Alison Palmer on “Last Line Storm Song”
In my poem, “Last Line Storm Song,” I immediately begin to construct my central questions: what can be stolen from us and who or what has the power to steal? While in the Bahamas for my brother’s wedding in August 2017, my father’s life is stolen from him, and in turn, the rest of my family’s lives are taken, as well. A set of stairs outside our beach-front cottage collapses with my father on them—he becomes paralyzed from the shoulders down. This tragic accident begs all the questions of nature, fate, coincidence and God. No matter who or what is responsible though, these catastrophes occur every day. As you sit with this poem, my hope is that you’ll begin to hate this thief as much as I.
In Eleuthera, after the fall, it takes island EMTs what seems like an hour to arrive because they have to be woken from their homes. Then, the airport has to be opened, all the lights turned on, in order to airlift my father first to Nassau late that night and then to Miami the next morning. However, once my father lands in Miami, a whole team of doctors are ready and waiting for him at the Ryder Trauma Center, a world-renowned adult and pediatric Level 1 facility. Not long after we find out Miami will be our nightmarish second home for months to come, Hurricane Irma heads straight for Florida, and we have to evacuate, leaving my father behind. “Holding our faces against this hurricane, / we never speak / again,” and no, after that, we never speak in the same way.
Using a storm both literally and metaphorically for my family’s situation helps me with another metaphor: “the tree should bend through / the gusts, surrender / auspiciously . . . .” My father becomes the idea of something refusing to uproot. Even though he will never again move his arms or legs, and even though it takes months for him to be able to speak again, my father’s mental toughness constantly reminds me, “even as I take the saw / to deeply, wistfully, cut / at a slight angle: my heart,” it would be like cutting my father down too. So, I decide to live inside my best memories of him.
The final what I’ll call two stanzas, really exemplify what I feel white space and enjambment can achieve—if the devices are successful, the reader lingers on each line because it’s a complete thought. Then, the thought continues into the following line, another world but invariably linked to the previous one. I literally describe the aftermath of the hurricane, but I also attach the idea to my family’s situation, for “We haven’t the ability / to estimate the death toll, / yet. So far I count five of us,” my father, me, my twin brothers and my mother.
I also highlight the idea of “voice” in the face of tragedy: losing it, chasing it and gaining it back. I want the reader to notice that as conversational a poem as this may seem, I create a motif of silence and reference silence several times. After the fall, my family must re-focus, and all that matters is caring for my father to give him a voice again. We do this with absolute commitment and tenderness, even though we are part of “[t]he most severe casualties in my father’s war . . . . ” Our voices, although seemingly returned, are invariably tremulous from this trauma.
My father passed away in February 2019 due to complications from the fall. The closing willow tree image represents the end of his life. With my father’s legs thinned down to almost nothing, he’ll remain like the tree, “the more slender / its trunk, the more graceful / in the wind.”