Unspoken

There are words that should be said but, for one reason or another, never are. One might feel embarrassed, ashamed, even guilt-ridden into silence, or merely forgetful, careless. And one might later feel regretful of never having found the words, never spoken. When my mother was dying, I was careless, and did not say what I should have, but it was not to her that I should have spoken.

Train

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

It was the last Wednesday in October of 1986. Massachusetts, where I’d lived since August when my job had moved, was stunningly colorful. In New York City, my mother was dying. Not quite two years earlier, she’d been diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, for which there is no cure and little treatment. Every weekend I went from South Station to Penn Station and back, and got into in the habit on returning of buying a round-trip-ticket for the next weekend. My ricochet travels paralleled my mother’s between hospital and home. Now she was in the hospital again.

That Wednesday, a series of phone calls came from my brother, a teacher who should have been in his class but instead was with his wife at the hospital, let me know Mom had had terrible pain, had asked for medication, but had been rushed into surgery.

“Probably appendicitis,” they were told. Then, that Mom had an abdominal aneurysm, and after seven hours was now out of surgery but on a respirator. Then, that she had 72 hours to live. In shock, I explained to my supervisor and left work to pack and run. Then, my brother said Mom was stable, sleeping, and advised I take it easy and go tomorrow.

Maybe because I had the tickets, or because I was not clear-headed, instead of going by air I boarded an early train and stared out the window as we passed through Providence, Kingston, and Westerly, absently noting cold-looking marshes and ponds, ducks, geese, and gulls. She’s dying, she’s dying went the rhythm over tracks. At Mystic, people got off and on, but the train did not start. We sat. My head pounded with thoughts of what might be happening in New York. Now Thursday, I knew that were my mother to die this day, my brother, an observant Jew, had to arrange for a funeral to take place before Friday sundown. Dark came early. I knew he wouldn’t want to go ahead without me, this being our shared responsibility, but I was stuck in Connecticut. In 1986 there were no cell phones.

I sobbed against window glass, quietly, I thought. “Is something wrong?” It was the conductor. With some coherence I told him my mother was dying, my brother needed to know he should not wait for me to do what might be needed. The conductor said he thought it was possible to send him a message by radio, asked for the number at the hospital, and went away. Soon, he returned: the message had been sent.  We did not budge. Then the train jerked and slowly began to move. The next stop was New London, where the engine would be changed, so I counted nickels, dimes, and quarters and hoped for a pay phone on the platform. There was one. “We got the message!” my brother said, “Mom’s not awake, but still stable.”

Walking slowly back to board the train, my sole thought was, Mom’s alive! Just inside the car, I heard, “She’s back on! Let’s go!” Stations came and went and then it was Penn Station. I ran. My mother was conscious when I arrived, but because of the respirator could never speak to us again. Within days she went into a coma, and hours after that I held her hand as she died. My brother and I together made arrangements for her funeral the next day, a Friday.

A year afterward I decided to volunteer in a hospice, and one of the training meetings was attended by the physician advisor to the hospice. Suddenly, anger erupted: many of us became interested in hospice care because of difficult experiences with the treatment given to a dying spouse or parent or friend. This had been true of the treatment my mother received—or, rather, had not. ( But that’s a different story.) At the end of the meeting, the doctor walked over to me and asked would I write up what had happened in my mother’s care. I said yes. I had my mother’s diary, which she kept up to the day of her surgery; and I had my notes from the days and nights I lived in her room, until she died. Writing the damn thing took months, took tears. I was still horribly raw. A friend became my editor, so it was finished.

I sent it to the doctor, and months later, we met. “I was blown away!” said this parent of teenagers, “everything that could go wrong did.” He asked to use what I’d written as a teaching case study; would my mother have minded? My mother had opted for hospice care but had not lived to enter it. She had been told that doctors, residents, and nurses might want to talk with her, ask her how and why she had made this choice. Her response was that if answering questions might aid those caring for the dying and, in that way aid those dying, she was glad to be useful. The doctor and I agreed that my mother had given permission for him to teach about her experience and ours—my brother’s, his wife’s, their three children’s, and mine.

Even though I write poems that touch death, writing about my mother’s dying was terribly difficult yet, of course, purgative. I was grateful to the doctor for asking me to do it, and I told him so. But I never wrote to Amtrak to say how thoughtful its employees were. I never spoke to the engine driver who’d kept the train waiting until I boarded at New London. Worst, my gratitude to the conductor for his concern and help remains unspoken.

-Ellin Sarot, Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

2015 WROB Emerging Writer Fellowships!

WROBThe Writers’ Room of Boston is gearing up for the next round of applications for our Emerging Writers Fellowship Program! Every year, we offer a free 12-month membership to four emerging local writers who need financial support to obtain a quiet place to develop their work. Fellowship recipients enjoy 24-hour access to a beautiful light-filled work space in downtown Boston and the opportunity to be part of an engaged community of serious writers.

Awards for the Emerging Writer Fellowship Program are based upon the quality of a submitted writing sample, a project description, a CV or resume, and a statement of need. The Fellowships are open to writers working in any genre or form. Fellows must be committed to using the Room on a regular basis throughout the 12-month period. (See www.writersroomofboston.org/fellowships for more information).

Applications for Fellowships are due on December 31, 2014. Applications for regular membership are open all year.

Open House on October 29th from 5-8 PM!

Come to an OPEN HOUSE at The Writers’ Room of Boston!
Wednesday, October 29th between 5 and 8 PM
Location: 111 State Street, Fifth Floor in downtown Boston
Light refreshments will be served.
WROB lounge
The Writers’ Room of Boston is a nonprofit organization committed to supporting the creation of new literary works of all genres by providing a secure work space and an engaged community for Boston-area writers. We are also proud to offer our Emerging Writer Fellowship Program that provides full membership for one year to four writers through a juried competition. The deadline for applications for our Fellowship Program is December 31.
Come visit our beautiful light-filled space during our Open House! Meet other members and learn more about how to apply for membership or our Fellowship Program!

Elbow Grease, Or How to Remove Unwanted and Unnecessary Verbiage

The idiom “elbow grease” refers to strenuous physical labor, but we all know how laborious writing can sometimes be. The etymology of the phrase is uncertain. One 17th century source translates it as “it smells of lamp,” as in the midnight oil one burns when working late into the night, as many of us writers sometimes do. Oddly enough, the phrase has changed little in meaning. Then and now, it connotes diligent, hard work.

Enter Peter Elbow —whose name is, depending on your point of view, rather odd or incredibly convenient— a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst known for his many books which attempt to take the difficult (and the fear) out of writing. Elbow began his PhD in English at Harvard University in the late ‘50s, but his persistent struggles with writing caused him to quit. He began teaching, first at M.I.T., and became an early proponent of freewriting (which I wrote about in my last blog post), but it was his book, Writing Without Teachers (Oxford UP, 1973,1998,), that turned the freewriting technique into a popular pedagogical practice. As I recall (I can no longer find the book to confirm), it was in this book that he presented the Elbow Method. The technique is as simple as it is non-threatening. With a topic in mind (and when the mind is typically almost paralyzed with swirling thoughts), you sit down and write all that you can, without editing or judging, for 15 or 20 minutes. Then you look at what you’ve written, identify the strongest sentence and circle it. That sentence then goes at the top of a new page and you begin writing again, letting the sentence sharpen your focus. The process is repeated three times, at which point you have a solid draft and the dust has settled around the swirling thoughts. Elbow stresses that one of the benefits of writing this way is that the more a writer writes, not only does she have more to work with, but she also has more to throw away. I have used the Elbow Method to great effect, and more recently, used it on a poem without being fully aware I was doing so.

Van Gough PortraitLast spring, under the pressure of too much deadline and too few ideas, I began a poem about sound (I think), where I described an undergrad course I took at Berklee College of Music called Ear Training. The idea of sound turned to hearing which turned, somehow, to Van Gogh and soon I was looking for fancy words to describe the almost indescribable color and movement of the olive groves he painted outside the asylum at St. Remy. The poem, 33 lines long, had become unhinged. I knew it needed focus. My instincts were telling me the poem needed to say more —with less. One line leapt out at me. It was the one that had surprised me the most when I wrote it, a line in which I described Van Gogh’s severed ear as a “fleshy orphan.” While I didn’t exactly put that line at the top of a new page, I did let it drive a new draft. I cut the Ear Training material (no pun intended), which was just ramp-up, and I scrubbed away all the verbiage about colors and olive trees. Much has been written already about Van Gogh, his tortured life, his brilliant paintings. I didn’t feel my poem needed to cover that well-worn ground. Instead, I decided to focus on the story of the severed ear, to let that odd tale do the telling. The finished poem, a third of the original in length, is titled, “An Orphan for Rachel.” In it, I mention fellow painter Gauguin, the well-known image of Van Gogh’s gauze-wrapped head, even the prostitute (Rachel of the title) he presented the ear to —but I never name Van Gogh. It’s a better poem for this final, unexpected bit of elbow work. Less is, sometimes, more.

Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

 

 

The Magic of Deadlines

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I’ve read a number of articles about writer’s block over the last couple of years, articles that examine the neurological reasons why we sometimes stare hopelessly at the blank page. A common thread in these articles is fear. It turns out that fear of failure, fear that what we write won’t be any good at all, can actually impede our ability to think creatively. This is something that I can’t afford right now, because in September I started my thesis semester at my MFA program. The task is daunting. I have 11 weeks to complete 100 pages of a fiction project of publishable quality. Even with the majority of the stories for my thesis drafted before September, I am still looking at two new story drafts and at least three intensive revisions. When I actually confronted the amount of work involved, I felt a little panicky. I couldn’t seem to get started. Then in my first meeting with my thesis advisor, I sat down with a calendar and set myself a series of deadlines.

Deadlines don’t seem like the most natural thing to help free up our creative thinking processes. In high school and in college I had writer friends who rebelled against deadlines, who thought that their creativity shouldn’t be constrained. But here’s the thing, facing a huge project like a collection or a novel can be completely paralyzing. It’s like trying to run a race while keeping your eyes on the finish line the whole time. For a while it can seem like we aren’t getting anywhere. Breaking it down, though, gives us small manageable goals to work towards. I just have to reach that next corner. I just need to draft one story this week.

In effect, small deadlines force us to stop staring in horror at the whole picture, and simply get down to work on the pieces. A large project doesn’t seem so unmanageable when we can think about it one story, or one chapter at a time. Plus, as we meet each deadline (or just complete each piece, on deadline or not), we feel a sense of accomplishment about what we have done, not hopelessness in the face of what we still have to do. If we can draft a new story in two weeks, then we can definitely revise a story in one week.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Finally, deadlines force us to spend the necessary butt-in-chair time. One of the hardest parts of writing is actually sitting down and writing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I still assume that writers sit around in cafes, drinking lattes and scribbling artistically in their notebooks. The reality of my chosen vocation is that in order to produce work we have to sit alone at desks for hours at a time, struggling with sentences and how to make that piece of dialogue sound just right. Writing takes up time that sometimes I’d rather be spending with friends, or maybe baking pumpkin bread, or taking a nice walk through the fall colors, or doing my laundry. The work requires sacrifice and discipline, practice and lots of time spent with our butts in chairs and our fingers on our pens/keyboards. Trying to commit the time on our own can be really, really hard. Especially when the part of our brains where the fear of failure lurks is telling us that what we really need now is a nice walk to the store in the sunshine to pick up stuff to make cookies.

Deadlines are the excuse we need to make those sacrifices to we can get the work done, even if we have to start wearing all our weird pairs of socks because we haven’t done laundry in two weeks. Setting deadlines helps us put pressure on ourselves to do the work. And while the pressure isn’t always pleasant, it can help unleash our creativity. When we have to turn in a story, we will sit down and write ten pages. Some of those pages, at least, will be good. But at least the story will be down on paper, and we can move forwards from there.

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

Zoning In, Zeroing

One of my writing practices centers around the art of zoning in and zeroing out. It consists first of putting myself in the zone of spontaneous writing, where I push the pen into unplotted territory, and second, of zeroing out—quieting the internal critic. The concept is not original. It’s been around for years and, depending on who you listen to, is alternately called free, automatic, or spontaneous writing. I’ve been doing this every Wednesday night for 12 years with my writing group—though these days, catching all four weeks in any given month is a challenge. The core members of the group have belonged for nearly as long, if not longer. This shared, ongoing experience fosters the zeroing—the turning down of mental chatter to near-zero—as well as comfort. Comfort with each other and the process, even the chairs we sit in. Our process is simple:

1) Pull a prompt from a short story or poem, or words from the dictionary;

2) Write for roughly 40 minutes;

3) Read out loud what we wrote.

Long ago I decided this wasn’t suitable to writing poems. I found I spent too much time in a kind of woolgathering which didn’t leave enough time to weave the threads. My next attempts were self-conscious personal essays. It wasn’t until I decided to try short stories that I hit my stride. Now, my typical yield for 40 minutes of in-the-zone writing is 500 words of short fiction featuring a few characters, one or two scenes, more internal narration than dialogue and (surprise! surprise!) close attention to diction, sonics, and rhythm. These last three are, of course, elements of poetry, and that’s where a transformation has occurred. My free-writing attempts at fiction have freed up my approach to poetry. On Wednesday nights I can trust that if I throw myself off the cliff without a parachute, I will land safely, sometimes magically (though not always without a bump) on the other side of a short story. And now when I sit down to write poetry with the blank screen staring at me—I prefer the computer when composing poems—and no more than a scrap of an idea, what happens (after much more than 40 minutes) is often so surprising that it’s as if someone else were doing the writing.

Author Kristin Prevallet, in her slender but stimulating book, Trance Poetics (Wide Reality books, 2013), speaks of automatic writing as the need to “…disassociate [the] conscious mind (the part…that plans, chatters, distracts, and often interrupts) from [the] unconscious mind (the part…that loses track of time, gets into a flow zone, and enacts [the] inner auto-pilot.” Prevallet, who is also a poet, performer, and hypnotherapist, compares the conscious and unconscious mind to a train running on two tracks—one in a tunnel and one above ground—that, with practice, can be distracted. “The conscious mind…can go ahead thinking about one thing, while the unconscious mind sets off on a completely different course….”

In the early years of the writing group, members took turns preparing and presenting prompts that were a smorgasbord of choices —suggested opening lines, scenes, metaphorical themes, ingredient words. This heavy helping of prompts fortified me for the uncertain ride ahead. The ingredient words often acted like stepping stones or, depending on the slope the piece was on, slalom gates that moved me through unfolding terrain. These days, I no longer feel the need to be helped by all this hemming in. With our lean, spontaneously generated prompts I feel a kind of reversal of Frost’s riding loose in the harness. There’s a freedom in having very little to guide me. Frost is well-known for saying, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He also said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” When I zone in and zero out, I love how the lump in my throat tells me that home lies ahead in the poem I’m about to write.

—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

Flannel-Clad Diety

Before I ever attempted to write about him, people told me that my father was a character. Smoking a Winston lifted from his pack, I sat in the passenger seat of my friend’s car or on a tree stump behind the high school, trying to emulate my father. Eventually, I transferred my emulation to the page, weaving in the details that interested me the most: his loyal squirrel pawing the backdoor for peanuts; the serrated knives, syringes, and jugs of formaldehyde beneath his taxidermy workbench; his quick-witted dialogue still laced with Vietnamese slang thirty years after the war.  “Your father’s a character, alright,” everyone said, “something else.”

For years I wrote about my father in confidence that I knew who he was and how to describe him. But after seeing him for the first time after months of writing about him, I was startled that the man I had created on the page differed from the man sitting beside me. My effort to transcribe him had resulted not in an indistinguishable replica, but in “something else.” I had created a character; my version of my father. Compared to the real man, my character seemed stronger, invincible. He was. The page is permanent, blood becomes ink; as a character, my father is immortal.

In Richard Freadman’s essay “Decent and Indecent: Writing My Father’s Life,” included in Paul John Eakin’s collection The Ethics of Life Writing, he describes his early struggle to write about his father as a “curiously vague inner resistance.” My own inner resistance surfaced only after I interviewed my father about his experiences in the Vietnam War.  Before that time, I had written personal essays about fishing trips, lazy summer days by the pool, afternoons beneath his Chevy, purposefully smearing my shirt with chassis grease. They were sentimental sketches. Though I was a twenty-five-year-old man hardly blind to my father’s faults, his fear of driving in New York City, his secret social anxiety, and his annual eruption of accumulated anger (all of which I inherited), I had no significant reason to write about him in any way other than complimentary. If I were depicting a scene of us working on his Chevy, I conveyed him to the reader as a god bending over the engine or a flannel-clad deity raising a mug of coffee to his face in the clouds. Even as I stood with a heavy ratchet in my hand while he lay beneath the truck, I was looking up to him.  Before I interviewed him – before I asked him to explain himself – his taxidermy studio seemed pure, no conflicting metaphors of life and death.

Writing about my father was an act of preservation. Like the flattened squirrels and raccoons he scraped off the highway and brought down to his taxidermy workshop in the basement, my father could be repaired and posed anyway I chose. Immortalized. But soon I realized that I wanted to create more than just a statue, an owl mounted on a severed tree branch, wings outspread. In order to do that, I had to be willing to show his imperfections and my own.

-Anthony D’Aries, Fellow in Nonfiction

 

 

Revision: The Hard (and Exciting) Part of Writing

IMG_0781

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

The air is getting crisper, the evenings are becoming shorter, kids are heading back to school, and I’m about to start my thesis semester. To finish my MFA program, I need to write 100 pages of a project of “near publishable” quality. I’m excited to work intensely on one long writing project. But I’m also a little nervous. So much of my writing life has been about writing new stories to be workshopped. I’m less familiar with what comes after workshopping: revision.

Revision is perhaps an even more important part of the writing process than drafting. Most great writers revise and revise and revise again. Last spring, one of my professors loaned me a book about the evolution of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Another professor has a photocopy of the first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” stuck up outside her door. The first draft of the poem is vastly different, but you can see the bones of the finished poem beginning to emerge. Bishop’s notes and edits on the first draft show her beginning to refine and develop her text. The poem doubtless went through a number of incarnations after the draft before it reached the finished form that is so well known today.

As I get ready to jump into my own revision process, I’m looking to great writers to learn how to revise. Here are some of the lessons I’ve drawn from Hemingway and Bishop’s drafts.

Nothing is Sacred

One of the first hurdles I had to jump in order to learn how to revise was my belief that my stories were perfect the way I imagined them the first time. Written down, that idea sounds absurd, but it’s a belief that many beginning writers hold. It partly stems from the worship of inspiration, of the idea that story comes to you from some mystical other: the muse, the subconscious, the divine. The belief that inspiration comes from a mystical origin makes the story sacred. Changing anything would betray the higher purpose, right?

Wrong. Both Hemingway and Bishop treated their first draft not like a sacred text, but as a raw material within which was buried something of great value. To reach their finished work, each had to cut, replace, and change much of the original text. Nothing in their first draft was sacred. Instead of trying to preserve their original words, both worked to bring out the resonant moments in their drafts. They were ruthless in cutting away anything that wasn’t working.

 We all know the quote “kill your darlings,” but I didn’t understand what that really meant until I began to see my drafts as raw material rather than already perfect stories. As I tackle revising stories for my thesis this fall, I’ll try to be fearless about cutting and changing text. After all, in this age of digital technology, I can always undo the changes if they don’t work.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” – E.M. Forster

One of the most fascinating things about Bishop’s draft are the edits she made by hand. Instead of simply rewriting the poem, she clearly spent time reading it, searching out the moments and ideas that resonated, and then working to clarify them. E.M. Forster’s quote above, while humorous, also explains this approach to revision. Both look for ideas and themes that emerge from the work, rather than trying to impose their original ideas on a piece that is evolving and changing. I’m hoping to use this approach with my own work this semester. I’ll try to read every story with fresh eyes, looking not for what I intended to say, but for what ideas actually appear in the work. Then I’ll revise to develop those ideas.

Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

Elizabeth Bishop’s final poem is very different than her original draft. To get there, she had to try new wording for most of the lines, to experiment with different ways of getting at what she meant. I want to include more experimentation in my revision process. Rather than rewriting the same scenes over and over, I’m going to write new scenes and try out new voices, introduce new characters and alter the sequence of events. Trying different ways to tell each story will help me figure out which elements work the best for each piece. In addition, this process of experimentation will make the work exciting. Revision can be the hardest part of writing, but playing mad scientist can make it more fun.

What are your thoughts on revision? Do you have any tips or advice?

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

 

An Interest in War

Years ago it occurred to me that all my life there has been a war somewhere on the planet. Whether a big war or a “brushfire” one or a “conflict,” always somewhere people were being injured and killed, people being displaced, their homes destroyed. People in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, North Korea and South Korea, Lao and Hmong, Serb and Croat, Arab and Israeli . . . it goes on and on, war or wars in period after period, this or that country, and always the dead, the refugees, and the exiles war makes.

When I was somewhere between infancy and three years of age, my older brother and I spent weekends with our father’s parents in Queens, New York. Weekends there meant Sabbath observance from sunset on Friday until sundown on Saturday. In the afternoon, after our grandfather returned from shul and our grandmother (my grandfather’s second wife, my father’s mother having died in 1918, in the ’flu pandemic, when he was eight years old) had served lunch, children were sent to nap, my brother in one room of the apartment, I in another.

The room in which I was to sleep was our young aunts’ bedroom (where they went on weekends when we visited, I never learned). Along one long wall there was a bed at each end, and along the other at each end there was a vanity and its small chair. Above the headboard of one bed hung Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” above the other, Thomas Lawrence’s painting of a young woman called “Pinkie,” though I did not then know the names of the pictures or the artists, nor why those paintings were there, seemingly forever.

There were other pictures in the room, photographs wedged into the frame of the mirror over the vanity close to the door to the bedroom and therefore far from the bed where I lay. Often on Sabbath afternoons, while I should have been asleep, my grandmother quietly entered the room. If I were not sleeping I’d have shut my eyes, to fool her. She sat down in the small chair of the far vanity, her elbows on the top of the vanity, her hands together under her chin, and stared at the photographs. I watched her face in the mirror. Soon, she took the photographs down and thumbed through them, slowly, stopping longer with one or another, soundless as tears fell down her cheeks. I remember wondering who the faces were and why she cried, but I knew, as children do, not to ask, and not to let her know that I watched her. Whether I told my brother what I saw, I can’t remember, though I saw it time and again.

Later, I learned the photographs were of of relatives, mainly hers, sent to her from Russia, and some were of relatives of my grandfather, all of them people who had stayed behind, perhaps changing their minds too late. Eventually the family learned almost all of them died in the camps, of disease or killed. One grew up Jewish absorbing such knowledge then, though not every family talked about it. The photographs disappeared from the mirror; I must have noticed that on a visit. Maybe my grandmother told me whose faces those were and who they had been when I was in high school, studying European history, which briefly included the Holocaust.

My father had known some of those people. As a young surgeon, he’d had a fellowship for 1936-1937 to work for half a year at a London hospital and half a year at a hospital in Berlin. Before starting the fellowship, he traveled to Russia and Poland—national borders in such contested areas being unstable in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish and non-Jewish communities might be said to have moved from one country to another while staying put, sort of like trench warfare. In London, the “senior” in charge of my father’s work was openly anti-Semitic. When, at the end of the first half year my father went to Germany, on his first day at the hospital in Berlin he was questioned about his accent in German (clearly recognized as Yiddish-tainted) and taken on a tour of the hospital, including the Jew ward. Within days, he was back in London, where he expressed to his senior a strong wish to spend the second half of the fellowship year there, a wish that, almost unexpectedly, was granted.

Section of Painting by Salvador Dali

Section of Painting by Salvador Dali

As a front-line Army surgeon, my father entered Europe in a duck boat as part of the Normandy invasion. For the rest of his life a calendar of the war lived in him: June was Omaha Beach, December the Battle of the Bulge, April Buchenwald. Every December he was overcome by cold, the record freezing temperatures, the snow, mud, ice, and frostbite of 1944. When the Army was forced to retreat, my father volunteered to stay with the American wounded too ill to be evacuated, for which he later was awarded a bronze star. When the Germans arrived, he was captured, and the Colonel in command ordered him to care not only for his Americans but also for wounded German soldiers. Once the Americans were well enough to withstand removal to a prison camp, my father, blond, blue-eyed, built like the wrestler he’d been in college, and able to speak German, however tainted by Yiddish, escaped. In April he was with the Army for the liberation of Buchenwald. He never forgot what he saw. He took photographs for the medical records and made copies for himself, which he showed to me when I was in high school, studying history. For three weeks I could not sleep through the night. I was fourteen.

Having been raised on one war and then old enough during the Korean “conflict” to read newspapers, which puzzled me by the constant mention of parallel lines, it may be no surprise that I became interested in war and, later, war poetry, coming upon, for example, Joel Barlow’s “Advice to a Raven in Russia,” written when Barlow, sent to Russia in 1812 on behalf of the U.S. government to meet with Napoleon, witnessed the devastation wrought by the failed attempt of the Grande Armée to take Moscow. From World War I, the “Great War,” there are, in English, the British poets, those of 1914 and 1915, such as Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, for whom heroism and glory were inherent in war, and others later, such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, living and dying, as Owen did, in the fruitless repeated battles of trench warfare, seeing and writing about those at the front, the wounded, the crazed, the dead, and about the generals, at the rear. They wrote, too, about soldiers on leave, in “Blighty,” unable to face or talk about the war with mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, many of whom continued to praise what the soldiers fighting in it, witnessing it, protested in poetry and in fiction, such as Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930), the title taken from Shakespeare, so the pun is easily guessed. An astonishing poem written early in the war is by Charles Hamilton Sorley, now almost unheard of, a twenty-year-old soldier killed on the Western Front in May of 1915:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
 

The Vietnam war, in Vietnam called the American war, has a literature of its own: stories such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), and poetry by such poets as Kevin Bowen, Bruce Weigl, and Fred Marchant, a Marine who, while serving, filed for and was awarded conscientious objector status. Of necessity, I skip much: there are now many anthologies of war poetry, and poetry is being written in other languages where war is now going on.

But an interest in war may not be unique to me, it may, rather, be ordinary, given the world we live in. An interest in poetry of war, poetry against war, poetry telling of the effects of war, written by combatants, former combatants, and noncombatants, men as well as women, such as the poets and translators Martha Collins and Eavan Boland, may well be increasingly of interest, given the world we live in.

-Ellin Sarot, Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

 

Blurred Vision, Found Philosophy

On a Saturday in early May, as my husband and I were driving to the Mass Poetry Festival, my right eye suddenly started to do things it never had before. A large gray floater drifted with metronomic precision across my field of vision and, in the peripheral edges, I saw what looked like lightning flashes. It was an overcast day, not really sunny, but what the Scots sometimes call bright. At first, I thought my eyes were simply adjusting from indoor light, but the symptoms persisted, and as they did, panic mounted. I knew that one or both of these —a sudden increase in floaters, flashes of light— could be signs of a retinal tear. Worse, the onset of retinal detachment. I spent the day listening to poetry, while trying not to be distracted by the eye or catastrophic thinking. Was I going to be vision-impaired? How would that fit into my reading-and-writing life? The floater and flashes, it turns out, while persistent and annoying, are just part of the normal aging process. My symptoms are the result of the vitreous humor, which is normally Jell-O-like, shrinking and liquifying. My retina is fine, but it took a few visits to specialists, and some fairly aggressive eye exams, to reach that conclusion. It was in the waiting room of one of those specialists that I found a philosophy.

Three and a half weeks after the initial onset, I met with a doctor specializing in diseases of the retina and vitreous. Her waiting room, which was shared by several offices, was a sea of mahogany chairs with maroon leather. The appointment lasted many, many hours, most of which I sat out with other patients, each of us waiting to be called in for one exam or another then sent back. I seemed to be on the same cycle as an elderly man and his wife, both of whom must have been in their eighties, but looked younger. He was loud and lumbering. When his wife was out of the room, he told me how many years they had been married, and that he first dated her sister. Each time she spoke to him he croaked, What…? He was gruff, impatient, but on one occasion he whispered something tender about a vacation. He had the attention-seeking behavior of people who don’t understand boundaries in public spaces. I would have buried my face in a magazine, but the multiple dilating drops had kicked in and I was semi-blind. I moved to a bank of windows and stared out at the street, trying to ignore him, but each time his wife was called away, he engaged me in conversation. I responded with a polite terseness that I hoped he would read as discouragement. He didn’t. On one occasion, when it was just the two of us and he was sitting half a room away, he said, “Do you know what the three keys to a successful marriage are?” I looked his way, and before I could say anything, he held up three sausage-y fingers.

“Number one: Gut communication,” he said, gripping his stomach. He folded his index finger down.

“Two: A sense of humor.” Only the ring finger was left.

“Three: Non-sexual touch. A pat, a hug, a squeeze. The human species —and we’re all members of the species— the human species needs affectionate touch.” It didn’t escape me that when he said the word “pat,” he caressed the air the way some men stroke their wives’ bottoms.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t disagree. And then I thought that if I had to distill the secrets of a successful marriage down to three aphorisms, I might choose something very close to this loud and lumbering philosopher’s. He was called away, I was marooned in the sea of chairs, and it suddenly occurred to me that his philosophy could be grafted onto writing, and if I did that, it might look like this.

One: Write from the gut, write authentically. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Elmore Leonard proclaimed.

Two: Don’t take yourself, your words, too seriously. “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone,” Stephen King has said. “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt…but it must be done.”

Three: Touch the reader, her soul, in some way. “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,” Emily Dickinson declared, “I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

It’s not a perfect fit, this “found” writing philosophy. The grafting might not yield hearty, new growth, but it has a ring of truth, some value. The floaters still annoy me most days, still temporarily gray my vision and, when I’m tired, light sparks in my periphery. But my vision is somehow sharper. People, like writing, can be a process of discovery and surprise. And the next time I’m in a waiting room, I may not engage with the strangers around me, but I won’t assume they don’t have something valuable to offer.

—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow