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.

“I need a band-aid!”: 2021 in Retrospect

Ariel has always been fascinated by band-aids. She believes they have magical healing powers. At two and a half, she tattooed all her favorite toy cars and stuffed animals with them—a small Daisy Duck once boasted fourteen. If you’re around and get a scrape, you’ll be able to choose from Wonder Woman, Charlie Brown, and every color of the rainbow in neon.

Wounded toys recovering

Band-aids can take many forms. This year, for me, it meant finding the right physical, mental, and nutritional therapies. At first 2021 was just “Long 2020,” as a friend called it, but then 2021 took its place as a year so hard that it rivaled 2016, the year that turds literally fell on me as I put up the Christmas tree.

Last year I wrote about having better wings. But early in 2021, I felt the wings had disappeared completely. The winter was cold and dark; in a low moment, we were iced in for seven days in a frigid house. Getting vaccinated was a relief, but it also meant coming to terms with the survival mode I’d been living in and the emotions I’d pushed aside to push through. In the longest nights, sleep came only sporadically. My days were spent teaching from a distance—large classrooms, plexiglass, a sea of masked faces. Without much student interaction, teaching was mechanized and draining. My own challenges were similar to what many teachers experienced, and it felt wrong to complain amid so much global suffering. But I simply could not find my footing.

In spring our community began opening up, with a couple of masked outdoor literary events. In June our family finally had a break from a series of bad colds, and we vacationed to a cabin in the Ozarks.

S’mores in the Ozarks

In July I reclaimed the self-care routines that had fallen away, and it’s a good thing—I needed something to tether me during several family health scares, which included a day-long ER trip to a hospital so overflowing with Covid patients that the ER had no available beds.

This fall was as busy as any pre-Covid semester. Though I enjoyed my classes and students this semester, expectations were still centered around everything being back to normal. I felt like a sports team whose talent had all graduated but whose fans still wanted a winning season. I tried to deliver but was just relieved when the buzzer went off and the semester was over.

I’m doing better. I’m coping with the insomnia. I’m working on a second collection of poetry now that my first, Wading Through Lethe, is coming out. When I’m not fixating on each word of a poem, I write screenplays, usually about people traveling and discovering themselves as they discover a new place—things I haven’t been able to do in a while.

Last year I hoped for better wings. This year it turned out I needed to completely reassemble them. I hope they’re better—more resilient, longer-lasting. Even if they are covered in band-aids.