How does a poem come into being? Some poets claim a poem begins for them with a word or a phrase, a newspaper article, a memory of a place or a person, a traumatic experience such as illness or loss. I think it also helps to have an obsession, for example, Sylvia Plath’s father, Derek Walcott’s St. Lucia, William Wordsworth’s daffodils, Gerard Manley Hopkin’s crisis of belief and in my case, the loss of my parents when I was four.
My poems combine personal and collective history to express loss, and, as T.S. Eliot wrote “mixing memory and desire.” My parents’ early deaths have been a deep well which I draw upon in various guises and contexts. An example would be my poem “Dream of Mrs. Roosevelt” in which the speaker dreams of descending into a mine shaft akin to the Greek myth of a descent into Hell, where she encounters the dead. Among them are “her brother’s stillborn baby/wrapped in her pink receiving blanket and in “the deepest shaft” which represents a deeper layer of memory and imagination, her parents when young “at FDR’s inauguration, standing in the D.C. cold, drinking in FDR’s words like bathtub gin.” The poem now expands historically into recognition of wider loss as the speaker encounters “miners’ shapes.” Tiny yellow stars are sewn onto their jackets /that will be stacked in rows/beside heaps of shoes.” Heaped shoes being one of the most familiar images of the Holocaust shows the speaker understands there are more horrific losses than hers.
When the President rolls out/of the dark in his wheelchair,” she asks him, Why couldn’t you save them? Why did they die? Mrs. Roosevelt, who as in Virgil, has been her guide in Hell, reappears and hands the speaker a pickaxe and says Dig. This last line suggests that the narrator must dig even deeper into layers of her unconscious to expiate grief for herself and others. It implies as well the journey is never ending and that she must travel further back in memory to a primal wound where she might find the source of her creativity, her parents.
Although memory is the fundamental basis for my poems, since I hardly remember my parents, I make them up, exaggerate, embellish, and invent as part of the poetic process. They were never in Washington, never attended FDR’s inauguration, but I put them there. With similes like “drinking in his words like bath tub gin” I historicize them and their era
with poems about figures of the time, among them, Warren G.Harding and Josephine Baker.
Although parental loss is the deepest source of my work, there are many poems on other subjects, a chapbook of poems about Paris, Paris Etudes, and a chapbook about food, More Sweet, More Salt. An example is “Guacamole, A Love Song,” which follows a recipe form, “Choose a ripe pebbly-skinned avocado/cut it length-wise, reserve the pit,” history and loss are still present. When I interrupt my recipe with a Mexican recipe for guacamole, grief is placed in a wider cultural context.
In Mexico they spread out sliced tomatoes
and display the avocado pit
like a Mayan head decorating a pyramid.
On El Dia de Los Muertos,
the cilantro aroma invites the departed to picnic
on grave stones with their families.
In this description, loss is both universal and particular, as Mexican mourners on The Day of the Dead, though grieving, find pleasure and celebrate life. The poem’s ending “Plant the avocado pit. Overcome the dark” is meant as a directive to embrace life and as solace to all of us who have experienced ‘the dark” in whatever form.