How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) Barbara Kingsolver Harper, 2020
Dearly Margaret Atwood Ecco, 2020
It’s been a rough few years. The roughest bit may be that it’s not likely to be un-roughed. Maybe ever, but certainly not within my lifetime. We’ve lost loved ones to COVID, to violence, to depression. We’ve lost homes to fire, to flood, to dispossession and economic breakdown. We’ve lost our communities and bonds to social media, to increasing disconnection from each other and reality, and to screens that serve as family and friends in the time of social distancing.
While COVID was ripping through the world, cancer decided to show that it was still top demon among my family and friends. One survived. We still haven’t had funerals for the others. Then my mother had a stroke, a mild one, but apparently harbinger for what is to come both for her and her four daughters. This all during a time when we couldn’t even be in the same room, never mind feel the comfort of a hug.
The murder of George Floyd had a galvanizing effect on many communities. But in my part of the morbidly white world, confederate flags started flying from the beds of every over-sized compensation mobile. Trump’s name grew out of the lawn next door like some horrifying eight foot tall fungus. Wearing a mask was almost as dangerous in certain company as going without. In any case, my status as dangerous outsider was cast in concrete when I dared put up the ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ flag. Isolated does not begin to describe my late summer of 2020…
Into this mayhem, my now-ex decided that we needed to introduce divorce after thirty years. Mind you, I had no job, no savings of my own, and would have no home, on top of losing those three decades. And the way this was approached, it was definitely a loss of time, not merely a time for change like a normal divorce. It was ‘I never loved you; we should not have been married’ betrayal and erasure. Moreover, with the loss of my home and marriage, I also lost the work I’d done toward creating a space that would support us into old age in a crumbling world. Work I will never recuperate. There is no rebuilding a food forest and a low-energy home at my age, even if I could afford the property.
There are similar tales all around the globe, I’m sure. At least I didn’t get COVID until well after the ink dried on the divorce settlement… Nonetheless when this began, I entered free fall, completely unmoored from past, present and future. I’m not sure how I kept going for the first few months. But then two books found their way to me and my will to fight was returned in spades.
Dearly by Margaret Atwood and How to Fly by Barbara Kingsolver both spoke directly to my flailing soul. Atwood brushed away my tears with a sharp flick of her wrist, uncorking the anger that I had suppressed for years. Kingsolver showed that I could be hurt, that I could be small and vindictive, that I could scream, but that I would survive. No. I would thrive. (I will not say that I took her advice regarding the midnight ritual burial of certain objects, but I also won’t deny it…)
So I owe thanks to these wonderful writers, these wonderful women! Both have influenced my thought and my writing throughout my life, but if these two small collections of poems hadn’t come to me when they did, I would not be writing these words today. Cheers to them both for showing how to rage at all this mess, how to cackle in derision at the offenders, how to plot and plod along until we can finally escape the swamp, and how to be human through all of it.
If any of you are feeling the despair — the logical reaction to all of this, mind you, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! — I hope salve comes in whatever shape you need. But if you are reading this, then I suspect poetry works on you as it does on me. Perhaps something in Kingsolver or Atwood or someone else dealing with pain more specific to your own will find its way to your broken heart.
This is my wish for you.
Here are several poems I wrote around that time all inspired by these two books.
the unwinding year
midwinter the stockings were hung in the crepuscular light of hope such lavish capacity to be filled with all earthly delight the stockings were hung o’er the bright flaming hearth luminous dreams in deep darkness eggs awaiting the light the stockings were hung in our innocent dawning with no thought of twilight to see the stockings were hung and now they hang listless mementos of what ne’er will be vernal equinox we planted apples and rhubarb in defiance of greying bodies we sowed clover and vetch in anticipation of milky pleasures we built mounds and soil in hopes of potatoes for winter we culled wild rose and nightshade in expectation of sunbeams for berries we dreamed, we designed, we made and now we abandon all ambition with nary a harvest for the cellars
summer solstice the light is too broad too keen for old eyes revealing the chips, the sags, the rot hour upon hour upon hour i am too much i’ the sun pine needles rust in desiccating salt soil berries wither, drupes dropping, all hopes denuded and birds fall silent after the revelries of spring we hold our selves apart to stave off the burning suffer this heat in isolation the light… it hurts because no truth can lie hidden no dreams survive the fathomless summer days harvest home it begins with a sharp scented breeze a faint wash of gold gilding the maples it begins with one minute less, then another then another until hours are drawn out loosed from sunlight’s grasp it begins with a stillness at dawn foggy murk billowing from the bog-lands birdsong hushed but for the cries of jays it begins with longing for release whirlwind, ecstasy, frenzied harvest and the leering pumpkin face of death in autumnal twilight it begins… and then it ends unmade and it will never be the same again
comes a day
comes a day of unlearning the yearning and burning the churning of raw want into love comes a day of un-being the you-ing and me-ing the living that we are made of comes a day of unwinding the bonds and the binding and finding th' un-stitch of our soul comes a day of unmaking of breaking and taking back all of the parts of this whole comes a day of un-wording of un-hearding shrill silence the hurting and blurting out fire comes a day of un-airing the sharing and pairing of burying this twain in the mire comes a day of un-sight of cold heartless night of quenching all light and no more will this fire ever burn bright and nothing whatever will ever be right comes that day
enter three witches
cold virgin, stern mother, wise crone fused in ancient ageless flesh she is become unyielding indifferent to puling insecurity unforgiving granite of fierce wardship inscrutable owl eyes of judgement she lives in the dark wood of woman’s soul in her sugared house luring rash youth into transformation and then cackling away on chicken legs and mortars and brooms she finds you amusing one insouciant eyebrow of disregard she needs you not enter the witch trailing wisps of mugwort mist in her wake trampling your dreams of duality and duplicity trouncing the unwary and witless with one feathered and flint-tipped glance you would do well to tread lightly in her garden take nothing, leave nothing but reverence and love her snakes watch you always and she is familiar with fang and claw and poison enter the witches dancing into the heart arrayed in midnight and starlight and sharp silver enraged and righteous and pulsing raw passion join if you dare but know they will never submit enter witch and ne’er come out again unchanged
And now, Day 21 of National Poetry Month.
anger betrayal lies all nostrums applied cannot cure no cataplasm for perennially raw trauma lacerations on yesterday tomorrows swallowed armored skin in rents and tatters and howling welter at empty spaces but spine unbent we are unvanquished undefeated unsubdued thrash against injustice throw barbs in the face of complacency detonate deception with incendiary truth but we are alive awake alight we are strong stainless survivors and we are coming for you
©Elizabeth Anker 2022