in counterpoint harmony as if Davis,
Coltrane, Parker, and Kirk flitted limb to limb
and spoke of various drugs and women
through the language of wind.
One leaf appears on a tree. You see it
through the bedroom window
and, like a caretaker in a cemetery,
sell yourself the illusion of rebirth
so you don’t go crazy counting graves.
A woman is here and so are the stars,
full of cold fire lighting your mind
with memory and possibility.
The hooker on Tu Do Street
forty years ago with her silk ao dai
open to expose a thigh
the color of Tupelo honey reflected
these same stars from a different world.
You wonder briefly if that might be big
in some Jungian way, this woman lying so near
to your beating heart, a muscle you would
gladly tear from your chest and offer
as a mere token of what you feel,
like an emerald in a velvet box, this woman
reminding you of how the past never
escapes the present, instead of vice versa.
It’s always the subtle things, sandalwood
incense, the hiss of the teakettle on the stove,
the flicker of shadows along the candle-lit walls,
that flash the rocket round through your mind.
Then the room on Tu Do becomes the rubble
of your life. The dust and the cordite take away
your breath and the woman who no longer is
bleeds into the one you lay beside and love.
Then, you bury your face in her hair,
smell lavender and fear.
Reprinted from After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, by permission of the poet.
Interview with Jim McGarrah
How did you come to write this poem?
Actually, that’s an interesting way of putting it. I don’t really come to poems, they come to me. I’m very disciplined about revising and editing once I get some content on the page, but initially a word, an image, sometimes even a phrase will pop into my head. What I come to is life. If you put yourself into circumstances, if you take some emotional risks, if you allow yourself to experience life, then poems come to you. The poem “March Is the Cruelest Month” came to me because of the demons I had created during my time in the Viet Nam War.
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
There is a cathartic effect in writing, but because my writing is so often autobiographical in nature I sometimes go through the trauma of the experience itself all over again in my mind before that sense of liberation from the memory arrives. When I first started writing about my experiences in war, I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon and it caused me some emotional difficulties. Over the years, I’ve learned what to expect when dealing with this particular subject matter and I keep myself in check better.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
Years ago, I wrote constantly in journals, whatever came to mind whenever it came there. I explored sensory input, memory, associative logic until I had stacks of journals. It’s become a habit when I start a new project to go back and read those journal entries and I often retrieve ideas, phrases, images, and themes from them. In the case of “March is the Cruelest Month” I discovered an old line from a T.S. Eliot poem that I had written on a page of a journal that was about ten years old. It read – "April is the cruelest month" – and beside that quote, the scribbled words "not for me."
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
I’ve always liked Robert Lowell a lot and a generation removed from him, poets my age, there are some really good ones like Lynn Emanuel, Richard Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Stephen Dobyns, and Jack Myers, among others that I like reading. Of this newest generation, I have mixed feelings. Much of the poetry seems to rely on pop culture, blank spaces, and obscure references without much emotional substance. I do think Matt Guenette is a young poet of exceptional talent, as are Sandra Beasely, Elizabeth Bradford, and Shaindel Beers.
What are you working on now?
MY new collection of poetry has just been released, Breakfast at Denny’s by Ink Bush Press (Dallas, edited by Jerry Craven).
Jim McGarrah's poems and essays have appeared most recently or are forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Elixir Magazine, Green Briar Review, and North American Review. He is the author of three books of poetry, Running the Voodoo Down, which won a book award from Elixir Press in 2003 and When the Stars Go Dark, which became part of Main Street Rag’s Select Poetry Series in 2009. McGarrah’s newest book of poems, Breakfast at Denny’s, was released on January 1, 2013, by Ink Brush Press. He has also written a memoir of the Vietnam War entitled A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007) that won the Eric Hoffer Award for Legacy Nonfiction and The End of an Era, a nonfiction account of life in the American counter-culture during the 1960’s and 1970’s, published in 2011 by Ink Brush Press. McGarrah has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a finalist twice in the James Hearst Poetry Contest. He is editor, along with Tom Watson, of Home Again: Essays and Memoirs from Indiana.