News, Updates, Musings
In loving memory of Eleanor Sharkey
This interview was originally solicited as part of a series by a publication that unfortunately never saw publication. The series asked poets to read the work of a poet that they admired and then speak about the impact of that poem on their lives. What follows is a testimony to the heartbreaking and earth shattering event of helping our loved one's die with dignity and kindness, as embodied in the end of life care that I provided for my Grandmother in her final week of life, and in Jorie Graham's beautiful poem written for her parent's own end of life care. Today is the one year anniversary of my Grandmother's death, and in honor of her beautiful life and spirit I wanted to make this interview and reading available to my friends and family. I hope that it says the impossible, offers healing, for those who have lived through this grief also, as this interview helped me to heal, hold and process a lot of grief. I can only hope that it might do the same for someone else in need of comfort and reassurance.
Q: Why did you choose this poem to read of Jorie's?
JD: Most of all because it’s a poem about loss and death and accompanying the one’s we love in their crossing, wherever it is such crossings take them, and these very difficult, devastating things, have been my life's experience of late. This poem has been a great, healing comfort to me in my grief. Six months ago I was tasked with providing end of life care for my Grandmother on hospice, and so this poem guts me, in that way that only the things we’ve actually lived through can, when we hear them resung to us (what an impossible song) in poems or stories. In our culture, no one prepares you for helping someone to die, (we don’t talk about death very much at all) or for tending and guiding the ailing through their pain to gentle rest. It transforms you, destroys you, tosses you, shreds you, and I have not been able, not really, to find any adequate words for such an event, at least not in any poem that I have written of late. But I found the words here, in this poem, and in a few others from the same book, Fast, which also talk about Jorie’s father’s passing. Her poem, Reading to My father, is another huge comfort and compass to me. She sits with the body of her Father after his final breath, wondering; “what do I tell my child,” and I think she means ‘what will I tell my child about this moment that the two of us will also come to one fateful day, how prepare them for this?’ One cannot. What is there to say? But it must be said; the poem tries to say something about it. That we cannot learn this, that we cannot know who we will be afterwards, until we are in that new country known as afterloss. We must live through the terrible absence that is left. We, who are left living, must live. Even after.
This poem in particular, The Medium, says so much that I know as truth. There are the hard, basic details;
“leave the vial nearby / want to see it / make sure there is enough / ask the doctor if more can be taken.” And there is the metaphysical;
”She will finish her business and let go of the stories. The stories are an impediment. You must be in them now, you tell me, but they are all string and knot, they catch you up - spilled blood - the love - the car is pushed - the time is right - your symbol, your scene, your outcome - how I wish I could pull you free, you say.”
I realized, for my Grandmother, the stories were very much an impediment, the; who I am, where I come from, my people, my place, she had to be able to let them go, these stories, in order to let go one last time, herself. How to even describe such a process, yet Jorie has found a way, so impossibly and beautifully. “It was so beautiful he says thank you you took such care the passage was a lovely path - and I look at the room - we have cleaned it up - we have changed the place.” How describe that almost sacred moment of recognition when one encounters a poem that is one's very life right now, only that I cannot even write this without weeping, I am writing this to you in tears. That is the poem, its power, and why I chose it. Why it chose me. Poems, they sometimes choose us also.
“How did you get out - do we ever get out,” Jorie asks. And she means it, this question. How do we? Where did you go in your going? What am I to do with still being here without you? With this absence that is very much present? ‘You took such care the passage” oh, but what a toll it took on us, and we do not know just what to do with where we’ve been.
“Something holds its hand out here and it means it, it is not begging, not a gentle request, also take off your shoes your heart your skin it says, take it all off, the palm outstretched, the palm waiting, take it all now, the thing you call you.”
The thing we call us, it’s been stripped down in this moment, the poem says it all, almost everything. We are never the same, but we know now, I mean, we really know, what it means to hold out a hand to someone and to mean it.
Q: In our emails, you mentioned that Jorie Graham is your favorite poet. What draws you to her work?
JD: I think it’s the impossible way that Jorie, somehow, miraculously writes the thing itself, the almost unsayable dimension of our lives, how she finds a way to make the unsaid said. She asks such big questions but she never pretends to answer them. In some ways, I think, her questions are the answers, and I think we really don’t know what to do with that yet. Question/answers. How can a question be the key to the lock of our world? How can it not?
Yet as deep as she goes she also cares very much about the every day, the little disappointments, betrayals, pains and hunger. She never abstracts the voices in her poem, they feel very much a part of one thing. When she writes, for instance, of a homeless man outside a convenience store that she gives a meal to, she doesn’t make him backdrop to the poem, he is centerpiece, center-heart. What do we do with this moment, how do we heal it, help it?
What is the world we are making, what is the world we are accepting? There is a difference. The question questions us along this border. I find this strategy so much more effective than many poems that try to do the same in a more aggressive way, they lack, most of them, the questioning-answer spirit. They are too quick to hand over the answer. And something, someone, is missed then.
Someone is suffering. Pause. Let it in. Someone is, pause, suffering. Now it’s the world, becoming, pause, uninhabitable. We won't be able to live here much longer if we keep going down this path. What do we do? What are we being asked to do? The question unsettles, undoes us. For me, this is Jorie’s singular power, she has found a way to make said the unsaid, to question the question. But most of all, she makes human and felt everything that she writes. As philosophical as her poems may be, they are also terribly human and recognizable and far less complicated than we think they are. They are down to earth. But they also ask us, how much longer will we have this earth to be down on?
Q: When and how did you first discover her work?
JD: I was very young, about 20. I found a collection of her poems at my local library called ‘The Dream of The Unified Field’. At that point I had only ever read Plath, Sexton, Ginsberg and Bukowski. But here was something so different and very much needed at that point in my life.
I was very depressed then, lost, and suicidal. I was very much ready to die, I even had a plan. And for some reason, that day, I picked up the book and read this line by Jorie; “are you sure you want to kill yourself? Do you not, maybe, just want to sleep it off again this time?” That literally saved my life, that life-line, it pulled me back into myself. “Oh, that’s right,” I said to myself, “I guess I could always just sleep it off again this time.” And so I did.
I discovered Jorie's work in crises and in transition. It changed the course of my whole life. I became convinced then of the utter healing capacity of the poem. If a poem wasn’t holding out a hand and meaning it, what good was it? And I wanted to learn how to do that too. How to offer a hand. Werner Herzog once said that a filmmaker should treat every roll of film as if it’s the last roll of film available on Earth. I think the poet, and Jorie is the lodestar here, should try to treat every poem as if it has the capacity to save a life. I realize that might sound reductive. Poems can and should be able to do all sorts of things. And prescribing a mission contradicts the path of questioning, it demands and it demands too much. I think I only mean that it has a part to play in offering its hand to someone. The form that that takes will always vary. A poem never has to reach out a hand in the same way twice. And in fact it never does. But isn’t that why it saves us? The novelty of the lifeline.
Q: Your reading of “The Medium” was lovely to listen to—kudos! What was your experience like reading this poem out loud? Have you read it aloud for an audience before?
JD: Thank you so much, that is so kind of you to say. I haven’t read it aloud to an audience before, but reading it for this series was certainly very emotional and cathartic. I attended a small reading that Jorie gave quite a few years ago and I was struck by just how embodied she was as a reader. Much centered on her breathing with and into the words in different ways. There was so much soul in her voice, and pause and emphasis and urgency. I don’t know if I’ve quite gotten there yet in my own readings, but as I listen back to my reading of this poem I can feel the soul come alive in it. I think that a large part of that is my shared life-experience with the poem and with the theme of loss it is conveying. Another part of it, perhaps, is that this poet, Jorie, has saved my life. And that all these years later, in my grief and unspeakable loss, I plumb her depths once again to find comfort, that hand reaching out through the page.
One last word on Jorie, the word urgency. There is a sense, in each of her poems, of urgency. Time is running out, there are things that must be said. The hour is getting late, not just for the fate of our planet, but for the fate of the one’s we love. The fate of strangers even. There are so many things that must be said, and, as Cheryl Strayed puts it, “we will regret the one small thing we didn’t say for the rest of our lives.” And we will regret the one small meal that we didn’t give to the man, woman or child who needed it. We will regret the thing we could do but didn't do to make things better for each other. We will regret the hand that we didn’t reach out. We must reach out. There is much to be said, but it all starts with the outstretched hand.