Northampton, Mass., 1984. To a woman I left behind in New Hampshire.
Crystalist Theater Electric, 1981.
This woman with long wavy teenage hair
A small boy child
Lives just across the street from me.
As she opens the door to leave
Using my telephone this second time we meet, suddenly,
Like remembering to tie her shoe,
She tells me her boyfriend beats her black and blue.
That man whose been watching me,
For months now
I have felt
His never nearer than 50 feet
At night I have pulled my window shades,
A woman alone,
I tell her I will talk to others,
(There is no battered women’s movement
In Keene New Hampshire,
No shelters yet, then, for women and their children),
But she never comes back,
She never comes back until tonight,
Three weeks and six bloody beatings later, she comes back.
He had attacked her today
She fought him off with a baseball bat.
Rashly he rushed off
Left her, the baseball bat,
And she comes.
She says, “ He said you were a lesbian”
She says, “He told me if I came back again, you would be his next target”
He would come,
But accompanied with his many guns.
I thank her for not coming
Amazing the significance.
I deny I am a lesbian
But she tells me he saw me one night.
I remember that night,
Hesitant months ago,
Kissing Sarah too passionately in her Subaru
Under the bright streetlight.
I remember foolishly thinking if anyone saw us,
They would think my beautiful womanly woman was a man,
Because of her
It’s just so hard to always be on guard.
Like all lovers, before parting, we simply kissed a kiss,
That will keep me awake,
The next few nights,
Than, I would have wished.
Northampton, Massachusetts, 1983.
Do I dare myself to write this poem,
To commit these feelings to word spread on paper
Open and no longer hidden
In the swirling of a solitary mind.
Let the blades of the fan stop moving;
Pull out the plug, long enough, to allow this with her.
Do I dare to take the risk of looking down from this great height
Knowing that every time I have looked before from this room
Soon after the view has turned into crushed broken and awkward remains
Jutting from the earth like an ancient ruin.
I write because I have dared myself
Like a child to another
Not to step on the crack,
I write because it is fall now and the leaves are turning yet again on the trees
Turning to reds yellow ashes and seed.
I write because I could have died in my feverish sleep this past week but I lived and she lived with me
The risk too great for her not to come.
So I prepare my wetsuit to dive one more time into this wreck
No longer willing to be a pawn
In what has become a parrot-like garden game
On a plastic card table
A wild horse corralled in a stable.
~ November, 1983
Blue, the mountains are blue here today,
Blue like the blood in my veins before it sees the light of day.
For so many now, I’ve been ripped open in mourning,
All my clothes shredded,
Hanging off my body, limp, is the loss.
I am almost empty
Before you slice into the fruit
I appear full and fleshy with disguise, discover inside,
Dried up seeds, nothing but
Of what once was.
It’s really such a joke sister
Because I never learned how build the fires full
And there are remains without any structure
So from where did they fall?
All these years an architect building building building
To break down the bricks piled top me,
And then I turned half turned not knowing how and why only when
And for so many months pulled apart to grief.
My lover O lover of the nowpast,
The mountains are blue
When they should be green,
Remember, when I tried to tell you about that onion, myself,
I discovered to be circular going inward into winding wetness feeding female
Then split down the middle you cut me like a cantaloupe with an axe
And still in separate hands I balance the pieces
Fool that I am,
On one foot,
Weighing the losses.
I am so tired.
It is awfully hard now to tell the building from the breaking,
And so bad I want to simultaneously be
Cat tailed clear-eyed beach tree,
And cast ashes,
Over the deep blue sea.
~ August 1982
Poem with audio recording of my reading Invocation
Ashes Or Dust (For Kerry, 7/2016) Ashes Or Dust
Red-Tipped Fired Wild-Wings of Wondering (1983/1988)
Poem, with audio recording of my reading Red-Tipped Fired Wild-Wings Of Wondering (1983/1988)
This is America (1978) This is America. (1978)
A Poem A Day To Keep The Doctor Away (1979-1980)
Poem, with audio recording of my reading A Poem A Day To Keep The Doctor Away (1979)
Winter Soliloquy Seven Years Thereafter (8/2009-7/2016) Winter Soliloquy Seven Years Thereafter Poem, with audio recording of my reading
The Porch (Summer 2005) The Porch
Poem, with audio recording of my reading
Shabbat Song. The Ancestors. (2006/2016) Shabbat Song. The Ancestors.
Poem, with audio recording of my reading
The Night I Decided There Was No Soul (12/2007) The Night I Decided There Was No Soul Poem, with audio recording of my reading
What Does It Mean To Write? (1981/2015) What Does It Mean To Write Poem, with audio recording of my reading
There Is A Poem, Within (1/2015) There Is A Poem, Within
Poem, with video recording of my reading
There Is Not Another Way Through This Forest (For Deborah, 8/2015) There Is Not Another Way Through This Forest Poem, with video recording of my reading
Women And Nature: A Radical Feminist Eco-psychology (1999) Protected: Women and Nature: A Radical Feminist Eco-psychology [Copyright laws require this to be password protected. Please inquire if you are interested in reading. This was my Master’s Thesis and is 450 pages, incorporate my own poetry as well as the poetry of many women throughout the past hundred years, notable, Native American Women poets.]
1978, Love Poem to Janet (1978/1982) 1978, Love Poem To Janet
Poem, with audio recording of my reading
Flying Above Eagle, Cape Rosier, Maine (2007) Flying Above Eagle, Cape Rosier, Maine
And I’ll Never Forget (For Janet, 1980) And I’ll Never Forget
Audio recording only
On Concrete (Montague, 1987/1988) On Concrete
Dear Ursus (2014) Dear Ursus
Poem, with audio recording of my reading
Around Us Was A Sharp Bright 6:00 October Light (For Lis, 1981) Around Us Was A Sharp Bright 6:00 October Light Poem, with audio recording of my reading
Mother (2008) Mother
At The Doctor’s Office (June 2003) At The Doctor’s Office
Poem, with audio recording of my reading
The Blackened Tree (March/2013) The Blackened Tree
Poem, with finger painting and audio recording of my reading
On Thin Ice (mid 2000/2012) On Thin Ice
Enough Is Enough (mid 1980s/2012) Enough Is Enough
Standing By A Stone Wall (July 2005-July 2006) Standing By A Stone Wall
Woof (2006) Woof
Bleeding Heart, Fringed Bleeding Heart, Fringed – Dedicated to May Sarton
Dedicated to May Sarton
The Cat Poems, V. Here I Am Letting You Go De-Parted From Flesh And Bone Of Discord (For Symphony, 1981) The Cat Poems, V. Here I am Letting You Go De-Parted From Flesh And Bone Of Discord
Gone, IV (1980) Gone, 1V.
The Cat Poems, 111. Gone (1980) The Cat Poems, 111. Gone.
The Cat Poems, 11. Gone. Revised (1980) The Cat Poems, 11. Gone. Revised
The Cat Poems, 1. Gone. My Shadow. Shy Skeptical Slow. Closet Cat (1980) The Cat Poems, 1. Gone. My Shadow. Shy Skeptical Slow. Closet Cat.
We Fall: In The Voice Of Dylan Thomas (2008) We Fall; In The Voice of Dylan Thomas
To The Daughters I Never Had (2005) To The Daughters I Never Had
Imagine If They Actually Paid Poets! (2007) Imagine If They Actually Paid Poets!
When (2008) When
Old Feet (2009) Old Feet
In The Voice Of Edna Saint Vincent Millay (2008) In The Voice of Edna Saint Vincent Millay
Trenton Bridge, Route 3 (2005) Trenton Bridge, Route 3
The Lost Bird (1997) The Lost Bird
House Of Ladybugs (2002) House Of Ladybugs
Love Poem To My Dog (2003) Love Poem To My Dog
Bird Watching (To Lierre, 1988) Bird Watching
Dog Death: Without (2011) Dog Death: Without
The Eagle: Two Versions (2011) The Eagle; Two Versions
Mother (2008) Mother
Same poem as above but with an audio recording of my reading
We Must Make Of Our Lives A Work Of Art, Revolving (for Kerry, 1998/2014) We Must Make Of Our Lives A Work Of Art, Revolving Poem, with audio recording of my reading
Ode To An Old Raccoon (6/1998) Ode To An Old Raccoon
May Flies: Another Conversation With Death (2003) May Flies: Another Conversation With Death
The Horses Down The Road (spring to fall, 2005) The Horses Down The Road
To you who are not yet entirely worn
To you who are drying on the shore
Awake not asleep,
I tell you,
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
Not long ago, what, maybe twelve years,
And believe me, twelve years makes all the difference,
Then eleven, now a married mother with a child of three,
The pharmacist who yesterday said to me at Stop and Shop,
“Every time I see you, I want to ask, and so I shall: You, you were Kerry’s Susan, yes?”
And my world was shaken up like my photographs
Into multi dimensions of time and space
As I tried to merge the woman before me now
With the little girl sitting behind me at the synagogue
The day we buried Kerry.
Outside my windows a row of trees that were not there,
A decade ago,
Now tall shining birch trees,
How do we comprehend time?
Once living breathing loving, planning the morrow,
Now in a pine coffin encased in sorrow
We were sitting at the kitchen table,
My old father and I, as we did,
So many hundreds of times,
But now he was in a wheelchair, the legs than ran from
Roxbury to Boston Latin, the prizes, achievements,
Lost like the distant mountain outside my windows in the haze of this hot summer day, today.
Two sides of the same coin, we were,
A coin pressed from deep philosophy, too many regrets,
Too many losses, from history, and soul,
And a shared quest to understand it all, though he was worlds ahead of me, and he said,
You know Susan, you should know, soon,
We will all be forgotten.
How many years, after our deaths,
Will everyone else who ever knew us,
Also be no more?
So what is the point of our lives
I ask you?
We’ll all be ashes or dust.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
July 17, 2016
Red Tipped Fire
Red tipped fired wild wings of wondering,
Will, and when will you flaunt yourself into my caverns,
Fly your controlled flapping feathers to my
Ledge, make your way through deep waters,
Calling to you, enclosed with songs no woman could not hear,
Hundreds of years of years of lapping.
I wait for you,
Knowing you are very rare,
I have no arms to bear,
A presence only clear, for you.
If you can come, you will
And far further.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
Written first in 1983. Revised in 1988, for Kerry. “My brilliant beautiful lover dead at fifty: Could we have know what the future would bring?”
For desert tonight
Have a memory
A poem a day
To keep the doctor away.
We’re both older now
And I wonder
Do you still remember me?
Did those soft warm years
That we shared
Paddling back and forth,
Forth and back,
To the pantry, to the
Big oak table, through
The musty halls of comfort.
I loved you, I love you so, as a girl
I’d almost forgotten
How close we were
I remembered membered remembered last night
As a woman
Many years after
Time turned bad and sour in the family
And our love ceased to be sweet.
The memory is vague
There are so many cobwebs to be lifted
And to think of how you are these days
Brings me futility and pain.
Last time I saw you I could hardly see
Through the tears in your eyes
I choose to feel instead another life far away.
A life that would have comforted
And nurtured you also
As it does your grand-daughter
If you’d only had the choice.
It’s too late now, it’s too late, your old
And wrinkled and they give
You drugs to destroy you
In your wisdom and beauty
In our moment of strength
They tie you down
To the chair we once
Played on together.
Your thoughts are scattered
And recently you’ve taken on the habit
Of suddenly screaming
“Oh God oh God oh God”.
The others turn away from you
I try to talk with you
To dull your pain and fear
I try to piece together your words
Each coming from a different decade of your life.
It almost seems
You were purposely leading me on
Giving me clues.
I’m alone tonight
As you are grand-ma
And I miss you more
Than you will ever know
You are my roots
You shared my struggles
To grow as I share yours now,
For desert tonight
Have a memory
A poem a day
To keep the doctor away.
A Poem A Day To Keep The Doctor Away
©Susan Lynn Gesmer, 1979-1980, Keene, NH
A peony, at first,
Although, past the stage of symbiotic stinging ants,
Who returned en masse, after,
Burnishing, a dying, flower.
When he left me so suddenly, the only choice I had was
To go back to the beginning,
To close my petals tight,
To reverse time, like one of those slow motion films of flowers opening,
But, we can never go back in time in anything but our imaginations,
I was, a magnificently opening blossom, one of the most stunning
Of all flowers,
Endlessly layered, radiating wanting, and
Rose rose rose were my still pre-menopausal lips.
But this was before, before, before
Tree-shadows-sweeping-tornado like destruction,
Hovering menacing green boughs arched over dark waters, I was
Caught unexpected, in a fierce storm,
Way, too far out on the water.
So, I did the sidestroke, the backstroke, the crawl,
I floated, trying not to fight the currents,
I did everything I could think of,
Everything learned so many decades ago, in that swimming pool,
In Brookline, in 1959, and
Everything learned since,
Everything, everything, every single thing.
I flung myself through raging waters.
Gray swirls reflecting the gait of the sky
Above me as I splashed, unwavering, straining to see the shore.
Where was the shore?
Where was the shore?
I was far out far out so far out past safety,
past past past I was so far past, I was propelled into the future
I was nowhere I had ever been before,
In this, lifetime.
While he lingered.
As he lingered from the beginning.
When not diving, deep deep deep,
Into my opening,
(I had never before let any man this close
But what can I say
I came to him as a blooming peony),
He jumped away, came close, jumped away, close, back again, away,
He was like a fish leaping out of the water for insects just above the surface
Jumping higher and higher
Until he was amphibious sprouting small legs,
A mudskipper, a lungfish, convergent evolution,
Forefins and skin that breathes.
When he followed me into deep swirling beautiful waters with the sun high above us,
At the same time the moon was rising
And the moon and stars visible in the sky
In the middle of the day, oh my God,
He was there but only for a moment.
How could anyone be
In the place that is the center of the universe
The entire cosmos
For only a moment?
Suddenly, in the middle of all of this
Appeared kayaks, green, blue and aquamarine.
Softly around me silent people paddled.
They were my only hope and so I reached out, arms raised, implored,
O please please pull me in, take-me-away,
Far away, from this first love of so many years, whose
Penis was soft as a rose but whose heart was encased
Beneath quills like those of a porcupine.
There was not a lot I could see, without my glasses,
Except the water
And the endless darkening sky.
The silent ghostly kayakers drifted past
Although I could hear their paddles moving through the water.
They stared through me,
Or was it me,
I do not think they were from this world.
So, welcoming those tentative wings along my side as they unfolded,
Soft soft skin growing into feathers, neck collapsing, crown nape ear receding,
Pink soft mouth into slender hard beak almost the length of my body,
Two still lovely childless breasts miraculously free from surgical removal,
Merging into ribs, above a soft bird belly,
Long legs shrinking, femur, patella, becoming tail,
A rudder to help me balance and steer,
I rose with a skeleton even more porous than my human osteoporotic one.
Five toed arched feet with 24 bones and 33 joints into four tiny claws,
One human toe remaining, because of course I have become what I am,
Lastly, finally, my arms morph into wings,
940 bright radiant iridescent colored feathers,
And I fly away, leaving him,
This first man in so many decades,
This foundering flounder of a man,
Leaving him like the fish he was not.
Rising up from the water
Winging over ancient kayakers,
Toward the swimmer’s beach
So many years alone to come
So many years alone to come
A world of green green solitary beautiful forests.
It is much better to be a leaf hanging alone,
Than to be
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Winter Soliloquy Seven Years Thereafter.
August 2009 – July 2016
A breeze bedazzling through the trees.
Waves gentle against the shore of a dark night.
A phoebe calling. A dog snapping her teeth.
Maple branches grow flush against the screen,
From two weeks of steamy rain.
Soft pine needles downy like, in the distance.
I am trying to pay closer attention to what is
Closer attention to the deep green moss
Growing on the thick tree bark.
Where did I get the impression trees were brown? Instead,
Decidedly, a hundred shades of gray.
@ Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Porch, Summer, 2005, Goshen, Massachusetts
Line the hallway wall
Through the long entrance
Into my bedroom chamber,
Where once you pass them all,
A cherry sleigh bed
Covered in ochre down,
Sits before a wall of windows
Looking out onto the Highland Forest,
Landscape paintings, oranges,
Golds, greens, blues, browns and grays
They stare back at me, always serious,
Garbed in clothing from 1904 to the 1940s,
Groups of them,
My grandparents and their sisters and brothers,
Young, lovely, women, handsome men,
Surrounding their parents and grandparents.
Then another photo,
Years later, faces beginning to wrinkle,
Dark man tailored suits
Even on the women.
I stuck a snapshot of us all
From ten years ago,
In the corner of one of the photographs,
The three famous children,
Not yet born,
The young ones from then
Long dead. And now, as I record this poem,
As I read this poem into my tape recorder,
Ten more years later, all dead.
As the years passed
Wire framed glasses,
Broaches, time pieces and flowers
Pinned to corseted lace dresses, on the women
Turn to pearls and dark rimmed glasses,
Turn to blue jeans, turtlenecks,
Eddie Bauer and LL Bean shirts,
Delicate silk scarves on the old women,
And back to wire rim glasses.
Babies in my brother and cousin’s arms
Now teenagers. Now in their twenties,
Time is collapsing against itself,
Past present and future all
My hair brown and thick and short,
Now gray and long,
Now brown and thick and short,
Now gray and long,
Now brown and long.
I wonder each night,
As I walk past my Ancestors, and I
Childless, who will look,
Who will look, one day, long from now,
Upon that once lovely women
In the purple silk shirt and gray wool vest,
As I do look upon, now look upon,
Katherine, Sarah, Lillian, Hannah, Rachael, and Rose.
As I do now look upon,
Rena, Ralph, Ruthie, Elaine, Bennett, and Stuart.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Shabbat Song. The Ancestors. Written in 2006. Edited in 2016.
The night I decided there was no soul
Was like any other night,
Maybe darker, and in early December
Here in the hills, there was already
As much snow as the past two global warming
And it was cold, in the low teens,
As it had been now for a dozen days,
But it was really just another ordinary night.
The moon was a sliver in the sky and stars sheathed
The night I concluded there was no soul,
That we were bodies, completely.
It was hardly an epiphany!
As I’d been debating this question for decades,
But it was shattering nonetheless,
The night I realized how truly mad
This mad fabrication, this imaginative fantasy of
The separation of body and soul
Body and mind
Body and spirit.
That the body,
“The cathedral of the soul”
That the soul morphed! into something winged,
Or wise, glorious, or beautiful, but certainly
Above it all,
Whilst the body
Bloated and putrefied,
Dripped decaying under the earth.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Night I Decided There Was No Soul, December 2007
What Does It Mean To Write
We reach, at first, slowly moving fingers,
Plays poetry and prose
Pieces shared, never shared,
Confined in close drawers
Combined with music and movement
Every morning we write,
With sun rising rays radiating into late evenings
Must be silence still and yellow darkness
whenever it comes we write,
Raining days, middle march mornings, weary afternoons,
Hot August evenings, in brass beds,
On wobbling kitchen tables
On desks of dark mahogany, in loud bright buses
At dusk, in musty country libraries,
On the edge of city bathtubs,
On napkins in hospital cafeterias,
On snowy nights in Vermont villages,
On assembly lines
With a knife
We write, all the precious time,
Not at all.
And nothing comes
Forth from our fingertips.
We are shut underneath a trapped door.
Or just gone.
Somewhere where the self is no more.
And I’ve come from Lydia,
Lydia Lydia, O Lydia,
Away from five years of rural living
Knowing one other woman who wrote.
Lydia, Lydia, who wrote highly structured poetry
And obscure short stories
About an enormous woman who got stuck in chairs
always humiliated, Lydia,
Her mother her mother her mother was a writer
She remembered sitting
Upon her mother huge cushioned bed
A small child
Listening listening listening to her
Read read read her glistening glistening poetry.
In her memory her mother’s voice like snowflakes
Coming down through a shining light at night.
Her mother died a few years ago growths overnight
All over her smooth once smooth delicate soft skin Growing like parasitic fungi and quickly she died
She died as if in a race and in reaction to some action
Lydia Lydia, O Lydia, in your stories you were stripping yourself down, thin to begin with, slowly unloading a very heavy burden with in your craft.
Yes, I come from Lydia,
I come physically, away, from, Lydia,
But to what to what to what to what do I come,
What does it mean, to write,
What the hell does it mean, to write?
Our stories are of living, it means simply living
All the while setting senses down with words widening
Making marking making marking whole
Telling truths, it means truth,
It means in Nazi concentration camps
They immediately killed
With scraps of their own writing,
For this reason,
It means writing because you write
Could not stop,
It means with attention in-attention taking pencil taking Pen pen pencil in hand
Placing keys under fingers
Paper — white yellow green onionskin cream
It means making tangible for another
A cold shower or sweet, the taste of an orange.
It means listening listening listening to that voice
Those whispers no one else hears
Those shadows no one else sees,
Listening listening listening,
Then, it’s not about having time season reason license
Not a room of one’s own
Not even a space of one’s own
Sometimes just a box with holes for air,
A toilet seat,
A bathroom with a door.
It means being a writer,
Writing through it all,
Or not writing,
But coming back
To this first and forever lover
Who is always
Being a writer means sanding like an intricate sculpture Shaping into words our living our lives it means impact It means having power power over what was before The unnamable, unspeakable.
It means work work work work creating a new a new
A new world, a new universe,
A forest from one seed
An ocean from one river
A continent from one mountain
It means chaos becomes light
It means being a writer
It means simply writing writing writing writing.
What Does It Mean To Write © Susan Lynn Gesmer, Written, early 1981, edited December 2015/November 2017.
A nest full of hot feathers,
Before you know it
You are up there
On the edge
Of dried grasses, moss, feathers, and fur,
Spider silk, mud, saliva, twigs. You are
A Golden Plover nestled in lichen,
A Burrowing Sand Martin,
A White-breasted Nuthatch
Your head emerging boldly
From your tree cavity
Surveying the world.
You are a teeny being
Overflowing with enthusiasm,
Leaping about, twittering excitedly,
Standing on the heads of siblings
Competing for the first or best morsel
Dropped into your beak.
Until, one unexpected morning,
You decide to take that unbelievable leap.
Having never flown before but
With so many millennia of genetic sensibility,
Those magical spectacular wings,
And let go.
May you make it through those first days
My beautiful one,
Not gobbled by another creature,
As you are crawling up the bark of a tall tree
Digging into the ground with your back to the sun,
Catching dragonflies midair.
May you wrestle yourself from near doom
My beautiful one
Soaring ever soaring
Higher and higher.
How many fluffy feathered ones
Leap off the edge of the only place they have ever known
Flying blindly into
Fields and forests
What compels us out into the world
Beyond the self?
What kind of faith?
What allows us,
All the while,
To maintain our innate knowing,
Even in light of
Our initial disbelief,
Over the utter and endless vastness
Of the sky?
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
There Is A Poem, Within
Death came, for our fathers, first,
You and I, and then, our beautiful mothers,
Inside whose bodies we first lived, thrived,
Grew into softly cooing babies.
Intertwined roots, her and us, we can never fully unwind,
Could never imagine two entirely separate braids,
Hair woven together with so much more than DNA,
Even when the tree of her being is no more,
Even when we are no more,
Our roots are forever plaiting together
In ways we can no longer see with our eyes nor hear with our ears.
Death came, for our fathers, first,
And then our beautiful mothers,
My dear friend, as it will, one day,
Come for me, you, and for us all,
First a quiet whispering in the night,
A soft nudge like the paws of a kitten
Gently raised to your cheek,
Teeny sharp claws caustic for only a moment,
Quickly enough to put out of one’s mind,
Bury in the back of our dresser drawer,
With the clothes or jewels we are waiting to wear,
One day when the occasion presents itself.
Until, unexpectedly, death comes loudly
Screeching our names like
A Barred Owl in the night,
Who cooks for you?
Who cooks for you-all?
What can we do to withstand this fact of our lives?
This inextricable mystery
This one-day we are here
And the next, we are no longer.
How do we survive these deaths,
Of those we hold most precious.
We must keep a space for each other,
A space in this world,
When the rains whip through our hair,
As the hair of those from whose bodies we came
Thinned more each month,
As their bellies and calves swelled with fluid
As icy penetrating fear blew through our hearts like those
Nor’easters, when you would stoke your stove full and
Place your mother before it.
I watch you now,
Continuing on with the necessary tasks
Of the living,
Hanging your laundry to dry on your line, in the summer breeze.
Picking vegetables from your gardens, garlic drying,
Laid out on the floor of your mudroom like
Driving down your road for your farm share each week,
Carefully preparing small meals for one,
Going to sleep early and sleeping through your mother’s hour of waking,
In the mornings.
Her bed sheets remain tightly tucked into the
Mattress where she slept all of the nights of her
Recent years with you, there,
In the home of her loving daughter, she spent her last days,
In the bed, in the room, in the house on the hill
In the rural country town in the foothills of the Berkshires,
And then lay breathing no more.
You, her dearest daughter
By her bedside,
Where she spent the last night in death,
Hoping to journey alongside
As far as we mortals are allowed,
Into the world of The Dead.
In that room there now sits a box of ashes
On a table by the window.
Oh, how much she loved sitting and looking out the many windows to the distant hills and closer gardens,
With your two cats coming and going.
In our lives we must make a sacred place together
Under the redwood trees,
I am not sure there is another way through this forest.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
There Is Not Another Way Through This Forest
Inhaling fertile smoke
(How many cigarettes a day did we smoke then, my love?)
White painted clapboard
New Hampshire house
Up the stairs
Through the night
For her children
Off the common trees
Of that small town,
I laughed at her cunning
Knowing he would be gone
No longer still in the “mental hospital”
At the constraints
On the wrist of her soul
Me across the room
Us never touching
The grief of her past
And I sat, unspeaking, so long ago now,
Its many faces.
I cannot honestly say I did not love her stories,
My beautiful friend The Outlaw, when
Drunk she drove
Police cars on the chase
Through red lights of a faraway city
I took each step with her even though
We never held each other through the night.
She didn’t come back
I gathered her most precious things
It was the first gathering of many to come,
Papers from her desk,
Only for her.
In the cold and bitter winds of winter,
Into my three-roomed world
We slept together not touching through that night
When we woke she told me I was beautiful, and
As she was leaving
In that damn rabbit-furred coat I will never forget,
Wobbling on heels too high for hitchhiking,
I mean really leaving
Never to be seen again,
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
1978, Love Poem To Janet
For the seabirds
Of Spectacle Island, I watch
With a shadow —
Seven foot wingspan,
White head, hooked yellow beak,
And 6-inch talons.
On earth’s larger island
Fear haunts in many guises
Endlessly reinventing itself
For each of us
In the shadow of
Something long forgotten,
Imprinted in our genes, cautioned by our mother,
A story we once heard about what happened in this
Or another long-ago life,
To someone not even us
For us on earth’s island fear comes with a shadow
On an x-ray, a six-inch knife, an arm from the right,
A scream in the night.
Wizened wings warp ragged rocks,
A mad flurry of filigreed feathers below, as
Fifty-one screaming gulls levitate.
One pissed-off Cerulean Warbler trilling in mad pursuit, altitude
Above, the back of Eagle.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer
Flying Above Eagle, Cape Rosier, Maine
/Users/susan/Desktop/And, I’ll Never Forget
Orange yellowing multicolored graying feathered body.
Long curved beak meant for digging into earth and wood.
On concrete she fell,
Like the moon come down round and full.
Wings spread open,
This wild bird in the middle
Of the wild street.
Fear pulsating her tiny bird heart,
Cars speeding by
Right and left and what else am I to do,
Trembling, as I move between traffic,
Losing touch with my mortality.
In terror of me, a comprehensible danger,
Now that I have come closer to her sudden accident,
Somehow gathers the strength
To drag herself toward
The direction I am not.
In this way I guide her,
Brown thrush eyes wide as a barred owl,
Into the underbrush.
Susan Lynn Gesmer
© On Concrete
The days are
Short as midgets
And you my bear
Have bedded down.
Your metabolism will slow
But your body temperature will remain
High enough for hovering over little ones
As they nestle into your fur
Your hot breath keeping them warm.
Neither food nor drink for such a long time,
Sun rising and setting upon your half-closed eyes
The lengthening days of your lingering hibernation.
Fattened, hungry, the patience of a deity.
You are my deity! And
With your better than believed vision
Many a night
You will see the moon bright
And shining through the branches.
Eight weeks from now
You, my mammalian kindred one,
Will give birth to naked cubs
The size of small squirrels
Who in the depth of the dark frigid dusk
Will suckle on your six hot nipples with
Pulsing humming contented pleasure. And
All will be,
As it should, be.
I tussle with my inexplicable furlessness
My strange lack of fur,
Like you will scuffle
Come spring, with your demanding cubs
Who all winter you have kept warm within
Your legs and arms, high protective walls,
With thick inviting fur.
Like a kid holding the string of a kite
I do so long to go
Walking, serenely, down into the forest
Following your prints in the recent snow
And slither like a silent snake up to you,
Once arriving by your restful side
Bewailing moaning cooing soft squeals of deploring distress,
Hoping to fool you,
Black-furred white-crested dark-nosed pregnant sow
Into thinking I slipped out before your time.
Bright lights, this December,
Grate against my senses like sandpaper.
My instinctual animal self lulled into winter-lethargy,
As I blow air from my mouth, clack my teeth, and paw at the ground.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Dear Ursus, 2014
And I, sitting, by her initial disbelief
Blood death, dog death,
Her dog dead, by hunter’s shot
Here, so close to town,
He was swinging his rifle
Swinging it down
To level ground
Wild ducks in frantic flight.
Full of life, Freckles
Dragging herself there
Before her door,
Where inside we were
Engaged in rapport.
And she knew, my sister,
The second she saw her dog lying before her,
Her beloved dog would die that day,
In this tragic way.
With tender touches
To still warm face and fur
Blood clotting the underside
Where we could not easily see
This fact, the hunter’s act,
She sat, aching,
Tears streaming down her shaking
Early evening finally falling
All shades of autumn leaves,
Mountains also behind the trees.
When I depart
In the same place she had fallen.
And her lover,
Across the drive
Digging purposefully, into earth, under once-green grasses,
With a tenderness seen, between,
Two beautiful women, together in life, side by side
And death not just dreamed.
© Susan Gesmer,
Around Us Was A Sharp Bright 6:00 October Light, 1981
On your back
On a cheap foam
Mattress, covered with
A ripped, loosely woven, blue cotton sheet.
Hard large pillows not right for your ancient curved spine.
They keep saying,
The ghostly osteoporotic leg bone,
Far below your hip,
Snapped in half,
When you fell from your bed,
Your deaf husband calling for
You to come down and set the kitchen table.
He could not hear you,
In your ninety-first-year, in your soft
Seventy nine pound bird voice, yelling —
I am coming, coming, coming, COMING
As you scrambled to get off your bed during an afternoon nap
In a half-awake daze.
For one side of a century
You clung to a great happiness with our father, but for
Almost a decade now,
You have succumbed
Been subsumed in the
The grooves of a long tradition
Of wife as lover and servant.
It’s hard to know whether to be angry or sad,
To rage or cry, we fluctuate
My brother and I,
Because, no doubt about it,
As our father tells it,
Life has given him the
Raw end of the deal
Pretty much for eighty years now.
But we are still so pissed, so incredibly pissed, he
So often calls for this woman,
This old old woman
And how when he does
He expects her to appear before him
As if she could fly down the stairs
Around the doorways
Fast as a Hummingbird.
“I don’t like being
Here, alone, at night”
My 91-year-old mother tells me,
From her bed, in this godforsaken place.
And who would?
Especially someone who’s never ever
In her whole life, ever,
First with extended family, parents and siblings, aunts and uncles,
Then nuclear, husband and two quick-witted penetrating
Unwieldy children of the 1960s.
After we left, decades of woven relations,
Pared away, finally, to just her and her husband.
But never alone.
My mother tells me,
“The woman who was here yesterday…”
A new caregiver we’ve hired to keep her
Company, to keep her from dragging herself
From her bed
Pulling her wheelchair behind her
Out into the hallway for one of one thousand
Possible reasons that might at any moment
Enter her post-surgically demented mind,
And breaking another bone –
“She has two puppies!”
Lucky Susan, I say,
And longingly imagine, just for a moment, soft small fluffy canine bodies
Tiny snouts, padded doggie-scented feet,
Pink tongues, small woofs, human cheek to thick furred bellies.
Behind the curtain brings me back.
Someone has put on the television for the woman sharing my mother’s room.
Even though she is deaf.
What is it about the television in these places?
Paralyzed, unable to speak,
My mother’s roommate,
Sits in a chair in a black sequined pantsuit
Like some never before seen
Black glittering bird from the rain forest,
Or a startled Starling flying by outside
Mesmerized by the trees and clouds in the glass.
Her two daughters have been to visit each day
I have been here.
There is a heavily drawn circle on the calendar next to her chair,
She is leaving on the 21st of January and they
Have big plans for this departure.
This woman who has been the recipient of a tragic gift,
Something, which dances around us all, an unexpected
Renegade blood clot, burst blood vessel,
Groans and moans regularly, not from pain, but from
A fundamental need to communicate.
I have responded to her requests for help
More than once,
It could be me
It could be me
It could be me
It will be me
It will be.
Thinking of a photograph taken thirty years ago
I recently discovered, after my uncle died,
He and my mother are my age,
Tending to my grandmother,
An old woman,
As my mother is now.
It goes so fast
I have no children, no daughters or sons.
It is not hard to imagine myself into some futuristic institution
Alone in the world.
So to my lucky old mother with so much love in her life, I say,
Life is hard, Mom, there are
Times when we have to muster
All our courage
And surely, for you, this time is now.
Please please please try not to worry, I say, addressing my mother’s maddening
Predilection for anxiety-based perseverance.
Digging into my Jew-Buddhist
Attempt at reassurance.
All the while thinking,
When it is my turn,
Take my gun out of my closet, carefully load the copper bullets,
Walk out into the marshland behind my house, and pull the trigger.
An administrator in her outrageous stiletto heels
Clicks down the hallway,
The dark-skinned Caribbean
Women who wipe my mother’s ass
Tread quietly respectful
Underpaid and anguishing over siblings, cousins,
Friends and parents,
Buried beneath the rubble in a massive earthquake,
© Susan Gesmer, Mother
At The Doctor’s Office (Click here for an audio recording of my reading this poem)
Velvety pink lupines in exquisite bloom this June
Yet overhung with weeds and
At first impression,
This place looks like
One of those old homesteads, silent cathedrals,
Walkers stumble upon
Deep in faraway forests.
The tops of yellow irises
Peak out like children between stage curtains.
Finally you notice perennial beds, an overgrown hole into a cellar,
Fieldstones in some formation
Before which grow
Huge peony buds, tall and lush from heavy spring rains, buds,
Encircled with ants
Above a bed
Of weeds, tall grasses,
Where salmon-colored tulips thrived only
A few weeks before.
I am sitting in the waiting room
Of a doctor’s office, again,
General Hospital on TV,
Four women watching.
I am in a corner, far away, behind the voices,
My eyes fall closed
Like the petals of tulips
Spent, fall to the ground.
It’s humid and raining again.
Traffic speeds by the open door.
© Susan Gesmer
At The Doctor’s Office
(Click the link for an audio recording of me reading this poem.)
Rise out and stretch, fiercely up, into the sky,
Her roots, wounds, winding deep, into the earth,
Yes, her roots go,
All the way to China,
Deeper even than her entire height, so much
Deeper than the tips of her furthest branches.
How did she become blackened to begin with, this ancient barren tree,
Born of the earth and sky, endless waxing and waning moons,
Child of sun, and clouds heavy with the burden of unlet rains?
She is almost indefinable now, old and scarred,
Not a bird visits her branches, not a Nuthatch nor Pileated Woodpecker
Climbs up her sooty bark. Not a Paper Wasp alights on a leaf, no Little White Lichen Moth, no Faithful Beauty Caterpillar
Not a single squirrel would dare to go near.
Is she coniferous or deciduous?
She is not a Black Cherry, she is not a Black Walnut,
She is not a Black Spotted Lime Tree.
Where on this planet does she grow?
What did she survive?
She was not born from an accidental blob of black paint,
Not even imagination, barely conscious gestures of a small female hand. No,
She was born with the body of girl, and she knows what this means,
In her blood and bone and lymph, in her memories of long ago,
Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, all the way back thousands of years
She knows, just as-she-knows as-she-knows her aging reflection in the mirror,
She-knows her face in the glass,
Once there was Matriarchy,
Matrilineal, everything was about The Great Mother.
Long long ago men honored and revered Woman,
The female deity who created life.
Then, they did not murder women,
In the town square then
Eons before she came to be A Great Blackened Tree,
Men took the earth, they took women and the girls,
Took their lives, took their bodies, took
Their hearts and souls and spirits,
Reached into the depths of their wombs
To do what they would.
It has been my endless night-mare, my mare of my night,
The horse that never came to take me away.
I can’t believe I’m still having this dream,
This ancient dream, this dream of All Women.
I thought I was done with these monsters.
No, in this world
We are never done.
In my dream I kill a man, a neighbor,
Because on his lap, down, down, at the bottom of my drive, way, the way, the way
Both up and down, he is sitting, sitting on an
Adirondack chair, with two girls on his lap. He smiles,
Asks me how I am.
The one on the bottom, her face is contorted in pain, grimaced with
Great and profound suffering.
As long as one woman is being raped we are all being raped, one woman
Beaten we are all bruised.
He is pretending nothing is happening, that his penis is not inside the vagina of
This girl. In my dream he is a white man and they are dark, of color, yes,
Spanish, Indian, South American, African, Asian, not bleached white by containment,
by generations of living in cold snowy climates.
She is that girl in India, who just died after an unimaginable assault,
Getting on a bus to go home after the movies.
This is in all of our collective unconsciousness, every woman,
We all cringed and cried and grieved for this girl,
This beautiful Indian girl, who surely knew, as we all know,
The texture of the bark, the leafless branches, the blackened tree, but
She only thought she was taking a bus home, with a friend, that night.
I cannot remember what happened,
When I woke I did not want to remember.
All I know is that I did something to stop him, and
In doing this, I killed him.
I who am so aware of life.
I, who carefully capture and carry insects outside of my house.
I, who hold songbirds in my hand, sobbing, when they have flown into the glass.
It was all blackness, all
© Susan Gesmer
The Blackened Tree
Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry. ~ Rukeyser
It was only a few inches of frozen water covering what was once a city garden, us
like blue-green parakeets, keeling, confined,
flew round and round
a mass of squawking
After a thirty-three-year lapse
I am on ice. Like some twisted mistake
this passage of years and
for the first time ever
on a lake, not Larz Anderson
carved out of the city like a chicken wing
from its carcass.
Sitting on a crowded bench,
one of the last times
stranger’s thighs pressing against mine
heading for the big-kid rink
lacing my white girlie skates,
when that cigarette red tip pierced into my flesh.
It hurt like hell and I pretending
Now, trying to save my wrists
to scrap the tip of the skate and twirl
I have fallen.
For a moment I imagine myself
an owl in the night, Persephone gliding down
into the Underworld, compliant.
Then flinging myself
Anne Sexton style
giving myself over to ten inches of cracks, jiffies, fissures like rifts
continental plates, dinosaur ribs snaking down ice into water.
The whiteness stretches into the horizon and
if I blur my eyes
I cannot distinguish water from land from skies.
It’s all white. It’s all the same.
Lake skiers look like herons diving
in the distance, a person walking an apparition,
God on the edge.
I don’t want him to come.
Back then, I am dressed as only a child can be
swaddled, like an Indian baby on my mother’s back
her speaking Algonquian
living in a Hogan
Iroquois incarnated in a Jewish family.
They told me they found me in a dye vat
in Haverhill. Pulled me out and brought me home.
They told me I was really Indian.
Abandoned but rescued.
I swear I cried until my soul leaked out and another’s in
in that tiny kitchen
my brother sitting across the table
In the home movies
my mother stands
1950s knee-length tweed coat,
shoes on ice, smiling at my father holding
Beauty that she was, happy and
so in love.
Maybe the only woman in Boston
not crazed with motherhood,
and I a waddling baby duck hold her hand
dreaming of mountains
running away on the backs of horses
the wind flying
my hair, a long black mane.
I was so afraid to let go
don’t remember the moment
and maybe I just never have.
Why bother when we all end up
together in the same earth anyway?
Anne Sexton living just on the other side of the dike,
writing poetry for her mother writing poetry
while she rubbed against her daughter in the morning
gave men blow jobs in the parking lot of the Newton Wellesley Hospital at night.
Plucking away a possessed woman
pulling words like feathers from a living bird or
worms from the stomach of a robin
maybe a red robin
O red red robin,
the children-mothering mother
no sewing lessons in Newton Lower Falls in 1962.
Before Anne Sexton began to write
before her psychiatrist proposed she write
he inquired if there was anything she thought
she might have talent for, do well at in her own Anne way.
Her response, back in that Leave It To Beaver world,
the only thing she could think of
her only talent —
to help men feel sexually powerful, to
please please men.
Soon I will be an old woman
but there is time to pretend a lake the sea and
flinging my brittle bones against the hard water
won’t kill me. So I take baby steps and
eventually I am gliding,
an awkward swan never turned white, mesmerized by the awareness
this is the first flight with steel-tipped plates I have ever skated on a lake.
I stare down through the ice into deep dark blue water
layered with thousands of tiny air bubbles
the same water we kayaked on in the wake of November,
into which my cousin disrobed and dove
a swimmer from the desert saying,
as she toed into the water ever deeper,
“I have never swum in a lake before”
At my joking admonition to watch for snapping turtles, her
barefoot, naked as a jay-bird, lovely,
with that childlike sly Niditch smile
Stuart frequently makes.
I wonder where the river otters go
who live in this lake in winter
the fish they take
all beneath me
When we get in bed that night
I can hardly move,
my rib my shoulder my elbow
my entire body so sore. Feeling as purple
as the purple finch I watched today
slam into the glass door and
hover there before my stay.
Seeing only herself in the reflection, the forest behind
wings beating steadily in her own steadfast way,
erstwhile I panicked and ran,
cut and hanged
a long strip of brightly colored paper, a streak in the sand.
We are drifting off to sleep, in those soft celadon sheets,
snow-covered fir trees swaying in the wind,
the lake we left behind
where my black cat is buried
across Sears Marsh, a mile as Hawk flies. Out here
we mark distance by hawks, owls, running coyotes
snorting deer and burrowing fishers.
And just down the road
means ten miles to go.
The white dog we left behind is snoring on the floor
and suddenly I am drowning.
I have fallen through a hole in the ice and water curls around me
everything is cold and wet and dark and heavy and the hole is gone
the daylight muted,
the hole into the world of the living is nowhere I can find. I am dying, finally,
thinking as I float under the ice looking up
in those few seconds, before a crushing weight begins to fill my lungs,
how funny it is that I have never been afraid of drowning.
It has been fire
since I stood there in the darkness
on Amherst Road, watching
flames rise up into the night sky
and the bodies carried out
one by one
Vinny, that squirrel-murdering bastard,
Peggy screaming for Maria.
© Susan Gesmer
On Thin Ice, 2012
With the exception of Buddhist circles, reincarnation is not fashionable these days. It is more pragmatic to believe in the dust-to-dust theory and usually that theorem is the one to which I adhere. One thing is for sure, I am not holding out for some post-Renaissance disembodied pie in the sky. Sometimes my closest friends call me “Rochelle the Hypocrite”. I hate it when people think they see through me like this. Upon scrutiny, I view it quite differently. I just think I have a predilection for taking complex systems of thought and ironing them all out into one. No big deal. No theory is too abstruse for me. I like to think of myself like little kids sometimes think of themselves. But instead of the cookie monster, I am the gobbler of complexities. I eat them up and spit them out as down to earth and intelligible.
It was a late summer afternoon this event transpired, the story I will share with you here. My lover and I were taking a ride into the country, driving northwest from the already Western Massachusetts City in which we lived. We had no specific destination. We were just following the road, or our instincts, whichever came first.
I’ve never really given a whole lot of thought to ghosts. It’s true that I saw my grandmother Katherine’s ghost standing in the corner of my childhood bedroom the night she died. I have no idea why she came to me, of all people, when she should have been in the room across the hall with my father. I was only seven or eight and I can’t say that it wasn’t a shock to find out the next afternoon my grandma had died the night before. But mostly to me the concept of ghosts is a poignant metaphors for the living things that haunt me in my corporeal life.
What happened that late summer day, the dog days of summer upon us, was in many ways a volcanic uprising in my life. Like the card I would continually pull from the Tarot deck. Always used to scare me to death. Gave me a terror of tall buildings and wondering when the rug was going to be pulled out from under me. The teetering stone medieval tower soon to be horizontal. People screaming and falling from windows. An earthquake that forever after irreconcilably changes the way people understand their world.
I had met my friend Bobbie five months earlier at one of my writer’s group readings. To say the least, our meeting was magnetic. A few months later I met Zelda, Bobbie’s best friend from their old archive days at that infamous Midwestern Women’s Center. Zelda was now living in Boston. It sent unmistakable chills racing up and down my spine at that party when Zelda said to me “I come out this way often Rochelle. I’m just immersed in this genealogy research I’ve started doing!! I recently discovered that many of my ancestors lived in the hills of southwestern Vermont for hundreds of years. So let’s stay in touch! Get together and have a cup of tea, go for a walk “.
I am a person who believes in synchronicity. One person introduces us to another who introduces us to another and that person changes our life forever. Zelda was one of those people. But that’s another story, and although not unrelated, it didn’t unfold its petals in fullness until many years after the one I tell here in these pages. Let me just say that meeting Zelda was prophetic. It was about that three-legged Gazelle in my dream. That luminous animal, almost a halo hovering above its head, crawling away from the falling tower with a bloody stump dragging behind her. That Gazelle was intent on survival no matter the odds.
You may ask: What happened that day, with Bobbie, driving the back roads of New England, following stone walls and ancient dirt roads as they weave their way through the countryside? Diversions are the bread and butter of my life. In some way that’s what my whole life was in those years, one very long elaborate diversion.
O.K., I’ll continue with one train of thought, even though I have never really agreed with this cold black steel metaphor.
After many miles of driving on tar-paved roads Bobbie and I encountered a sign welcoming us to Vermont. After a few more miles we came upon a dirt road that veered off to our right. We decided to turn down that road. Here begins my saga. The journey that began innocently one August afternoon and has never ended. Like a Steven King novel, less frightening but more real.
Soon after catching a glimpse of a river snaking its way alongside the road, we pulled off the roadway to go have a look. After crouching there amidst the lush overgrowth, I realized that my mood was definitely not reflecting the lovely peaceful environment surrounding us. I was very much on edge. The edge of what I was not to discover for another hour. At this time, when Bobbie and I were still in the first months of an intimate loving relationship, she was deeply sensitive to my moods. She immediately noticed my discomfort and without a word we headed back up to the car. If I had listened to my intuition (intuition, another one of those words that needs ironing), we would have turned back. Instead we simply presumed a mood of one sort or another had caught us in its viselike grip. We did not take the time to examine the source of this veil, which had fallen upon as if from a dark cloud.
Naturally, as would most people hovering on the edge of sanity taking a Sunday drive on a Monday on one of the hottest days of the summer, we drove on. We drove on wondering. We drove on in silence together wondering what our destination would be, in the biggest sense of destiny, thinking about writing, poetry, the land, and the many things that fill one’s mind when it is allowed to wander freely. After a while we passed some old farmhouses in various stages of disintegration and that launched us into a passionate conversation about hidden poverty and the lives of folks who are “rich” in land yet penniless, their ancestral houses literally dissolving around them, board by board. This is more or less the story of most of modern humankind’s recent history. But at that time in my young life, I knew little about land that became arid and untillable. Nothing about how to move on when land is claimed, surrounded by stone walls, owned. Nothing about loved ones dying of one disease or another in quick succession. Of what it feels like to suddenly wake up one day and realize there is no one left alive but you, yours truly, to plant the spring seeds.
Eventually the road veered away from the river. We both noticed the atmospheric shift this instigated. One would have expected that the heavy moisture would disappear from the air. Instead it became almost dank as we drove onward.
It is hardly crucial to mention here that as we were driving along we passed a graveyard. We drove past it with barely a glance. In suburban towns and cities, there are usually only a handful of enormous burying grounds stretching off into the horizon. But old graveyards are a common sight in the country. Each one containing the people who lived within the confines of so many feet, yards, or acres. Frequently, the people who originally built that farmhouse lived on the few roads in the center of town. The children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, continuing to live within its well-built walls, farming, working the land. When they died, each in his or her turn, the survivors buried their loved ones in tiny well-marked graveyards off to the side of their land.
“We drove past it with barely a glance” cannot be said for the next graveyard we came upon. As we began our approach, it was understood between us that I was going to pull off the road and turn off my vehicle. So doing what was expected of me, I swerved, wheeled, and dipped into the embankment turning off my engine.
Expecting Bobbie to follow, I opened my door and got out. This looked like a particularly interesting graveyard and we were both into gravestone art, design and architecture, and its various changes through the centuries. I was most definitely surprised when Bobbie just kept sitting in the car, staring straight ahead, as if transfixed or something. I figured she would join me momentarily. So I gave her one last glimpse of my pretty face and walked down the slight decline to the old wooden gate. And even though more than a year has passed (a year ago last month), I still do not understand what happened that day. I am still afraid to go back. Even if only in memory.
I am standing at this gate, my Jewish self, looking at a small ancient Christian graveyard. I am feeling more than I am seeing. Like a nervous animal somehow watching itself being watched, I am observing my gaze as it travels from one side of the graveyard to the other. I take note that the graveyard is in a small clearing surrounded by forest. Nothing unusual. Why would anyone clear more land than necessary?
My little red Chevette is parked up the hill behind me. I can see the top of Bobbie’s very still head. She has remained where I left her. Suddenly I am feeling very alone. I try to ignore this feeling, since at the moment I hardly want to be alone out here in the middle of nowhere, standing at the gate of some unfamiliar graveyard. I strain my eyes to attempt to make out any of the dates or names on the gravestones. I have always been interested in both the art and what gravestones say. What year, and for how long, did this child live? What was the child’s name? A child because there is a lamb perched atop the small headstone. So sweet and delicate. A heartbreak. How old was the person who is buried in that grave? How much I adore the absorbed emotion in the sculpture of the paradigmatic mourning woman: Kneeling atop the finely chiseled stone, her sorrowful head cast down, chin on hand, elbow on raised knee. A more poignant and mournful pose could not be made in the entire universe. This graveyard is much older than one which would employ these images. There are no sculptural forms here. Just simple fieldstone and slate carved into rectangular forms and placed over the deceased.
The stones are far too worn with age for me to see any markings from my proximity, standing well outside the stone walls and wooden gate that mark the boundaries of this place. Should I open the gate and walk inside to have a closer look? The gate is an imposing structure built of huge substantive logs with heavy crossbars. Since maneuvering it is so unwieldy, I use this excuse to dismiss the idea of entering. Anyway, how close do I want to get to these people?
There are no welcoming Hebrew words marking these stones. These people lived in a time just before my ancestors began coming to the northern reaches of this continent from Spain, Portugal, Central Europe, and places beyond. Even though there were Jews settled in Brazil, other South American countries, and the many French and Dutch- owned islands since the 1600s, they were just then arriving in North America. Falling through the cracks of their communities. Escaping the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Encouraged to come by some mercantilistically minded government. Or, escaping from some awful thing or another and filtering into the New World, one family at a time. By 1776 there were supposedly 2,500 Jews in North America. Most of who lived in Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia. There was only a handful in the other thirteen states. Although Vermont was one of the first to join the bandwagon, freedom of religion being a new idea then. This was before the Bill of Rights. So, if Jews were represented here in this graveyard, chances are they were buried with crosses on their graves. When these folks lived and died, there were no Jewish graveyards where community members and loved ones ripped at their clothing, covered their reflecting sand glass windows with cloth, and sat shiva for seven days. Simply put, standing there at the edge of this world, I suddenly realized that there were numerous reasons that I did not feel comfortable. But God, so what? I can think of a dozen Christian graveyards I’ve walked through totally at ease.
“Enough is enough,” as my grandmother would say. But I hardly have time to think of dear Hannah, my mother’s mother, still alive today, and those words she would chime so often when I was a child. As I am standing there with all of these thoughts, I suddenly feel an odd sense of pressure moving against my legs. A bizarre feeling of my legs being pushed, a force with an origin outside of myself, pushing against my slight body. Before I can figure out what’s happening, I realize that beyond my cognition my body is uncontrollably moving backward up the hill toward the road.
I am standing by my car. Shaking, I am completely unsure how I got there. Did I “walk”? Going over to the door of the driver’s seat, I rest my arm on the car roof and pause to take stock. I am in a new place in my young adult life; a footing where finally I am beginning to take back some of what had been stolen from me in my childhood. One of these things that had been forcibly taken from me was courage. After so many experiences of hatred, derision, and victimization wielded against my female being – I was currently attempting to take a stand. Although I was twenty-something years old, “No” was a new word in my vocabulary. I was more terrified of things than not.
The woods had always held a particular sort of alarm. Caught in some ghostly genetic battle with Pleistocene cells still coursing through my being, I was deathly afraid to walk deep into the woods alone. Some part of me was still consciously tied to our ancient ancestors who picked up the shaft and rod and became fearful of everything that loomed beyond their fields. What some ecologists see as the beginning of the end of human equilibrium – humans turning from a rich bounty of perennials to the necessary chain of annuals. The beginning of our war against wolves, squash grasshoppers, and anything else corporal or spiritual threatening the new animal and vegetable pastoral cosmology. When humans put down their wandering way of life, the woods became filled with Saber Tooth Tigers and such. Before then it was an ever-shifting mutuality of prey and predator. There was little fear in this way of life. It simply was the way things were. And the people buried in this graveyard knew about how to deal with all of this better than me, Rochelle the city bumpkin.
With a firm determination, without even a thought to my companion, who seemed to more or less have vanished from this place, I walk back down the incline to the graveyard gate. These few steps up and down, down and up, from my car to this clearing are becoming oddly familiar. All I really want to do is stand here peacefully and feel the emotions that are often evoked for me in graveyards. Not a memory of the afflictions of being human: The many anguishes, heartaches, regrets, losses, and suffering that try the lives of my fellow sisters and brothers. Rather, an acute sense of meaning greater than each of our individual lives. A reminder of my mortality. A reminder of the swiftness of it all. The greater spiritual meaning inherent in this existence. I have always achieved a certain degree of comfort in the presence of the dead. I suppose, selfishly, I also want to feel that even though my life has so often been filled with cycles of pain, sorrow, loss, and loneliness, that at least I am alive. I am, in fact, still breathing. In this there is some hope for me. Potentiality undiscovered or unfulfilled. Hope is a great human capacity. Without it, people simply give up. Then, even if the body lives on, the spirit that drives it has died a paralyzing death. Once a conquering race has suffocated the spirit of the people, they’ve won the battle.
Here I stand in front of the heavy chestnut gate thinking these simple thoughts, when I realize that I am hearing something coming from inside the graveyard. I shift into animal sense, tilting my head slightly and fine-tuning my excellent hearing. Straining I hear a soft thrumming sound coming from somewhere in all that silence. I realize that it must be my car engine humming still from all the driving. We had, after all, been on the road for most of the day. I decide to check it out with Bobbie, and once again, make my way up the embankment. My feet seem to know the way. Like I could do this journey with eyes closed, or as I had once done it, a long time ago, sweating and hauling heavy stones. Resting once again by the car window, I say “Bobbie? What’s up? Do you hear a weird sound, like a droning or hum coming from my car?” Quickly turning to look at me, she answers sharply “No, Rochelle.”
I don’t know. Time seems to be moving really slowly and it’s like I am caught in some twisted spatial time warp. Some Dr. Who-telephone-booth time machine. We have probably only been parked here for a few minutes, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s been a lifetime.
I am not one to engage in auditory hallucinations. Although I can’t lie. When I was in my late teens I had what I’ve come to call “my break-through”. A definite break, of sorts, with normal reality. But, as frightening and painful as it was, it was the beginning of the end of a childhood of indoctrination into a suburban middle-class life of oblivion where mostly everything that is really significant is hidden from view. Simply put, beyond my conscious will or control, I began to see things as they really were. I am not sure I would wish it on my worst enemy. Or maybe I would.
To give you an idea of what I mean, when I would take my adolescent self back and forth to the trolley line to make my way to school and work in the city, I would gape and glare, stare and peer, at these new shiny boxes of plastic, tin, and metal, lurching along the roads spitting smog. The mass of them representing class and privilege, relying heavily on lineage and skin color. A symbol of industrialization and the destruction of natural habitats. No one ever told me these things. I knew all of this, somehow, in my young heart and soul. I will never know exactly how I knew, being that I had rebelled against my whole childhood education, skipping more classes than not, and there were few books provided me in my childhood home. But I did, in a most overwhelming and profound fashion. Only pretending to be transportation, those vehicles. Only pretending to be people, those discombobulated disconnected creatures sitting atop spinning wheels smiling. A poor replacement for the flesh and blood horses that once traveled these roads. An inadequate replacement, those zombies, for what I knew in my soul humans should be. I think I probably never would have gone through that awful time, walking the line so close to madness, if someone, anyone in my life, in those years of the 1950s and 1960s, had enough wherewithal to tell me the truth. Place me in history. A little girl, instinct as strong as that of any wild animal, lost in the maze of an ever-expanding greedy post-industrial capitalist moment.
I don’t know how I managed to get into the trolley and go back and forth, day after day from suburb to city. I know I couldn’t have managed without those few magnificent trees that lined the way. I would press my nose against the glass as the trolley car chugged slowly along the track. The seasons would inevitably change. But I never ceased to marvel as the trees turned from naked, bare brown and gray limbs stretching into the sky, to ladened with white snows of winter, to tiny those delicate purple buds bursting into the lightest light green leaf in spring, to full palms opened in dark fir green of summertime, and then, finally, to the burnt oranges, yellows, and reds of New England fall. But, eventually, one day, I simply could no longer do it. I realized that I must leave this suburban/city mid-twentieth century cage or really lose my mind.
During these years, my only solace was the trees. In every season I stared out the window of the MBTA at those glorious trees stretching to the sky. I so loved the naked winter branches, uplifted, longing, reaching. Each tree an invocation to me that there was something better, something more real in the universe than all of this dirt and pollution. Something more meaningful than all this city gossip. Something away from the hordes of men owning their women and children like chattel and manifesting this sense of ownership on the streets in their perverted sexual displays. In their hatred toward women reflected in so much rape and murder. I left Boston around the time that there was yet another rash of prostitutes being slaughtered in the city by yet another man not apprehended. Even then I knew that no matter how she chooses to make a living in this dam cruel world, any woman could end up on the streets, and no woman deserved to die. My break with reality was not psychosis or if it was, thank God it didn’t sink its teeth in too deeply, or wrap its tentacles around whatever it is that keeps people sane in a mostly insane world.
Well, as you can probably guess, I make my way back down the hill to the foot of the clearing. I am feeling more and more frightened as the moments pass and I just can’t shake the feeling. What was that sound I heard? Curiosity has gotten the best of me. I strain my ears to hear it again. Sure enough it doesn’t take long for my request to be answered. It is music, music, and the soft tumult, the brouhaha, of many voices in unison coming from the graveyard before me. The music was coming from the far back left side of the clearing, toward the rear stone wall, where there are two soot-covered tall slate gravestones, touching, side by side. My eyes rest on the smaller of the two stones. It does not take a gifted intelligence or an aptness toward brilliance to realize that these stones mark the graves of two individuals who were very close in life. Suddenly those two gravestones become very important to me and I magnify my eyesight in an attempt to make out the markings etched into the stone. By now my heart is pounding so loud that I am afraid my chest is going to break open and my heart take flight.
Images of witch burnings and innocent women buried alive beneath hundreds of pounds of fieldstones churn through my mind. I remember an old memory I had put out of my mind long ago, when I was a child. Far before it was fashionable to remember past lives. Or to call oneself a witch. Funny how history can obliterate itself so quickly. In just a few generations blot out, expunge, and prevaricate the lives and deaths of millions of human beings.
I remember when I first remembered. I remember it again, as if for the first time, as if it was just yesterday. In that life I was not sent into crematoriums masked as showers with dozens of other stunned horrified women. No, I was not stripped naked, gold fillings pulled from my teeth, rings taken from my fingers, hat, shoes, dresses meticulously placed into towering piles as I watched in abject terror, in denial of the impossible. Instead, surrounded by a crowd of intoxicated cheering people, I was thrown down onto the earthen ground and crushed under heavy stones. It really did happen as those movies portray it. I was suffocated alive atop the earth on which I had spent my short female life.
Standing here statuesque, as if my life is in imminent danger, I am filled with clamorous constraining dread and consternation. I no longer want anything to do with where I am. Wherever that is. I want only to be as far away as is humanly possible in as short a time as possible. Forget courage. I’ve shown enough. Forget saying no to my deepest most Delphian fears; this is not about cold feet, but rather antipathy. I am swiftly walking now, for what I hope is the last time, up the slight hill to my car, where Bobbie still sits, staring straight ahead. It has been such a long time, how is this possible? Doesn’t she even have to pee? Bobbie has clearly become lost to the rational world. Without a word, as has become normative for this bizarre day, I jump in my car, start the engine, and quickly pull the vehicle up the grassy gully and onto the dusty road. Doesn’t the dirt around here ever end?
More than a year has passed since that afternoon and I have been unable to shake the ever-present gnawing of what I experienced in that clearing filled with a few dozen three-hundred-year-old graves of the dead. In some strange way it is if I am still there. I don’t even have to close my eyes to envision, in every cell and synapse, every nook and cranny of Rochelle, exactly what it looked and felt like in that clearing. It is as if I was always there. Not to get too esoteric, but it seems to me that “there” is where “I” am. As well as here, living my 20th- century life. After all, most people don’t usually get the opportunity in life to stumble upon their own grave. And by their own grave, I mean that you are buried down there six feet under.
I’m still pissed off at Bobbie for turning into a zombie. But she’s begged me a hundred times since for my forgiveness. She said she was literally glued to her seat. That her gut told her not to move, not to get out of the car. I asked her if she was still wearing diapers and maybe that’s what had held her down. She said “Damn, Rochelle, you of all people, you should know that I’ve seen my share of ghosts. Usually I’m not scared. But that graveyard was not calling out to me ‘Bobbie… Bobbie… Come… Come’. No way. And I’m telling you, I couldn’t have come even if I’d wanted to.”
The clincher of this whole story came a week or so afterwards. I was having dinner with some new friends and Sam asked me if I wanted her to play some great new music she’d discovered during her studies of the Middle Ages. I almost died right there on the spot. In one of those really paranoid instantaneous split seconds that happen sometimes, I decided that it was all a joke. Bobbie, Sam, and Margaret had played a joke on me. How dare they! No matter that Bobbie doesn’t know Sam or Margaret. The music was basically the same stuff I had heard coming from that stupid graveyard in Vermont. As my friends informed their historically musically illiterate new pal, it is Latin chanting. Specifically, Latin Gregorian chanting. No matter that Latin was something that my mother studied at Brookline High School in 1933. That my best friend studied in 1975 at the same high school as my Mom decades earlier. No matter that my brother had an aptitude for guitar and piano, ease with stringed instruments that must have come from generations back in our family, something that seems to have completely skipped over me. Knowing my brother, he probably first heard Gregorian Chanting when he was eight. Some order provided to him in the mass of childhood chaos. Me, I’ve tried to learn to play the guitar twenty times over and can never seem to get past seven cords. Recently, this inspired me to get a mandolin mistakenly thinking playing just notes would be easier. If I was ever going to have any say about into whose being I would be reincarnated next, it would be someone who can play the guitar like Verlon Thompson and belt it out with the angelic voice of Joan Baez in her youth.
Getting back to the point, they didn’t teach Latin in Newton South High School and I am sorry to say that I don’t even know where the music rooms were. Even if I had, I doubt I would’ve noticed. In those years I was deeply engaged in trying to figure out the simple things in life. Trying to take all those looming questions that churn through the adolescent mind and place them all on the head of a pin. Can’t say I had much success. But there is one thing I can tell you. If you manage to live long enough, the beating heart definitely has its ways of teaching you its lessons as you keep on chugging down the swirling, twisting, winding road of life.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Enough Is Enough, 2012
We are standing by a stone wall
My brother and I
My brother and I,
Are standing together,
By a low wall made of stone.
We are standing by a stone wall,
On which I have stood, walked, jumped off, sat, spit, upon which I have bled, vomited
Pissed on, ran down over, cried on, dreamt about, made forgotten
Promises never kept with friends half remembered. Upon which I have fallen in love and
Thought about committing suicide.
A stone wall
On which I proudly balanced for my dad
Camera in hands younger than the age of mine now,
On my first bicycle.
A stonewall my mother and father passed a hundred
Thousand times as they pulled in the driveway.
Where the wall is higher on one side
And we hefted snow in winter as kids.
A stonewall where I sat and sobbed after my rabbit
Honey Bunny, died when I was eight,
And my mother wouldn’t let me hold her
When comatose, my brother lifted my black and white rabbit from the cage
And held her on the way to the vet.
In order to understand that nothing stays the same
Just go back to the place where you grew up.
Never any of those times was I aware of anyone seeing me,
No sense of anyone watching from the endless houses that lined the street.
Part of this is that it was my own little girl universe
But even so it was a different place then.
Quiet, it was a quiet place then.
The stones told no secrets.
And, I was too young to see the bleeding land.
We sledded down from the top of the road
And out into Chestnut Street where now endless traffic thunders by,
And my mother has to wear earplugs to sleep
Even though she runs the risk of not hearing
My hard-of-hearing wheelchair-bound father
If he falls transferring from chair to bed.
Chair to desk chair he likes to sit in.
Chair to toilet
Chair to lift
And all back again.
My parents watch the world go by looking out windows on Amherst Road.
Were there no old people then?
Or are they always this invisible?
Were they all sitting in their windows fifty years ago?
A whole group of old people, women and men,
Telling stories to their middle-aged children
About the lovely people and their two lovely children
Across the street?
I can only assume a resounding “yes”,
I was never as alone as I felt,
Accompanied all those years by
Strangers I did not know,
They are old old old now, our parents,
46 years after they bought this house for twenty-six thousand dollars
This house now worth something like five hundred thousand and twenty-six
Dollars, dollars to add to the pennies they have saved all these years
All these years they have scrimped and saved
Painstakingly, withholding from themselves everything except food
And dental care. Now they have piles of pennies, to see them on their way
To the next leg of this journey,
Unfortunate because soon neither of them will have any legs
To hold them up at all. And they will sit in chairs like both of their mothers before them,
Staring, waiting, while my heart breaks in unimaginable grief
At the injustice of it all.
My brother and I are standing by
The stone wall on which Audrey and I sat, best friends
When we were ten and thought we would never be parted.
Two little girls in a 1960s Barbie doll world.
We couldn’t imagine anything other than
Being wives together, in houses side by side,
And I was sure I would die before I was twenty
Because I knew I was not going to be somebody’s wife
And live in a house so close to another you could throw
A stone and break a window,
Or a wrist. (I did.)
And if I couldn’t imagine anything else
What else was there
Death is what we see when we see no alternatives.
So, here we are, my beautiful brother and I,
We are all grown up.
He used to be ugly and I was the gorgeous one
But things have changed.
Not sometimes but always and eventually, if you live long enough
We become our neighbor, our neighbor’s wife
Our neighbor’s mother, our neighbor’s dog.
In the end it is all an interchangeable
Matter of coincidence.
So here we are, my bb and I.
We have left our parents inside in the excessive heat
(They get cold so easily)
Raced out together into the suburban air.
Perfectly matching products of these people, two bookends.
Different genders, different ghosts haunt us from
This place, but we are both filled with outrage
At how simply fucked up, meaningless, this journey.
This ride. This trip.
Our matching Subaru Outback wagons parked tail to nose in the driveway.
My brother’s six-year-old golden retriever in the back seat,
We are standing on the sidewalk in front of
The stone wall where Tom and I sat and pledged to marry
When we grew up.
(Even though we were first cousins.)
This is the same damn stone wall my dog Cheena —
An eighty-five pound Alaskan malamute,
Not some fluffy lap dog or another one like all the others
But a dog that looks like a wolf
And half the time thinks she is one.
A dog as wild
As I want to be, —
Flew down from off the edge
Like she was a bird.
Before the neuropathy
When she was young and finally, I, at forty,
Had a companion something like the horse
I spent my childhood longing for.
A dog, who, when I looked in her eyes,
Reflected back my father and myself, sorrow and fierceness.
We are standing, my bb and I,
By a stone wall over which my dog jumped, not long ago, when
I took her up Amherst Road for a walk,
Told her my story.
I’ve told many others but she is the only one who
Sniffed or peed in all the most important places.
I showed her all the houses.
The house where Audrey lived.
Next door the brick house where squirrel-murdering Vinny lived,
He haunted my childhood
Hunted and tortured me like I was one of those squirrels.
Before his still prepubescent body stopped breathing
In that house that burned down in the middle of one night in my 13th year.
(We stood there, my brother and I, a couple dozen other neighbors,
In stunned fascination of bearing witness to tragedy,
As they carried out all the dead, one after another after another.)
Past then the only farmhouse in the neighborhood
Maybe the only farmhouse left in Waban
Still with chickens in the back.
Built when grizzly bears and rattlesnakes still roamed the floodplains.
Past the old weeping willow, I used to climb.
Then over the crest of the hill and around past Leslie Quint’s house,
My best friend when I was four, Leslie who
Died before she was thirty-four.
Her mother said I was a bad influence and made us stop being friends
A bad influence at four, because I spit and my hair looked like a bird’s nest.
My parents called me The Wild Girl of Borneo.
We found each other later,
She by Cleveland Circle in Brookline.
The town where I was born.
Where my parents and grandparents lived at some point
In their journey through life,
From the cradle to the grave.
Then, past Fay’s house, that bitch,
The first girl who ever touched my breasts,
When we were ten.
I finally found her
With two kids and a husband,
After I asked her if she remembered those days
In the basement on the couch across
From her father’s wet bar,
She never wrote back.
Finally my dog and I, up to the aqueduct
Bringing water and salvation.
Where for so many years I went and sat and cried, cried,
Cried, cried out to the earth and sky,
That there had to be something more.
The dike, the only freedom left.
The only little piece of freedom left
In that suburban wasteland
In this world of cages.
And back down again,
Past a dozen other memories
All entrusted to my dog
As we walked.
We are now standing, my brother and I, next to a stone wall we have
Both walked past for almost half a century,
A stone wall over which I leaped screaming,
Throughout all the years, I lived there, in that house,
In a rebellion that began at three
When I first ran away,
In Hancock Village, ran away into the then woods of Brookline,
Hating so, wearing that frilly dress and
Up on a chair for my grandmother
As she hemmed it.
For almost half a century we have
Walked on the flagstones up this walk.
Past the stone wall.
In front of the house in which I grew up
And left, dreaming of fire,
When I was twenty-one.
Where my parents have lived since 1959.
We are standing by a wall of stone, my beautiful brother and I.
The smell of spring is in the air.
Only faint the burning bush.
Suddenly the air is crystal clear and
It is like that day at the ocean when we were kids.
We had walked across a sandbar in Chatham
And discovered an uninhabited island
With endless white sand and blue sea and stretches of sky forever and
As we rounded that bend on the back of the island we stopped dead in our stoned
Behooved tracks before millions of swarming sand crabs,
Probably on their journey from eggs to water or water to laying,
(Although we didn’t know it at the time).
The beach too thick with them to do anything but walk around them in the water
Or go back.
I dream the bush under my parents’ living room window is on fire.
My mother doesn’t notice that the flames,
About to consume her, are the flames of death.
She just can’t see anymore, won’t listen
To anyone but the man she married sixty years ago.
If she could see the fire she would take more risks
Stop being so afraid of doing what might hurt her,
She is 87 years old and afraid of so much, pain medications that could relieve her constant suffering,
Driving with anyone older than 80,
Driving faster than 35 mph on Rte. 9,
Eating things that might raise her cholesterol,
She is consumed by the minutiae and can no longer see the whole, the fire vivid, orange and red, reaching up.
In my dream, I am pulling up bulbs beneath the burning bush
First I was cutting them, desperate to save them, before it dawned on me
Like the first light of dawn,
Of saving bulb as well as flower.
Finally, desperate, in my dream, I drench the burning bush.
Then decide to rip out the whole damn shrub.
Bring that singed bush with me wherever I go.
If I could, I would take the whole house,
Attach it to mine here in The Highlands
Like the old 1834 schoolhouse
From Eagle Bridge, uprooted and taken from New York to Bennington, Vermont
To be attached to The Bennington Museum.
I settled for a clipping
Rooting now in water,
To be planted here in Goshen, in this place the Jews were slaves.
I am looking at this handsome man, my only bb
Standing in front of this stone wall
Someone who is so much like me and so much not.
Seeing this fiftysomethingish man,
As only an adoring baby sister can and
Knowing it is only a matter of time
Before the people who live in this house,
This white cedar-shingled cape house with the gray-shingled roof, two dormers,
The moldy apartment added in 1971 in which my grandmother lived
For a half dozen years,
Only a matter of time
Before the people
Who live in this house built in 1927
On the south side of the street
In this suburban Boston town,
No longer open the door to us.
For now, the storm windows remain down
Winter, spring, summer and fall.
Like all the houses of old people.
My parents’ house has become their parents’ houses
And their parents before them and one day it will be our houses.
All sisters and brothers who ever were
And ever will be.
The place we all end up living.
Musty dark sanctuaries to a life that once was.
If you live long enough/
There is no escaping/
Swimming/ through the dirt
Like it is snot, mucus, a thick gelatinous mass of
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Standing By A Stone Wall, 2012
…To write… is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally, material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down… Virginia Woolf 
Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. Virginia Woolf 
My heart is like an artichoke. Each year I have plucked off one leaf (how many leaves are there on an artichoke, has anyone counted?). It took almost five decades to get down to the fuzzy stuff. I am now working my way through the fuzz, trying not to choke as I pull each dandelion-like seed from around my heart.
Almost five months ago, I turned fifty. The sun has risen and illuminated so many days, endless days. The seasons have turned so many times I cannot count, from winter to spring to summer to fall and back again to winter. Elongated purple buds like jalapeno peppers, bursting forth into leaves like tiny tender salad greens and finally, in the heat of late spring, into large banana-leaf green until they fall into Halloween oranges, yellows and reds and finally into barren branches incapable of birth of any kind, stretching up and out, altogether leafless. Branches later laden with snow, snagging down toward the earth as if the snow were highways of melons.
Turning fifty coincided with what I decided to do for my birthday and wanted as a gift from my significant other, to go see a play at Shakespeare & Co., not a long drive from where I live in the foothills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. The play was called Ice Glen. If you didn’t see it, you missed something extraordinary. The writing, the story, the acting, the setting for the performance. All extraordinary. In the play, set at the turn of the century in the Berkshires, a young woman gardener writes poetry, prolifically, in the barn. She is brilliantly alive, in love with nature and the animals, solitary, hermetic, vibrant (beautiful like a wild fawn is beautiful). She has only shared her poems with a few chosen intimates. The play opens with the poet’s somewhat bloodied encounter with her adored black bear friend, an animal who she nursed as a cub, who has returned to the wilderness most of the time, and who “…does not know the strength in his own paws.” (An apt metaphor for the poet herself!) She has only come away with a few minor scratches but those around her use this as an opportunity to chastise her for her encouraging visits from the black bear.
In the meantime, through a series of actions of which we, and our poet, are unaware, her well-known literary neighbor, Edith Wharton, has sent a couple of our poet’s poems to an editor in Boston. He travels the long journey to the then remote Berkshire Mountains to seek her out. He knows her poetry is extraordinary. And he has, more or less, fallen in love with this poet through reading her poetry. (If it were only so easy, right?) The tension in the play is between the desires of the editor of this renowned Boston poetry journal to publish this woman’s poetry and the poet’s unwillingness to allow this individual to even read her poetry, no less publish her. She writes for herself. She is angry. She is free. She rages against inequity. And she is afraid. She is afraid of making her art into a commodity. Of removing it from herself, her embodied self. Of coming in from the world of her beloved plants and animal friends to the artifices of humanity. She is afraid of sharing her private and intimate feelings, thoughts, and experiences with the world. By the end of the play, the editor has won the tentative friendship of this brilliant, creative, extraordinary, passionately alive poet. She still will not necessarily let him publish her poetry. But, he has become someone she trusts and she is willing to read him a couple more of her poems. We, the observing audience, are left feeling the poet will, perhaps, one day, publish her poetry, but in her own time, at her own pace. And so ends this heroine’s, and this fascinating play’s tale of the (artificial, imposed, cultural) division and conflict between animals, the natural world, solitude, love, creativity, privacy, intimacy, art, responsibility, relationship and community.
Getting to where I am today was like stripping layers of paint off a piece of furniture two hundred years old with only a small piece of sandpaper. Like the Polish poet, Janusz Szuber, who had been “writing for the drawer” for twenty-seven years and was not published until he was forty-eight, I have been writing since I was thirteen years old, for the drawer. Maybe a better way to express this is that I write because it is how I understand myself and the world. I write because if I didn’t I would be mad. Like Tillie Olsen pointed out in her landmark 1965 feminist book, Silences, and Virginia Woolf so many years before, in 1929, in the phenomenal A Room of One’s Own, I have, against odds so many women still face, finally, sometimes succeeded in quieting the endless barrage of mundane daily noise, and salvaged, out of my life, a small room of my own in which to write (literally, a small room up on the third floor of the house in which I live). I have spent most of my life, into my mid-forties, swimming in an ocean of lies. Lies I was told about myself, about girls and women, about society, about history, about politics, about the world, about the psychology of the human psyche, about family, about love, about sex, about the soul. Writing is how I make sense of it all.
Alas, how many of us are brilliant? Still able to claim we are embodied in a beautiful visage, with the glow of youth we all have only when we are in full bloom? (As mostly anyone over their mid-forties knows, the time for picking the plump fruit is short.) Writing is my second (sometimes I think first) nature. I am in love with the animals, with what is left of the natural world, the flora and fauna, the creatures of the forest floor and trees and skies and seas. I almost always do the opposite of what is expected from me in the world. And, for years now I have struggled inside myself with the idea of publishing. Over and over again I have decided not to do this. Ignoring the intense nagging sense — as I finished poems, one after another, printed them out, and stuck them into a drawer — that what was being sucked into its dark tomb of my desk might, just might, be shared with others who would perhaps appreciate the reading!! Isn’t this at least a part of what people write for? To hope others will recognize themselves, their own lives, thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears, in our work? To help create a way back and forth between the solitary churnings, the deep difficult-to-articulate soul, and that same place in others who read our work? So as not to fall prey, one day, stunned and paralyzed (why me?), like a field mouse in the talons of an owl, to be caught unaware, the “I” and five other incidental travelers, as we plummet off the ancient Peruvian bridge into the rushing river chasm far below without life having been purposeful? (Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is a book never to be forgotten.)
While I sat in the theater, seeing this play, Ice Glen, at Shakespeare & Co., this past July, on July 14th, my 50th birthday, so thrilled by seeing the passionate aliveness in this poet, identifying myself so strongly with the exuberant soul of this woman, I wanted to leap down into the stage and merge with The Poet. For a few precious transcendent seconds all boundaries disappeared. I felt she was me and I was her. I decided in that moment, pretty much on the spot, it was time to consider putting my writing self out into the world, the world wider my small hermetic life, my personal social sphere. I could not ignore the nagging voice another year or this neglect could easily continue the pattern repeated all of my life thus far, for the rest of my life.
A Room of One’s Own!!! As if the concept had not been entirely revolutionary, considering women had only been granted the right to vote less than thirty years before Virginia Woolf wrote this book. (A writing woman had only stopped being profoundly frowned upon by most men in Woolf’s time.) But, I wondered, aside from taking the very tiny room for granted, in which women can maneuver almost eighty [?] years later and across the ocean from the soil which inspired Virginia, how many people have read this book??? I decided to read it again recently. It is a one hundred and twenty page (in the trade paperback version), part-poem-part-essay stream of consciousness with some of the most brilliant and beautiful writing ever done in the English language. The now infamous Mrs. Dalloway (thanks to novelist Michael Cunningham), was fabulous, but A Room of One’s Own? Well, to read this book is to be awed, humbled, to prostrate oneself in veneration to the mind of Virginia Woof, her insights, her enormous and profound wisdom, her brilliant writing, from the pen of a genius, each sentence like a morning glory and by the end of the each page one has a morning glory garden in one’s lap. In this book, each sentence is a day and night of the soul.
Meryl Streep playing a lesbian in The Hours was like seeing the angels of heaven with horns calling in the new day. A day of equality, humanity, kindness, the articulation of suffering, and healing, healing into life, and healing into death. Who didn’t fall in love with Nicole Kidman, with her prosthetic nose, playing Virginia Woof? To imagine – as is more or less well known these days in circles of writers aspiring to publish – that the world would never have known Virginia Woolf if she and her husband, Leonard, had not begun a small press with the intention of printing Virginia’s work. It is unfathomable!! As unfathomable as it is to imagine Virginia Woolf walking into the River Ouse, pocket laden down with a heavy stone, that fateful morning on March 28th 1941 as England stood on the cusp of a possible Nazi invasion.
The Talmud says there are 903 kinds of death in the world. Death sits on all our shoulders. No matter how old we are. No matter how physically well. No matter how many edifices we have built in our lives to pretend otherwise. No matter how much material gain or wealth we have accumulated. Alas, I have felt death on my shoulder for many years now. I suffer from a rare degenerative disease with no cure short of transplant, which is not always possible. The clock is ticking loudly in my ear! Fifteen years ago, an esteemed Boston liver specialist told me, ludicrously, I thought, to “sit tight and wait for your more sever symptoms to manifest…” Ten years ago, my local gastroenterologist with a couple decades of experience under her belt, said to me “Susan, you will need a liver transplant in ten years.” I might not have another decade to continue to hide my poems in the drawer. I know the specter of death is with us all every moment of our days and nights but there is something terribly haunting thinking you might really have only have so many more years to live. We all might be saved at the last minute by a miracle, but miracles are out of one’s control, aren’t they? No one can will a miracle to befall. So, while catastrophic-oriented-short-sighted allopathic physicians tell me to wait for disaster to come knocking, my Eastern medical practitioners and I have tried to tap into that indefinable essence that embodies all living beings and facilitate the trillion of magical mendings of which our bodied are capable. We are oiling the ancient chains of Qi and hoping to outwit the dire predictions of Western medicine, still in its infancy. So far so good. I for one can tell you we can find joy and beauty and spiritual revelation along the path toward disintegration and death. I think with wisdom and some help we can turn the tide, even given the most dire predictions, from disintegration/dying to integration/living. The key is to always remember that death is not failure. It is just the end as we know it.
I began writing in a diary when I was seven years old. Journaling metamorphosed into letter writing at some point in the 1980s, numerous intimate literary correspondences in which I engaged in for many years much like the letter writing of old and in which I took great pride. I began writing “poetry” when I was fifteen. Terrible stuff. But the impulse, the desire, was what mattered. The rare prose, memoir, polemic, and short story began to emerge at some point in my 20s. Over the years since I first began writing, no doubt, I have surely written more shitty pieces than not. No one taught me how to write. I had a great English professor in college, the first encouragement I had as a writer. He became a mentor, friend, and died tragically in his early 40s.
Learning how to write on my own has its advantages (no boxes, no rules) and disadvantages (lack of social legitimacy, isolation, uncertainty, self doubt, etc.). My writing teacher in college believed in me in ways impossible for me to imagine at that time. After he died, he disappeared from all but my dream life. But there, in my dreams, David has lived all these years, a nagging voice in my head, in my heart, in my soul, that I am a writer, that what I have to say, or moreover, how I say it, is important. And, sometimes, enough of the time, how I say it is sometimes even beautiful. As beautiful as the hummingbirds I adore, as the trees swaying in the rain outside my autumn windows today, as a rain-soaked bear ambling up my driveway, a buck leaping across the drive in one jump. As beautiful as a woman who helped me give subcutaneous fluids to my sick dog this past summer every third day while my partner was out of the country.
One of the biggest problems in my life, until I decided to turn it into a career (I recommend this to everyone!), is that from the time I could walk I wanted to know what people really feel and think. I hate artifices, artificiality. I hate the production mentality of our societies. The fact we are frozen in time. Objects to be admired. We ALL shit and piss and vomit. We all cry and laugh and struggle. We all suffer and die. We all fart. We all smell. If all those people who think they are somehow superior to animals pissed in the yard next to the place their dog peed, for a week, and then went out to try to figure out whose stench was whose, it would be sobering. If some God-like being with superior power and control put a bowl of food in front of us, a couple of more or less arbitrary times each day, we would eat like wolves alongside our dogs. We are all filled with self-doubt and contrariness. Ambiguity and bravado. We are all, in the end, hypocrites.
I write poetry in two vastly different ways. Sometimes a shorter poem comes through me more or less whole. In these cases, I have the distinct feeling of being a conduit for something much bigger than me. It is an extraordinary feeling. Like giving birth when one doesn’t even know they are pregnant. Much more commonly, I begin one poem every three or six or twelve months, which I then spend endless hours working to refine and refine and strip down to the essence of exactly what I am really feeling and thinking. Sometimes this takes years. It is very very hard work. Much harder than one would think, to get to the essence of what I really feel, and what I really think, about something. It is very much like sitting at a meditation retreat. I “sit” with my words on the paper for a very long time, days into weeks and weeks into months and sometimes months into years. I allow my dreams to illuminate crevices and corners, waiting for all angles to emerge from the shadows of my unconscious mind. Writing poetry is about diving deeply into my own psyche and in this diving, moving past my self into the psyche of the collective consciousness. Something much bigger and more interesting to me, than me.
One Year Later.
Before I had a chance to pick out my poems to send to The Sun, catastrophe!!! Our dog, our beautiful adored brown-eyed white-and-gray furred (with black tipped guard hair down her spine as if she was a carefully painted canvas), Alaskan Malamute, Cheena, stopped breathing. Suddenly, inexplicably, one thickly humid night after coming in from the screen porch to have her dinner (chicken, rice, carrots, garlic), she collapsed on the floor, gasping, foaming at the mouth, her tongue turning purple (for lack of oxygen), having lost control of her urine and bowels. Somehow we got her out the door of our house, down the stairs, into the back of the car and drove her the hour and fifteen-minute drive to the veterinary ICU. My partner drove. I lay in the back of my Subaru stroking her dazed face, telling her to keep breathing, begging the universe. We put on the air conditioner in the car. We shivered and our jaws trembled but the frigid air clearly helped our dog to breathe. At the veterinary ICU they sedated her. Put her in an oxygen cage. And we began our immersion into a universe about which we had no knowledge and no experience. She had something we had barely heard of: laryngeal paralysis. The arytenoid cartilage, which function as doors to the rest of the larynx, doesn’t open. The CAD muscles that pull them apart are paralyzed and stop being the hinge to this door during inspiration. Oxygen can’t get past this point, to the windpipe (trachea), or into the lungs. The animal or person (yes, it can happen to humans as well), begins to suffocate.
I sort of knew we all have tracheas, just like before my dad’s stroke I sort of knew we had something called “brain stems.” But who thinks about these things until they come crashing down on our lives? Our bodies are a trillion magnificent miracles happening every moment almost all of which we are completely unaware.
Maxine Kumin wrote the following, in her 1978 poem, “The Retrieval System,”
It begins with my dog, now dead, who all his long life
Carried about in his head the brown eyes of my father,
Keen, loving, accepting, sorrowful, whatever,
They were Daddy’s all right, handed on…
I saw my father’s eyes in this dog, the sorrowfulness, love, watchfulness, struggles to understand, upon first meeting this dog, in a cage, on the floor, at the MSPCA. I saw my father’s eyes immediately. And I saw God’s eyes. (Where did I read that Dog was God spelled backward? Was it in The Sun?) I fell in love with this dog at first sight. She was two years old and brought by her first person to the ASPCA because someone in his family had cancer and had come to live with him and it was no longer possible to raise a still adolescent 80-pound Alaskan Malamute with a mind like Einstein’s, and care for his sick human family member. In the years since we adopted her, she had stopped, finally, doing things like chewing the windowsills in our rented turn-of-the-century duplex. I moved into that place as much for the fact of the mahogany railing from the first to second floor, which reminded me of the railing going up the marble stairs of my beloved grandmother’s rented second-floor apartment in Brookline during the years she lived there when I was a child, as for the incredibly cheap rent and spacious three-bedroom interior. The day she ate through the wooden fence we used when we went out to keep her and the cats separated (blood splattered kitchen), was a distant memory (she didn’t hurt herself, somehow, miraculously). The times we left her at kennels to go away for a couple days and came back to find her voiceless from incessant barking, or her toenails ripped raw from digging at the steel fence and cement floor. We learned quickly if we wanted to go away, it would be as a threesome: one for all and all for one! We taught Cheena to lift her paw and lay it on top of our two hands as we said our newly minted motto.
This is a stunning and extremely intelligent animal we are talking about. I am not sure I understand the human drive to recreate the beauty and architecture of the natural world in art when we close our eyes to the endless and phenomenal beauty of nature and the natural world all around us. No human could ever duplicate a being as beautiful, as embodied and full of spirit, as a Barred Owl, a black bear, a hummingbird, a milk snake, my Alaskan Malamute. For eleven years I have photographed this dog, wrote poems about her, unquestionably fell head over heels in love.
Anyone who has ever been in love with a dog (or other companion animal) will understand how our dog being unable to breathe could be a catastrophe. A catastrophe that would then keep us awake night and day, make us keep the windows open in our house through the entire northeastern month of December (again, cold air helped her breathe) until we could find a surgeon willing to operate on our dog. A dog that not only had LP but who also had megaesophagus (which makes dogs regurgitate food and water if not fed in a certain way, and sometimes even if). And then again, anyone who has ever been in love with a companion animal will understand how, for months following her surgery, we missed endless days of work and uncounted nights of sleep to save her life. After the surgery, pneumonia almost killed our dog and us, for lack of sleep — holding up her frail, sick body while she profusely vomited for half the night, applying cold compresses to the bottom of her paws and ice cubes to her gums when her fever was 102, 103, 104 — somehow, with her endearing help, carrying her to my Subaru wagon and heading to the vet. How many times? Too many times. We lived in constant post traumatic stress waiting for the inevitable middle-of-the-night emergency when she couldn’t breathe, her fever spiked, her vomiting became profuse, or the drugs they gave us to keep her from becoming terrified when her throat began to close before the surgery (the fear makes it much worse for them), almost killed her. All together, we lost about four months of our lives, my partner and I, due to our commitment to seeing this dog through being so sick. Two months of sitting down to dinner, taking one bite, and leaping up to hold up our dog while she vomited, so the vomit would not go down her esophagus and into her lungs. Throughout these months I would sometimes think about how my grandfather had spent a year dying on the living room couch with three school-age children bearing witness. Thinking about what we once naturally did for people we loved. How that day in 1948 when my grandfather died in bed hiccupping, his wife, three children, friends and extended family gathered in the apartment with him to wait it out together. (We are born into this life in the presence of others, and so it seems, to me, important we should take our last breaths accompanied.)
You can be assured I did not write a word that was not doggie medical notes (which we kept extensively), on a doggie medical chart, or an email to a veterinarian, during this arduous time. I was barely able to work.
I don’t want to make comparisons. To the sickness or death of my human loved ones. To sudden car accidents that change one’s life forever. To fires that rip through houses, streets, and cities and change lives forever. To the devastation of war, murder, rape. She was just a dog, as so many people like to say. But anyone who has loved a dog knows, just a dog is about the biggest insult anyone can say to a dog lover. And as I have told many people in my life as they stare at me blankly or argue the point, this dog TOLD me, one day, in a particularly empathic, clairsentient and clairvoyant moment, when she was about seven years old, that she was going to live to be sixteen. (She will be fourteen soon and was twelve the night she stopped breathing.) I am not crazy. I am psychic in a multitude of ways in life. But I know that look of disbelief when you tell someone something a bit off kilter ( from beyond the five senses), and they look at you struggling to comprehend. I am extremely clairvoyant and frequently dream people into my life. In terms of being clairsentient or empathic, more often than not I know what someone is feeling, even if they don’t. This dog came to me in a series of vivid dreams a couple weeks before I got a phone call from the ASPCA saying they had just gotten in a dog I should come take a look at. When I talk to more mainstream people about all of this, I frequently get that same look an acquaintance, Dave, gave me last fall: “How do you know she is going to live to be sixteen, Susan? I don’t know how long I’m going to live.” I thought it was a reasonable response, certainly. So, I thought, I do not know how I know. I only know I do. Of course, the issue has been, my whole life, how to distinguish psychic sensibilities from fear, need or desire. This is always really hard.
I do not want to end without mentioning that my dog also lived equally in other senses and awarenesses. And I am not talking about what we usually think of as “animal senses” (or am I?) Not only was she extremely intelligent (I always like to say she had the intelligence of a four year old), with her fifty-nine-word vocabulary (we listed the words and counted in bed one night when she was about six years old, before falling asleep). This dog didn’t get excited when you went to go get her leash, or change your clothes for a ride in the car to the park or the lake, she got excited when you thought about changing your clothes to go to the lake or thought about going to get her leash for a walk. So, when I told Dave that I didn’t know how I knew my dog was going to live to be sixteen, I knew the internal clicking clock in Cheena’s soul thought this too.
Of course there is always the possibility I made this up. I am big on denial. I am not sure I could get by in my life having the illness I do, without denial. Denial serves as a Band-Aid we all put on the fears, and sometimes the wounds, of our soul. I’m pretty sure none of us could get by in this world without denial. So many people dying, so many creatures suffering, so many acres of land being destroyed, so many plants and animals, reptiles and insects, becoming extinct, each week, so much suffering and loss every second of every day, and death always sitting on our shoulder. And, what about the future of our planet? The prospects are grim. If we wrapped our minds and hearts fully around the suffering that resulted in the food we place in our cart when we go to the market, the clothes we buy, turning on our heat, pumping petrol into our vehicles, cash a paycheck, how would we go on? How would we sleep at night? How would we keep from becoming mad? So, it could just be my fear of death and of losing those I love to death that put those words into my head. Maybe my dog will just die when she dies. I try to reason: we cannot control death. We cannot presume to control The Angel of Death, no matter how creative our imaginations nor the depth or longevity of our intuitive sensibilities. These mental constructs give us no more power over death than the architectural or physical edifices many people build around them in their lives to insure their mortality, do they?
What have I learned from this experience? One of the most joyful things in life is coming downstairs in the morning to a fat dog with a cold wet nose! Never to be cocky, or brag. Almost every time I did this, about Cheena getting better, she got sick again. Our inflated egos, or pride, need as many “sits”, and “downs”, as our dogs. And patience is the blood and bones of the life of the soul. It is a wise thing to learn how to wait graciously. To wait for the moment to pass, as the Buddhist’s say, as it always does. To sit with it and know that everything always changes. That eventually the pain will pass. One will feel better when one is sick. Eventually feel a glimmer of hope again when one is despairing. It is so hard to wait but where are we all rushing to, after all? What is the end of all this rushing? Some momentary swiftly passing addictive pleasure? A “work” deadline? A meal? Bed? A shower? A nursing home? Our last breath? The grave?
Our lives are train wrecks waiting to happen, as my brother liked to say for a time a few years ago when he was feeling particularly frustrated by events unfolding in our elderly parents’ lives and how little control he had about any of it. Frankly, I think all of our lives are train wrecks waiting to happen. It just matters when we crash. And that we learn how to live fully through the darkness and light, the dawns and dusks of our lives (not overwhelmed with anxiety, anticipation, and fear), during the hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and for some of us, a century, before we crash!
It helps realizing and accepting this early on. It is hard to be Jewish and not have this sort of comprehension. It swirls though most of our genes along with our blood and lymph. But, this is about the cultural legacy of trauma we all have, all humans. The challenge of living with this knowledge more or less every minute of every day but also having optimism. How can we be incredibly aware and fueled by hope and optimism within whatever cages we find ourselves in life?
It is many months later, now. It is spring instead of late fall. Just as I was about to finish and send off this letter turned memoir/essay, a year after Cheena stopped breathing, almost to the day, my mother was seriously injured (an eighty nine pound eighty eight year old woman), by a negligent wheelchair van driver, on the way home from a doctor with my wheelchair bound father. She spent a week in the hospital and a month in a rehabilitation/ nursing home and I spent six weeks traveling the hundred and twenty miles back and forth. Half the week there and half here. Again, the poems I had planned to send to The Sun Magazine receded into the back of my mind. How to keep my mother alive under the life threatening irrational barrage of psychotropic medications they were forcing into her in “rehab”, where my mother became, in less than a week, a completely demented stranger who did not know what year it was or how to pull the emergency string in the bathroom if she needed help. We live in a shameful era in which old age – particularly for women – is treated as if it is an alphabet noodle soup of psychological diseases. So, each day I spent hours on the telephone to Boston battling this out with incompetent nurses and doctors “in charge”of my mother’s “care”. Each day was about how to keep food purchased and prepared in our own and my father’s refrigerators; how to keep laundry done in both households; how to keep Cheena from getting pneumonia; and under the weight of all of this, how to keep my own health from deteriorating beyond repair. It is not, dear reader, as if every hour of every day of my life is not about this infinitesimally difficult tightrope walk anyway. For those of us who live in the world of chronic illness and/or pain, life too often hovers in the wake of forces beyond our control, which determine on any given day and often in any given hour our “productivity”. Of course (is this a feminized thing a control thing an anal thing or do as many men struggle with it too?), it is always a battle (guess which wins out regularly), between taking our precious energy and attending to the trillion of endless domestic chores of daily life or working on ones writing. (I still have a phone message on my answering machine from my brother left two years ago “Susan, are you ever ever going to answer your telephone again?”) It is just that, unless I am in the middle of a personal prolonged medical crisis; normally, in my life, I can, at least, on good days, see the shadow of myself there on the ground as I walk along. At least I sort of know “I” am still in there somewhere. During this crisis with my mother, I had no shadow.
This will have to be another story. In a month, I will turn 52. Is this how fast our lives go by? The older we get, the faster each year passes. Our lives are a journey to find the right path for the soul that resides within our bodies. For some people this is relatively easy. For others it is a long perilous path.
I wake from a dream I was walking down a road in some Middle Eastern country with some friends and was kidnapped. I was being held captive and there was no escape and no way to communicate with the outside world. There was no telephone. There was no computer on which to send an email. I was forced to be a slave to these strangers. I know I had this dream because of the interview I listened to on Fresh Air, last night, with Yanar Mohammed. It was stunning to me, in its horror. Here, I, we, so many of us, are having these personal lives. We think about our work, how much we accomplished on a given day. We think about what time we have to get up tomorrow morning. What we might eat for dinner. We struggle with our work, relationships, loves, hates, desires as if they are demons. All the while, as we churn self importantly about in our little lives, in so many places in the world, people, families, entire villages are being snatched away like feral cats.
If it weren’t for my dog, I would just print this out unfinished and put it in the drawer along with all the others. Maybe I would just leave it on my computer desktop until one day my computer crashes and all is lost. But, I owe it to Cheena to finish this story. I have to finish it for her. First, I want to tell you that I still believe this dog “thought” she was going to live to be sixteen. I think she was as completely stunned as I was when this did not happen. I think this was why her body seemed so alive during the 24 hours she laid in the back of the station wagon waiting to be buried. And, even when we buried her, in retrospect, I think she hadn’t left her body yet. As Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek says in Good Life, Good Death: Tibetan Wisdom on Reincarnation, “ …the body is dead, but consciousness may remain because internal separation has not yet happened…One can see clearly in this phase that although the person’s heart and breathing have stopped, they are still in their body. There is no sign of decomposition and the skin has a normal glow…”
It happened again. The medical emergency nightmare. It was my fault. I made a stupid medical decision for my dog. A decision born from total and utter exhaustion. Again, Cheena had become sick. Again weeks of no sleep. (Always a nightmare of suffering and illness for me.) It could have helped her, as had the two thousand other medical decisions I, a layperson turned overnight into barefoot veterinarian, had made over almost two years. Except this time it didn’t. And the emergency vet who was so devoted to our beautiful dog and had bestowed upon us endless acts of kindness and veterinary expertise and whose name reminded me of the lovely little teal parakeet my brother and I had as a child, Kiki, wasn’t at the helm. The emergency facility had shut down and our emergency vet was now working over a hundred miles away. On call this day at the new veterinary emergency facility, which had opened near us about a year before, was a very young vet recently out of medical school. Someone who did not know our dog. Did not know this dog’s will to live. How much she still wanted to live! Did not know the pleasures she still took in life. She didn’t know our dog was The Miracle Dog. That in the past almost two years she’d been to forest, field, mountain, glen, lake, harbor, bay, sandy beach and rocky northern crashing sea. That we’d all danced (okay, Cheena in her Eddie’s Wheels), smiled and woofed together at the full moon. Post LP tieback dogs can’t really bark. The sound you hear instead is just the sound of air passing through their throat. A sound like the wind rustling in the tops of the trees.
Young healthy people lack the wisdom of their elders. They too often do not know that even when the body is failing, when we are very sick, or very old and infirmed, even as we are decaying, life is often still worth living. Even though our bodies might be ninety years old and our spines like snow-laden birch trees in winter, life is loved. So, this vet saw an old sick dog she did not know in a moment of crisis, and not the fourteen and a half years leading up to this moment. She saw an old sick dog she convinced us (herself?) was dying and she could not save and veterinary protocol that makes euthanizing animals a simple choice. A simple choice in the same country that makes someone who helps to end the life of a suffering human being who is dying in acute relentless pain, a criminal. So, as my dog died by lethal injection, I stroked her head and gazed into her eyes, watching the life force depart. Like all of us, I have had my share of loss and death, of suffering and grieving, but this was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
I’ve never been good with endings. Is anyone? Beginnings are so easy. We leap, fly, fall over our feet to begin. But how do we end? Perhaps every moment holds the potential for endless new beginnings when we cup the seed of life delicately in our palms like a baby bird.
In a couple months, I turn fifty-three.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, Wolf, 2012
I am running down a bridge
About to be dynamited
It seems suspended, green steel
Like the bridge over Eggemoggin Reach
From Sargentville to Deer Isle
That goes on and on almost a mile.
A bridge like a ridge,
The ridge of an ancient skeletal spine,
Beginning low and then rising up into the sky,
A rocky incline.
Frequented almost half a dozen years,
By May Sarton at eighty
The madness of some foolhardy woman
Wanting more, wanting the impossible.
Still attempting to reach others, to comprehend
Across the vastness that is sometimes you and I
To read her poems in this place,
This place away from home.
It plays over and over in my mind:
Somewhere along the eastern seaboard
A coastal night fog dense as black oxide,
This literary giant, ablaze, a controlled burn,
Cultivated, ripened and ready to fall
Embodied in the flesh and bones of an old woman, dying
Although she didn’t know it then
Not until the very end
After they prescribed the Prozac, Zoloft
The banality of an old woman, motel room,
The other woman in flight.
I’ve finally decided,
I just don’t believe a word of it.
I finally decided. I just don’t.
Believe. A word. Of it.
Not reducing aging to infancy or infamy
Instead in the collapsing of passion and ration I am
Casting away the constrained being rarely
Immured in the body of desire
In the body of the dying.
My mother chased me ‘round the table
Which sits now in the dining room, scratched and
On humid summer days, sticky and
Across from my grandmother’s mahogany hutch,
I found in my parents’ basement
Chipped, filled with castoffs
Cracked ceramic cups from turn-of- the-century Italy, Japan,
They gave most all her antiques to Hadassah who sold them
And sent cash to plant trees in some far away land
I could not comprehend
Then, when she moved from her spacious Brookline apartment into
Her daughter’s house. Too old to live alone any longer.
It will happen to us all.
Keeping my mother’s pink painted childhood bedroom set,
A couple of perfect pieces, some mauled ones.
Mahogany living and dining room furniture all gone now. I bet
My self I will trudge into an antique store one sunny day
Come upon my grandmother’s furniture, fighting bitterly
With uncomprehending entrepreneurs over the law of return: I say
“Stolen things, stolen from my childhood,”
Knowing all the while
They were not stolen at all but given away
From necessity and shock and grieving
But mostly lack of space, foresight, say.
At night I fly like a barn swallow into rooms of furniture,
Heavy wooden pieces, locked away underneath
In the dungeon, the bowels, the basement of my unconscious psyche.
My grandmother’s furniture, it’s not clear which
Grand mother, my father’s mother,
“Little Nana,” too poor
To have more than a couch and bed in that tiny musty flat
In Brookline, where the shades were always pulled.
We try over and over to find the key, to find
Someone to open the heavy wooden door,
My father and I,
But we never make it down.
The door never opens
I will never ever not ever get that furniture back.
Instead I sit at this sticky maple table and
I remember like yesterday my mother in pursuit.
I was only six years old in 1961, singing “Love, love me do, You know I’ll love you, but Please love me do” and screaming “Fuckkkkkk,
Fuckkkkkk, fuckkkkkk, fuckkkkkk” at the top of my lungs
I raced around this table squealing, laughter pealing.
No idea of the meaning of the word fuckkkkkk,
Except my brother, my older brother, that boy of nine,
Taught me a new word and younger sister I will always be, I wielded, wheeled
Propelled myself around this table like there was no tomorrow.
And soon after my troubles began,
A long slow descent into the madness of no woman’s land.
Suddenly I was like a crab spider in winter
Stuffed into a nook on the siding of a camouflaged brown house
Not knowing when spring would come or if in the meanwhile I would be eaten
By a yellow finch, a tiny white-throated sparrow, or turn up a splinter in some kid’s finger.
Invisible. Erased. Locked in a jar in some stuffy tower.
I did not come up to the top of the ridge where I now live,
Bobcats, bears, rocks, rivers,
To feast my eyes on this expanse of forest greens and browns,
Toward the humpback mountain,
Melville’s winter white whale in the western sky
That land of Thoreau, Bryant, Holmes and Hawthorne,
Or down into the watery marsh,
Aggregate fruits ascending axil
Buttressed deciduous pinnately compound
Obtuse orbicular reflex maple a few remaining feeble oaks, maple
Apple, water beech, box elder, brittle willow, brown ash
Butterball butternut buttonwood
The neighbor’s rough-barked black cherry
American holly, hemlock, honeysuckle, hornbeam, ironwood,
My ten-inch baby
It was not even like scrambling an egg
On the street, in the heat,
Of some city miles away
From that bridge
Spanning the dark waters of Eggemoggin Reach in the East.
But darkness, total darkness
As black as the woods in a new moon.
As quiet as the moment before calamity strikes, that strange stillness
Before a bomb drops or the tornado comes down the highway
Headed directly toward you. The sky darkens. The soul weeps and bleaches.
Manganese black. Utter aloneness.
Oh there is so much to try to see through, still.
They always thought I knew, still do,
What I was awash by.
Knew what I was saying, every word, my action,
What it meant, every feeling, thought.
Is is really true? Is anybody really like this?
He thought I was awake,
After sticking a pencil in the door jam, awake
As he disassembled the handle.
I still don’t know myself how I could have slumbered
Through the entire painstaking dismantle. But
I was only a sleeping child,
Not yet his rebellious daughter or dutiful son
Although I think I said the word “no” in the womb
And I would have held my breath until I died
In order not to do something I did not want.
There is so much I don’t know
About how we know what we do
Or don’t know what we do
Or what difference it all makes
Anyway, to know, not know
To live or die.
Logic and reason rarely rule the heart or the mind and
He even forgets how he beat me with that leather belt,
Forced my pants down, threw me over his lap. He forgets the beatings altogether.
I love him so much, my soon to be eighty-year-old father, who just survived a brainstem stroke,
(i sigh/ i wail/i cry/i moan/imagining/my father/in/his tomb.)
Who even knew, who ever knows before the body yowls and sputters?
I have just discovered the brain stem.
Not the stem of a flower, not a gladiola
Or a peony fallen over.
There is really nothing to forgive
Memory is like that
And he was doing what he was told
Boldly going where many men before him had trodden
Before the path least traveled
Became an option
For a man like my father
Who knew of Frost but thought him less poet
And more in terms of weather conditions
On his long daily drive north to work
Up Route 128 to Haverhill.
I’ve never thought much of obliterating
Books, the sacred text, before now,
Never totally understood, viscerally,
The power reach influence command of the written word,
To alter, shift, radically, change,
Defer one’s cause, one’s heart, no matter truth or lies.
But this woman did it for me.
Portraying Sarton after a stroke,
Insistent on putting flowers into a vase of water,
As the emergency medical technician stood standing staring stunned
At such impudence.
The audacity of an old toothless drooling
Never, able, to move beyond body.
Even after death, reduced, in entirety, woman, to the world of flesh.
Her sacred muse trampled
Again and again.
Squashed like a mosquito,
The boundless urge to be loved
To manifest the afflicted dolorous soul
In reverent language.
I long to gather up Sarton’s ghost in my arms
Like a baby seal layered in crude oil
And lick her clean, return her
To her vibrant graceful vigor.
Two weeks later it happens again,
In my own soft downy bed, sheets like leaves
Here on this ridge, this ridge
Where I live in the forest, far from the edge
Of the sea.
Away from blue lapping
Distant sounds of motorboats on the wake.
Soft rain falling and only green,
Green, those verdant greens and velvet browns I so adore,
As far as the eye can see.
No Prussian blue, the Antwerp faded blue of my girlhood, but
Egyptian green, raw/ burnt/ chestnut/ umber, brown ochre,
Burnt green earth
And inland songbirds
Sounds you hear upon summer’s dawn
Phoebes, brown creepers, wren, bluebird, thrush, American
Their voices only drowned by a fierce wind.
This time she is an ancient woman
Clothes soaked with urine, unwashed, unkempt, gumming words.
That smell of rotting flesh from tumors unchecked
A swelling belly.
She has almost fully left that body
Devoured by the inevitable incompressible monster of mortality.
I am with her; we are walking together, side by side.
She, both her and her and her and her
All the women I have ever loved and love
All the old women I have ever known
The smell of the spring in New Hampshire
When I first began to long for another woman.
We shuffle along
In a slow
Down the dark hallway.
The place is empty, save us.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, In Maine with May Sarton
Oh darling cat,
Now I am living
Hundreds of miles away
From where we
Shared our days,
And you will never appear
On that stoop again,
Never again scratch at that latch
My golden rainbow
Striped feline friend.
You did not die for me
It is not my fault you died
You died because you were alive
You died because you were
You died because
Your living and dying was
Condensed in relative time
And from mine.
But here I am
Here I am letting you go,
I am letting you go
That way your free will wandered,
Gone from this form of being
Gone from this form
Gone from this
Those sacred cat bones never found,
I never found
But I know,
I know your heart stopped beating
Blood in your veins
Till eventually nothing remained.
I am letting you go
But never will you be forgotten
For you live within me
And O darling cat
I am living.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Cat Poems, V. Here I am Letting You Go De-Parted From Flesh And Bone Of Discord, 1981
Wind soft golden cat
Clear color of soothing swaying hay
Rainbow striped feline friend
Your love shouldered too large
A piece of my burden
And heavy on your tiny
Sacred cat bones
Cost you your life.
A breath of fresh air
And you ran sprouting
Leaps of happiness.
Your overlooked fear
That it was unsafe to close your eyes
For even a moment.
I know the moment
Danger struck you down
Into mother earth’s rich earth
No street corner gutter
No gawking boys were near
Thought still my fault
You died for me
And have taught me
And a lot
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Cat Poems, 1980
But will it be for long?
You didn’t die
Cowering quivering alone
Nor did you crawl cold ill-timed
Into the engine
Of that stationary station wagon.
I can’t forget you my
Darling dear cat
And in my Monday morning
Sadness I raise Lambrusco to my lips
Lamenting your loss.
And I cry:
Symphony sun of Concert
Moon of my misery
The uncertainty must end
Where did you disappear
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Cat Poems, 1980
Oh darling cat
Caring cautious calm
We will never love again
We’ll never love again.
You died a painful death
Into the engine
Of that auto
When I was here
Waiting for you to scratch
At the latch.
Or was I here?
That was the end
Of my second week
What has become
With this awful news
An implicating mistake I wish I could erase.
Did I just not hear you scratching?
Oh darling cat
You are not the first love I have lost
At such a terribly high cost.
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Cat Poems, 1980
Oh darling cat,
Can’t you hear me calling
Are you wandering wondering
What in the world you did
To suffer so severely?
Oh darling cat,
Can’t you hear me crying
Are you silently starving
Cold wet weary and wondering
Which direction to wander now?
Oh darling cat,
Can’t you hear me calling
Can’t you feel me crying
Why in this wet cold weary dreary world
Can’t you feel me here
Silently suffering in fear and care.
Oh darling Symphony cat,
Sun of Concert
Moon of my misery
I’ve watched waited wide-eyed
Since you vanished from the stoop
Clinging to hope
You will return –
Oh darling cat,
I can feel you calling crying wandering wondering
Lost wet weary cold hungry frightened
I can feel you running away
From loud noises and voices and bitter-scented
I can feel you hiding cowering in
Bushes shivering shaking dying
© Susan Lynn Gesmer, The Cat Poems, 1980