Beautiful Book You Must Read: Holding Silvan, A Brief Life

It’s been a while since I’ve plugged a book on here, not because I haven’t been reading (I’m always reading!). I loved Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle Books One and Two, for example, loved them because they took me so fully back to my time in Norway and because Knausgård manages to elevate the domestic to the sublime, to make regular old life seem like something very powerful and profound indeed. And I’ve been slowly but gratefully working my way through Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book of short stories Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Currently, I’m turning most of my attention to my book club book for next month, a non-fiction number called Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto, which, if not entirely my cup of tea, is a good story nonetheless.

But last week I halted everything to devour a memoir called Holding Silvan: A Brief Life by my new friend Monica Wesolowska. 

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In Holding Silvan, Wesolowska describes how, after a seemingly normal pregnancy, labor, and delivery, her newborn baby is determined to have massive brain damage—so massive that doctors predict it is only his brain stem that will ever fire. What happens next is the process of letting this baby, who will have no life to speak of beyond the one he could be afforded on machines, die.

It’s been a while since a book has affected me as physically or as intensely as Holding Silvan did. As I emailed to Monica the next day:

“During the part when Silvan is actively dying—if that’s not an oxymoron—I felt this almost physical energy tugging at my body, at my uterus and breasts and forehead, almost pulling me forward and out of my chair. Every fiber of me that’s a mother felt his dying, and I just read and read and sobbed and sobbed until L came in to see why I was crying and I just wanted to grab onto him and hold. This may sound overwrought, since our losses are so tiny in comparison to yours, but while I was reading and crying I also felt like I was healing some of the difficulties of our past five years, trying to have another baby, losing a seven-week fetus when we found out it was ectopic (and I nearly bled to death), all the near misses and dashed hopes…”

I did—I sat in my living room and sobbed for what felt like hours. And while that may not seem like the most ringing endorsement—I know some of you want reads that are “uplifting,” I have to say that my gratitude for this book, for its beautiful, careful prose, its pacing, and the lessons in it about letting go, death, and motherhood, were so profound to me that I think in a way it IS an uplifting book.

I hope you read it, and I hope when you do that you buy it from your local bookstore (ahem) or, if you must, from Powells or Amazon. And pass it on. And buy a copy for someone else you know. Monica’s book was put out by an independent press, the terrific Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon, and with independent press books it’s always a big help to spread the word, grassroots style.

Happy, poignant reading,

Susie

If you’re looking for more great memoirs, check this and this out.

 

 

National Poetry Month, Day 24: Jane Kenyon & Donald Hall

Last night I read a lot of sad poems. I love sadness. It’s not an emotion I fear, and maybe for that reason my favorite poems are often about loss, death, and grief (I have a major “thing” for break-up songs, too). And I got to thinking about one of the saddest poetry stories out there: poet Jane Kenyon, who died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 47 and left behind her husband, poet Donald Hall. The story is sad for many reasons; one, because Donald Hall himself had had cancer, and shortly after he learned he would survive Jane Kenyon became ill and died quite quickly; and also because of his famous book Without (Mariner Books, 1998), which is one of the finest books of poetry I’ve ever read and which has become something of a primer about grief. After she died, Jane Kenyon’s book Otherwise was published, and to read the two side-by-side–well, I recommend it.

So for today, I wanted to post a poem by Jane Kenyon, written, one assumes, when Donald Hall was sick; after, one by Donald Hall, written after Jane Kenyon died. To me, the two poems speak to one another beautifully. Enjoy.

Afternoon at MacDowell

On a windy summer day the well-dressed

trustees occupy the first row

under the yellow and white striped canopy.

Their drive for capital is over,

and for a while this refuge is secure.

.

Thin after your second surgery, you wear

the gray summer suit we bought eight

years ago for momentous occasions

in warm weather. My hands rest in my lap,

under the fine cotton shawl embroidered

with mirrors that we bargained for last fall

in Bombay, unaware of your sickness.

.

The legs of our chairs poke holes

in the lawn. The sun goes in and out

of the grand clouds, making the air alive

with golden light, and then, as if heaven’s

spirits had fallen, everything’s somber again.

.

After music and poetry we walk to the car.

I believe in the miracles of art, but what

prodigy will keep you safe beside me,

fumbling with the radio while you drive

to find late innings of a Red Sox game?

(© Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems, Graywolf Press, 2005)

—-

The Gallery

Back home from the grave,

behind my desk I made

a gallery of Janes:

at twenty-four, with long

straight hair sitting

beside me in my Piitsburgh

Pirate suit; standing

recessive in shadow

wearing her nearsighted

glasses, Kearsarge behind us;

stretched out glamorous

in her bathing suit

at Key West; foxy

and beautiful at forty-five;

embracing me last year;

front page of the Sunday

Concord Monitor

in color with the headline:

POET JANE KENYON DIES

AT HER HOME IN WILMOT.

(© Donald Hall, from Without, Mariner Books, 1998)

 

On a windy summer day the well-dressed trustees occupy the first row under the yellow and white striped canopy. Their drive for capital is over, and for a while this refuge is secure. Thin after your second surgery, you wear the gray summer suit we bought eight years ago for momentous occasions in warm weather. My hands rest in my lap, under the fine cotton shawl embroidered with mirrors that we bargained for last fall in Bombay, unaware of your sickness. The legs of our chairs poke holes in the lawn. The sun goes in and out of the grand clouds, making the air alive with golden light, and then, as if heaven’s spirits had fallen, everything’s somber again. After music and poetry we walk to the car. I believe in the miracles of art, but what prodigy will keep you safe beside me, fumbling with the radio while you drive to find late innings of a Red Sox game? – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/23334#sthash.40xupYWM.dpuf
On a windy summer day the well-dressed trustees occupy the first row under the yellow and white striped canopy. Their drive for capital is over, and for a while this refuge is secure. Thin after your second surgery, you wear the gray summer suit we bought eight years ago for momentous occasions in warm weather. My hands rest in my lap, under the fine cotton shawl embroidered with mirrors that we bargained for last fall in Bombay, unaware of your sickness. The legs of our chairs poke holes in the lawn. The sun goes in and out of the grand clouds, making the air alive with golden light, and then, as if heaven’s spirits had fallen, everything’s somber again. After music and poetry we walk to the car. I believe in the miracles of art, but what prodigy will keep you safe beside me, fumbling with the radio while you drive to find late innings of a Red Sox game? – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/23334#sthash.40xupYWM.dpuf