From Arkansas to Italy

Wading through Lethe is an unexpected mix of rural Arkansas and then, suddenly, ancient Rome. Why?

I grew up dreaming of other places. My first poem at age six was about taking a trip in a boat and admiring the night sky. The poem speaks to a wanderlust that for years I had to satisfy with a set of 1963 World Book Encyclopedias. My two favorite sections—the only ones in color—were found in the “F” and “P” volumes: the flags of the world and paintings.

As I was growing up, my aunt and uncle hosted exchange students from around the world. I pummeled them with questions, wanting to know everything about their lives back home. At fifteen, I decided that the best way to see something of the world was by being an exchange student myself. The only problem was I had no money for the fee. If my adventure was going to become a reality, I had to raise the funds. I started cleaning houses and teaching piano lessons in addition to my Saturday stint at the local post office and babysitting gigs. Family friends and organizations offered items for me to raffle—art prints, an Aromatique gift basket. My friends helped me with a car wash, my family hosted garage sales, and my mom baked thousands of cookies to sell at various community events. The local church also helped. And then, just before I needed to make the final payment, an anonymous donor made a $2,000 deposit into my bank account.

The Bridge of Sighs – Venice

And suddenly I was in Italy, knowing only enough Italian to ask where the bathroom was. My host family lived an hour south of Rome, in quaint Ferentino. My host mom was a retired Italian teacher and taught me how to speak, even though we had no common language between us. My host father’s garden and fruit trees supplied most of our food. My host siblings went out of their way to make me feel welcome, even though it was months before I could contribute to a conversation.

Why Italy? I wanted to attend an art school, and in Italy the high schools allow students to specialize. My classmates were quick to take me under their wing and show me the local historic places and the best pizzerias. My professors were kind and patient. They helped with the language, but above all they helped me understand Italian culture. Once a week I was excused from class so I could visit Rome and let the city be my teacher.

Florence, Italy

It was the year 2000. I didn’t have a cell phone. Dial-up internet was slow and spotty and cost per minute. I wrote emails home offline and then got online long enough to send them. I spoke to my parents with a prepaid phone card once or twice a month. I sent postcards home.

In the poem “Leaving Rome,” I had just been to Piazza Spagna to see the Spanish Steps and the museum commemorating the English poet John Keats. He’d left his love Fanny Brawne for Italy in hopes of finding a climate more hospitable to cure his tuberculosis. He never saw her again.

“Leaving Rome”

Along the Spanish Steps, streetlights popped on
like syncopated fireflies. Walking up Via del Corso,
I passed shop mannequins with averted eyes,
pulled my coat tighter, thinking of Keats,
dead at twenty-five. A cyclone of cars spun
at the foot of Vittorio Emanuele’s grimy shrine.
The Colosseum’s pocked crown rose above
the Forum’s broken bones. I mailed a postcard,
the scene depopulated and clean, knowing
it would arrive months before I returned home,
knowing it looked nothing like what I’d seen.

The poem explains the desire to share an experience with someone and the difficulty in truly conveying it to someone who wasn’t there. Postcards are beautiful, but the real place is always more complicated than the beautiful, glossy photograph shows.

Most of the other poems about traveling in Wading Through Lethe follow my summers abroad as a college student and later as I worked for International Programs at the University of Central Arkansas, coordinating trips for the university as well as co-leading trips with my husband.

The year in Italy changed the course of my life. I’m forever grateful to the many people who helped make it possible, as well as the many who made my year in Italy unforgettable.

“Leaving Rome” first appeared in October Hill Magazine

Inspiration, Poetry, and Grandmas

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.

Grandma Black and me

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.

Grandmother Guerin and me

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.

First Communion

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.

Publication credits:
“A week before she died” first appeared in Epiphany.
“First Communion” first appeared in Sixfold.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Although the driveway was still pretty wet, we thought we’d push on through in the car and save ourselves the trouble of hauling equipment over the mud puddles.

5-19-15 Car in the mud

In short, we caused ourselves more trouble than we saved.

The title of this post comes from the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse, On Turning up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.” He apologizes to the mouse, whose house he has accidentally destroyed at the onset of winter, then philosophizes:

 The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

He then tells the mouse that though she’s unfortunate in the present moment, she’s still luckier than he: humans look back on a difficult past as well as anticipate future hardship.

After over an hour of futile attempts, we were soaked and muddy, spirits dashed. A kind neighbor drove by and pulled us out with a chain. It was a moment of triumph.

We then discovered that with the recent rains, our cabin site had turned into a swamp. To our credit, the house stakes were on the highest ground. Still, our “castle” doesn’t need a moat, so we’re currently looking for a new spot. We probably need more sun for the solar panels anyway.

Looking back on the mistakes we’ve made and knowing that more surprises are no doubt on the way, I can relate to Burns’ poem. But the kindness of strangers, not to mention friends and family, gives me comfort.