Writing What You Can’t Say Clearly

This week I’ve been writing about when my friend’s infant son died and the nearly two years since. I was surprised by my anger and sorrow in the days before his birthday. My anger confused me most. I was mad because I was as sad as I was, because I’d gone bitter in my heart toward a few people connected to the loss. And I thought I hadn’t any right to feel the deep sorrow I felt, like it wasn’t my emotion to hold. Also this, my own then shifting sense of purpose in motherhood, hoping for joy after years of wishing I hadn’t married or borne children at all. My friend wanted to be a mother and I prayed for my own desire to change, that I might want to be a mother too. So when it was her baby who died – I still can’t say clearly what I felt – it was like I’d wasted my own motherhood not wanting it enough.

I made myself write about all of this. I hated writing about most of it because it was clumsy and sad. I failed at a didactic conclusion. I didn’t look good on the page.

Then I found a poetry exercise by Susan Mitchell in The Practice of Poetry. It goes something like this: think of a feeling, mood, experience that you have tried to tell but failed at telling well. Now write twenty lines about it. Use as many metaphors and/or similes as you like, but no fewer than five.

I assigned this exercise to my classes. We all wrote poems full of metaphors and similes and by end of the day, I wondered if the process mattered more. I had three starts in my notebook, each making me look closely at the infant’s death and the time since. I opened my notebook again this afternoon and made myself finish the piece. What follows is a draft I’ll leave alone for a while. But I get at something I mean.


Empathy is my heart cut, sleep broke. I know to pray. I pray
with few words. I pray in pictures. I pray for her empty arms
like my own are also empty. Then I rise from my knees, find
my children, fill my arms. For days it is like this. I think of her,
I think of me. I am necessary and useless. I hook that thought
until I am more useless than necessary, until my empathy is
stealing grief. When my daughter was a baby, I thought
a terrible thought, that her death would be escape. And when
my son was a baby, I thought my death would be escape.
I am useless but I pray

Even this poem about her son’s death becomes about me.
Motherhood was my tether. I was staked in place, to a
husband, daughter and son. She was glad to be pregnant,
glad to grow big, glad to deliver a boy with dark hair, glad
to learn how, already in love. Her joy was not rebuke but I
watched like a child, wanting to learn how to give myself
to my own children as she did her son. And then her son
died. She woke at night, forgetting he was dead, remembering
again. She’d wanted to be a mother and I hadn’t really,
not really, not at all

I do not steal grief. This sorrow is mine. On the day her boy
would have turned two, we go to his grave. I watch my
daughter and son walk among the dirt mounds of other
daughters and sons. The sky is gray, wind whips my hair
and I pray with few words for many things. Later I am angry
and call my mother who listens and lets me cry because
this loss, this son that isn’t mine, cannot go from me.
When my heart cuts and my sleep breaks for his mother,
even when she and I are gray, I will take a piece of her grief,
hold it as my own


Entangled As A Reader

I read The Diary Of Anne Frank when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember laying on the bottom bunk in the room my sister and I shared, sobbing because Anne wouldn’t grow up. She wouldn’t explore kissing or become a teacher. I closed the book and found Mom. I needed her to hold me. I felt Anne’s loss in my body: the abrupt cut in her diary cut me, deeply, because as long as I had pages to turn she and I were the same dreaming adolescent.

As a kid, I lived in my head. I was always making things up (re: imagining, lying, pretending), carrying the make-believe into real life. This a fantastic way to live as a kid. Even now. But a shift occurred in my pretend when I began reading chapter books. I got sucked into The Boxcar Children and The Littles and Little House On The Prairie. These series gave me templates for pretend, the last, a frontier that I held onto long past wearing a calico bonnet Mom made me, tramping through the backyard. Through high school and into college, I continued reading other frontier fiction like O Pioneers! and Giants In The Earth as well as pioneer women’s diaries. I loved imagining that was my life.

Small leap to think that one reason I determined to move abroad was that frontier fantasy.

Most reading is entanglement with an end. Narrative holds me for its pages, and a little after, or when I remember a title. There are books I remember single lines or scenes from, and I close my eyes, remembering two things at once: my experience as a reader (the surprise, sorrow, pleasure, humor) and my experience as a character, when I lived that line or scene. Isn’t that why we read at all? To go live another life, wearing new skin, looking out through another’s eyes? Don’t we read to entangle ourselves in a place that isn’t the one we’re planted in?

I get entangled in these other lives and find characters who aren’t so different from me: Anne in her diary, wanting; Gauri in The Lowland, not wanting. There’s an ache and joy in finding our own secret or fault in someone else’s hand, turning the pages of their loss and gain. Such beauty in recognizing and connecting with characters, practicing empathy.

There is always more. Please post a book you got entangled in.