I dedicated Wading through Lethe to my grandmothers, possibly the two most influential people on my life. My grandma Katherine Black was a schoolteacher who wrote poetry and lived in a log cabin in the woods. My grandmother Jackie Guerin was a watercolorist who lived on a lake and whose favorite city was Venice.
Both women embraced their identities as artists and were encouraged by their families. From an early age, I saw that creativity was a valuable activity in and of itself. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the hundreds of practice paintings my grandmother had set aside, and all the strikethroughs as my grandma searched for a better word. Patience and process.
In Wading through Lethe, the girl in the beginning becomes a woman. At the end of the first section, she is changed by the loss of the family matriarch and goes in search of her own identity. In section II she goes to school, travels, and learns about love. In the final section of the collection, she returns home to face the ghosts of the past as well as to measure her own growth against the once-familiar landscape.
Several poems in Wading through Lethe are directly inspired by my grandmothers. However, it isn’t always clear which poem is about which grandma. As with many of the poems, a poem may be “true” even if it isn’t fact. That is, maybe things didn’t happen exactly as described (poetic license and all that), but they represent a feeling or a moment that is best conveyed another way.
My grandmother Guerin died my first semester of college, during finals week. She was the first person I’d ever lost, and the night before I’d heard the news, I dreamed about her. One of my regrets is that I didn’t go to her funeral. I still had a couple of exams to take, and I didn’t know it was okay to ask for an extension.
My grandma Black died five years later, on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I was in graduate school studying for a final exam when I got the news. She had been very ill, and I had already said goodbye, but I wish I had been by her side.
When they died, I knew so little. How many times I have wished for their perspective! How many times I have wished they had seen a version of me that was better, wiser.
My Grandmother Guerin always had a tin of a homemade sweets for guests, my favorite of which were her lemon bars.
A week before she died,
I ate one of her lemon bars,
thinking nothing of holding
something so delicate
it lost its shape in my hand.
I spent the night before my First Communion with my Grandma Black. Unlike in the poem below, it didn’t rain that night, but there were many rainy nights sleeping under her tin roof that I thought the world really was ending. She did scold me for my nail polish.
The night before, Grandma made my pallet
on the couch with faded blue flowers.
Across the room, the iron-barrel stove loomed.
We learned not to touch it.
At midnight I woke. I’d never heard rain on a tin roof
and was sure what Revelation promised was true–
dark horses had come. In church we’d learned
about the foolish virgins with their oil.
I had not confessed my sins. Everyone else slept—
or were they gone? Then the rain let up.
The dark turned dim. I chopped the polish
from my nails, ashamed they were not bare.
Sometimes writing poetry is a way of dealing with regret. Sometimes it’s a search for closure. Sometimes it’s an attempt to bring the person back. Sometimes I just want to keep learning from people in them.
“A week before she died” first appeared in Epiphany.
“First Communion” first appeared in Sixfold.