Search Results for: elizabeth kirschner

A Season in Hell III

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I’m crawling all over the house searching for my meds, still screaming like a child in a burning building. My brain is on fire. I can smell its stinky smoke like seared meat. Where are the firemen? Who’s going to save the very life my husband wants to kill? Should I call 911? No, too hard. My hand is in my purse, I’m throwing its contents everywhere—checkbook, make-up mirror which shatters like a fallen star—searching for the pillbox. Now there’s shooting stars in my head, zapping me like a bug zapper. I’ve finally got my meds, swallow three without water. How did I do that? Swallow my pills while my husband is choking me? I don’t know, I simply don’t know.

A Season in Hell II

by Elizabeth Kirschner

His hands are at my throat, choking me, slowly choking me to death. He’s squeezing me so hard I can hear my neck break–snap, snap, like a chicken bone. Will he pluck me, too? I see feathers, many bloody feathers on the ratty grey rug. Each of them has a bone in it, this I am sure of. Now I see my husband’s hands, the reddish hair on his hands, how it nearly bristles. Now I see his long boney fingers, the cracked nails bitten down. The hiss of his breath is pissing down my neck. I’m trying to buck him off, but he’s strong, like a wrestler, and I’m just a lightweight pinned to the exploding floor. Where are my meds? I’ve got to down my meds. Gobble, gobble. Gobble, gobble.

A Courtship Dance with Damnation

by Elizabeth Kirschner

 Bones. Decapitations. The tip of the knife running down my jugular vein as if de-veining

a shrimp. Bones, my bones, delicate as the spines of feathers, taped to paper, hung in old musty museums. The decapitation of my beloved, his face like that of an elephant gouged of its tusk, my fingers dabbing the blood like fingerpaint. The rock face of memory, its bald cliff so shiny it’s a mirror and in it I see the ghoulish visage of the child I once was, the harrowing, chiseled cheekbones, sickly grey complexion of the complex young woman I couldn’t help but be, whose dreams haunt my dreams like swirl art. 

Where did that young woman go, she who mothered the angel of all poverty, whose fox-colored hair cascaded down her back, her tears like shattered jewels, her shadow encasing her, her ratty garments, buttons missing, holes like ghost eyes, her tragic pen, the words scorpions with stinging tails? 

Men cloyed to her like flies on sticky paper, coils of which hung like ringlets from her water-stained ceiling. Flies can turn into maggots and the many lewd fingers prodding her here and there did, each a bloodsucker while man after man grew fat on her sweet fat, pricked her heart with one of Sebastian’s deadly arrows. 

I see her walking into the sea, head hung low, the sun a lion’s head, clouds on the prowl. She looks down, hunched over, shoulders shaking as she takes off her long blue dress, the one with seams worn, torn, fetal birds folded deep in its pleats. She stays there a long time, in monolithic loneliness, her lips moving as if speaking in Penecostal tongues, but she is stuffing silence down her throat while longing to sink in the empty deep that roils around her. 

Hours are time bombs, days rear themselves like Leviathans, years bleed along the bleak horizon, veer into steerage where she is stricken, starving. When she writes and she is always writing, she is in a mud hole, the walls slick as shit, the words being mucked up in the muck. She cries out, but her voice goes up into smoke. She cries again, but no one cares enough to hear her and she chokes on that smoke. It is though she were invisible and all who she knows walks through her as if hers were an existence made only out of absence. She is a doorway in the demise of her sighs, the hinges her shackles, her mouth a keyhole fit for the skeletal key her demons crank all night long.

 Mute, beautiful, brilliant, her octopus brains squirm in the crustacean of her skull, each tentacle a liquid muscle greased with slime. Her desk from the junkyard is up on cinderblocks, she wears old sweats, a worn chemise and when she pushes the pen across the page, the ink is glue.

 Everything sticks to her with sticky tape—the stinking kisses of the stinking men who toy with her, her body an old shoe or a Chinese junket adrift the River Styx. No one wants her, no one will keep her, even dream ever so remotely that she is anything but worthless. She is destitute debris, tossed asunder, scattered like torched seed into winds so fierce they whip her hair against her face with a slap. 

Even her words are slaps, the endless rejection notes her only wallpaper in the dungeon of her rooms. Still she sits at her desk, her back an iron rod, the sentences sweating from her skin and she is entombed in her stories, boxed up in her poems, the blue lines on the yellow paper, bars in a cage. 

Outside her window, there’s always heavy weather on the move, the air she breathes is waterlogged, her gaping gasps marble the glass with fog and her pages, her many, many pages do not bear the news that only poetry can, they are gobs of moldy newspaper she wants to form into spitballs, the letters smudged and smeared, illegible, irretrievably lost. 

One day on a day I do not remember, I walk out of her, go far away from her, leave her for dead. Why I do this I do not know, but there she remains, a still life at the writing desk, staring at the chained dog next door as she turns in frantic circles, yanks against the cold cuff of her metal collar, digs in dirt. Years go by and I do not even think a wink about her, years that for her are like being in a war camp where her blood slowly, ever so slowly starts to freeze. I forget her entirely till the echoes of her nightmares fully fade. 

Such abandonment is a courtship dance with damnation. Her long ago cries fall like curses and I deserve them the way I deserved Mother’s head-on blows, Father’s dirty worm. She is my most terrifying nightmare, my dangerous chimera and to bring her out of hiding, which I must do if I am to survive as a grown woman, as a writer, is something I’m not sure I’m brave enough to do. My bond to her is bondage and yet I call to her as if into a cave out of which the bats out of hell will fly. 

Slowly I am coming to know I need her beauty, her brilliance, that she is my true mouthpiece and that even in her Ice Age isolation, she is stronger than I am. Everywhere I go, I stumble into the gauntlet of her shadow which I want to strip off her like mummy rags. 

We must teach each other to speak in a big, big voice, we who have been voiceless for decades, violated far too often, but never again and assaulted by pain so gargantuan, its has blown our head off. Even now, I hear it thud down the stairs, decapitated by yet another searing dream. How do I search and rescue someone who is a hole in an empty pocket, whose brainwaves are electric shocks too hot too touch? 

I shall lure her with bread and milk, leave it out as if for a scraggly stray, open my wallet, jingle change in my hands, show her my leather writing chair in my room with a view, give her my fountain pen studded with a diamond heart. I will wash her feet with my hair, open my wardrobe, let her fondle my clothes-horse clothes. Then I will gently lay her in my big iron bed, open the dormer windows, let in billowing sea air, light that is always swimming upstream.

 She will sleep for days on end, wake only to eat and put down words that are now power plugs. No man will touch her without my permission and just now, I permit no man to do so. No one will ever use her again, break her like a rubber band stretched until it snaps.

I will tell her she is golden and we will walk, arm in arm, by the sea she will no longer long to sink in until someday we finally enter the dawning of my golden years. I will pay her the homage long overdue her because I am destined to do so. I will shower her with accolades, turn my home into her grotto, plait garlands in her hair and if I’m lucky and truly earn it, those curses will turn into blessings one hundredfold.




A Season in Hell

by Elizabeth Kirschner

The floor is exploding and I’m on it, hiding beneath my writing desk. Scraps of brain scattered everywhere, chunks of meat for vultures. The sunlight is scared, also hiding, everyone is hiding, terrified by my terror. I’m screaming really loud, the dog is barking also really loud. Screaming like an animal whose throat has been slit and that’s what I am, an animal, mammal animal and my husband, the one I am divorcing, is upon me the way father was upon me, husband who doesn’t even know where I live. Did he screech down the chimney, fly through a window, shattering glass everywhere? Is my violated mind also shattered glass and will it be stitched back together with a glass needle whose threads are spun by spiders, many spiders? Poisonous. I’m sure the spiders are poisonous, I taste their venom on my tongue—it’s burning, I’m burning like a house on fire. Is my house burning? Will I be buried in its ashes? No, it’s my husband coming at me like someone who’s come back from the grave.


The Animals in the Tank

by Elizabeth Kirschner

 The house I grew up in was a blue aquarium, my mother and father, the tanked up animals, and I was a child of the hinterlands where winter was always howling like a pack of hungry wolves. A baby veteran, I was always under siege, the attacks brutal and my screams from being beaten or preyed upon were my only arias.

All I wanted were animals, my own little Children’s Zoo. I dragged them home—the injured, abandoned, skittish strays—I who was perpetually running away, getting lost in the forest on purpose, a fairytale child in a living nightmare. Half-starved, I sucked down the yolks in fallen eggshells, wanted to stuff my mouth with fireflies, even drink up bugs like the bats swooping through dark summer skies. Terrified, nocturnal with red, red eyes from crying so hard, I wanted to suckle baby squirrels or raccoons, even salamanders, soft as my pinky, but Father had turned my nipples into nail heads and pain was pounded, driven into and through me.

Abuse is crucifixion, but the animals I adored were my little Christs. Some were savage—I would pull apart the bloody guts of murdered creatures like taffy, watched my guppies be devoured by bigger fish and believe me, in this world there are always bigger fish, circling, forever circling. I stared at my fish tank for hours through the slime of algae on the glass, longed to be a mermaid, have shimmering scales glitter my battered flesh. The underwater world was the one I wanted, me a girl Ophelia buried in her bed of water, water everywhere.

 Always the little mother, I knew the animals would come to me in the dark, be my only suitors.  Clouds were infant elephants, an army of ants a parade of tiny pilgrims and I was not the only orphan in my Dantesque orphanage. There were the turtles I won at Turtlle Races, their hard shells like lacquered green roses that I would press to my chest during nights so long the walls turned into scrims behind which was a shadow dance of monsters.

I sat on the cement stoop for hours, hands cupped, thoroughly believing if I sat still long enough a bird would build its nest there. This, too—I hung peanuts on string from the clothesline for chipmunks, planted watermelon seeds in dirt, waited for the magic stalk to plunge up, burst into blossom for the honey bees to feed upon. I wore skulls on my fingertips, my own cracked up with fault lines from Mother’s pummeling with rocks, pots or my brothers’ baseball bat and my stinging anus, burning from what Father jammed in there, crawled with snakes.

I watched flies turn into maggots, studied spiders weaving webs on rotten garbage and the sticky sweetness inside honey hives was the cloying saliva of the vampire who sunk his teeth into my juicy fruit neck. I could not lick myself clean, wanted a hummingbird to thrust her beak down my throat, pump me with the red sweetness she stole from sun-stunned flowers, I who forever flung myself against the windowpanes that held me in, ready to fly, far, far away even in the wildest storm-stricken skies.

Instead, I lapped up the sour milk I left out for the critters, knew my cells were rotten fish eggs stinking to the high heavens. Surely I was not one of God’s little creatures—rather I was Melville’s little bitch of a child, echoed the cries of whales, which one by one, were slaughtered and their blubber was my animal hide, I who longed to live in one of their bellies, scribble by candlelight the initiations of the damned. I was runt, cunt, had hooded eyelids, pretended that I could sink poisoned fangs into the ungodly ones who had begotten me.

Bestial in the worst sense, I made rubbery creepy crawlers from a plastic kit, was bait, carcass, a hairball caught in a kitten’s gut. Once I snuck a lost one home, hid her in the milk box in the cellar, fed her milk from an eye dropper, gave her crusts of stale bread. When Mother heard her squeak a piglet squeak, her rage was outrageous. She snatched the kitty from my hidey-hole, broke her neck, then plunged her into a dirty toilet bowl, flushed again and again.

It is Mother’s Day and I can still hear the snap of that cat’s neck. Mother long dead, I try to mother myself, fail far too often, fall into myriad forms of self-abuse. To the left of my writing desk, is my brand new kitty, a creature who has attempted to nurse on me more than once by latching onto my nipple in the middle of the night. On the other side of me is my dog nestled in the Portuguese shawl my once-upon-a-time husband bestowed upon me as a courtship gift. My only son is probably still asleep in his bed miles upon miles away, each one tiny heartbreak, and of how I long to bestow the waking kiss upon his cheekbone as I did on so many years of school day mornings.

How I learned to mother both animals and my beloved boy is a mystery I will not solve in this lifetime. It has meant being Super Woman when all I wanted as child was to be Super Girl so I could rescue myself, get to the homeless shelter I imagined Limbo to be. There I would be in a family of other battered children, be mothered by Mary, fathered by God.

Instead I was a butterflied angel, pink as a cold shrimp, its entrails gutted.

Now my dog is learning to be a little mother and I am a childless Mother remembering the half-strangled wildflowers my once young son gathered for me on Mother’s Days past, his crayoned cards, his gleeful cries at my delight. No such flowers or cards today, no call, no sound of his voice. Although it’s May, the Ice Man Cometh to sink his pick into my heart and gut me once again.


The Cacophony of Dreams

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Not for me a garden of dreams. Instead mine rip into my delicate brain sac, tear its membranes as though it were a placenta. These dreams, after a decade of being knocked out by heavy duty sedatives, anti-psychotics, basically an arsenal of lethal, at times, tempting, alluring, let’s just do me in drugs.

Now dreams come unbidden, war inside me, singe my brain cave with haunting pictographs as I go off my drugs, bit by, after finally reaching a plateau of peace following years of tumultuous madness that left me looking like a concentration camp detainee. My mind was my concentration camp, the tortures exquisitely executed with a tour de force I’ve not yet been able to capture in words.

Dreams drain me, create a chaotic cacophony. What was muted, gagged, now erupts, each explosive kernel a slice of being. Last night, I was in a war-torn country with the daughter I never had, impoverished, homeless, starving. We ate charred pieces of burlap, but we were the only victims in our exiled exodus, those we came across were shored up with food, drink, shelter. We even tried to seek out a once upon a time lover—my daughter’s father?—but, of course, he was not to be found. Desperately we clung to each other, two writhing figures.

What raw comfort can I take after such a Boschian nightmare? This morning, as is my custom, I walked by the sea, nearly climbed into its briny womb so I could re-emerge as a woman no longer embattled. Tiny, fingertip-size shells were miniature bassinets. It is spring in this paradise lost I call home. So much burgeoning in the buds—their red-veined like blood vessels look like they might burst and the knock out blossoms nearly knock me off my feet.

Desolate dreams, as well, of my ex-husband who stands as a ghost in an army of ghosts in the winter cornfield bordering the cemetery of my dead—Mother, Father, Grandfather, both Grandmothers—in the bleak, nearly reptilian landscape of my grotesque childhood.

In one, I’m doomed to withering silence, my body a hollow stalk or a whistle carved out of bone through which seethes a deathly dirge. I am in a crowd, but no one sees me. I am a remarkable absence, fracturing, splitting like a strand of my own hair, soul bound in mummy wrappings.

Only once a dream of love with a man I might come to love. The universe reduced to two in my high iron bed in the glow of firelight though there wass no fire. Perhaps it was the tumbledown flames singing on black wicks, wicks that may be tiny crucifixes.

Somehow I have been butchered into being. All my life, knives have been flying toward me, but now in this rash spring rubbing me with its rare beauties, there comes the sound of wind-whipping wings. Dreams strip search me, hunting for weapons, but I have none and the drugs I once used to threaten to take my life away are being flushed down the toilet, one by one. My med tray is no longer a bizarre Nativity calendar with nuggets of poison behind its shiny blue doors.

I cannot let these dreams, attacking like Hitchcock’s birds, destroy me. Now is the time to build up more than break down and breaking down was what I had so glamorously mastered, the way Bishop mastered loss. My dreams are churning currents trying to pull me back under, this time for good.

Each morning I shudder awake as early as 5:00 a.m. There in the pitch dark, dawn is just a mirage, as distant as what could be my breech birth into a more peaceable kingdom. Again and again, my dreams drag me into a jungle of beasts, a surreal jungle of surreal beasts that create a skewed narrative that skewers me.

I must shake off these devilish mini-dramas, continue on in my era of resurrections, leave them behind me as I creep, crawl, slither out of that beastly jungle that houses what was my slaughtered consciousness. In my wake, not a trail of breadcrumbs, but of pills. Each grows mildewed in ruined dew, sinks like a mushroom into black earth.

Slowly I lift off all fours, shake off a torrent of tears the way a dog shakes off the wetness of the sea. I will rise to my feet, take note of a sky the color of melted ivory, curlicues of light spiraling down through it, let the dregs of my cacophonous dreams drain away, listen to the world’s music, come to be and then stride on as the pages of my days turn like Whitman’s leaves of grass.

Sex is Love is the Law I Live by

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Hugging myself as though kicked in the gut, wanting to turn the lights out and write in the dark because the bulbs are bald and their eerie brightness sears, tears, rips right through me. Even my eyes are aching, crazy eyes in their socked out sockets, my mouth a crater and how many times have I been pinned to the bed like a butterfly in the hobbyist’s drawer? I know the grunts of men, many men, hear them in my dreams.

I once saw a movie and in it a woman was gang raped, the men taking turns, brutally thrusting into her as though she were an inflatable raft in filthy waters and the look on her face, the let’s-play-dead-look in her face is one I’ve worn many times, eyes rolled up in my head. “Sexy,” said one man while pinning my arms above my head, “very sexy,” then he went at me until I burned and bled, burned and bled.

It happened before my marriage and now twenty years later, it’s happening again. The men lining up like predators, ready to skunk me with the scent of their sex. Why don’t they just wear hunter orange? There’s a book on my hand-painted table with a picture of a red bird on the cover, beak open. That red bird is starving. That red bird doesn’t sing, it cries and that red bird is me. I can’t even see her wings—is she flightless, just like me? O rare, wild bird, beautiful, beautiful bird, what happened to you? Can you cry out my story?

Just now I’m remembering a game called “Pass the Body.” One person—the body—stands stock still and stiff as a board while surrounded by the players. The body let’s herself fall, be passed around from person to person, fast, faster, fastest. If the body goes slack, she falls.

Okay then, I’m the body. Okay then, I get passed around faster and faster. I get passed from man to man so fast their faces blur. Their hands become the fins of fish and why do I fly to the hook, again, again? I who was so hurt when I heard the rumor: “look out, Liz is back and Liz is loose?”

 Because of the massive devastations of my childhood. Because the way I’m touched and the way I’m treated is not the way of self-respecting women. It’s the way of women half dead in their heads. Let’s get crass here, really crass—I get my brains fucked out. And why? Because my father was all over me from the day I was born. Finger-fucked as a baby. That’s just one of the many, many atrocities all the way up until I was eight. Then it stopped. Amen.

 My father hated me as a teenager. Why? Because I was pretty, o so pretty, pretty and witty ands bright and all the boys wanted a piece of me. And they got it. The word no wasn’t in my vocabulary. Still isn’t. Because if I said no to my father in any shape or form, I was tortured, badly.

 I learned one thing from him and one thing only: sex is love. I am fifty-four and only a few days ago, a few short days ago did I realize that sex is love is the law I live by. For my ex-husband, money is love. Soon after our separation, when we were planning to mediate our divorce, we had a meeting with our financial planner to set up temporary support for me. Afterwards, the man I had been married to for eighteen years looked at me and said, “Saving money has been my life’s work.”

 I thought, how sad. I thought mine had been about mothering and writing, but the switch has been flipped and I’m being electrocuted by my truth—sex is love and what is sadder than that? There was no sex in my marriage and that left me love-starved, quite literally so. At my worst, I weighed 93 pounds. Down from close to 120. Just 93 and my hair was but an inch long. I was a desiccated woman who had been defiled as a child, but could not, would not remember that.

 And now? Where is the love supreme, the beautiful beloved? My body is hovel, hut, pig sty and the men? They love it. They want me, really want me and I have pushed many out of the way. At least for now. Men want their whores, their wives and whores and nobody, nobody loves a slut.

 I call my dog a little hussy because she’s all about wanting to be wanted. She’s learned a lot from her mistress, won’t eat her food unless she’s petted first. My pelt has been petted so many times I’m all animal hide. Sex is primal. So are wounds and when primal sex creates primal wounds, healing is nearly impossible.

 I am not a sex addict. I am an object, a thing, an it. That inflatable raft in filthy waters. The men taking turns, then going home, always going home to their real homes and real wives. I’m just material, material for a fantastic fantasy that veers near violence because sex at its red hot melting point is so intense no man remains a gentleman. Only my ex-husband was a gentleman and he eschewed me soon after our only son was born.

 As a young woman I was never picked, or more precisely, I was picked for passion and passion alone. I thought it was the way to a man’s heart. Let him have me, keep my mouth shut. To speak of need was taboo and how many times—countless, countless—was my father’s hand plastered upon my mouth so I couldn’t cry out while he brutalized  me? I learned to down pain like liquor in a shot glass.

 Still do. Today I spent reading the stories I wrote as a young woman. In the starring roles—man after man who couldn’t love me in the supporting role—a beautiful, brilliant young woman overlooked as though she were a common weed. “Corn husk,” one man said, “you’re nothing but corn husk, but you write like an angel.”

 Those stories formed a book I couldn’t get published. Early despair then in both love and writing. When I read those stories today, I kept thinking, these are good, really good. They warranted publication and I warranted love.

 One man, just yesterday, said I was the most passionate woman he knew and believe me, he knows me, has known me in every possible way, for nearly thirty years. I did not take this as a compliment. Nor did I take it as an insult. He needs me to be a certain woman—a Collette, a Mae West, but not as a vulnerable Elizabeth.

 This is a man who, although married, has chosen to stay what he calls essentially alone. At first this pondered me, saddened me, but now I see it as a model. A woman I’ve known, also a long time, recently commented that I have never been without a man. Or let’s say, multiple men. They are always there. Ready to touch, to fondle, rise upon, then move on.

 Not picked. It parallels my literary career. I have published books. They remain largely unread. My work has been nominated for awards, but never wins. I have taught many years, but always as an adjunct at slave wages. Now I’m waiting to hear about a teaching position I very much want and all I can do is remind myself that I am the one who is not picked.

 Can the tables be turned at mid-life? The best I can offer is a maybe. Right now the most important person in my life besides my beautiful son is little ole me. I’m choosing to stay essentially alone, practicing my words: this is okay, this is not. I’m seeing a man ten years my junior and he’s very much in training. He’s passing the tests, calls me not just to say hi, but to make sure I feel safe. And my little hussy of a dog gets to flirt with his two male shelties. She may be in heaven, but I’m not, preferring instead this very imperfect earth and very imperfect love.


The Poem of the End

by Elizabeth Kirschner 

Marina Tsvetayeva wrote it, a long poem titled The Poem of the End, a mini epic of a poem about the ending of a long love affair. I wrote about that poem while in graduate school, can see myself at my tiny desk before a dirty window, shabbily dressed in a shabby apartment. I see myself from the back, my long, long hair a dark river down my back and I’m wearing my father’s old brown cardigan, the one with suede patches on the elbow, frayed cuffs. As a teenager I used to steal that cardigan out of my father’s bureau because I loved wearing it, because I craved my father’s love. At that time, it angered him. At that time, I was decades away from remembering the incest that turned him into a predator and me, small fry prey.

Now I’m writing my own Poem of the End—an elegy, a lament and yes, a furious poem—as the great love of my life has stepped out of it, irreversibly so. Once again I’m sitting at my desk before dirty windows and see myself from the back. I’m wearing a velvet jacket and my hair—wild, thick, blonde—curls down my back, but this time I’m wearing handcuffs, am chained to my writing table.

I no longer have the treatise I wrote on Tsvetayeva. I no longer have my father’s sweater, the one I wore while writing for many, many years, the one he finally boxed up and gave to me for Christmas after I declared I would be A Writer. I called it my “habit of art” sweater after Flannery O’Connor’s strong belief that one must create the habit of art, daily, or the art will not appear. Not only do I no longer have that sweater, I have lost my father and now, the love of my life.

 I do have my notebook, reams of pages about my own Poem of the End, as well as Tsvetayeva’s Selected Poems on my desk, a desk whose finish has worn away just where my hand moves back and forth across while writing poem after poem, hour after hour. In “I’ve dissolved for you,” Tsvetayeva writes:


                                    I’ve dissolved for you, in that glass over there,

                                    A hand full of burnt hair.

                                    So there will be no singing, no eating,

                                    So there will be no drinking, no sleeping.


In my Poem of the End, I have appointed spring as the season of ungodly grief, have written:


                                    Mysterious are the matins turned into

                                    dirge, into elegy made potent by

                                    the loss that laves me instead of love,

                                    a hierarchy of loss that’s a shattered lattice,

                                    a lattice without blooms, without vines

                                    and what are vines but veins,

                                    vines gutted but there own thorns?


I feel gutted, remember a story I wrote as a young woman with that nearly famous mane of mine titled “The Inside of a Woman’s Body.” In it there’s a description of a man raping a woman, then stringing her on a tree and gutting her like one would a deer. That really happened, in Palo Alto California, and if that scene was a window, albeit a dirty one, into that young woman’s life, it remains one some thirty years later into an aging me.

 Body as junkyard, dump, depository of waste, denied, used, shunted and shunned. Outside it’s April, tomorrow is Easter, and the bulbs are pushing up, thrusting through hard soil in singular light. Inside it’s winter, there’s ice on my hand-me-down bones, my entombed womb is a black fig without the sweetness, my voice box a frost heave, my light suicidal.

 In my backyard, the fallen branches are pitchforks and there rinds around clouds whose cream has soured. A line keeps repeating itself in my grinding down, winding down brain—“in the clear voice of the grieving poet.” I am that poet and my poems are eager to eat grief, get fat on its sweet fat, suck the marrow out of those hand-me-down bones and I am broken, broken, broken, even beyond the belief of God.

 Yesterday I read a question that I will use as a title. I know this, just know it even though there are no real words to go with that title which asks “What is a Spirit Dancer?” Short answer—the poet. Slightly longer answer—a love tryst. Now that love tryst has been twisted into a torque, turned into the black gnarls in old trees or has become a frozen statue, an ice sculpture hit by the pick, hit by the pick.

 Enormous the weight of these words on the page, mere words, words that are bricks in one of Neruda’s blue buildings, sad Neruda, sad blue buildings under a sad, deathly pale sky upon a sad earth soggy with tears—yours, mine—in the Season of Ungodly Grief.

I once wrote that men are darkly magnificent in a dark and magnificent world. That still holds true for me as I am a woman who has had many lovers, a fallen woman with dark lovers, sad lovers, lovers who left me at the drop of a hat. That hat fell into the world’s hatbox which is just one of Popa’s little boxes in his little box poems. Now I creating my own little box poem and in it goes Stein’s tender buttons, Ginzberg’s howl, Simic’s famous sentence and Van Gogh’s slaughtered ear. All the world’s music resounds in that slaughtered ear, an ear that is soft as a peach, that’s a coral conch, an ear that hears the terrible, terrible cries of grief in a spring that loves Sexton’s killing rains.

I just stood up, went to the bookcase, pulled out the only copy I have of my first book, its spine moldy, its pages unread for years and years. I opened it to the title poem, “Twenty Colors.” In it I wrote about how I once lived inside a flower, that while I outgrew that flower it grew within me became the gift I gave to men. Toward the end are these words: “There are at least twenty colors/in the wind. There are at least twenty men who love me, whose hands/are trembling flowers ripped/by wind. I can never have enough/of them. I can never/have enough. O flowers! O wind!”

 The man who was the love of my life was one of the men back then who I could never get enough of. I was shunned by him while I was still young, now I have been shunned again and I still cannot get enough of him, never will. Some people have God hunger, I have love hunger, am half-starved right down to my anorexic bones. As I write this, I’m remembering another poem written by that young woman, unpublished, irretrievably lost as is this man. It was titled “Anorexia.” I don’t remember how it goes, but I do remember that it was about a lost love, how the speaker stepped on the scale each day, weighed less and less, only ate ounces of air. I’m eating that air once again, dead air, I’m stuffing myself with it as I grow less and less, become one of the lesser animals as in a poem near the end of Twenty Colors.

 I do know how that one goes. Beauty, it declares, turns us away from inner pain, from the lesser animals who love us, the ones down at the bottom who are dark mites—all mouth, no soul. Like lovers who have raped me by leaving me. Believe me, the earth knows this story as does history. Believe me those lesser animals still love me.

 Last night, I stood by a bonfire down at the sea built from torn shingles, branches from an old Christmas tree and Ammon’s garbage. I tell you the wood was singing. Like martyrs joyous in their deaths. O how I wanted that wood, that bunch of junk wood, to teach me its song, its high whistle, deadly joy. I want to die while singing that song, go to the grave with it on my lips, be buried alive on my own pyre of junk wood down by the sea, let those hand-me-down bones turn into ash and with it all my poems which are in the end just one long poem of the end.


The Crucible of Cruelty

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Stevenesque blackbirds, grey March sky, the starkness almost alarming and the buds are still tucked in their wintry hoods. Cold rains on the way, for days this time, a brew of broody weather. No moon in the sky, but there is one in my heart and it is setting, slowly setting. In that moony heart is the heart of the moody child I once was and I’m crying for her as I write this, sob after sob.

Why? Because she had crow’s feet under her eyes when she was born. Because I have a photo of my mother, the one who nearly killed me, taken on the day I was brought home from the hospital. Early July, ninety degrees in the shade and me in the crook of my mother’s arms with my face squelched up in pain. A piglet’s face and who could love a piglet, especially one who snorted tears?

Mother couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t. Abandonment at birth and her with the movie star sunglasses on, her beauty still apparent, a beauty that would be ravaged by the time she was my age, which is fifty-four. She looked like a stillborn monkey or a starving child in a third world country and would die two decades later, almost on the day she was born. She who beat me within an inch of my life and me who shoved pot lids and books down the back of my pants so the blows wouldn’t hurt so much, but that only enraged her further.

I loved my mother. I really, really loved her, much more than my siblings did and they weren’t abused. She dished out punishment like some old Testament God, then told me to remember my prayers, beg for forgiveness for all the sins I committed, the biggest being that I was prettier and smarter than she was and that my father desired me, not her. Figuring this out, then learning to forgive her and my father, too, has taken a good decade because the only thing I remembered was to forget everything and as Eudora Welty said, remembering is done through the blood.

Shortly before my mother’s death, there was a big family reunion. I knew I needed to see her, be with her alone. I knew—but how?—I would never see her again. Just before her nap, I took her bloodless hand into mine, gently, gently, looked into her bloodless eyes, gently, gently and told her how much I loved her, also gently.

Now I’m really sobbing. Now I really want my mother even though she’s been dead for a decade. I want a chance to love her all over again such that she might love me back. I was the one who knew how scratch her back just right. I was the one who played the piano and sang to her so she could take her afternoon nap on the old gold couch. She needed my love, desperately so, and in return I received the crucible of cruelty.

Was I destined for that crucible the way Christ was his? He whose beauty was forged upon the crucible, as was his love and mine as well. Should I be almost grateful for it, I who would become Plath’s Lady Lazarus? I don’t believe in original sin, but I was devastated as a babe and that devastation deranged me. Nonetheless or because of all the remembering I have done through the blood, I created an end to my derangement, turned myself from victim to victor.

How one might ask? Because I have a seventeen year old son, a child who was loved long before he was born, a child I adored the way I wanted my mother to do, a child I left behind when my long and much beloved marriage came to its nearly killing conclusion.

How could I do such a thing, leave behind both husband and son, move away from what was for me, hauntingly so, Sexton’s Newton? Even now I can hear the deathly hum of her car in her garage and I was suicidal at the end of my marriage, highly suicidal. I was dying to die, the way I was dying to die as a child.

My departure was almost heroic. I left Sexton’s Newton in order to save both my husband and son, to make sure that when they came home from school or work, they wouldn’t find me dead in a fetal ball from a drug overdose. That was two years ago, almost to the day and last May I did take an overdose and I nearly died, would have most certainly died is it weren’t for the intervention of a friend who somehow figured out what I was up to. In the end, a living mother who loves her son above all others is most certainly far better than a dead one.

There’s a beautiful, excruciatingly beautiful adagio playing on the radio. That is what my life has been—an excruciatingly beautiful adagio and I am a trained dance, know all the right steps, especially when it comes to performing the swan song. Down I go, all the way down, driven by crippling, debilitating pain that leaves me crying and screaming in the fetal ball, the one I went into as a child also crippled by debilitating pain.

Night is coming on and I want the flannel nightgown I wore throughout my childhood and well into my twenties, the one with the snowmen on it, the one that went from touching the floor to barely brushing my knees with its threadbare cuffs up to my elbows. I danced in that nightgown long after bedtime before my dresser mirror, a little Cinderella in one hell of a hell. I need that nightgown now. That and my one-eyed teddy bear with the forever silky ears.

Instead I have my son’s teddy bear. Because I couldn’t take him, I took his green bear, a bear he insisted I take with me when hospitalized—yes in psych wards—to use as a surrogate. Back in the house in the bed where he was conceived, he has piled all of his other stuffed animals on the side that was mine, a mother shrine.

This is the stuff of tragedy. A childhood annihilated by violence. A lost marriage and a beloved son I see only once a week. And yet—more tears—he’s happy. And this week I turn into a Frisbee Mom, will drive from where I live in Southern Maine back to Sexton’s Newton to attend his games, watch him fly for the disc—his golden ring.

And mine? The marriage band of course. The one with the tree of life engraved in it which sits on a tray painted, as well, with the tree of life. Why oh why did it stop bearing fruit until I was truly love-starved, wanted only to die? Why oh why oh my?

Stevenesque blackbirds, blacker sky and I’m back on that crucible, loving my dead mother, my only son. And I am alone, very much alone and lonely, too. I who was a girl Christ turned into a Mother Mary, bore the fruit of my womb in excruciatingly beautiful pain. I loved my long travail, still do, but my now ex-husband resented his only son at birth because, or so he said, of the pain that birthing brought me. Maybe just maybe, it really was because I loved that babe more than him and I did love my ex, devotedly so.

My middle name is Mary because my mother, good Catholic that she was, wanted to invoke the mother of God in it. And my son is my God, he who I deify with my pen. I had a mother who couldn’t love me and my son has a mother who can’t stop loving him. I was a haunted child—remember those crow’s feet—and yet I am the mother of my own beauty and beauty is love, beauty is love.


How Beautiful the Beloved

by Elizabeth Kirschner

     I just came in from my evening seaside walk. Exotic black sand harvested by winter storms, heaps of seaweed with chartreuse and fuchsia tints, low, low tide, sun dousing itself in the marsh among cattails and red-winged blackbirds, moon rising on a quicksilver horizon. Such beauty, at its heart-wrenching heights, can be disarming, even alarming the way sudden love can be. A torrent of gorgeous torture, then, which is the high sublime. I greet this sea twice daily as I am addicted to its stunning power, its absolute unwillingness to back down.

      I was rounding the bend in the road just before my house when I saw, to my utter horror, a homeless black man. There are no African Americans in Kittery Point, ME and to suddenly come upon one, in such ruins, was an instant heartbreak. Immediately the words, “There but for the grace of God go I,” came in to me fully, totally.

      Given that I have a major, at times debilitating, mental illness, I take nothing for granted and o how so many times has the suicidal swan song hummed in my harrowed bones. Far too many times and I hear it now, my stealthy, secret siren. I want to go in a wild fury, to be dashed upon the sea’s boulders by waves that are magnanimously violent. Violence is practically a cult in this country and I became intimately acquainted by it during a childhood that was an evil eternity, my body a killing field.

      Deeply damaged, I understand the myriad ways one can be totally, terrifically ruined and seeing that black man, caked in dirt, was just about devastating. When I came into my house I stood before my favorite painting. It was done by a very dear friend, Flynn Donovan. He is a master, a profoundly deep seer and this painting—I have others by Flynn—is of boat people. Golden silhouettes riding green and turquoise waves. Every time I look at it I can’t help but feel that all of us are a hair away from being boat people. Disaster isn’t picky, it is quite willing to be anyone and everyone’s destiny.

      This took me back to a memory, one that is singed in me. I was in Cambridge, MA attending group therapy called DBT, which I secretly called The Diabolical Training. It was winter, winter in zenith, winter having a heyday with its tip of the whip winds and penetrating, piercing cold. It was so cold I thought my cells might freeze.

     I came out of The Diabolical Training, headed down the alleyway toward the garage where my car was parked. I came upon a homeless man, dead asleep, with an open book in his hands next to the predictable grocery cart that held all his earthly goods. The book broke my heart, but worse, far worse were the cat and dog in his cart. I knew they got fed before this man fed himself. These were homeless, beloved animals loved by a homeless man. I took a twenty out of my purse, put it in his book as a bookmarker and gently closed the book so I wouldn’t wake up this homeless gentleman. I wanted him to find the twenty as though an angel had given it to him.

     Which I most definitely am not. Still, each of us has the capacity to shape-shift into an angel sometimes. Perhaps our humanity depends upon it. The damage, the utter demonic violence visited upon me as a child has only deepened my compassion for others who are damaged and damned.

      Right now I have two books with no homes. Right now Flynn’s work, his profoundly and gravely beautiful paintings are in a warehouse. Artists and poets are not the legislatures of this world, they are its secondhand citizens except for those lucky few whose work is magnetic.

     Of which I am not, nor ever will be. My fourth book, My Life as a Doll, brought out bravely and beautifully by Autumn House Press two years ago has sold less than five hundred copies. My tale of travail, this book chronicles the abuse, abuse so severe it’s a wonder I survived, but I did and there but for the grace of God go I. Nobody or very few really want to know what’s really going on  behind closed doors.

      The homeless, the boat people—let us not forget about them. They are everywhere. They are multiplying like loaves and fishes. Who will save them? Who will save us from our very own souls? As I write this I’m looking at the cover of Gregory Orr’s wondrous book, How Beautiful the Beloved.  All of us are the beloved, most of us have beloved ones, so let us love the beloved fully, whole-heartedly.

     There’s another A.A. expression that I love. It goes: God loves a drunk. That means God loves the legions of demolished ones best. My parents were drunks and I am glad, very glad God loved them in spite of their violence and I believe that when they died they went straight up to heaven. Hopefully I will, too, but not by my own hand. Rather may I breathe that wild fury, tortuous beauty into my poems. In the end, God put a pen in my hand and I will keep using it even if my story, like so, so many others, goes largely unheard.


Capturing the Rapture of Happiness

by Elizabeth Kirschner 

It can be done. We can capture the rapture of happiness, bring it home, feed it, love it like a stray animal till it’s named and tamed. Try this—think of the soul as a butterfly net, feel the wild flutterings within. When pregnant some seventeen years ago, my son’s first movements felt like a dancing butterfly, my womb, a cocoon.

These days, happiness is my only forecast. I practice it with the same fidelity I devote to my art. I’m perpetuating spring, harvesting spring, bearing spring even though winter is not yet over and here, in Southeastern Maine, spring is fickle, flighty, here again, gone again till summer rushes in with its dressy breezes.

I came across some lines the other day in a long forgotten poem of mine. In it I assert that I write like a dancer who’s better at falling than leaping. Debilitated by serious illness for a solid decade, I did fall, I fell often, first in seizures, then in bouts of madness. I realized, in an instant, that the deeper the fall, the higher the leap. Fall down ten times, get up eleven was the law I lived by.

This has taught me range. For far too long a time, I struck all the low notes, the minor keys, the bottom notes, but now I’m hitting the trills, the grace notes, running up the scale into the callings of crescendos rather than going down into the despair of decrescendo. I’m light on my feet—both my dancing feet and iambic ones.

Well into my middle years, I’m growing younger day by day. One friend noted that my brow is no longer deeply furrowed and there’s a spring in my step, a spring in my poems. I lay out for them the way my son does for the Frisbee during a game or tournament. He soars for the disc, defies gravity, and is totally, totally in the moment. That happens while I’m writing, the world disappears and fertile words, earthy, herbal words move from compost into composition.

My happiness is not just manifesting in my work. It has many chapters recorded in the illuminated manuscript I’m now scripting, minute by minute. I always loved Pinsky’s title for his anthology, brought out some years ago, called The Handbook of Heartbreak. It is no longer my guidebook and my want bone, another Pinsky creation, has turned into wishbone.

Myriad forms of happiness then—in the work, in my seaside community of what I call the Amazing People, in the beautiful environs I live in. Darkness, darkness everywhere has transformed into light, light everywhere with plenty of it to drink. In this land of light and water, the hard shard in my heart has softened, shape-shifted. The only thing I’m burdened with is the bird of my being and o my God does she love to sing.

Outside my kitchen window is a hand painted bird box, meant as ornament, but just yesterday, a pair of sparrows are making a nest there and that’s what I’m doing, lining my nest with strands of happiness. There’s also some daffodil shoots pushing up from hard soil and gravel, a seemingly impossible feat, but I’m doing the same and maybe, just maybe, I’ll produce a bloom or two.

A great blue heron has alighted in the eel grass down at the water’s edge. She has mastered the stillness in the dancing, and in the hierarchy of poets, she is the supreme mistress. May I follow her example, leave behind dirge and lamentation, fly right into my irreducible, inimitable song.

I have a friend who died a year ago, far before his time, and in the card his wife, now widow, sent to me are these words by Abraham Lincoln: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” May we all live it up, really live it up, as though our very lives depended upon it, which of course they do.


Read Elizabeth Kirschner’s interview about poetry as healing:



The Female Moratorium

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Everyone knows that the writing of poetry, of becoming a poet, entails a long apprenticeship. Mine began at age nineteen, which was when I wrote my first poem. Both an initiation and a damnation, it was Plathian and full of deep, female associations: mother, womb, kitchen knife. In the years to come, I would carve out a womb of my own, a place of artistic nurturance. The world would not do this for me, in fact, it would tear out the fragile membranes of the fetal self I attempted to assign to writing.

My apprenticeship, then, was a long travail, a rupture that stained more than a decade. Like Plath, I made a bad miscalculation after graduate school and subverted my energies by trying to write short stories. This is what Ted Hughes had to say about Plath’s digression: “It was only when she gave up that effort to ‘get outside’ herself, and finally accepted the fact that her painful subjectivity was her real theme, and that the plunge into herself was her only real direction, and that poetic strategies were her only means, that she finally found herself in full possession of her genius.”

As for myself, it wasn’t until my life caved in to complete despair that I was able to adequately bear what James Hillman would term my daimon and my calling. Even so, I was still decades away from hitting the vein of my own painful subjectivity, a vein struck and mined, at last, in my latest book, My Life as a Doll, which emerged, evolved, became my most genuine work.

Carol Heilbrun, in Writing a Woman’s Life applies Erik Erikson’s term “the moratorium” (used by Erikson only of males) to the lives of women. He describes this state as “a time when the individual appears to be getting nowhere, accomplishing none of his aims, or altogether unclear as to what those aims might be.” Writing of Dorothy Sayer’s despair at the age of twenty-eight, Heilbrun diagnoses a case of the female moratorium: “With highly gifted women, as with men, the failure to lead the conventional life, to find the conventional way early, may signify more than having been dealt a poor deck of cards. It may well be the forming of a life in service of a talent felt, but unrecognized and unnamed. This condition is marked by a profound sense of vocation, with no idea of what that vocation is and by a strong sense of inadequacy and deprivation.”

My moratorium felt bottomless—although I knew my calling, I trained it in all the wrong directions and was totally without the wherewithal necessary to enact it meaningfully. This, to me, may be peculiarly female—to know what one must do, but to be without the confidence crucial to its realization. Will was not the issue for me, nor desire, but I was very much undermined by “inadequacy and deprivation.”

In the end, my writing was the bridge I built over despair. If the soul of my writing has a primarily female disposition, and I think it must, I will study it—its curvaceous geometry, shifting nature and unforeseeable appearances. Now I may need to write about my mother, as I did in My Life as a Doll, in order to accomplish this or, as in one instance, about a lawn ornament, but my private hell of a moratorium, though I didn’t know it at the time, was my breeding ground and yes, the fish do multiply.

The Mother of All Beauty

by Elizabeth Kirschner 

     I have the hands of a writer—a callous on my right ring finger, arthritis in that wrist from holding a pen for decades. If I could, I’d be buried pen in hand, or perhaps my ashes should be scattered upon the white page. Musicians, singers need to take great care of their hands and voices. Might writers need to do the same?


    I think yes. There have been too many times when I’ve needed to wear a splint because of my arthritis, but still I must write in long hand, use the perfect pen as I crave the beauty and silence of the white page. My pen is fat, like a black cigar, the fatter the barrel, the less the pain. The labor is long for me, always intense. Once a friend commented that I possessed a serene intensity. O how I wish I could say that about my work.


     Most writers compose on the computer, run the risk of carpal tunnel injuries, but there is a subtler and much harder thing to protect and that is voice. It takes years to develop one’s own voice, it can’t be taught, yet is critical to the work. How to explain what voice is—that fingerprint made manifest on the page—how it must run the scales all the way up, all the way down? Musicians practice their scales constantly and although it may not seem evident, writers do, too.


     I believe that I protect my voice. Singers drink tea and honey; I drink silence. It is the parenthesis I put around the start and the end of my writing time. I even use ear plugs to deepen the stillness. I write best when I’ve not spoken a word to anyone before I sit down to work. Every morning—early, early—I take a rigorous walk by the sea. This is not just physical exercise, it is my pre-writing time wherein I focus on both my interior and exterior landscapes. Words come while I walk, fetal words that I can then birth on the page.


     For the writer then, I suggest that silence, not death, is the mother of all beauty. Sometimes I can’t even read another’s work when I’m deeply engaged in a particular book because of the risk of influences, of letting other voices over-ride my own. I observe silence, practice it like a cloister nun. I don’t even own a television, rarely go to movies. Instead, when I surface out of my long silences, I listen to classical music and lots of it.


     One might ask why classical music? Because of its gorgeous architecture, because I love the sheer beauty of sound as it gives me a wordless but deep and direct expression of the human experience. Music and silence then are the best creators of what I hope is my singular voice.


     The other great guardian of the written word is solitude. When I’m lonely, I don’t write well.  When I’m deep within the honey hive of solitude there comes sustenance and lyric grace. Solitude is food for the soul, a great maker of great heart, and voice the instrument through which poetry is played. I must create from that holy trinity of heart, soul and voice, that rich roux that makes, or at least has the capacity to make us whole.


     I once wanted to hang the mask of tragedy and comedy on either side of the door to my study as the true governors of my art. Now there is a third. I perceived it after seeing a local theater production called Love, which uses two poems from my fourth book, My Life as a Doll, and that is the word love. To write well one must love it all—the dark, the light and everything in between. Therefore another holy trinity—tragedy, comedy, love.


     I close with lines jotted in many of my notebooks: “The voice is a door to exquisite happenings. That’s why one must ring the doorbell many times.” May the writing always be an exquisite happening and may that door when it fully opens, be an opening into spring churches and sanctuaries wherein writers are protected like an endangered species, which we might very well be. As well, as I wrote in that self-same notebook, “let no one say they suffer from too much creation” and may all our utterances “be a brief summation of the supreme.”


On Love

by Elizabeth Kirschner

      Today I was deposed by my husband’s lawyer as part of what has been a very painful and abusive divorce. The questioning was rigorous, required as much concentration as does writing. For once I felt that my long training in Flannery O’Connor’s notion of “the habit of art” was actually useful under totally different circumstances.

      Everything was scrutinized, including my books, piled as exhibit three. How much money did I make from each one? My reply: “nothing,” except for the twenty-four dollars and one cent garnered from royalties on my fourth book, My Life as a Doll, published by Autumn House Press in 2008, one month after I left the marriage.

   Understand this much: that lawyer was out to break me as I have a major mental illness and he knows it. I was determined to maintain my integrity, a scrap of human decency. This was not a battle, but a test by God or whoever might be out there orchestrating the universe.

      I maintained  my composure by doing three things, none of which was planned: I kept eye contact with my interrogator, recited the Serenity Prayer again and again in my head and sat pulled up like the dancer I was trained to be.

      It worked. By noontime there was a proposal on the table. It will be thoroughly examined by my lawyers, but the intent to settle is quite clear. If not, my deposition will be resumed in a week, but nothing will be gained by further examination. My husband’s lawyer actually said to mine that I should be paid for what I do.

      Integral to all of this is a question I had to answer as my bio for a theatre production that is using two sequences of My Life as a Doll, soon to open in Portsmouth, NH. The question was: “what is love?” My immediate answer was, “love is the catastrophic miracle that makes us who we are.”

      An oxymoron perhaps, but one with a crucible of truth. My marriage of eighteen years was a catastrophic miracle, one that produced my son, now seventeen, and living in a different state. Although I detest my husband’s actions since our separation nearly two years ago, I still can’t say I don’t love him. He is the father of my only child. He cared for me more in sickness than in health and that the marriage failed is neither his fault nor mine.

      It just died. And just like funerals take us out of life to mourn and celebrate the lost one, so does a deposition. I was in a very dark office on—how perfect!—Battery March Street in downtown Boston and that battery march was also a funereal one. Just as the deposition was suspended, I was suspended in time and space.

     Still am. Words on paper are my footprints in the softly falling snow that will lead me back to my real home, that of heart and soul, in Kittery Point, ME. My long lost parents were my abusers, but I could feel them cheering me on from the grave today. I once wrote that I love them better now that they are dead, but God knows how truly I loved them as a child and how truly I mourned their deaths. They, too, were catastrophic miracles that made me who I am.

     In the end, my means to an end is forgiveness. I can forgive my parents for their atrocities as well of those of my husband, but can I forgive myself? Isn’t that the hardest part of love: self-forgiveness? I was the one who left the marriage and I did so to save my son from witnessing my madness and from the very real possibility of suicide.

      Eye contact, the Serenity prayer, the dancer’s pose. What more can we do when under such duress? A friend advised me to “lean on infinite sustenance” and I leaned hard, like a sailboat in a great storm. Someday I may even be able to tell my son that the divorce helped me grow stronger while trying to destroy me.

      I’m home. I’m writing and what is writing but one more catastrophic miracle? I bless it, it blesses me back. I bless my husband and in doing so, bless myself. Just the weight of the pen in my hand feels glorious and my little word etching are my geography, the map by which I live. Today my husband’s lawyer saw me in my most human dimension and isn’t that exactly what we try to capture when writing? The going may be rough, but it is also good.

My Beautiful Twodiful Wounds

by Elizabeth Kirschner

This spring, I’m gaining in altitude by humbling myself before brocades of seaweed, breathing in the glow echoed in broken seashells and by glorifying the tree rings inside me. I want to write sap. I want to write purple prose, embellish an altogether elegant alphabet. Pristine light stalks me. Clouds are full of rosy, soul stuffing.

Last weekend, a Biblical deluge. It lasted three days long. I waited for the dove to return with the olive sprig in its beak while the floodgates of heaven fully opened. I was mesmerized by the rain, listened to its rhythmic pounding on my red roof, watched it streak its pure juices down my dormer windows and best of all, I walked in it before a wildly, outrageously bewitching sea, leaned into the mean and wicked winds and I absolutely loved it.

Why does this spring seem so singular for me? The answer is simple. It is because all my other springs, so many floundering springs, false springs, stillborn springs always reminded me of Sexton’s killing rains in killing springs. A year ago, I attempted suicide,
downed med after med while drinking wine, woke up in the ICU. And the spring before that I landed, once again, in the psych ward because for hours the only word I could utter was die, die, die.

How did I shift from walking numbly in Sexton’s killing rains into dancing in a Biblical deluge? Why does every minute in this spring feel like a tiny triumph over darkness? For years I lived in icy isolation, voiced my nearly voiceless voice in a void, a vast vat of a void, traumatized by dramatic demons which were the only creatures in my field of vision. These demons erupted in moments of madness so excruciatingly painful, I would bite my own hand, really hard, in order to stop screaming, bang my head against the wall, go into a fetal ball and mirror, exactly so, the little girl I once was, a child who was tortured by demonic parents, tormented nearly to death, repeatedly so.

The demons are gone and right now the only creatures that are in the field of my vision are the song sparrows nesting in my ornate bird box. My demons have been demolished. I took them on and killed them, one by one, by re-living my horrific childhood, blow by blow and violation after extremely violent violation. I then became the only one who could heal that child by loving her lavishly so and letting me, not her, be crucified by her wounds.

Now comes the resurrection. Scars once pregnant with pain have become the achingly gorgeous wounds in trees so old they rustle with the spirits of ancient mystics. I venerate these wounds, they are grottos to which I pay homage and I honor their timeless beauty. Out of these wounds come poems. Out of these wounds comes a woman I can love because she loved that child christened only by pain till she could run out into the sun to play.

Which she does. She also weaves daisy chains, skips down by the sea, pulls the dog’s tail who, in return, licks her back. I treat her the way I treated my son when he was a child and she is alive and well as he is alive and well. This spring, our singular spring, I am getting her a kitty that we will name Twodiful because wonderful times two is Twodiful. Dog number one is wonderful as the kitty will also be wonderful, hence Twodiful.

In the end, I married my wounds. I was and am true to those beautiful, twodiful wounds. They are my wellspring, the genesis of whatever genius I might generate because I was re-created by them. I don’t stand by a man, I stand by a woman who stands by a child who was nearly killed more than once. She is what gets me out of bed in the morning. She is the one who puts my pen in my hand to write that sap, sweet, sweet sap and passionately purple prose while embellishing an altogether elegant alphabet.

I was made vulnerable, voluminously so, by her stellar wounds, sterling wounds, her very beautiful twodiful wounds. That very vulnerability is what makes me capable of championing words turned into verse and it is those words that truly resurrect us, connect us and binds us, not only to each other, but to life itself which is lengthening its luxurious minutes in radiant, lifelong light.


The Mega-Attack of Pure Joy

by Elizabeth Kirschner

      It happens sometimes, quick as a wink and just in the nick of time—the mega-attack of pure joy. I never know when it’s coming, but when it does, as it did last night, I’m seized by joy, end up singing and dancing around the house just like a child, just like a very happy child, which I never was.

     Battered into being by my parents, I’m often crushed by joy’s antithesis, the cold cauls  of depression. My mood shifts are incredibly fast, often leave me breathless, but the fact that I can rise into, thrive my way into joy is an unexpected, much beloved gift, almost a crowning and one I hope to give in return.

      My greatest source of joy is my miracle son, Dylan, now seventeen—a true mega-boy.

      He is by nature playful, delightful and that very lightness of being is something we have always shared. As a toddler we would take bubble baths together, run naked out into the yard and perform nudy-tudy dances among the fireflies. As a young man he never fails to make me laugh. Not long ago we had a whipped cream fight in the car—Dylan even blasted some of it up my nose. When he plays Ultimate Frisbee, which he is passionate about, he is joy embodied, in flight.

     I have learned much from my son, but one thing persists and that is just how intense joy can be. We’ve all felt the intensities of grief, but joy distilled is equally potent. It is, at its height, a power surge. It isn’t just contagious, it is powerful and empowering.

       That lesson is evident in the dance world and because I study ballet, I know how physical joy can be. It is also strenuous—soaring into the leap, nailing multiple pirouettes—anyone who has observed dance is made captive by joy.

      Why then is it so rare in the writing life? Is joy too fleeting, too effusive, elusive to capture? There are poems and stories that make us laugh, but I can ensure you, mine never do. I take my work very seriously, perhaps too seriously. Nonetheless, the practice, the daily practice of writing, does bring me much joy. After thirty-five years, I’m still eager to get down to work each morning and am unhinged on those rare days when I can’t practice my art.

      Sheer joy, penultimate joy, heavenly joy. It’s a mega-attack on our highest side. Its complex is complex and sometimes its manifestations can be overwhelming. How so? I return to my son. When he was born I was enraptured. I remember looking at Dylan when he was just ten days old with a passionate happiness, knowing I would never gaze at a newborn of my own again. I was highly conscious, terrifically grateful that I had another passion—my writing. Without it to ground me, I would have, if it’s possible, loved my child too much. I would have gone off the deep end and those few degrees of separation have been essential to his well-being.

       Every day I sit down ready to make a mega-attack on the poem and most days, it attacks back. What can I say about the writing life, why I persist, most writers persist, against all odds? We create the work, put it out there and are greeted by silence and rejection, rejection and silence. One artist once said she felt her music went into a big, black hole. I know that big black hole thoroughly, but the work never fails to bring me joy—it is ever enlivening, ever enlightening.

      Dylan infected me with joy from day one. Writing did, too, even blood and guts poetry, naked poetry. My often melancholy muse can be celebratory: every poem is a wedding, even if it is a Baudelarian bouquet of the flowers from hell.

     Let’s leave it like this: art is the highest form of play. I don’t know who said it, but it holds true for me. My only wish is that you, too, catch the fever of joy just like spring fever. It’s February outside and there’s a big winter storm happening, but I feel like May on the inside, an aging May perhaps, but oh how I long to play all day long, every day, come what may.


Fierce and Lonesome

by Elizabeth Kirschner

     These words—fierce and lonesome—hold hands, become mates. A dynamic combo, explosive ammo for the writer. I can’t help but think my lonesomeness makes me fierce. Out of hours and hours of being just one in a universe of many, there comes not a torch song, but torched words, each with its own touché.

      It has to be that way. Every word in a poem, story, essay, needs to be a flash in the pan. Generative destruction—that’s how I write. I break down the irreducible into the rich roux of language. Beginnings must have ends, middles must have tides. Sound waves  wavering on light years, yes, that’s the particular music. Writers need not hit the pretty keys, but most certainly, the perfect ones.

      I who am afraid of so many things—staying up too late, traveling, unraveling—go into writing full tilt. I put down my truth and each line or sentence comes with a death threat. I bear to carry, I carry to bear. The word becomes pregnant and although I’ve only given birth to one child, the birthing of words is perpetual, the clock by which I sing.

      I am persistent, insistent, almost demonic about doing the work and doing it right. Others talk about how brave I am, but that’s not exactly true. I’m driven, riveted to the page upon which I write and what emerges is a whirl of words furiously spinning like Sufi dancers or a weaver at the loom. Rhythmic dancing, rhythmic weaving. Sometimes the words are woven together with webs, other times, Whitman’s ductile thread.

      Poem, story, essay, click into being with the tip of the whip. I hear it snap. Breaking into any body of writing is like breaking bread—kneaded, risen, shared. So here’s a thought—my lonesome self goes into the tunnel, the dark tunnel, like a train—into,  through, out of which, the cars come flying, electric, lit. And fierceness—also electric, lit—is what creates beauty.

      I turn to a manuscript now defunct, but the title sticks—The Fire Bones. I imagine flaming ladders lending structure, the fire, the passionate heat by which our hearts are given warmth. I imagine walking into burning buildings to save what can be salvaged. It goes against instinct to perform that act—perhaps writing does, too. Think of the fire dancing, then whirl and weave, weave and whirl.


The Scent of Music

 by Elizabeth Kirschner

     Today a thought descended: language possesses a lost luminosity. It paired itself with a further one: language is the primitive refined by the writing that wrenches us into being. These two notions feel right to me, complete.

     Writing as quest, as a hunter going after the scent of music inside every word. Like wine tasters, we need a good nose that will put us on the scent trail for the scent messages whorled inside the fingerprints of music.

      Each note a fingerprint, no two alike. Therein, thereby, the trained voice. I believe in the importance of the voice box, listen for its inimitable vibrations. On sound waves, words are caressed into being. Then they align themselves with the rightness, the trueness of stars.

      By which we are guided and what we write does guide us, school us in what was unutterable finally uttered, be it taboo or not. Moving into the taboo is important, very important indeed. If we can leave fingerprints, voice prints on the taboo we might just compose those singing sentences that weave us into one human family.

    Ah, that word, family. So often the lost paradise not to be regained, but we can attach language to that lost paradise and the doomed can be sung into beauty. I know this. I write about that which cannot be accepted by own very real family. They do not want to bear witness to my truths and I understand this fully.

      The lost luminosity, the primitive refined is what makes the unbearable bearable. The holocaust happened and it had been written about. 9/11 happened, too, has been written about, but those abominable happenings closer to home sweet home is so often silenced with dead silence.

      I break the taboo like kindling across my knee to make a little fire and language with its lost luminosity, with the primitive refined, makes that little fire which will warm me on the coldest of nights.

      And this is one such night. Wind chill factors well, well below zero, but thank God, my ink doesn’t freeze. Fluidity is what it’s all about and fluidity comes from fidelity and writing does demand fidelity.

      Call it the Muse or not. My dog is my muse: it’s her true calling. Down behind my writing chair she nests and her devotion to me kindles my devotion to the work. Being disciplined about writing comes easy to me. Discipline in other areas of my life not so easy, except for mothering.

      Yet writing is all about mothering words into being. The hunt is on, yes, the hunt is on for the scent of music in that lost luminosity, in the primitive refined. I have a good nose, a better ear and the intoxications caused by both leave me spinning, weaving word to word.


Floating Off the Page

Poetry needs immediacy. Just about everyone agrees about this, hence so much writing in 1st person, present tense. What is less commonly considered in poetry’s demand for intimacy and just as real intimacy is difficult between real people, the intimacy between the poet and poem is equally challenging. This means honing in, bearing down upon the pen. Absolute fidelity is required. If we don’t bear down on the pen, go into the poetic experience so intensely that everything else disappears, we risk words floating off the page. For me my concentration must be so total, I risk shattering as if the page were a sheet of glass, a magnifying glass in which I must see the poem as pure transparency.

Intimacy begs for passion. Passion is what drives the wheel and poetry is circular more than linear, a round that resounds. I am utterly passionate about my work and I spend more time going at it, into it, through it than I do in any other area of my waking like. When I encounter words like detachment, I hear a guillotine drop. A severing occurs, words become disembodied, just parts of speech tossed about like body parts.

Everyday I make love with language, try to flesh it out ever so sensually. There’s an eroticism involved. Lovers know this. They muse into each other until nothing stands between them. That’s the secret—disappearing into the passion of the poem’s moment in time and that’s all we have, moments in time. Surrender is involved—to the light, the darkness and everything in between.

Distance. That’s another word that scares me. How many of us were taught we need to gain distance from our most intense experiences? Once again, I see words floating off the page. Poetry needs to driven, riveted to the very heart of our deepest, most powerful, most human acts. Doing this may feel like the flesh is being ripped off our bones, but backing off may lead to lines of steel. It’s easy to back off. Even my dog knows that command, but to stay in, truly in, ah that’s really something.

In Stanley Kunitz’s beautiful, absolutely intimate poem called “Touch Me” he asks, “what makes the engine go?” Immediately he responds with “desire, desire, desire.” He posits the cricket as the small machine that makes the engine go. Poets, then, as crickets making a solitary music by which they hope to mate with the world.

Life Lived in the Open Wound

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I’ve lived most of my life, particularly my writing life which is a significant amount of time each day even on weekends and yes, holidays, too, in what I call the open wound. I don’t think I am alone in this, but believe the poetic disposition is particularly tuned into wounds. Some may have been incurred in adult life, others engendered in childhood. I have many wounds from my beginnings, practically since conception, as both my parents were abusive. They were masterful in their capacity to be brutal.

All of us are among the walking wounded, but for the poet, wounds are wombs where poems take root. Sometimes I see my soul, literally so, as a wounded web and consider that my work is to transform that web into a cocoon. Poems incubate in these cocoons, sometimes for years, even decades, till suddenly a wing appears. That wing is the word and the forward motion of that wing is to migrate. Poems, then, as winged migrations. Some migrations are exhilarating, others so exhausting the wings feel leaden and the labor is all about survival for both poem and poet.

The journeys are long and when we imagine the treks of birds and butterflies it seems impossible that these tiny creatures can travel such distances. Poems, too, must go the distance and when they do, it’s breathtaking, even the darkest of poems is utterly breathtaking.

Wound as womb I want to say, wound as womb in which seeds tick. That tick, tick, ticking is what creates the poem’s rhythm and cadence, the poem’s musicality, a trait too often overlooked. I was first trained as a singer so the study of music preceded the study of poetry. I sang all the time, but when I truly encountered poetry for the first time some thirty-five years ago, I knew that all I wanted to do was sing on the page. My wounds, then, are also musical. A scar can’t sing, but a wound can as it has both voice and a story to tell.

In the end, that’s the gift wounds bring us—a story set to song. If I ignore my mortal woundedness, I risk ignoring my humanity. Imagine the wound as sacred. Imagine the wound as schooling us. For me, that’s where the pull of the poem is and if I can manage living in the open wound, I can also believe in healing.

Wounds can blossom, flower in time, through time, over time and at this moment I see the battered child I once was as a flower girl attending the wedding, the till death-do-us-part wedding that married me to poetry with complete fidelity. Finally I see the wound as a vow. I once wrote, make love with your wounds, and I do that, just that, day after day, year after year and the consummation, my friends, is beautiful.

Outward Bound in the Wilderness of the Mind

by Elizabeth Kirschner

We’ve all been riveted by survival stories—those who survive shipwrecks, live on berries in the woods, withstand Artic cold for days on end. In this way we learn that the human capacity to survive extreme circumstances is quite large. Some, perhaps many, have gone on Outward Bound journeys, been solo, recorded the rigors in journals and notepads. Even my son spent one summer in a program called “Odyssey.” He hiked day after day in nearly monsoon rains, climbed the rock face, canoed in white rapids. I actually worked in such a program, took delinquent teens into the wilderness to climb mountains, learn survival skills. Nonetheless, there is another kind of survivor story, one poets are often subject to, one that I have been excruciatingly subject to and will be for the rest of my life and that is the ability to survive in the wilderness of the mind.

Countless poets have lost their lives in the wilderness of the mind, a whole generation—Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Berryman—it’s a long list, an elite list of elite writers. Twice, and twice is two times too many, I have almost joined them by trying to do myself in as I did this past spring by taking an overdose of medications meant to steady my unsteady brain and downing them with wine. Somehow or other, a friend figured out what I was up to, called 911, saved my life. I lost consciousness in the E.R., woke up hours later in Intensive Care.

My life is governed by my mental illness which blasts me, again and again, with bouts of madness or by assaulting me with memories of abuse so virulently violent I can barely withstand them. I’m talking about psychic pain so intense I’m nearly annihilated by it like an angel pinned to the very pinhead she is meant to dance on. I believe that this pain, not anger or revenge, is what drives so many poets into massively creative self-destruction.

Every serious writer of poetry goes on an outward bound journey in the wilderness of the mind because that’s where poems live. In this wilderness which, at best, causes us to drop our jaws in wonder over its magnificence or, at worst, pushes us way beyond what we can withstand. It is amazing what a poet, or at least this poet, will endure in order to achieve that most difficult of things—a poem that will take root, take flight at the same time.

And there are so many failures, so many times when the wilderness is too vast and without paths or stars to navigate by—the path, a line, the star, a word—that we wander aimlessly like lost children in the deep, dark forest. The poem, then, can be seen as a cry from that wilderness and all poems are created with the intent to be outward bound.

A paradox then—by nature poets are inwardly bound, must go in deep, penetrate an inferno of silence, dredge for words in the very gut that nearly guts us, then carry them outward to a world which is all too often indifferent to the miracle work involved with the making of the poem.

There is, undoubtedly, a wild side to poetry—some can be wildly beautiful, others wildly witty, but each one asks us to go willingly into the wilderness of its maker. I say, let’s stake our tents there, build a fire, set off a few sparks that might just ignite a poem or two. Each of us has a survival story that needs to be told, given shape and proper form. Mine may be horrifically graphic with an edge that cuts way too deep, but it is mine, all mine.

The Kindercoffin

by Elizabeth Kirschner

The kindercoffin instead of kindergarten. The kindercoffin I lived in throughout my childhood. A white coffin like the walls if my bedroom. A place to hide in as hiding was the utmost necessary thing to do. I hid under the bed, in the closet and the crawlspace in the cellar where I read, by flashlight, every book I could get my hands on. Reading was transport, a critical way to get away from the horrific violence and violations I was subject to by those who authored my tale of travail—Mother, Father, Father, Mother.

Imagine Father punching me between my legs. Imagine Mother forcing me to eat my own vomit. Then imagine the kindercoffin as my one and only resting place where I longed to rest permanently. The kindercoffin as the incubator for the poet I would and have become.

If only someone had put a pen in my hand back then. Someone who would tritely say: write what you know about. A child author of what might have been tragic, Wagnerian poems. I who once put pens in the hands of many children, very many children. I who one said write and write they did. Real poems that really mattered. I have always believed in the deep-seated wisdom of children, how it gets obliterated by the culture as I was obliterated by Mother, Father.

I can say with some assurance that their tutelage in abuse schooled me as a writer. That kindercoffin truly was my poetic incubator. In my early years, I died psychically many times and almost physically many times as well. The deaths have lead to rebirths. Hence, the resurrection of the word as if it were God’s word which, of course, poetry is even at its most extreme godlessness.

Extremity. That’s how I live as a rugged survivor, moving at breakneck speed from extremity to extremity. Excessive joy, excessive pain. There’s no in between for me, few resting spots and out of that utter extremity comes my poetry. What’s great for poetry—the running up and down the scales of human and inhuman experience—is not necessarily good for a life. I am better at writing than I am at living which isn’t saying a hell of a lot.

The feeling, the all too real disturbing feeling of the kindercoffin, descended a few days ago while my psychologist was desperately trying to glue together a very unglued me. What has and does unglue me is my brutal and abusive divorce now reaching its slow, long overdue conclusions. My doctor said, “Imagine a protective shield around you,” and in I went into the kindercoffin. Not so good. Not what she, Susan, wanted. But kindercoffin was haven for me, horribly so, as it was for me as a child. I felt safe in my kindercofffin. Who can violate the dead? The necromancers can and my parents were definitely romantic necromancers.

I have been writing for thirty-five years but it feels as though I have been for all of my earth years. I who should have kept a baby journal, my little book of nightmare with and audience of one which would be God. Mother, Father were a triumph on the darkness and that very darkness has lit up my poetry. You are predatory over language, a friend wrote of a comment given to him which suits me perfectly. I who was prey, small prey indeed is now a predator of words, a glutton and whore for words, the more the better.

If I hadn’t lived in the kindercoffin, I would not have become a poet. My extreme experiences, extreme feelings zenith me into poems. The darkness then a power surge especially when memory erupts. Memory that has been in the lock-up as I have been in the lock-up, that holding tank of the damned.

Poetry locks-up language, freezes words to the page, yet the best words give off heat. Palpable heat. Heartwarming a reader might say, but mine sear the heart, burn the heart, turn it into coals, but even coals can glow in the dark. That’s all I want. To glow in the dark, give off a little heat. Now my beautiful iron bed serves as my kindercoffin and at this moment I’m dying to crawl into it to rest a minute, a year, a century. No death, no poetry, that phoenix, that fire bird hitting all the right notes and just, thank God, in the nick of time.

Elle `Ecrit `A Pied

by Elizabeth Kirschner

We all know of Plein Air and here in Kittery Point, ME, one sees painters at work in the summer with easels planted by the sea, Chauncy Creek, in the Rachel Carson Woods, in fields and by salt water marshes. Less visible are its poets of which I am one. Roughly translated, elle e`ecrit a pied means she writes on foot, which I’ve done for years—at first in a lost landscape in the Berkshires, now by the sea each morn, sometimes with pen and notebook in hand, other times composing in my open consciousness using what I call “ten-fold awareness.”

First plante des pied, or plant the foot like a dancer would, then push off on the seaside path. This morning I took in the faintest of rainbows wreathed round a quietly radiant sun, clouds looking like chimeras or Chinese dragons, a wayside apple planted like an ornament on a dead branch. The tracings are everywhere—my dog noses for bouquets of scent, I nose for scent messages in this ancient, elemental, beautifully ruined environs. I, too, am in ruins, author of my own poetic despair to which I am prone, out of which I rise when words start rehearsing in the rehearsal hall in my mind, my aging but still evermore engaging mind.

I walk like a thoroughbred, the training in iambic thought long and rigorous. Nonetheless the pacings are perfect, the rhythms start rolling in the way the waves seem to think before they thud. How deep that thud and deeper still, the thud of the poem. It may begin within the lit imagination, the legendary quest for the right word to arrive while my gaze turns to purple lily pads in the pond or the roughage of milkweed seed caught like tufts of silk in black and gold sand.

I am not by nature a nature poet. I would need a far saner sensibility for that, a refinement I can’t master as madness does and will descend to master me, but never, ever while elle `ecrit `a pied or in the sanctuary in the sunroom that faces the water that is my study. My literary being is somehow sanctified and that sanctity has been my salvation many times over.

I am only one of a handful of poets here in Kittery Point, but there are all those sightings others have of me staring out into miraculous space, pen and notebook in hand while dawn smolders on the horizon. I even have fingerless gloves and our nearly Artic winters do not stop me. I begin and end each day with my epic walks, consider them my matins and vesper prayers.  Poem are blessings. I gather mine slowly, let them grow into private Bibles, some hellish, others paradisiacal, but always and forever more a critical and profoundly redemptive act.

Keepsake, Keep Safe, My Keeper

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Poets are the slaves of silence, a sluttish silence that wants it all—forfeit of heart, mind, body, soul—as barter for germinating words, words that come out of a long hibernation during which their roots roost, nest. Keep an ear pressed to ground, one poet taught me and hence I have learned to listen to earth—a fallen earth, a Sisyphean earth, a gorgeous half-devoured earth whose ruins are the poet’s riches.

Gutted and glutted by silence, I court it morning, noon and night, my around the lock love affair that dizzies me as much now as it did back when I was young, so very young that any kind of seduction was heady for me and I longed for it, craved it, begged it to be my addiction.

The poetic word is a drug for me—silence slurs into speech till poems build themselves like pyramids, foundations laid by the concrete, thus giving language weighty girth. Out of this earthy girth there rises song, but hidden in all that soaring beauty is sarcophagus, creation as cremation, a petit mal and a labor pain at once.

Prisoners then, poets are prisoners, each line a ball and chain, the mind a kind of concentration camp where we are the kept, the guarded, thrust voluntarily into solitary confinement which is, at times, a solitary hell. In the hole, is what it’s called in jail, one is isolated from all others, put away as a threat to mankind. Or, perhaps, it can be seen as Alice’s rabbit hole, a tumble into Wonderland where poets become gifted illusionists pulling doves out of nothingness.

When all is said and done, when the work of a day becomes as hard as the work of a lifetime, I’m left with both fruit and decay which is what each poem harvests. May I always be a wayward woman, lover of wayward poems, giving it all away for free in the name of free verse where everything must be earned, where, if I’m lucky enough, a poem or two might become a keepsake kept safe by my Muse, my keeper.

A Paradise of Shifting Traumas

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I stole the title for this piece from Ira Sadoff, a title I came across long ago and faithfully recorded in what I call my Nickel Notebooks. These are old composition books in which I record poems by other poets, their musings and reflections and thereby remain in training as the apprenticeship for the poet is a long one and for me, at least, it is a lifelong quest, a lifeline I hope will extend beyond me.

The poem, then, as a paradise of shifting traumas bears truth as it arrived way before the word trauma became the be all and end all word of my generation. Trauma is real, this much I know, it has force and passion as did my mother’s violence, my father’s, too. The penetration and perpetration of ever multiplying violations was their particular genius, their gift and I was schooled in it—desecrated, wasted, I was beat into being till I became insane by learning how to go away, very far away. Somehow in the midst of all this wild violence, the horrific deified me. I was clearly a child of God and this was my salvation as I was thrust onto the crux of creation. Their gift translated into my gift and much like a nun, I took the holy vow to live by, through, with the almighty word.

I pound words into the poem as though each were a piano key. I run scales up, run scales down, trying beyond my powers to hit the right note. There’s a violence behind that power that can be either catastrophic or self-annihilating. Just as I did as a child, I go away in order to make way for the poem’s dramatic and sometimes traumatic birth. Think of muse as predatory, the words nearly suicidal, craft the only bridle to rein in stampeding words, lines, stanzas.

Craft as crisis—that’s a hunk of thought. Yet time and time again, the sense of barely surviving the poem persists. Still and absolutely entering the poetic realm is a Dantesque paradise. I think I always want a little hell in my heaven and a little heaven in my hell. Poetry does that for me. Not just writing it, but glory of glories, in reading it. I wonder—is the poem as it detonates, resonates, sparks, flares—a celebration of crisis? Think of the tension between the bow and the arrow, the poem and its audience. In the end we’re still hunters and gatherers and that’s what we do when we write poems, read poems.

I want to be hammered home by the poem, seduced by truce. A paradise of shifting traumas then is what the poem does as it shape shifts into a critical creation. Each of us is, by and large, a critical creation and I was crushed into creating mine. It took, as does the poem, a fierce ferocity, willingness to be in a living hell until it gives way to a living paradise.

As a woman, as a writer, I keep one foot in each—dancing feet, poetic feet—the iamb the pump, the heartbeat, and mine kicks as it ticks as did my son before he was born. When I pushed him into the Eden of my existence, muse became midwife and spirit guide in the mystical passageways of life inside the poem and outside the poem and o how I love my beautiful Baudelarian hell and my equally beautiful blue Neruda heaven.

The Art of Loneliness is The Heart of Poetry

by Elizabeth Kirschner

At first I wrote: the art of loneliness is the art of poetry. Then art became heart. I am a solo singer hoping to be a singular singer in a silent choir. Rilke once wrote that a marriage was about two solitudes bordering each other. I once thought that of my own marriage until I realized it was a long training in recognizing my aloneness. And so it was but no longer. Now I am a solitude bordering—just what? Absence? Nothingness? The incredible, edible light pouring across the water into the sunroom that is my study?

Aloneness has been central to my art. The part of being apart has always plagued me and o how slight the difference is between solitude and loneliness. I once thought solitude sacred, loneliness not, but they are fused, Siamese twins sharing one heart. And one must go it alone to get to the heart part of art. I dare that loneliness, tempt loneliness, nurse it and milk it at once.

And suddenly in all that terrific and terrible loneliness, a word appears. Not just a word, but the word. A migratory word. One bound to bind with others because it carries poetry’s hint of music. This is what I can say: I write classical poetry in vers libre, always in vers libre out of my classical and sometimes colossal loneliness. The loneliness is integral—as the sun slowly sinks, my loneliness rises as does my voice. No voice without loneliness—this much I am sure of. In the guts of my aloneness is the cry of silence. Poets must love silence and silence must love them. Solitude, loneliness incubate the beautiful silences that precede and follow the poem. It takes miles of silence, a ton of silence to bridge into the beginnings, middles, ends.

Aloneness, then, is a practice, a discipline. So is poetry. The light moves and the light moves me. Loneliness is my daisy chain: I love you, I love you not, but poetry, the big ah of poetry is the big ah of love: full, earthy, God-given. As I sit here alone in my house, I see eel grass, I see ladders, I see dock. In that eel grass is the dream of the statuesque heron who is my muse. And the ladders scaffold poems. And the dock is all about voyage and return which is at the heart of the art of writing for me. Poetry, then, is silence’s signature and I birth that silence out of solitude in the august autumn of my evening years. In Keatsian light and shade. In the voice that is in the crux and void of creation and in, always within and in my miraculous, merciless loneliness.

The Lit Lyric

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Someone once said that writing a poem meant riding upon the pulse. It is a cataclysmic happening with all the synapses firing at once. In order to achieve the lyric poem, one must build a sky bridge, be connected to deep red earth and moody, bluesy stars. Create a cosmos and step into it. Get in, get out, get your pain over with, was Raymond Carver’s advice and it has stayed with me for decades.

With the lyric poem, there’s no stretching out on the backbone of narrative. The poet must fall up, not down, way up, let each line be a tree limb veined with bronze honey. Some limbs snap under the freight and weight of too many blossoms. Likewise the line—if it’s too ornate it will break. The violence of the mind, its maelstrom, can also destroy it. We are our own best enemies of the poet.

And in all that bronze honey, a flow of music, vast, celestial or a dirge, lament, elegy. The lyric poet must make music out of rough tools, be it a tin drum or the lyre in the sky amid winged migrations. Each word a bird in formation. It is this music that rules the form of formal formation in lyrical verse most of all.

I think: storm surge and purge. I think: poem as a tiny trauma. There’s some sort of act of survival involved. A drama, then, an inward explosion that sets off sparks that light up the lit lyric. Media res at the beginning, then leap, leap, leap line by line wherein language is always under the pressure of time and space. Perhaps creation is always in crisis. A risky business at best, a willingness to be flailed by failure. At least for me.

Always and evermore, the tension between first breath, last breath. Endings do come, sometimes swiftly like the lash of a whip. Other times, it’s more like a swan song in a destitute denouement. I’m often done in by getting it done. At the other extreme—ecstatic revelations. Or, the final end stop as a stab in the heart caused by a stab in the dark. I want to be beautifully demolished by the poems I write, to be impoverished by the riches I must bear. I end with this—the end of the poem is a crucifixion of the poet by which the reader is resurrected. A paradigm of paradox in a paradise lost, but finally, hopefully regained.