Tonight’s poem comes from the wonderful Patricia McMahon, who — among other things — is the director of the Moss Wood Retreats, a writing experience in Maine that I have been to twice and dearly loved both times. You can read about those experiences here and here, if you like. (Fair warning, that second like contains a poem I wrote the last time I was there.)
This poem of hers, “The Last Time. One Sixty Seven, Seventh Street,” reminds me that nothing is permanent and ghosts are everywhere. And that’s okay, too, because it is a gift, not to be taken for granted, to feel the full range of emotions. I love the vivid descriptions here, how they carry the reader through this tiny landscape, pinging us from loss to joy to nostalgia to reminiscence and back through that catalogue again.
The Last Time. One Sixty Seven, Seventh Street.
The white gate no longer swings open, the hinge rusted, the bushes, once small and filled with bees to run from, screaming for fun, are grown too tall, too wild for this small space. A narrow concrete path leads around back where the sapling is a great tree taking most of the yard over now. But the green pitcher is still moist on the outside on this summer’s night, iced tea filled with fresh lemons. Mint as well, when she grew it by the tulips on the other side of the house. She wrapped them in wet paper, carried to the kitchen. The mint is no longer there. Not a tulip in sight. Still, the pitcher will hold a handprint on this evening. Peach cobbler would have been there. Pastel pajamas for the three girls on hot nights. Seersucker. Lying in the bedroom across the hall from the one with a big dresser. And big shoes in front. A big man. Her side table piled with books. Over here a silver brush and mirror, a cut glass perfume bottle. Jesus gazes down from one wall to his mother Mary on the other side, while my father, who has left the everyday behind, has slipped out of time, stares across the room where my young mother’s ghost combs her hair with the long handled brush. The children are nowhere to be found.
Patricia McMahon writes poetry for adults and literature for children (patriciamcmahonbooks.com). The author of fourteen books, a graduate of The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, Patricia has worked in publishing, as a bookseller, and is Past President of the Foundation for Children’s Books. The founder and director of The Moss Wood Retreats, each June finds her organizing writing retreats in the loveliest spot on the coast of Maine (mosswoodretreats.com). A committed traveler, she has lived on four continents; currently, Houston, Texas is home.
First, I must apologize for the hiatus. School started, I got a novel out the door, we’re still settling into the new house, and there’s been some travel. The hiatus ended up being rather longer than I anticipated. Hopefully we’re back on track now, and even more hopefully I’ll be producing more original content on the blog again this fall.
This week’s installment of Women Writers Wednesday comes to us from Jackie Parker, who has written a response to Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World.
How does a woman survive when the light of her world suddenly is blotted out? Her husband, soul-mate, beloved father of her two boys, painter, chef extraordinare, her best friend, lover, and the carrier of her African DNA, dead, right before dinner, having bought the salmon, opened the frosty white wine.
Even though this is a memoir of loss and survival, it is a celebration of life. It tells the story of a marriage of depth and passion, friendship, and joy, a marriage of art, one that lasted fifteen years but felt to them like twenty-five. “So much struggle and joy.”
The author is the celebrated poet, one of our finest, Elizabeth Alexander, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the author of the beautiful “Praise Song for the Day,” delivered at the 2009 inauguration of President Barak Obama.
How can she bear to write this, I kept wondering, as I read, breathless, the beauty and loss unfolding on the very first pages. What gave her the courage to begin? It is so intimate. So present.
The answer is buried in the acknowledgement section at the end of the book, where the author thanks her publishers and editor at Grand Central: Gretchen Young, Jamie Raab, and Deb Futter, who “envisioned this book before I did, dared to ask for it…”
Ah, so it was their idea, I thought. That’s why she wrote it. And what a good thing for us to know, as women, as writers. We hear so much about the terrible aspects of the publishing business, but there are wonderful aspects as well, the women who encouraged Elizabeth Alexander to do this, write this, the support she was given in order to bring forth this brave book.
And, such a beautiful book. Written in sections, it has amazing recipes — for Ficre’s food was legendary — it describes meals, gives us the names of their many friends, as well as imaginary conversations, dreams, takes us to farflung parts of the world Eritrea where Ficre was born and his family still live, to France, Italy. Teaches us history, for the author is also a professor of African American Studies at Yale.
There are titles of loved books, artists. Favorite music. The description of the paintings Ficre did, the one he made to commemorate their first meeting containing an eye on a plate! And images of their children to be, spirits.
And there is the story of their meeting, their powerful love. Their family story, all of it an extended love story. Friends and family always present, gatherings around their large tables. The garden that Ficre loved. And flowers, always flowers. Wait till you read about The Plum Blossom!
The lines bite like poetry. No ideas but in things. To tell you the way the book begins is to spoil its impact. But we must know the end first, I think, because everything that comes after it is even richer. No matter how much beauty a life holds, it will end. If there is love, the end is tragic, Elizabeth Alexander teaches us, right from the start. Only beauty can redeem loss.
At the center of the book is Ficre, from Eritrea. Have you ever heard such words? Eritrea the tiny country in Africa. Ficre walked through its killing fields at sixteen, to escape, to live. How he made his way to the United States is a book in itself.
Ficre is a man who lights every corner of the world he inhabits with his beautiful being. The phrases he speaks, the food he makes, his gentleness and patience. His fathering. His husbanding! His clothing — the bright pink shirt. His painting studio.
The language of Elizabeth Alexander is precise and gorgeous. The meticulous attention to things, the things of this world, that is at the heart of poem-making animates every sentence.
To read The Light of the World is to be invited into lives that make you want to stand up and dance for joy, and weep for the journey that we humans must take.
One week after her husband’s death Elizabeth Alexander returned to teach her final class of the semester. She gives us the words with which she ended her lecture. They include this: “Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives…”
By the end of this book we know what is left. The sons, taller than their father had been. The wife, alive and able to feel, once again, the beauty of the world. The move to a new city.
And yet, days, weeks, months after finishing The Light of the World I felt Ficre, his living essence, as if I had known him in life. I mourned that he was no longer on the earth. What a gift Elizabeth Alexander has made for us. What a book!
Jackie Parker is the author of the recently published Our Lady of Infidelity: A Novel of Miracles (Arcade Publishing), available on Amazon, through Booksamillion, and in bookstores throughout the US. She is an award-winning poet who leads workshops for writers and for people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities in community and health care settings in Los Angeles and throughout the country. She is also a teacher of meditation and occasional blogger for the Huff Post. Connect with her on Jackieparker.co.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.