Three years ago, my daughter and son-in-law gave me a special Christmas gift: a new camera. Since that day, I’ve been haunting rivers, woods, and fields for birds in a new journey, one beautiful way to look up and see the world new. Now, thanks to Green Briar Review, I can share my first cover photo of a Heron in Winter.
I’ve been waiting for this. Right at the moment when we all went into lockdown at the start of the pandemic and my mother would begin a series of emergency room visits that led finally in just a few months to the hospice, my book, slow arrow: unearthing the frail children, came out. My mother never got to read it. It was one of the saddest times in my life. The book went on to win a bronze medal in essay for the independent publishers book award, a prize that put me next to lia purpura, who won the gold medal and is one of my favorite essayists. I was thankful to do this interview, which brought me back to my mother and those trips we made across teller county. I can still hear my mother, Ohio native of beautiful red and orange trees, complaining in fall: “What, another yellow leaf?” This is an interview about the journey of one book and the love for a mother.
I found this butterfly along Redtail Lake in the Rabbitbrush. It reminded me of a poem I wrote a long while ago on my own small family’s migration. Believe it or not, it won the 2011 Writers Digest Non-rhyming poetry competition, my thousand dollar poem … a poem I treasure, regardless.
At Monterey Aquarium, we watched mackerel school where light refracted the world over our heads— sky, people, that brooding mimetic moon—bent
impossibly over the silver minions, their shifting music we couldn’t hear, their long silent rhythm, form shifting into formlessness, the way you do now,
your face flushed with the boy’s mouth until I can barely touch you as I once did, my loneliness no longer allowed to break like water against the frail vessel of you.
There is no justification in this, as in the way starlings leave the long darkness of our fall, buoyed in the lifting wings of each other beneath the stars’ compass,
our yellow cottonwood speaking the language of wind between us and this leaving until their shadow that finally is the fall breaks over us. So long now, since I touched
the braille of your skin, the late moon keening her vowels through that early window. Human frailty, I think, loving that naming of you without the tongue, your body —
shadow light shadow —
already breaking across my hands into nothing that stays.
All this year, I’ve been thinking about how to write about grief. Kafka said, “Everything you love, you will eventually lose.” So it seems exactly right that just moments ago the grief counselor called from the hospice where my mother died. Checking in on me. Their last call–Sunday the first year anniversary of my mother’s death.
My mother prepared me for her death for many years—it was the thing she wanted. But I did not realize how grief entwines with regret entwines with guilt each time we are at the cusp of sleep, faithless and alone. The writer Bruce Ballenger says about writing grief, “ Add a sentence that says ‘I was devastated.’ Most of the time this falls flat because it states the obvious. . . perhaps writers should trust that a situation that calls for sentiment can express it most strongly by withholding feeling.”
All I could think of was the “devastated.”
I thought to go back to my writing, what has always sustained me, but I didn’t know what to say, how to say it. Steve Harvey, creator of The Humble Essayist, says that as writers “what happened may matter to us but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.” Yet how do we shape raw grief into art, into something outside the grieving body, an artifact to be softened, hardened, handled, polished?
The summer my mother died, my daughters and son-in-law went hiking in the San Juan mountains to an alpine lake with the young son of one of my oldest friends. My son-in-law loves nothing more than to talk dares, though at thirty, he is long past the expectation that anyone would take him up on one. But, of course, the just-twenty-something in response to a ridiculous dare tore off his clothes, climbed a boulder, and then cannonballed into the air before disappearing into the still freezing waters of an alpine lake no one could even see.
“Did you at least check to see how deep the water was?” my friend later asked her son.
I had always thought of the braided essay as the way to “luck” into the deep image, into deep meaning, that poet’s way of totally giving in to the powerful prayer of language. It’s a cannonball, I thought, a leap into the unchartered, a faith that we will sink into the unknown and then pop out again, blue sky and air in mouthfuls.
Brenda Miller, best known for her braided essays, says that “at some point-some crucial point-we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form.”
I had never fully believed that the braided essay gives the writer courage to write what they think they cannot write. Or that it is the way to move out of the freewriting of grief into something of beauty, grace, purpose. That is until I found this one sentence in my journal and so begins my own cannonball:
My mother came from a family of floaters. “Your grandmother could float in a pond on her back for hours and sleep,” my mother would tell me the childhood summers I floated with her in the green pond behind the Ohio farm house . . . A year now and I am looking for metaphor everywhere.
First, there is the necessary quiet of close grass, of fallen rodent, belly up in the path of your wanting. This morning, all you loved disappeared, ghosts you’ve kept in your palms, the tip of your tongue. Now you stoop to the wide paths reckless others have shoe-ed into the mud. Above the flooded salt quarry, a woman hugs her knees. She will not waver in the hour you walk the wide lake, peering one-eyed for heron through your lens. Then, nothing, until you are back at the beginning, the water of a blue reservoir you had long forgotten spilling out of a pipe at your feet, water so quiet, you think, this is why the birds rush in. A heron hugs the lakeshore; a heron balances on the gray curves of a tree fallen so many years ago that it floats upon the water’s light. Long-necked, short-necked, the heron wait for the sun. Their feathers are the light hairs of moss the wind tassels. Why do you wait at the edge of the water, the camera heavy in your cold hands, waiting for cloud, for sun, for the stretch of wing, the long dangling feet of departure? A quick moment and the heron sheds a bit of itself, just one color the camera opens its eye for, then shuts: a blue shade gripping the half-cave of a tree that keeps trying to bury itself. Soon you will drive home. Soon you will cook, sit by a fire, prop your camera at the table’s edge to see what you have taken.
Of course, no one else was walking in the downpour that afternoon at Lands End, so my shame was all my own. Only later could I see the humor in it, the slapstick quality of a suicidal woman diverted from the deed by her golden fancy pants’ dysfunction, but at the time it was a terrible humiliation from which I had to flee. Returned to my room at the bed & breakfast, which was cold and unwelcoming, I went on living.
from Put Off My SackCloth: Essays by Award-winning Author, Annie Dawid
The Humble Essayist Press (and I) are pleased to announce our most recent publication: a collection of essays by Annie Dawid, novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet. Put Off My SackCloth is Annie’s fifth book. A previous Colorado Voices Author, Annie has been the recipient of multiple awards including The International Rubery Book Award, The Dana Award, and the New Millennium Award for short fiction. Her previous books have been published by Litchfield Review Press, Carnegie Mellon University Press, and Cane Hill Press.
In Dawid’s essay, “Babysitter Goes to War,” the eighteen-year-old in glittering braces, who cares for Dawid’s young son, pronounces that he will go to Iraq to prove that he has “what it takes to be a man.”
“How will you be of use to the world as another casualty?” Dawid asks him.
It is this simple question that Dawid confronts throughout this collection of essays, whether that casualty be a babysitter, a stranger, a loved one or Dawid faltering in the 20th century maelstrom of war and drugs and depression and modern-day massacre that can and does annihilate the very youngest of our school children. Into this mosaic of memory Dawid takes us, holding out for us yet another chip of painted light to finger under the estranged sun.
Like the question, this collection could be a simple journey: once there was a sad girl from a sad family with a sad life. And one night she stood on a twelfth-floor balcony, holding her child in her arms.
But there is nothing simple here in this essay collection crafted by a writer, scholar, professor, journalist, daughter of a holocaust survivor, a modern woman who finds in the reckonings of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” her own fragments that she will gather against her ruins, “harvesting bits of self,” as she describes it, “scattered like meteorites everywhere.”
Dawid’s essays bear witness to her searing, unflinching honesty and keen eye for detail, the precision and lyricism of her prose, the sophistication of her ability to “tell a yarn.” As Jill Christman, author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure, asks, “How have I lived so long in this world without reading Annie Dawid’s essays?”
Find out more about Annie Dawid, her splendid collection of essay, Put Off My Sackcloth, and The Humble Essayist Press here.
Doing the month long NaPoWriMo poetry prompts with my poet friend Marty McGovern. If you’re a poet and aren’t doin’ it, try it. It’s fun and you never know what you are going to end up with.
Here’s my stab for Day Five, using Stanley Kunitz’s poem, End of Summer, for my prompt, using the same first letters in each line (okay, I cheated in the last line) and following loosely the line length. (okay, I cheated there too!) (oh, and I didn’t rhyme . . . whoops!)
The Sandhill Cranes of San Luis Valley
A half-thermal of air and a left off Highway 160 arrested the cold of glacial farm fields we passed, shaken by a year of such frost
we will not forget. We stand in a rutted drive amid winter refuse and ditches, unready to be awoke, to go glittering beneath the half-fences, the dark of our cameras we uncap
blown with such light we had forgot. A crane flies out of a wind block of marsh, then wave after wave of rose-tipped cranes plow the winter sky, the cold we’ve owned.
Already what we prayed for craters us into unimaginable spring: a volcano’s old mouth, we dared to enter, enflamed by cranes, thousands in old potato fields, and leaping.
I think what I’m going to do is each week share more about these books from each of my fellow finalists.
More about Foreward Review:Do you know about this contest, Book Writers? If you publish a book this year, then enter next year!
This is the 23rd annual Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards.As part of its mission to discover, review, and share the best books from university and independent publishers, Foreword Magazine, Inc. hosts an annual awards program each year. Finalists represent the best books published in 2020. After more than 2,000 individual titles spread across 55 genres were submitted for consideration, the Finalists were determined by Foreword’s editorial team. Winners will be decided by an expert team of booksellers and librarians—representing Foreword’s trade readership—from across the country.
The complete list of Finalists for this year’s contest can be found at:
From their Press Release: “The pandemic did not slow down the quality of great books coming from the independent publishing community in 2020. The Finalist selection process this year was one of the hardest our team encountered due to the vast number of excellent submissions,” said Victoria Sutherland, publisher.
“While in typical years, the judging process involves our team gathering and discussing books in real time, this year, we had to read separately, take notes, and converge to discuss the entrants after we’d all taken a turn with them on our own. While at first the change was nerve-wracking, we were delighted to discover that we’re as much in agreement when the process takes place across miles and weeks as we are when we’re sitting face-to-face,” says Managing Editor, Michelle Anne Schingler. “We’re as confident as ever that these Finalists reflect the best of the books that we’ve had the privilege of seeing.”
Since 1998, Foreword Reviews has provided trade book reviews of the best titles from independent presses. Its FOLIO award-winning design and editorial content makes the magazine a favorite among librarians, booksellers, and readers—an excellent resource when it comes to purchasing books. Foreword INDIES and the fee-for-review Clarion service complement our online content and print magazine, helping to showcase independent presses and their authors.
You know what they say: if you ain’t in it, you ain’t gonna win it!