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Sheryl St. Germain: Essay in Search of a Poem

You’ve been trying to finish a poem for what seems like a long time. It’s a poem that has to do with the death of your son. At first you can only manage fragments: images, lists, incomplete sentences. They are all good, strong words and phrases, stalwart witnesses to a struggling, fractured life, but they don’t want to cohere into a poem. You have the bricks but not the mortar, the testimony but not the conviction.

It’s painful to sit with it for more than an hour at a time, to feel how impossible it is, even with poetry, to say any honest thing about your son’s death that also honors him. To use the word addict in the old way that also means devotion, consecration, to look at his efforts at composing music, to see how he walked through the world with almost no skin, to say the hard truth but to resist the final labeling, the formulation of him sprawling on a pin, wriggling on the wall, defined always by his last mistake.

You know poetry is the best way to say two things at once, so you keep trying. You do what you always do when you want to birth a poem: you scribble drafts in your special hand-made paper journal, you prop yourself up in bed, laptop on a pillow, trying to channel the wisdom of the body at rest; or you retreat to the third-floor room where the special table with the special wood from the special swamp in Louisiana waits, the wood with an eye, a wound in it, and you try to channel the wound and the friend who rescued the wood from a fallen cypress, a rescuing you could never accomplish with your son.

At some point you finally have a draft of something like a poem, but you can see it’s not working. It’s rushing headlong toward some kind of false epiphany without earning it, it wants the high without the work, or maybe that’s what you want, the rush to insight, the rush to closure, so you move stanzas around, add words and remove them, tweak line breaks, you even try right-margin justifying in the hope that this juggling will shock the poem to life.

You work like this for months because at some point you realize you’ve fallen in love with this poem, and you know you just have to find the right words, the right shape, to bring it into the fullness of being. You’re starting to treat the poem as if it were your child, catering to its moods, taking the pulse of its strengths and nurturing those; but the revising goes on for so long with no real improvement that some days you feel nothing but anger at the poem and yourself. You lash out at it; ruthless, you slash lines, cut whole stanzas, crumple pages. You wish for a whip to beat the poem into submission.

And yet, you understand the poem’s recalcitrance on some level. You know a poem grows a mind of its own that you have to learn to recognize and follow; that’s part of the mystery and wonder of poetry that you love, but this poem, this poem feels so important; you wrote the first words, you nurtured it, why doesn’t it want to thrive?

You try bringing the poem to another country, thinking the new perspective will help you finish it, hoping the poem will like the fresh air, the different sites, the broader horizon. You bring it to coffee shops, you rewrite it by hand with beautiful fountain pens, and deep, sky-blue inks, you sleep with it on the floor next to you at night in case something comes to you.

But it continues to torture you in its unfinishedness, its spirit stubborn and relentless. You can’t bear to let it go into that mass graveyard of unfinished, untitled and abandoned poems, though, not yet, not this poem, you just need to give it a little more time, you just need to get a little distance, let the poem breathe on its on for a bit, then come back to it. Still, it’s hard to leave it alone. You wake in the middle of the night to scratch out more revisions, and in the morning your husband asks if you had trouble sleeping. Just a poem, you say. He asks what it’s about. I can’t talk about it, you say, as if there’s some terrible secret between you and the unfinished poem.

You begin to have nightmares about the imagery in the poem: the empty pill bottle and recovery chip on your son’s keychain when they found him; how witnesses said his face had turned blue—but what shade of blue—in the moments before death, the sculpted beauty of his face—like Adonis—when you saw him afterwards. His lips, his eyes, closed. The needle puncture in his right hand. The half-written songs scattered on his computer. The rehab workbook with his crabbed handwriting throughout, the sharp truths of a life hidden from you.

You think of how your son referred to one of the last songs he wrote as less a song than a compilation of beats, and you wonder if he felt, in writing this piece you’ve listened to a hundred times since his death, its melody trapped in beautiful claustrophobic loops of phrases that fail to resolve, as you feel now, caught inside a cycle of words and lines that gesture toward a poem, but never grow into it.


And you wonder if maybe you’ve actually written all that can be written for now, a failed poem and the story of a failed poem, a eulogy and commemoration of everything that resists, fiercely, our efforts at closure.

copyright 2015 Sheryl St. Germain


13 comments on “Sheryl St. Germain: Essay in Search of a Poem

  1. WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for искусственные цветы опт одесса

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bill Schaefer
    May 9, 2015

    Your loss is immeasurable, your words are finite, and your grief the mortar you speak about. As someone who has worked with dying folks and those grieving for over 35 years, I understand that at times the darkness from which you speak blocks all visible light. I hope you are taking the time and giving attention to yourself. There’s no timetable. Gather with those who hear and understand. Your essay is not only truth, it is essential to your healing. Allow yourself the repetitions

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is so beautiful. And I am so sorry for your loss.
    Reblogged this on my page.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on poetry and chocolate and books and commented:
    Reblogged from https://voxpopulisphere.com/

    Liked by 1 person

  5. writehandpy
    March 23, 2015

    I have spent my adult life trying to write a poem about my daughter’s death and it’s still beyond me. I love your elegant solution, though, and hope you love it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Glenn
    March 21, 2015

    I agree with Laura. This is a poem, disguised as an essay. Hauntingly beautiful. Cheryl, may you one day find a peace (of sorts) with this forever-open wound….

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Laura Kennelly
    March 21, 2015

    Are you sure that’s not a poem?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nancy Gift
    March 21, 2015

    Sheryl, I’m so sorry for your loss. This is so beautiful. I lost my sister in November 2013 and this echoes very strongly for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. sharondoubiago
    March 20, 2015

    Thank you Sheryl St. Germain for articulating the impossible. Blessings, blessings to you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Egyirba
    March 20, 2015

    Beautiful and I’m so sorry, Sheryl.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. jfrobb
    March 20, 2015

    A heart to heart acknowledgement. No words –

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on March 20, 2015 by in Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , .

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