T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
If nothing else, I am a reader. Perhaps because I always had my face in a book, my parents logically wondered when I would finally write one. As much as I love reading novels (the longer the better), I have also always been aware that I am not driven to create them. Characters do not haunt me, demanding I write their stories, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Extended, magical narratives do not spring into my mind on the train. My few hesitant attempts at starting a story and seeing where it would go led . . . nowhere.
And then our first child died, our Tessa. And that experience was too large to hold, and I was helpless to know where to put it. I only wanted poems. I had always loved poetry, but in the casually passionate way we love favorite foods. Now I came to poems in a state of complete surrender, starving to know I was not alone, that the world is not all just a darkling plain. Lucille Clifton. Mark Doty. W. S. Merwin. Sharon Olds. They said many things that helped. They said some things that called to other things inside me. Slowly, I found relief in getting a few words down: a line, an image, a phrase. Sometimes I could write a whole page, breaking the lines like twigs wherever they were weakest, and create what might look like poems from arm’s length, but they had no music. I kept writing a little at a time, though, grateful for tiny shards of light, and I’d throw the scraps in a box. Or I’d think of something at work – like a new fear of crocuses – and type it into a document called “bits.”
I wondered if I would ever be able to find sustained time to shore the fragments, and after a few years, the answers were all, suddenly, yes. My angriest, saddest lines, after thirteen discordant tries, flew into place like a blackbird and won a Pushcart Prize. I applied for a sabbatical, and received it. A friend taking a graduate course in design asked if she could work with me to produce a chapbook. And so in the spring of 2012, when Tessa would have been eight, I filled our birdfeeder, said a prayer of thanks, shook out the pieces, printed the drafts, and spread everything out on a table. I looked at my notes in the margins of great poets. In the softly silent house, for six hours a day, I listened to what I remembered. I followed those fragments, my breadcrumbs, my torches, planchettes. They were tickets, too, to a prize I was finally able to claim – the gift of understanding how I and my whole here and absent family are connected to a much, much larger story of love and loss, and what comes after. So I guess I do have that blessed clamoring that leads to the work, the words, and the release. It is one of my daughter’s many gifts, to turn me into a writer, after all.