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.

 

 

My Printer Died and It Felt Like the End of An Era

My printer died.

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This happened on the same day that our car, which we had just purchased a new battery for, wouldn’t start in the driveway, and though arguably less crucial to life, and much cheaper to replace, the broken printer filled me with a more terrible sense of loss. I’ve had that printer for sixteen years. Sixteen years! That’s longer than I’ve known my husband. I bought it when I was in grad school, when I was tired of sending out poems printed all wobbly on my mom’s hand-me-down ink jet. The HP 1200 LaserJet cost $350, and at the time, that seemed like an enormous amount of money. I remember feeling like an adult, and like a real writer, when I bought it. It lasted through countless Apple computers—Four? Five?—and has printed countless poems; it’s printed my poetry manuscript and parts of my memoir and various essays in their draft stages, and many student assignments, and it was only when I went to print the first forty pages of the novel I’m writing that I mistakenly fed it a recycled piece of paper that was actually two pieces of paper, with a staple between them, and something snapped.

It seems outrageous that after all these years, it was a staple that did it.

But that, I suppose, is life, and if I make too much of the demise of a printer, let me just say that I’ve had this feeling lately that life is all these concentric circles, these interwoven links, and that everything is connected. So, for me, the loss of the machine that’s helped me put my writing into print for over a decade feels a bit like the loss of an entire era, like the loss of those lovely grad school years when the printer was new, those years when I could spend an entire day working out a poem, bring it to workshop, take it back home and work on it some more. That first year of grad school I lived in a makeshift apartment in a rickety old house in Amherst, and it was my first year living alone in quite some time (I’d had a live-in partner, and college housemates, before that). I can remember the night I thought drinking a second bottle of wine by myself was a good idea, and the night I broke up with someone but slept with him anyway, and the night I overheard every word of an argument between my landlords over the recycling bins and whose turn it was to take them out.

And then I moved, to an apartment in Northampton that was as charming as it was noisy, and the printer came with me. My desk was an old door from a house my parents were renovating propped up on two filing cabinets, and the cords for my computer fit through the hole where the door knob would go. The printer was on the far right, and despite this unwieldy late-nineties desktop computer and the large LaserJet, there was enough space for me to sit, comfortably, between them. The desk was in my bedroom, but I’d made a psychic barrier between the bed space and the writing space, and every morning I wasn’t teaching I’d stumble over to the desk with a cup of coffee and get to work. Some days the poems came like water, trickling easily out of the faucet, and other days they were labored and slow. Always, I’d print them, read them out loud, change a comma, read them out loud again. I drank so much coffee in those days; my anxiety, and my adrenal glands, shudder with the memory.

But was it a simpler time? Of course it was. When writers ask whether an MFA is worth it, I cite those hours at that desk and the feeling of summer camp, like I was writing in Northampton while Leah was writing in Sunderland, with Leslie at her desk in the adjacent room, and the Bens back in Amherst and someone else out in Greenfield, all of us working away like satellites in communication with one another, pausing for whatever; or not working, and pulling our hair out, and blocked—but that was our job, that, just to try to work, not to parent or to homestead or to be married or to publish—we didn’t even worry that much about publishing! Perhaps we should have. But just to do the work. I’ll never get that time back; I’ll always want that time back.

I left Northampton on January 1, 2001. On New Year’s Eve at 9:45 p.m. I’d been painting my blue walls back to white and packing the last of the boxes. Later, I walked over to see some friends. I’d already kissed Laura goodbye, and Leah was long gone, and Mikey vowed to stay in touch (and did). Jim Foley was very much alive. And off I went the next morning, drove out to Portland, Oregon, with my little brother, hitting every winter storm whatever region we were passing through could throw at us. And when he flew back to Boston a day or so later, leaving me to my new life, I cried like I’ve never cried before or since, with loneliness, with anguish, with the deepest sense of loss.

But, and perhaps this was no accident: a week later, I met the man who would become my husband. And then so many things happened that truly feel like fate: us deciding to travel together for a year, and us getting engaged while we were traveling. And me writing a book about that year of travel, and about my surprise, after always having felt outside of it, to have found a man who truly loved me. That book spanned the next decade of my life. And then we moved to Norway and had a baby, and when we got back, we tried again, and again, and again to have another, and I wrote about that, too.

And here I am, terribly pensive of a January morning. L didn’t want to go to school, and his face turned puffy with tears. B tried to rationalize with him about school and its importance, but I eventually just held him and said, “You’re having a really tough morning.” My morning was tough, too: the printer, the car, the muddled-ness, the awful news of the world.

“You’re squeezing me too tight,” he said, but I wasn’t sure what else to do but hold on.

 

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

National Poetry Month, Day 4: Robert Hass

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This is one of the best and most famous California poems I know, about a tiny town in Marin named Lagunitas, where there are, indeed, copious blackberry bushes by the side of the road.

At one time in my life, this book, Praise, was a constant presence in my bag (and life). Enjoy.

 

Meditation at Lagunitas

By Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

–Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas” from Praise. Copyright © 1979 by Robert Hass. Accessed from Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177014)

Plugs and Hugs

Morning,

Couple interesting things you all should check out.

Today’s post on popcorn, by Tara Conklin, is “My Top Five Books for Fall.” Recommendations for what to read this rainy, cool, wonderful season. She distills the much-awaited and much-acclaimed down to five, including the new novel by Zadie Smith. I won’t spoil the rest, but get your browsing self over to popcorn to investigate.

Bay Area folks, put on your calendar the November 3 screening of the short film “Sully Marooned” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. (the film is less than ten minutes long; it will show with a bunch of others at the same time). This is the second film by my friend Chrissy Loader, who writes about music, love, loss, and frailty. This one is a hit–I loved it. Looks like you can buy tickets here.

Hugs,

Susie