Often, before it’s a poem it’s a picture. This is where many of my poems, including “The Trouble of Us,” begin. I live on the banks of the Charles River where it runs through the woods in a suburb of Boston, and every day, in every weather, this is where I hike with my dogs and take pictures. On December 26, 2016, the brook on property had iced over, and a glassy oval looked as un-ruined as the impromptu skating ponds of my childhood.
Later, in my notebook, unpacking my memories from the photo into the raw material for a poem, I wrote a rough draft I called, “January Skating,” which was about both my parents. In subsequent drafts, I narrowed the theme to focus on my mother and the extraordinary efforts she made as a 1960’s homemaker to take the five of us skating, in the absence of any help from my father, to the ponds that would form and freeze at the bottom of our neighbor’s field when the brook would overflow. In later years, my mother would often complain about how stressful it had been to manage raising five children while my father was working in the city dawn to dusk. Her tone became martyred and too often featured her misery. So, when this poem emerged as a kind of thank you to her, it was a pleasant surprise, because I felt I could move beyond her resentments to express my gratitude to her for choosing discomfort to ensure we experienced these transcendent moments.
It’s particularly satisfying to have one mother-inspired and one father-inspired poem in issue 11 of Split Rock Review. My poem, “\ˈfä-t͟hər \,” was written around the same time as “The Touble of Us,” but it was inspired by an experience rather than a photo. Eight months after my father’s death, my siblings and I gathered to bury his ashes next to those of my mother, just a few days before his birthday on November 9. It was a dreary, windy fall afternoon, so, the word “billow” came to mind as a source of emotional energy driving the poem. Wanting precision, I looked up the definition of billow in the dictionary, and through many revisions, “bil oh” remained the working title and central concern. Drafts were shared multiple times in critique groups before I was able to identify the definition of the role of “father” as the most central concern of the poem, and the idea that he was born and his ashes were buried on virtually the same day struck me as startlingly poignant and profound. The word, billow, no longer exists in the poem, but its still energizes it.
Over the course of about ten years, my siblings and I cared for our parents as a committed pack – grown children, we became the caretakers in the day-to-day caregiving, both routine and in crisis. The burial was a final act of caregiving we shared. A poetry mentor helped me, finally, with a nod to Plath, express the emotionally complex, final imperative of the poem.