimat or Heidi Czerwiec’s Self-Portrait as Bettie Page, but every now and then, someone randomly buys it, which is probably because, as far as I know, it is the only book-length publication containing English verse translations of 18 of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore poems.

I probably haven’t done enough to support or publicize this brave and scholarly little book, partly out of modesty and partly out of an ineptitude with social media which was somewhat rectified by Don Lafferty’s workshop at the recent Philadelphia Writers’ Workshop.

To promote the book, of course, is also to promote awareness of the poet herself outside of her native France, where she has long been revered, and it is for that additional reason that I thought I would publish here on my blog the essay on Desbordes-Valmore included as part of my introduction to the poems (in my own translation) which was originally written by Paul Verlaine and included in his landmark book Les Poètes Maudits (French Edition).

(The footnotes are included, but some of them refer to my own complete verse translations which appear in the book. If you’re curious, well, you will just have to buy it, won’t you?)

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of Verlaine

In spite of the effect of a few articles, one very detailed by the marvelous Sainte-Beuve[i], the other perhaps, dare we say it? a little too short by Baudelaire, even in spite of a kind of good public opinion which does not compare her totally with the distant Louise Collet, Amable Tastu, Anais Segalas and other unimportant blue stockings, (we are forgetting Loisa Puget, in addition, it would seem she can be amusing, for those who like that sort of thing), Marceline Desbordes-Valmore has deserved, through her seeming yet absolute obscurity, to be placed among our Accursed Poets, and from henceforth it seems to us to be essential to speak of her in as much length and detail as possible.

In the past, M. Barbey d’Aurevilly[ii] has brought her out of the ranks and pointed out, with that strange skill he possesses, her own strangeness, and the genuine, if feminine, ability that she had.

As for us, notwithstanding our interest in good or beautiful poetry, we were ignorant of her, contenting ourselves with the word of the masters, when Arthur Rimbaud, to be precise, got to know us and practically forced us to read everything that we believed to be a jumble with some beauty within.

Our vast astonishment needs some time to explain.

First of all Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was actually from the North and not from the South of France, a distinction one was not aware of. What is believed to be from the North is usually thought well of (The sunny South of France is even better, but this kind of better can above all be the enemy of the genuine,)—and this pleases us because we are believed to be from the North too, in the end!

Next, she is no pedant and has a good enough use of language, along with expending enough effort so that she does not show herself up as a mere businesswoman. Quotations will provide evidence of this self-asserted wisdom.

While we are waiting for them, can we revisit this total absence of the South of France in this relatively large body of work? And besides that, understand as passionately as possible her Spanish North, (but doesn’t Spain have a composure, an arrogance, even colder than Britain’s?) Her North

Où vinrent s’asseoir les ferventes Espagnes.[iii]

Yes, none of that grandiloquence, none of that fakeness, none of that bad faith which one must disparage among the most obvious work from across the Loire. And nevertheless it’s all so warm—these romances of her youth, these memories of womanhood, these maternal fears! And gentle, and sincere, and everything! What landscapes, what love of landscapes!! And though this love is chaste and discreet, it is nevertheless fierce and moving!

We have said that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s language was good enough, it has to be said that it is very much good enough; only we ourselves are such purists, such pedants, that we must add, before someone calls us decadent, (an insult to take on the chin, between parentheses, during a picturesque sunset in fall) that a certain naïveté without any stylistic ingenuity could occasionally awaken our literary prejudices which aim at perfection. The truth of our reassessment will be brought to light in the course of the quotations we are going to produce.

Still the chaste yet fierce passion that we have pointed out, the almost excessive emotion that we have praised, mean it needs to be said, without overstatement, no! after a somber reading of our first paragraphs from the necessity of being conscientious, that we support their opinion of her.

And here is the proof:

Une Lettre de Femme[iv]

 

Les femmes, je le sais, ne doivent pas écrire ;

J’écris pourtant,

Afin que dans mon coeur au loin tu puisses lire

Comme en partant.

 

Je ne tracerai rien qui ne soit dans toi-même

Beaucoup plus beau :

Mais le mot cent fois dit, venant de ce qu’on aime,

Semble nouveau.

 

Qu’il te porte au bonheur ! Moi, je reste à l’attendre,

Bien que, là-bas,

Je sens que je m’en vais, pour voir et pour entendre

Errer tes pas.

 

Ne te détourne point s’il passe une hirondelle

Par le chemin,

Car je crois que c’est moi qui passerai, fidèle,

Toucher ta main.

 

Tu t’en vas, tout s’en va ! Tout se met en voyage,

Lumière et fleurs,

Le bel été te suit, me laissant à l’orage,

Lourde de pleurs.

 

Mais si l’on ne vit plus que d’espoir et d’alarmes,

Cessant de voir,

Partageons pour le mieux : moi, je retiens les larmes,

Garde l’espoir.

 

Non, je ne voudrais pas, tant je te suis unie,

Te voir souffrir :

Souhaiter la douleur à sa moitié bénie,

C’est se haïr.

 

Isn’t this divine? But wait!

Jour d’Orient [v]

 

Ce fut un jour pareil à ce beau jour

Que, pour tout perdre, incendiait l’amour !

 

C’était un jour de charité divine

Où dans l’air bleu l’éternité chemine ;

Où dérobée à son poids étouffant

La terre joue et redevient enfant ;

C’était partout comme un baiser de mère,

Long rêve errant dans une heure éphémère ;

Heure d’oiseaux, de parfums, de soleil,

D’oubli de tout… hors du bien sans pareil.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Ce fut un jour pareil à ce beau jour

Que, pour tout perdre, incendiait l’amour !

 

We must restrain ourselves, and keep our quotations for a different purpose.

And, before moving onto to the strictest test of sublimity, if it is allowed to speak thus of a part of the work of this adorable sweet woman, let us, literally with tears in our eyes, recite this from her pen:

Renoncement [vi]

Pardonnez-moi, Seigneur, mon visage attristé,

Vous qui l’aviez formé de sourire et de charmes ;

Mais sous le front joyeux vous aviez mis les larmes,

Et de vos dons, Seigneur, ce don seul m’est resté.

 

C’est le mois envié, c’est le meilleur peut-être :

Je n’ai plus à mourir à mes liens de fleurs ;

Ils vous sont tous rendus, cher auteur de mon être,

Et je n’ai plus à moi que le sel de mes pleurs.

 

Les fleurs sont pour l’enfant ; le sel est pour la femme ;

Faites-en l’innocence et trempez-y mes jours.

Seigneur ! quand tout ce sel aura lavé mon âme,

Vous me rendrez un coeur pour vous aimer toujours !

 

Tous mes étonnements sont finis sur la terre,

Tous mes adieux sont faits, l’âme est prête à jaillir,

Pour atteindre à ses fruits protégés de mystère

Que la pudique mort a seule osé cueillir,

 

O Sauveur ! soyez tendre au moins à d’autres mères,

Par amour pour la vôtre et par pitié pour nous !

Baptisez leurs enfants de nos larmes amères,

Et relevez les miens tombés à vos genoux !

 

How this sadness transcends that of Olympio[vii] and “To Olympio,”[viii] however beautiful (especially the last) these two overly proud poems may be! But, dear readers, forgive us, on the threshold of other sanctuaries within this church of a hundred chapels, for chanting with you after us:

Que mon nom ne soit rien qu’une ombre douce et vaine,

Qu’il ne cause jamais ni l’effroi ni la peine !

Qu’un indigent l’emporte après m’avoir parlé

Et le garde longtemps dans son coeur consolé !

 

Have you forgiven us?

 

And now, let us turn to the mother, the daughter, the young daughter, and the troubled but deeply devout Christian that was the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.

***

 

We have said that we shall try to speak of the poet in all her aspects.

Let us proceed in order, and, we are sure you will be pleased with this, using as many examples as possible. Therefore here to begin with are some abusively long specimens by the young romantic girl from 1820, like a better Parny[ix], in a form scarcely different, yet nevertheless developing in an entirely different manner.

L’Inquiétude[x]

Qu’est-ce donc qui me trouble, et qu’est-ce que j’attends ?

Je suis triste à la ville, et m’ennuie au village ;

Les plaisirs de mon âge

Ne peuvent me sauver de la longueur du temps.

 

Autrefois l’amitié, les charmes de l’étude

Remplissaient sans effort mes paisibles loisirs.

Oh ! quel est donc l’objet de mes vagues désirs ?

Je l’ignore, et le cherche avec inquiétude.

Si pour moi le bonheur n’était pas la gaîté,

Je ne le trouve plus dans ma mélancolie ;

Mais, si je crains les pleurs autant que la folie,

Où trouver la félicité ?

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

 

Next she addresses her “Reason”, commanding and renouncing it at the same time, very gently! Above the rest, we admire for our part this monologue in the manner of Corneille[xi] which seems more tender than Racine but dignified and proud in the style of both great poets though with a whole other angle.

Among a thousand sweetnesses occasionally soppy, but never dull and always astonishing, we beg you during this rapid examination to look at several isolated lines with the aim of tempting you to read the entire thing.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Cache-moi ton regard plein d’âme et de tristesse[xii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

On ressemble au plaisir sous un chapeau de fleurs[xiii]

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Inexplicable cœur, énigme pour toi-même[xiv]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Dans ma sécurité tu ne vois qu’un delire[xv]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

.                 .                 . Trop faible esclave, écoute,

Ecoute et ma raison te pardonne et t’absout.

Rends-lui du moins les pleurs! Tu vas céder sans doute?

Hélas non! toujours non! O mon cœur, prends donc tout![xvi]

 

As for “The Lost Prayer,” the poem from which these last few lines are taken, we are making honorable amends for just a moment on account of the word “sweet” which we have over-used. With Marceline Desbordes-Valmore one hardly knows what one should say or not say, this genius troubles you so deliciously, enchanting even the sorcerer himself!

If anything about passion has been as well-expressed as by the best elegies, it’s indeed this, or we don’t want to know anything more about it.

And of the pure friendships and at the same time chaste loves of this tender and haughty woman, how can one describe them well enough except to offer the advice to read her complete work? Listen once again to these two short excerpts:

Les Deux Amours[xvii]

 

C’était l’amour plus folâtre que tender;

D’un trait sans force il effleura mon cœur;

Il fut léger comme un riant mensonge.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Il offrit le plaisir sans parler de Bonheur.[xviii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

C’est dans tes yeux que je vis l’autre amour[xix]

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Cet entier oubli de soi-même,

Ce besoin d’aimer pour aimer

Et que le mot aimer semble a peine exprimer

Ton cœur seul le renferme et le mien le devine.

Je sens à tes transports, à ma fidélité,

Qu’il veut dire a la fois Bonheur, éternité,

Et que sa puissance est divine.[xx]
Les deux amitiés[xxi]

 

Il est deux Amitiés comme il est deux Amours.

L’une ressemble à l’imprudence ;

C’est une enfant qui rit toujours.
And in charming manner it describes divinely the friendship of two little girls. Then,

L’autre Amitié, plus grave, plus austère,

Se donne avec lenteur, choisit avec mystère ;[xxii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Elle écarte les fleurs, de peur de s’y blesser.[xxiii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Elle voit par ses yeux et marche sur ses pas :

Elle attend, et ne prévient pas.[xxiv]

 

Here is the serious note.

 

***

 

Alas, how discontented we will be, once we have finished this study. What pleasant and local marvels! What scenery of Arras and Douai![xxv] What banks of the Scarpe! How sweet and somewhat odd (we hear ourselves and you understand us) these young Albertines, these Ines, these Ondines, this Laly Galine,[xxvi] these exquisite “my beautiful country, my fresh birthplace, pure air of my green homeland, be well, sweet center of the universe.”

However we must keep our poor examination of a truly great poet within the fair (or unfair) limits that cold logic imposes on the desired size of our little book. But—but! What a shame to confine ourselves to only quoting fragments like these, written well before Lamartine[xxvii] burst forth and which are, we insist on it, like a chaste and peaceful Parny!

Dieu! qu’il est tard! quelle surprise!

Le temps a fui comme un éclair;

Douze fois l’heure a frappé l’air.

Et près de toi je suis encore assise ;

Et, loin de pressentir le moment du sommeil.

Je croyais voir encore un rayon de soleil !

 

Se peut-il que déjà l’oiseau dorme au bocage?

Ah ! pour dormir il fait si beau !

.               .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Garde-toi d’éveiller notre chien endormi ;

Il méconnaîtrait son ami,

Et de mon imprudence il instruirait ma mère.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Écoute la raison, va-t’en. Laisse ma main !

Il est minuit…[xxviii]

 

Is it pure, this “let go of my hand,” is it romantic, this “it is midnight,” after this ray of light that she thinks she still sees!

 

Let us, even as we sigh, leave the young girl. We saw the woman at the start of this, what a woman! Such a friend! The poem on the death of Madame de Girardin![xxix]

 

La mort vient de fermer les plus beaux yeux du monde.[xxx]

 

The mother!

 

Quand j’ai gronde mon fils je me cache et je pleure.[xxxi]

 

And when this son goes to college, it requires an agonized scream, doesn’t it?

Candeur de mon enfant, comme on va vous detruire[xxxii]

The least ignored works by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore are her adorable fables, unluckily for her, which are after the manner of bitter old La Fontaine[xxxiii] and the nicer Florian[xxxiv]:

Un tout petit enfant s’en allait a l’école;

On avait dit: allez! Il tachait d’obéir.[xxxv]

 

And “The Little Fraidy Cat” and “The Little Liar!”

 

Oh we beg you, stop with these dull and affected niceties!

 

Si mon enfant m’aime,[xxxvi]

 

sings “The Sleeper,” which we want to call here “The Lullaby,” since this would be a much better title.

 

Dieu dira lui-même:

J’aime cet enfant qui dort.

Qu’on lui porte un rêve d’or.[xxxvii]

 

But, noting that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore—the first poet of her age to do so—used to great effect uncommon rhythms such as eleven syllable lines, among others, and that she was a great artist without being too self-conscious and so much the better for that, let us resume our admiration with this fantastic poem.

 

[Verlaine here quotes the entire French text of “Les Sanglots” (“The Tears”), which can be found in full and with translation starting on page 55.]

 

Here we let our pen fall and delightful tears dampen our spidery scrawl. We find ourselves powerless to dissect such an angel any longer!

 

And, pedantically, because it is our pitiful role, we announce in a loud and clear voice that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is, quite simply—along with George Sand[xxxviii], so different, long-lasting, though not without charming self-indulgencies, of serious common sense, of pride, and one might as well add attractive to men—the only woman of genius and talent from this century and from all the centuries in the company perhaps of Sappho, and of Saint Therese.

[i] Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) who wrote the introduction to the 1860 posthumous Poésies

[ii] Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808-1889), French novelist, short story writer and critic

[iii] “Where fervent Spaniards came to settle themselves.” This line is from “Rêve intermittent d’une nuit triste” (“Intermittent Dream During a Sad Night”).

[iv] See translation on page 25. (Also available on my website)

[v] See translation on page 17 (Also published online at Kin Journal)

[vi] See translation on page 53

[vii] “Tristesse d’Olympio” by Victor Hugo

[viii] “To Olympio” by Victor Hugo

[ix] Evariste de Parny (1753-1814)

[x] Translation on page 23 (Also published online by String Poet)

[xi] Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

[xii] “Hide from me your soulful saddened look” from “Le Regard” (“The Look”).

[xiii] “We look like we’re happy beneath a flowered hat” from “Le Chien D’Olivier” (“Oliver’s Dog”).

[xiv] The next few quotations are all from “La prière perdue” (The Lost Prayer”). “Unexplainable heart, an enigma even to yourself”

[xv] ” When I am safe you’re just looking for thrills”

[xvi] “Listen, too weak slave, Listen! And my reason will forgive and absolve you: At least give it tears! There’s no doubt you’ll give in? Alas no! Always no! O my heart, take it all!”

[xvii] “The Two Loves.” It was a love more playful than tender; With a soft stroke it brushed my heart; It was light as a false laugh.”

[xviii] “It offered pleasure without speaking of luck.”

[xix] “It was in your eyes that I saw the other love.”

[xx] “This complete loss of self, this need to love for love’s sake, and that the word love scarcely seems adequate, your heart alone confirms and my heart guesses. I feel from your delights and from my faithfulness that it needs to say at the same time good luck, eternity and that its power is divine.”

[xxi] Verlaine has omitted line 3 without signaling the omission: “Faite pour l’âge heureux dont elle a l’ignorance.” The entire excerpt can be translated: “Two Friendships. There are two friendships like there are two loves. One looks like imprudence; made for the age of innocence, it’s a child that’s always laughing.”

[xxii] “The other friendship, more serious and severe, gives itself slowly, chooses mysteriously.”

[xxiii] “It moves flowers aside out of fear of hurting them.”

[xxiv] Verlaine has omitted the penultimate line of the poem without signaling the omission: ” Son abord est craintif, son regard est timide ;” The final 3 lines of the poem can be translated “It sees with [reason’s] eyes and walks in his footsteps; its aspect is fearful, its look timid. It waits, and does not anticipate.”

[xxv] Marceline was born in Douai, which is located on the River Scarpe about 25 km from the town of Arras, close to France’s Northern border

[xxvi] Names of Marceline’s childhood friends and sister

[xxvii] Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), French writer, poet and politician.

[xxviii] This excerpt comes from “L’Adieu du soir” (“Farewell to Evening.”) See translation on page 19

[xxix] Delphine de Girardin (1804-1855), French author. The poem is “Madame Emile de Girardin”

[xxx] “Death has just closed the most beautiful eyes in the world.”

[xxxi] ” When I’ve rebuked my son, I hide and cry.” From “Hippolyte,” full translation on page 47

[xxxii] “Innocence of my child, how you will be destroyed.” The poem is “A mon fils,” (“To My Son.”)

[xxxiii] Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), French poet and fabulist

[xxxiv] Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794), French Poet and romance writer

[xxxv] “A very small child set off toward school; They had told him to go, and he tried to obey.” From “L’ecolier”, (“The Schoolboy.”)

[xxxvi] “If my child loves me.”

[xxxvii] “God will say to himself: I love this sleeping child. Let him be send a golden dream.”

[xxxviii] George Sand, pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876), French novelist and memoirist.

Where Should a Sonnet Turn?

The question of where the tWhere should a sonnet turnurn or volta should be positioned in a sonnet came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching a sonnet workshop at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, and I thought it was worth asking, where should a sonnet turn? Of course, purists would say definitively that it should occur after the eight line octave and before the six line sestet, where there is often also a stanza break. While there is plenty of justification for this, the contemporary sonnet has evolved into a form which embraces more ambiguities and complexities.

First, we need to be clear on what the turn is and why a sonnet needs one in the first place. Or, if we subscribe to the view of William Carlos Williams that “a poem is a small…machine made out of words,” what kind of a machine is a sonnet, and why is the turn its critical cog?

A sonnet was, originally, a tool for presenting and challenging an argument in such a way that the reader should experience some form of resolution. Again, to begin with, the argument typically concerned a love that could not itself be resolved–the love of a man for a woman that he could not possess. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) is typically credited with inventing the sonnet in the fourteenth century, and he certainly not only popularized it but also established its conventions–the 14 line octave sestet structure with a rhyme scheme that runs abbaabba cdecde (or some other pattern involving 3 rhyme pairs.)

Where Should a Sonnet Turn?

14 lines may not seem like much, but it’s a long time to spend mooning without resolution over a love that can have no resolution. The turn, therefore, gave the (typically first person) narrator some control over the uncontrollable, and the reader some satisfaction. Consider this early poem by Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), one of the courtiers who brought the sonnet to England:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

This poem, widely believed to be about Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, spends the octave lamenting the fact that the narrator can no longer chase this metaphorical deer. How dull and angsty it would have been to spend another six lines continuing in the same vein. Instead, the poem turns, and looks at the issue from a new angle: addressing other potential huntsmen of the deer, and warning them of the known issues (the deer is wild, and has a diamond collar that says “Don’t touch me!”). The change in the rhyming pattern from abbaabba to, in this case, cdcdee, also underlines that a change in thought process has occurred. The poem leaves the reader with a sage nod and a degree of sympathy for the beleaguered hunters (and a frisson of the required fascination for the poem’s subject.)

And there the sonnet might have stayed were it not for that inveterate innovator, William Shakespeare, who realized that the nature of English–a mutt of a language compared to Italian, with its direct line from Latin–didn’t lend itself well to perfect abbaabba rhyme schemes. Much as he invented words when he couldn’t find one to do the job he wanted, Shakespeare invented the Elizabethan sonnet, which rhymes abab cdcd efef gg, and therefore requires fewer perfect rhymes for the same word.

In many sonnets, particularly early sonnets such as 18, Shakespeare sticks with convention and makes the turn happen between the octave and sestet, even though the astute reader will of course see that now the rhyme scheme changes between the 12th and 13th lines:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

In this sonnet the octave sets up the issue that comparing the beloved to a summer day is actually problematical because of all the difficulties that can beset summer days, including the fact that summer comes to an end. The sestet turns, hinging on that word but, which really means here “by contrast,” and explains that the beloved shall always be fair because, in fact, Shakespeare’s poem has granted them immortality:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The thing about that rhyming couplet at the end, though, is that it is epigrammatic, pithy, and delivers a high degree of closure. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Shakespeare realized you could actually hold off on that turn and place it where it coincided with the change in the rhyme scheme:

Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence:
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I’ll myself disgrace; knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange;
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
For thee, against my self I’ll vow debate,
For I must ne’er love him whom thou dost hate.

Here, Shakespeare even enjambs across the octave/sestet linebreak: “I will…be absent from thy walks.” In the first 12 lines the poem lists the ways in which the spurned narrator will continue to love and honor the beloved and do their bidding despite the break up. But the turn happens when the stakes are raised in the final couplet, and the narrator swears to hate himself because he cannot love anyone the beloved chooses to hate.

But can the turn happen any later than the twelfth line? I would argue, yes, it can.

SCORN not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakspeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camoens soothed an exile’s grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faeryland 
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains–alas, too few!

Here Wordsworth spends over 13 lines talking about various sonneteers and their practice, with nothing to distinguish the ultimate subject of his poem–Milton, who wrote just 17 sonnets in his lifetime–until you get to the turn just 3 words from the end.

It is, of course, entirely possible to write a sonnet without a turn, and several contemporary poets have done so, although in my opinion such poems are even less like sonnets than curtal free verse versions (13 line poems with no meter or rhyme scheme), but in the final poem I’m going to present, I would argue it actually doesn’t matter if the turn even has a prescribed location as long as it exists. Here’s Ted Berrigan‘s Sonnet 15:

In Joe Brainard’s collage its white arrow
he is not in it, the hungry dead doctor.
Or Marilyn Monroe, her white teeth white–
I am truly horribly upset because Marilyn
and ate King Korn popcorn,” he wrote in his
of glass in Joe Brainard’s collage
Doctor, but they say “I LOVE YOU”
and the sonnet is not dead.
takes the eyes away from the gray words,
Diary. The black heart beside the fifteen pieces
Monroe died, so I went to a matinee B-movie
washed by Joe’s throbbing hands. “Today
What is in it is sixteen ripped pictures
does not point to William Carlos Williams.

The ekphrastic subject of this poem is a collage artwork by Joe Brainard, and the thing about a collage is that there is no sensible starting point for the eye. Berrigan has hit on the masterful idea of similarly collaging the lines of his sonnet. (If you want it to make “sense,” try reading it alternating lines from the top and the bottom i.e. 1, 14, 2, 13, 3, 12 etc.) Although the turn happens at the but of “but they say ‘I LOVE YOU'”, where is this turn actually positioned? Is it at line 7, the arbitrary place the line has been set, or is it at line 13 in the sense structure of the poem? Does it matter?

In fact, the skilled sonneteer doesn’t consciously think about these things any more than they actively scan their lines to check the iambic pentameter as they compose. The need for the resolution of the poem and the satisfaction of the reader is simply internalized so that the turn will emerge. Here are a couple of sonnets online from Sisters & Courtesans–see if you can decide where the turn occurs.

Another essay on the sonnet by Anna M. Evans: “The Future of the Fourteen-Liner.”

Female Historical Persona and Character Poems

When I decided to write the historical persona poems in women’s voices that make up Sisters & Courtesans, I resolved not to use the voices of anyone famous. The closest I came was a couple of sonnets in which the narrator is a bit part player in another famous woman’s story, such as “My Life as Joan of Arc’s Maidservant.” This choice is one of the most important ones facing the would-be writer of historical character poems, along with a consideration of the dramatic moment of the poem, and, especially for female characters, the extent to which a male partner/spouse signifies in the poem.

Most poets writing in this genre choose instead to make their subject a famous woman, perhaps because it is easier to research an individual than to research an entire historical era. The problem with this is that the usual suspects have a tendency to feature frequently. Penelope, the long-suffering wife of the wandering Ulysses, serves as a prime example, appearing in works by poets from Louise Glück to Margaret Atwood. Jehanne Dubrow even has an entire book of poems, Stateside, framed with a Penelope feel. However, my favorite of these Penelope poems is “The Wife of the Man of Many Wiles” by A.E. Stallings, because it gives the classic tale a twist and Penelope herself a bit more gumption:

Believe what you want to. That they never touched me.
Believe your own stories, as you would have me do,
How you only survived by the wise infidelities.

One could argue that the character of Penelope is more myth than history, but if we can assume Homer’s Odyssey is at least informed by Ancient Greece, then poems based on myth can nevertheless be historical. Perhaps mythical characters are also easier to write about than factual figures, because the poet is less constrained by truth. Certainly myths are a common source of character-based poems–Lucille Clifton wrote a series of poems in the voice of Leda, who was raped by Zeus disguised as a swan, H.D. wrote a celebrated book length poem called Helen in Egypt, and don’t get me started on the proliferation of Persephone poems!

Ulysses is necessarily part of Penelope’s story, but Penelope has always had her own story. Many historical character poems, on the other hand, attempt to bestow stories on the often unknown women behind famous men. U.A. Fanthorpe’s “Three Women Wordsworths” is a wry case in point, in which she attempts to reappropriate some of the words that William stole from his supportive wife Mary and sister Dorothy:

Years later William knocked it together;
Mary gave her two lines. But it was Dorothy
Did the fieldwork, across the daffodilled years,

Perhaps the best-known recent example of poems from this perspective is The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, a collection in which all the poems are persona poems in the voices of the women–sometimes real, sometimes imaginary–married to famous men. We meet Mrs. Tiresias, Mrs. Faust, Mrs. Quasimodo and many more. The poems can be funny and caustic, but often have a core of poignancy. Here’s Mrs Midas:

Separate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,
in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art. 

The most popular male historical persona poem, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, is possibly based on a little-known Italian duke, but much of the poem is fictional, which begs the question of whether there are any similar historical character/persona poems in which the female subject is neither famous herself nor associated with a famous man. This leads us to Margaret Atwood’s gruesome “Half-Hanged Mary,” written in the voice of her ancestor Mary Webster who survived the title treatment during the Salem Witch Hunts.

My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I’m reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair

Also of note in this poem is what I am calling the dramatic moment that Atwood has chosen. The piece is written in present tense vignettes occurring at intervals throughout the night of the hanging, with a final section labeled “Later.” This gives Atwood the opportunity for her speaker to address different audiences in different sections–including the women of Salem, the townsfolk generally, and God–or to simply meditate upon her fate.

Michael OnElizabeth1daatje employs a different dramatic device in his persona poem about the Virgin Queen, “Elizabeth.” The poem tells her life story in a few past tense stanzas, using language age-appropriate to her life stage. The effect is similar to the dream-like state induced by hypnotic regression, and gives a sense of the evolution of her character from innocent princess to bitter spinster:

I would speak of Tom, soft laughing,
who danced in the mornings round the sundial
teaching me the steps of France, turning
with the rhythm of the sun on the warped branches,
who’d hold my breast and watch it move like a snail
leaving his quick urgent love in my palm.
And I kept his love in my palm till it blistered.

Kevin Young, in his poem “Reward,” elects to write the poem in the detached language of a newspaper advertisement submitted by their owner, Elizabeth Young, offering a reward for the information of the capture of two escaped slaves:

RUN AWAY from this sub-
scriber for the second time
are TWO NEGROES, viz. SMART,
an outlandish dark fellow

with his country marks
on his temples and bearing
the remarkable brand of my
name on his left breast,

As Rebecca Hazelton argues in her essay “Teaching the Persona Poem,” “by choosing to use the advertisement language, rather than Elizabeth’s speaking voice, Kevin Young discourages intimacy with this speaker.”

By contrast, John Berryman, in his long poem “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” fosters a deep intimacy with the world’s first housewife/poet, couching many of his stanzas in language that feels as though it was lifted from her most personal diaries:

The winters close, Springs open, no child stirs
under my withering heart, O seasoned heart
God grudged his aid.
All things else soil like a shirt.
Simon is much away. My executive stales.
The town came through for the cartway by the pales,
but my patience is short.
I revolt from, I am like, these savage foresters

Ironically, this poem was part of my inspiration for Sisters & Courtesans. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was the first housewife/poet. Before her, most of the female poets were either semi-royalty, cloistered nuns, or women of easy virtue–everyone else was too busy having children and raising chickens! I thought it would be interesting to explore women’s lives throughout history using that lens and the sonnet as a form, and to attempt to see what else such women might have in common. Being sonnets, most of my persona poems are lyric meditations that attempt to encompass a life–you could perhaps call them character statements–although the odd one is addressing a specific individual, such as “My Life as a Hollywood Madam,” in which the speaker is attempting to pick someone up at a bar!

Be that as it may, I hope this blog piece inspires more female historical persona and character poems, especially if you avoid the obvious. Penelope & Persephone, we are so over you!

Further reading: “Why We Wear Masks” by Jeannine Hall Gailey. “The Sisters & Courtesans Self-Interview.”

NB: All Amazon links on this blog are Amazon Affiliate links.

 

 

Sexy Sonnets

As a writer who is somewhat known for writing sexy sonnets, I thought it might be fun to look at some older sonnets that may have inspired my own work. So here are a few in chronological order.

  1. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20
    This is believed to be one of the ‘fair youth’ sonnets–in other words, it is written not to the ‘dark lady’ of sonnets such as 127 (“Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black”), but to a younger male, who is the “master mistress of [Shakespeare’s] passion. While not overtly sexual, the sonnet does employ a perfect example of sexual humor and wordplay in its final couplet:
    But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
    Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.
  2. Monna Innominata Sonnet 2 by Christina Rossetti
    Rossetti’s most famous poem, “Goblin Market” has often been touted as a hotbed of repressed Victorian female sexuality, so it’s not surprising that this sonnet’s metaphors verge on the coy: “…the budding of my tree/ that would not blossom yet for many a May.” But the poem’s redemption (and a stride into carnality) arise in the final line: “First touch of hand on hand–Did one but know!”
  3. A Church Romance by Thomas Hardy
    This is a love at first sight poem, but there’s something so visceral about the first few lines that I’m tempted to call it ‘lust at first sight’ with the love arriving later in the poem:
    She turned in the high pew, until her sight
    Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
    Of music-men with viol, book, and bow
    Against the sinking sad tower-window light.
  4. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnet XLI
    No list of sexy sonnets would be complete without the eponymous Millay, whose scandalous (for the time) liaisons and disdain for monogamy are believed to have inspired much of her work. This poem gives us the ‘zipless fuck’ way before Erica Jong was capable of articulating the ABC let alone that famous phrase:
    …let me make it plain:
    I find this frenzy insufficient reason
    For conversation when we meet again.
  5. Sonnenizio on a Line from Drayton by Kim Addonizio
    These days, of course, we can get away with a whole lot more blatant sexuality in our poems, and Kim Addonizio frequently does. The original Drayton sonnet is pretty hot too, but Kim takes us to a whole new level in her invented form. (You need to pick a word from the first line of an existing sonnet and use it in some form in each of your own lines.)
    …Hold me
    like that again, unbutton my shirt, part of you
    wants to I can tell, I’m touching that part and it says
    yes…Finally it would be remiss of me not to mention the recent anthology, Hot Sonnets, edited by Moira Egan, where you will find a ton of sexy sonnet gems by writers like Marilyn Hacker, Molly Peacock and Julie Kane. Enjoy!

5 Reasons I Am Thrilled to Be at the Philadelphia Writers Conference

Philadelphia Writers Conference 2015

  1. ThPhiladelphia Writers Conferenceey Asked Me and I Could Go: For the last 5 or 6 years the Philadelphia Writers Conference has always happened the same weekend as the West Chester Poetry Conference. This year, not so much. And Poetry by the Sea happened a comfortable 2 weeks ago.
  2. The Faculty & Board Are Awesome: Keynote by Pretty Little Liars author Sara Shepard. Organization by Eileen di Angelo, James Knipp, Christine Weiser et al. Excellent workshops from people like Tom McAllister, Don Lafferty, Dan Maguire. I could go on…
  3. I Always Learn Something New: memoir reading suggestions such as Amy Butcher’s Visiting Hours, website optimization tips etc. etc.
  4. This Is a Book Buying Audience: good job I went home yesterday evening because I had sold out of copies of The Stolen From and had to bring some more today!
  5. There’s Free Coffee! 😉

What Poetry by the Sea 2015 Meant to Me

susan9
Taken by Susan de Sola

When the packed audience in Dempsey Hall rose as one to give Kim Bridgford a standing ovation during her opening remarks on the first night of the conference, I was moved almost to tears. This was the culmination of five and a half (was it really only that?) months of planning, organization, and at times sheer graft from the Executive Board–that would be Kim, Natalie Gerber, Kat Gilbert, Cherise Pollard and myself–and here we all were, finally, surrounded by a grateful community of friends in poetry who genuinely appreciated our efforts.

If you are reading this, you were probably either there in some capacity, or wish you had been, so I don’t want to bore or tantalize you with a blow by blow account of “my conference,” even if it is worth pointing out that with two or even three events often available at any one time, your conference might well have looked very different from mine. There were people there whom I barely saw (and I attended events at most of the scheduled times, other commitments permitting.)

Rather, I want to give you a general flavor of Poetry by the Sea 2015, although it would be remiss of me not to draw specific attention to Marilyn Hacker’s inspiring keynote address followed by her reading of her flawless poems on Wednesday night–truly a landmark event.

The thing that many attendees noted, however, was the general level of excellence of ALL the panels and readings, without exception. For example, I naturally went to the Raintown Review Anthology reading, admirably hosted by Assistant Editor Jeff Holt, and starring Erica Dawson, Jehanne Dubrow, John Foy, and Quincy R. Lehr. The readers and poems chosen were excellent (and I think Jehanne said it must have been the filthiest reading at the conference!) but everyone who attended the Children’s Poetry panel, which occurred simultaneously, was equally blown away. Similarly, Quincy’s After Modernism panel (Nick Friedman, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Wendy Sloan) was stunningly well-prepared, with a high level of academic fortitude, but so, by all accounts, was the Edgar Bowers tribute, while the Amira Baraka panel reached new levels of potential scholarly debate. And I could go on.

kenafaa
Ken Chen & Afaa Michael Weaver

Likewise all four of the one-day workshops (led by Jehanne Dubrow, Spencer Reece, Rafael Campo, and Patricia Smith) received glowing accolades, as did the regular workshops and seminars. (I loved my Timeline seminar–ladies, you are the absolute best!)

I’m not saying the organization was seamless, but I don’t think the participants noticed the occasional glitches (and trust me, that’s as seamless as it gets!) Plus, everyone was in such good humor and so happy to be there (by the sea, in exceptionally warm May weather for CT) that glitches were laughed off, even by spotlight reader Ken Chen, who ended up walking the best part of the three mile journey from Madison station. He simply switched running order with Afaa Michael Weaver, and the whole reading rocked!

It’s easy to laugh things off when out of almost every pretty, white-framed window of every classroom and social space you can see a beautiful shell-strewn beach and the Long Island Sound. Many participants reported enjoying time to walk on the beach or even swim (Nick Everett, with his North Sea constitution!). I don’t think that was a pleasure afforded many of the Exec. Board on this occasion, but maybe next time…

It’s also easier to laugh when you are being well-fed and watered. At Mercy, the meals are delicious and available in generous portions (they had me at double helpings of bacon for breakfast!) plus you could always grab a cup of free coffee from the dining room (much-needed given the inevitable build up of lack of sleep!)  Later, wine flowed in the appropriately named Seaside Lounge during the evening receptions (and, yes, there will be more Pinot Grigio and less Chardonnay next year!) Looking around the room, it was so gratifying to see men and women of many different ethnicities, with faces known and unknown to me, both old and young, each engaged in lively discussion about the poetry that moves us all.

And, of course, it’s easiest to laugh when you are with a community of like-minded souls, many of whom you have known for years, if not decades, and when a gathering that you thought had been ripped away from you is somehow miraculously restored…but not just restored! Regenerated, reinvigorated, reborn.

Rebirth. That’s what it felt like. Okay, maybe on this occasion I (along with my fellow Exec. Board members) did feel a bit like I’d gone through 24 hours of back labor to get there, but the result was as miraculous as a perfect newborn baby’s first cry.

And like having a child, the miracle doesn’t stop there. (My eldest starts college in the fall at Penn State, so I know what I’m talking about!) The child turns one, and two, and three… It all just keeps happening.

With that in mind I would like to invite everyone to join us at Poetry by the Sea next year. The dates are booked: Tuesday May 24th – Saturday May 28th, Mercy Center, Madison. Some of the conference will be the same, and some of it may be different, because this is the kind of conference that grows and evolves to better serve its community.

But it will be amazing and magical again, because it’s Poetry by the Sea, people! And because that’s not what Kim Bridgford does, it’s who she is.

 

Blog this?

roseMy mother is dead. This is not an announcement. I did all that on Facebook, which seemed appropriate at the time. I couldn’t possibly keep all the people who needed to know informed without using social media. There’s no instruction manual for how to navigate a potentially fatal illness in the 21st century, but I did my best. My posts went from cheerful to stoic to bleak, and ultimately became eulogy.

This is not about that. This is about me trying to make sense of it.

Mostly I loved my mother. Sometimes I hated my mother. My mother is dead. She is presently in the hospital mortuary. On Saturday I will fly back to Manchester, and on Tuesday I will go and see her in the Chapel of Rest. She will be wearing the clothes my father and I picked out for her–an outfit she liked to wear for fancy occasions–and she will have a teddy bear we chose to be with her (“Wounded William”–my mum loved teddy bears) and she will be dead.

I am older, but I’m okay. I was there for it all, the whole horrible yet at times joyful rollercoaster of her final four weeks on this planet. I was there when she patted me on the thigh and said, “This girl is proof that horrible teenagers can become good people.” I was there just after they put the oxygen tube in, and I was there when they took it out.

I loved my mother. I’m ashamed that at times I hated my mother. I have daughters too. But this is how life works. She wouldn’t want me to pretend that we had a relationship that was all rainbows and kittens. I read her Winnie-the-Pooh, and then, once the toxic confusion was under control, I read her U.A. Fanthorpe’s poetry. I wouldn’t give those memories up for anything, even though I wept a little while I read.

I am 46. She was 73. I’m trying to get used to talking about her in the past tense. It’s funny that, even though technically I made the decision to cease life support (agreed with my father and brother, but I was the the one in the room) I still have trouble thinking about her not being a present tense phenomenon. My mum is…no my mum was an exceptional human being.

I don’t know how to conclude this ramble. I teach Composition and so I should know, but I don’t. Oddly, I’m considering getting a tattoo, which is something I’ve always been 100% against, but I need to do something symbolic, so I’m thinking of getting a rose, for Rosie. I want the pain, and I want the symbol. My mother is dead. It hurts.