I moved to Ireland in 2008, my first move without the cushion of children and/or a job to help with immediate acquaintances and friends. The always seductive call of the local library saved me from months of being alone while my husband was busy with his new job at UL. A book club meeting at the library introduced me to my fellow American and future friend Michele Russell and through her to the IWO which has been my mainstay and support system for the past 14 years. I would be lost without the friends that I made in our “grand organization.”
Over the years I have shared many stories about my background, including a talk about my time spent in the Alaskan village of White Mountain, sharing the lifestyle of the indigenous Yupiat people. So for this piece I have decided to sketch brief autobiographical paragraphs illustrated by poems ( or a few stanzas of poems) that were either written at the time or evoke my memory of a particular time in my life. Please join me on my fantasy journey through time.
My mother was born and raised in South America where her father an American doctor pursued his dream to study tropical medicine and where he opened a hospital. His young wife Nell was a photographer (1910). They lived a typical privileged colonial lifestyle of the time. Two of their four children were daughters who grew up to be world-class athletes. One was particularly wild and beautiful, that was my amazing mother who kept a capuchin monkey, a young jaguar, and many dogs for pets.
from Kali /Cali stanzas 3 and 4
The train ride a journey of surrender
surrender to her ninera
surrender to the animals
monkey, goat, jaguar, dog
surrender to dark-skinned companions
her mind goes back
To the plaza
to the orange tree
above the railway station
where she saved the pips from
the oranges to be counted later
by her mother at the house, half-house
half-hospital where her father the doctor
treated los Indios.
In 1941-2 my mother and father met in New York city, where the two Grady sisters had been sent by their parents. But my mother, not one to be easily contained, eloped with her new American boyfriend. The two were extreme athletes, my father winning speedskating championships and my mother a silver medal Olympian in diving. They subsequently had two bookish, scholarship-winning daughters without a sporty bone between them. I did, however, inherit my mother’s love of animals and have rarely lived without a pet.
I was attending St. John’s University and working at the NY public library (5th Ave &42nd St.) when I met and married the American-born son of Romanian Jewish immigrants. We almost immediately enrolled in a Peace Corp-type program which sent us to Alaska after 6 weeks of training at the University of Oregon with an additional survival course provided by the American military. This adventure was life changing. (edited versions of 2 poems )
SOUND PALETTE (edited)
The sound palette of White Mountain Alaska bears no resemblance to the multitude of noises conveyed by ears to brain during my previous life. A new symphony took me by surprise every day. I heard the Whistlers, the Loons, the crackling top layer of frozen snow, ice pack breakup, joyful shouts of returning hunters announcing a seal to be shared, and the soul-wrenching howls of starvation. These sounds both defined and expanded my world.
If you step outside the cabin at night, in winter, the silence is a soft cloak around earth’s shoulders. With moonlight you can see, without it you go back inside. Walking to Isaiah and Margaret’s cabin makes the snow-layer underfoot crack and snap. Each step announces your mission to the sky which is not only above you, but all around you and underneath you. Up and down are simply man’s conceits, they no longer have meaning. Only the sound of feet breaking crystal rings true.
Fish camp day came. Skies wrapped in soft grey.
Fish boats resting on shore. Repaired seine nets out before dawn.
Drying racks with skeletal, imploring, empty arms.
Laughter bounces from tents.
Children chase their cousins with bats.
A smiling woman hands me a bat.
“Big fish dinner tonight” she says.
I join in the contagious spirit.
Everyone around me is happy.
I too am ready to do my share;
gather the salmon; partake of the feast.
Pull, they shout, pull. The nets are being
pulled to the beach. It is back-breakingly hard.
Ten people are pulling. My ungloved hands are cut
and bleeding. My feet in their rubber boots are wet,
cold, and numb. Pull they shout! A net section rises, the
life within writhes in panic. I want to let go.
Silver treasure is pulled from the
water. Scaled-skin reflects rays of the sun.
God smiles; says “look what I have made.”
Nets are resting on the beach; some salmon have
escaped. Bats come down with force. I am urged to
join in the killing. I see imploring eyes staring from
noble heads. I hear pleas for mercy from the victims.
I lift my bat but cannot bring the blow.
Someone whispers in my ear –“you want to eat, you must work.”
I want to eat – salt tears from within join the wet work without.
Blood is everywhere. The women are cutting, scaling, slicing, and hanging
flesh on racks. I am huddled in a corner begging for forgiveness from
the salmon spirits. I have not been taught to thank my food for their
sacrifice. How can such teachings be lacking?
We returned to the ‘lower 28’ after two years; spending some months in Anchorage where I worked at a ‘welcome center’ for addicts and people needing various types of assistance. Then we moved to California where I completed my degree at the University of California Berkley with the help of my newly born son. From there it was off to Newfoundland, Canada, and my second son was born. My Canadian journey lasted 13 years, 2 of which were spent in Montreal, the rest was in St. John’s with some months in Labrador. It was during that time that I separated from my husband, relocated to Quito, Ecuador, returned to St. John’s and got divorced.
Open eyes do not dispel the dream
She wished someone kind would come by
with a hook and gently pick up her frayed
edges and pull them through her many tiny
openings until the ragged hole was allayed
and she was back in place.
The raw island queen hurls herself forward.
Her feet race over split rock surfaces,
with pounding heart she seeks relief
and finds it in crevices of unmelted
snow. She lifts a curtain of moss and sinks
into green darkness enveloping the cliff.
They come to her unbidden,
her daughters of the sea.
They come to offer their milk gift.
One by one they arch their backs
bow their heads, and pour forth their
white foaming riches.
Their voices are raised in delight,
and when the tiny queen, their mother,
can stand it no longer, for their ecstasy has
splashed her face, and her eyes swell with
their own gift, she turns and flees.
Their song is now a wail
they strive to reach her
for a simple touch.
They climb the rocks
and embrace her throne
but she is gone.
It was after my divorce and a relatively short period of upheaval that I discovered another side of my self that could laugh and dance, that enjoyed breaking with convention, starting a new career in publishing, and eventually meeting the musical academic and performer that happened to drop into my world, one Colin Quigley. We moved to Los Angeles, although I had had no intention of returning to the US. After a year, I returned to St. John’s, the place I then felt was home. But on completion of his Ph.D, Colin also returned to Canada and we were married. When Colin received a too-good-to-refuse job offer from UCLA we packed up the family and drove back again to LA. We spent 20 years there, raising our teenagers, and managing very satisfying careers: Colin as a professor and me as the General Editor of an educational publishing company.
But it seems that we were due for another move. We both retired from our jobs and moved to Ireland, where we have been for 14 years now, the old itch is starting again and retirement-take-two has us making new dream plans for the future.
Throughout my life I have identified as a writer: since my first poem was published in an anthology of New York high school students through my move in later life to Ireland and becoming involved with the Limerick Writers Centre, so I hope you enjoy my poems and don’t mind me using this space to give them some air.
I Reject the Impermanence of Ink
Mourning an absent poet
in a field of dandelions
a stranger to their grass and ground
celebrating a day of feasting.
a day in which I broke my fast,
(and yet ruminating that
It was you who thanked me for giving).
I would like to carve your name
In the rock that is my home.
I would like to leave my rock
for your field and have my sons
dwell in your daughters.