A few years ago, I toured the Eastern U.S. to read from the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. In some cities—Boston, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Charleston, Atlanta—poets from the anthology would join me to read their poems. In other locations, I would read alone. During readings by myself, I would generally select a variety of poems and poets from several of the chapters: Grief, War, Exile, Divorce, Illness, Injury, Bigotry, Abuse, Addiction.
In one particular group—a recovery group at Otey Memorial Episcopal Church, in Sewanee, Tennessee—the leader, a psychologist, had told me in advance that two of the 15 or so group members had lost children. So, I focused a few of the poems on that topic. And in a few words introducing those poems, I off-handedly said something like “this is the worst kind of loss—loss of a child.” I spoke from my own feelings not from any therapeutic expertise.
After my reading and the group’s quite lengthy discussion of the poems of recovery, I was corralled by one of the audience members, a lovely woman about 55 years of age, whose 17-year-old daughter had died when a train hit her car at a railroad crossing. This woman was a decade out from her life shattering event. And she said this: “My grief and recovery is no different than anyone else’s. It’s not worse as you have said. You can’t make that judgment, and I don’t accept it.”
Her diction was strident but her tone, though direct, was not angry. It was clear that I had offended her sense of fair play.
Through my work editing After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, I’ve met several poets who’ve lost a child and written about it. The anthology contains the heart-rending poems of William Stafford (“A Memorial: Son Brett”), Mary Jo Bang (“You Were You Are Elegy”), Stephen Rhodes (“This New Never”), B. Terri Wolfe (“Timbuktu”), and Farideh Hassanzadeh (“I, I Who Have Nothing”). Those poems present their open wounds just starting to heal, with pain still very deep, grief still on the verge of crippling. While they are excellent poems, worthy of high praise, I will present them later in this blog. The incident with the audience member above makes me think of a poem in After Shocks that I related to very personally. Anthony Abbott’s “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter on Her 40th Birthday” caught my emotions because the poet speaks from the perspective of years, his grief still alive, gut-wrenching and tense, but it has taken a different form as time has moved forward. I reacted strongly to this poem because of my own experience, having lived a quarter of a century past the death of my wife in a car wreck.
Here is the poem, followed by inteview with Mr. Abbott.
Anthony S. Abbott
The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter
on Her 40th Birthday
May 8, 2003
“Poetry is the supreme fiction,” says Wallace Stevens.
I know. Then how to express the truth, simple
and unadorned as Stevens’s “dresser of deal.”
You see, I am already equivocating, ducking
behind the decoration of language. So, stop me.
Good. That’s better. Now, tell me where you are.
If that’s too hard, just tell me—something.
Or appear to me in a dream, or leave a symbol somewhere—
some mysterious talisman that lets me know it’s you.
Not the feather floating down trick, that’s too common.
Nor bumping around in the old house. Something original
like your name spelled in shells before the tide comes in.
All right, let me try it another way. When you were
three, I let you go to school in the winter without
leggings, without anything to warm your legs.
The teacher told me at the end of the day
and I burned with shame. You were my favorite person;
I was yours. And what I really want to know—
now that all the nonsense about your ghostly reappearance
is out of the way—what I really want to know is
where we would have gone, you and I. I want
to think of you at fourteen or twenty-four
or even thirty-one, want to picture you, know
the clothes you would have worn and how
you would have cut your hair. Early this morning
I walked in the rain to your grave. The tree is gone.
You know I picked the spot because the tree
was there, and now it’s vanished like my images
of you. Damn it, anyway. I’m supposed to be
a writer, supposed to create you at twenty-five
or thirty-nine, give you a history. What would
you like? A husband, three children of your own?
A law practice in the suburbs of Boston?
I’m such a romantic fool. That’s the problem.
The way I see it, I’m sitting in a tea room
in London, it’s raining, of course it’s raining.
Umbrella stand inside the door. Dripping coats
hanging on the wall. My hands cupped around
a hot mug of tea. I’m breathing steam. I look up.
There you are, at forty, looking at me with so
much love I feel my body rising from the floor.
You walk over. I try to stand. “No,” you say,
“Sit down and rest.” You place your hands
on my head and tell me all the years were
nothing—a grain of sand, one grain of sand—
that’s all. You tell me you’ll come for me
whenever it’s right, and then you’re gone.
The bell rings, door closes, flash of a heel
And then, nothing but the steady fall of rain.
They look at me, there in the shop, all of them,
and then I laugh and cry, too, I’m sure.
Pretty improbable, don’t you think? Wouldn’t
sell even in Hollywood, or would it? Still,
dammit, I wish you’d talk to me.
Anthony S. Abbott’s poem “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter on
Her 40th Birthday” from The Man Who (Main Street Rag 2007). Copyright
© 2007 by Anthony S. Abbott. Reprinted by permission of the author. This poem was anthologized in After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events Sante Lucia Books, 2008)
How did you come to write “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter on Her 40th Birthday”?
My daughter died when she was just short of her fourth birthday in 1967. I began writing poems for her in the 1970s. I wrote “The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat” to celebrate her college years. So, “The Man Who Speaks to His Daughter on Her 40th Birthday” is part of a series of poems I have written celebrating her life as it might have been. I have one for her 45th birthday, and will celebrate her 50th in 2013.
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
This poem and the others I have written in her memory have kept her alive in my imagination, which is critically important to me. Recovery is in part the result of turning something painful into something that heals. The writing of these poems has been a central part of the healing process.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
I think I have already alluded to the process of consciously celebrating her life in poetry every five years. So I being to think quite consciously of what she might have been like at 40, 45, or 50. That conscious imagining is central to the whole process of crating the poems, but the poems also must come in and of themselves. I can’t know everything in advance or there is no surprise, no surprise no emotions. So the whole last scene in the poem at the English tea house is pure imagination, pure surprise, pure joy of having her appear.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you’d recommend to others?
Poets I have worked with in recent years who have meant a great deal to me include Jane Kenyon (absolutely essential), James Wright, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman.
What are you working on now?
I published two books in 2011—If Words Could Save Us, a book of poems with accompanying CD, and an anthology I edited, What Writers Do, which celebrates the writers who have been part of the Lenoir Rhyne University Visiting Writers Series. I am very busy teaching and doing readings from these two books this year.
Tony Abbott is Professor Emeritus of English at Davidson College in North Carolina. He is the author of two novels, including the Novello Award winning Leaving Maggie Hope. He has written six volumes of poetry, the most recent of which is If Words Could Save Us (Lorimer Press, 2011). He is the 2012 winner of the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award of the North Carolina Writers Network.