Thanks for inviting me to join this conversation. I've been thinking lately about poetry as therapy, partly because of an email conversation with a new friend who's a former therapist, and partly because my own dear mother passed away recently, and this weekend, we brought her ashes to Cape Cod, to be scattered on the beach where my father's ashes lie. Mom had been ill with emphysema for over ten years, so I both witnessed and chronicled her slow decline. Here are two poems from our previous trips:
EATING MELTAWAYS IN HARWICHPORT
It's been four years since my father died,
and it seems like I'm becoming him,
driving my mother to this sandy spit
where we vacation with their friends
of thirty years, go to thrift shops
and lobster roll lunches at the white
Congregational church, admire the blue
hydrangeas bobbing along the picket fence.
This year, death's been busy as a surfcaster
on a moon-filled night, blues and stripers
running wild, reeling them in one after another:
Dottie talking on the phone, Merrick dozing
in his recliner, cancer's heavy weather
taking Jean and Clare, and only Mom and I remain.
We're sitting at our favorite restaurant, stirring
sugar in iced tea, hearing the little cubes tinkle
like wind chimes. I want to skip the next chapter,
stay here like this, life rolling on predictable
as morning fog, or thick milky chowder, the sun,
a pat of butter, melting through. Our waitress,
in a white apron and pink uniform, her name scrolled
on her left breast, waits with a pad of paper:
"The meltaways just came out of the oven," she says,
"Can you smell them? I can put them in a box
if you don't have room for now."
THE WINDS OF NOVEMBER
strip the leaves off the sycamores; they scuttle down
the street like an army of fiddler crabs crazed for the sea.
In the hospital, my mother's breathing grows more
and more labored, difficult without the silver ribbon
of oxygen in her nose— This year, we didn't get to see
the ocean off Cape Cod, hear the gulls call, watch the waves
hurl themselves on the sand, or feel the fog turn the night air
milky as chowder. Though she's still here, already she's starting
to fade, a clipping yellowing in a drawer, a snapshot
in a black album. The tide goes out, erasing our footprints;
the wind knocks the last leaves from the tree.
The South Carolina Review
So, did writing these poems (and many others) prepare me for the great waves of grief I experienced at her passing? Of course not. And yet. Because the other side of me thinks that emotions not expressed fester inside us, creating worse scars, and other problems. Since she passed in early August, I've been writing and writing and writing. I need more time to see if any of them turn out to be any good, but my heart, at least, is lighter than I think it would be.
Some years ago, a close friend was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. I think we thought if we talked aout it, the worst wouldn't happen, but of course, it did. I hadn't intended to write anything, but the poems came and kept on coming during those three years, and they ended up as a chapbook, The White Poems. (Barnwood Press)(http://www.bsu.edu/classes/koontz/barnwood/indbks/bc.htm)
Here's one of the last poems in the book:
It is early March, each day a little bit greener,
crocus and snowdrops already in bloom, daffodils
sending up the tips of their spears.
When summer comes, we will take you to the river,
trickle your ashes through our fingers.
You will return to us in rain and snow,
season after season, roses, daisies, asters,
chrysanthemums. Wait for us on the other side.
The maple trees let go their red-gold leaves in fall;
in spring, apple blossoms blow to the ground
in the slightest breeze, a dusting of snow.
Let our prayers lift you, small and fine as they are,
like the breath of a sleeping baby. There is never
enough time. It runs through our fingers like water
in a stream. How many springs are enough,
peepers calling in the swamps? How many firefly-spangled
summers? Your father is waiting on the river bank,
he has two fishing poles and is baiting your hook.
Cross over, fish are rising to the surface,
a great blue heron stalks in the cattails,
the morning mist is rising, and the sun is breaking
through. Go, and let our hearts be broken.
We will not forget you.
It could have been written for my mother. Maybe it could have been written for you?
What's very strange is that the poem was written about three years before her husband and I took her ashes to the river; it's amazing to me how sometimes poems possess knowledge and lives of their own. It didn't stop the pain, but surely it stitched the wound, put a clean patch on it.
So while I don't think poetry is therapy; ie, I'm not writing to heal myself, but rather, to craft an object, the best way that I can, I think that many times it ends up functioning as therapy, in spite of itself. And surely, there's nothing wrong with that.