I wrote this poem to mark the way we continue to see a beloved who has died–in other people, in the way someone walks or the shape of a jaw. It’s been seven years and I still turn back, just to be sure, when someone has caught my eye for some little thing that reminds me of him. In that moment the possibility of him rushes back. In “Minor Chord,” I wanted to start with the idea of “if” (if only) to try to express the longing that comes whenever we see someone who shares that little piece of him–that gesture–and how this merging of stranger with beloved is like the merging of song and painting.
As part of the PBS Outside the Book show here in Bowling Green, David Lee interviewed me at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest. Here it is:
As part of the PBS Outside the Book show here in Bowling Green, David Lee interviewed me at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest. Thanks, David!
Recently, my students in SRSC 525 Place and the Problem of Healing, submitted their self-portraits, designed as woodcuts using black and white paper, most of them. They then photographed their design and shared it using Voice Thread (my class is online, so this gave us the opportunity to step off the page for awhile and listen to others’ narratives). They were all so wonderful I wish I could share them here. Two of them featured trees and roots as part of the design, and they reminded me of my own “tree forms” poems, so I told them I wanted to share one of them, the one recorded below, “When I Fall.” I haven’t read or thought of this poem for awhile, so it pleased me that other elements of my students’ self-portraits came up–stars, for instance, and mountains, and stepping stones, or in this case a path that was once the tree.
Since I haven’t posted on my blog for awhile (which makes it seem as if I don’t care about poetry anymore). . . . sad face . . . I am back, if briefly, with this:
In the world of poetry, time trips along in a wholly whimsical way, rushing along then stopping to gaze around, at the stars, the changing leaves–who knows?–only that Time, my old friend and sometime antagonist, has tugged me on my shirt to say, “That poem you wrote, the one about nanoseconds and the cosmos, the one you haven’t thought about in weeks, well, someone’s been reading it.” What? And then I slow down and look around and think, thank you thank you (for the stars and leaves and for poetry and people who love it and even more the ones who like mine).
It’s been nominated for a Pushcart, that poem called “Hydrostatic Shock,” by my publisher, Fleur-de-lis Press and The Louisville Review. Isn’t that a nice present for a beautiful rainy November day?
So here it is, if you want to take a listen (ignore any background noise, as I’m in Wetherby Administration Bldg, waiting for a committee meeting, at which, I might add, there will be no poetry read).
And thank you so much, Ellyn Lichvar and the rest of the (clearly talented and awesomely perceptive) folks at Fleur-de-Lis and The Louisville Review.
Erin Keane has written a review of Seeking the Other Side, published in The Louisville Review, Vol. 77, pp. 168-170.
SEEKING THE OTHER SIDE
(Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2015, 101 pp.)
by Jane Olmsted
In her introduction to Seeking the Other Side, scholar and Western Kentucky University professor Jane Olmsted writes that she put the writing of poems aside for many years to focus on other work, but returned in the wake of the tragedy—the murder of her twenty-year-old son Casey—that shapes her remarkable full-length debut collection. Exquisitely balanced between poems that rip out your heart with “a fist, gnarled with rage, hungry for love” and poems that guide the reader through the transformations sparked by grief and loss, Seeking the Other Side is at turns violent, surreal, elegiac and above all, staunchly alive.
Although the entire collection is an effort to come to terms with his death, the final third of the book—The Casey Poems reckons most directly with the poet’s son’s life and violent end. Th e poet weaves the facts of his death through tender elegies like “Blessed By the Dalai Lama,” which is anchored by the image of a consecrated “pretty silver T on a red string” that did not protect him from the fatal gunshot, and the imploring “Imperative,” in which “don’t forget about me,” spelled out in beads on a child’s church craft necklace, forms a haunting refrain that ricochets through the poem like a bullet off a rib. Olmsted mines startling beauty from the forensic details of the young man’s autopsy (“Th e Weight of a Human Heart”), the sonic pleasures of “where mucosa falls like drapery in longitudinal folds” almost shocking in such a clinical scene, and from the ballistics report (“Hydrostatic Shock”), in which the speaker learns that “A .40 caliber lopes along / and flattens a little, when meeting something hard, like bone.” Every death is, in its final moments, a mystery to those left alive, but these poems transform hard facts into higher truth: “how a nanosecond can hold a swirling cosmos of befores and durings / and afters; and how their ballistics got one thing right: there is a cavity / involved.”
At times, Olmsted’s poems move into liminal, dream-like spaces where waking life and its rules are suspended. In the darkly playful “Naming the Flowers,” the speaker slips naked into the night wearing only a crown she’s woven of “dorothies’ leaves and barbara’s breath / delicate as china,” escaping a home surrounded by baying dogs and “eyes cold as shaved glass / in a frozen cocktail.” In “Whisper,” she offers a more concrete vision: two of her sons fi ghting, until the dream abruptly
They disappear, the boys—
it’s the alone that tells you
no one is coming—
walls and ceiling receding fast.
That wistful moment of the dream blowing apart becomes a metaphorfor the confl icted state of the grief-stricken survivor, one foot in her lifeand the other in his death. The act of transformation—from dreaming to awake, from whole to fractured, from before to after—is reenacted throughout the book. In “Roadside Encounter,” nature and machine mangle the form of a
roadkill deer into a grotesque resting shape, cars and elements slowly destroying the carcass until “she’s fi nally gone, delivered into the dump truck.” In “Cicada,” a memory of her boys marveling at an insect emerging from its husk turns to the speaker imagining herself in metamorphosis, sprouting wings and shedding her former self, “so I can leap into that
startling void.” Olmsted contemplates again the moment of giving in to death in “Camping on Greys River, Bridger Tetons,” when the sound of a bear outside her tent leaves the speaker almost welcoming the moment to “expose my belly // surrender, my self / to the other self.” This moment of dark anticipation echoes in “Imperative,” as the speaker, anguished,
imagines the young man approaching his fate:
What were you thinking, the night you died,
driving to a place so clearly marked
by fear and degradation and rushing
toward the lowest circles of hell?
The power of Seeking the Other Side will compel readers to mourn a young man they likely never met, and yet these poems also transcend one mother’s grief. “Blessed, it is said, are those who mourn,” opens “Requiem of the Bristlecone Pine at Lake Haiyaha,” the book’s final elegy, which later offers, “Blessed, it is said, are the dead.” The sentiments of these prayers are as old as humanity, and as enduring—grief and loss will transform us all at some point, until we ourselves are lost, and our own deaths transform those left behind. In the meantime, Olmsted suggests, we fumble toward making peace with this certainty and with our limited lives, reaching always “for the root of things / and for the merest hint of light.”
The talented Aaron Mudd has posted an article about Seeking the Other Side. I so enjoyed talking with him and appreciate his nuanced story about my poems.
Here’s the link, and pasted story…..
Professor’s poetry collection based on experiences
By AARON MUDD firstname.lastname@example.org
For most people, loss is something to move past. But for Jane Olmsted, a Western Kentucky University professor, loss has been a wellspring of creativity.
Olmsted has recently released her first collection of poetry, based in part on the loss of her 20-year-old son Casey.
Casey, who was also a young father of a daughter, was shot to death in 2009. The third and final section of Olmsted’s “Seeking the Other Side” is titled the “The Casey Poems.”
“My attempt there is to … go into those places that are hard and hurt and are very sad,” she said. “But I hope that it’s in the end not a depressing thing even it’s tearful to read it, whether (for) me or someone else. I see it about healing. We’ve got to move out of whatever pain we’re in toward some kind of sense of joy.”
Connecting with the other side of things is the theme Olmsted takes for her book of poetry which spans two other sections: “Ways of Touching” and “Tree Forms.” The first section explores how sensory experience can lead to truth, and the second was inspired by trees she saw in the Rocky Mountains, which motivated her to either take on a tree’s persona in her poetry or use it as inspiration.
Mary Ellen Miller, a WKU professor in the Department of English, described Olmsted’s attention to nature as “poetically scientific” in a review of the book for the Daily News.
Miller further explained in an interview that Olmsted’s meticulous attention to natural details give her poetry “a kind of scientific cast” and described the approach as “penetrating” and “fresh.” Within Olmsted’s work, she said, there’s also an “affirmation of the indomitable in all of us.”
“She’s a poet for people who know poetry, but a lot of it would be accessible to anybody,” Miller said.
The other side, Olmsted said in a press release, “may refer to the line between life and death, between individuals, between parts of the self, like the lonely and social selves, or between the self before and after some cataclysm.”
Throughout much the collection Olmsted attempts to cross over into other perspectives. In a poem titled “The Shape and Size of Things,” Olmsted takes the perspective of a fist that wants to trade places with the heart, which are said to be comparable in size.
“A fist gnarled with rage, hungry for love, might think that a ball of flesh and bone could take up residence in this home, without causing a stir,” one stanza reads.
A painting by WKU Department of Art professor Yvonne Petkus, titled “Braced,” is used for the cover of the book. The painting conveys a person sitting against a rock facing the current of a rushing river.
Petkus said she was motivated to contribute to the book because the connection Olmsted drew between their work.
“I feel honored and moved that Jane thought of my work for this collection in particular,” she said in an email. “With such loss at the heart of much of the work, Jane doesn’t shy away from the powerful and, at times, raw feelings that have accompanied the loss of her son.”
Petkus described herself as a “process-driven artist” adding and subtracting from works until the result is both open and leading. She sees common ground between her work and Olmsted’s.
“We both use a kind of processing to sieve reality,” she said. “We both investigate loss and states of being and use nature and the body to speak of larger content.”
“Seeking the Other Side” is available on Amazon for $16.
— Follow Daily News WKU, county schools and general assignment reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter at twitter.com/aaron_mudd bgdn or visit bgdailynews.com.
First, a photo of me with Yvonne Petkus, the great WKU painter who let me use one of her paintings for my cover, and Sena Naslund, the great Kentucky novelist and my dear friend for 35 years.
Here are some pictures and a podcast of the September 17 reading as part of the Kentucky Live series hosted by the WKU Libraries. The photos (Haiwang Yung) actually show people laughing (well smiling), so it wasn’t all tears! Also, if you want to hear it, you can listen to the reading.
This was a busy two days. For my Thursday night reading, I was asked to read for 45 minutes! That about did me in–so tired of hearing my own voice and I was sure I was losing people right and left. Several assured me I hadn’t, which I really appreciated! Then on Friday, I read along with about 6 other writers at the Spalding at the Speed, in Louisville. For this, I was to read for 7 minutes. A breeze!
Thanks to those who attended and others for your ongoing kindnesses around this collection of poems. Thanks to Brian Coutts for hosting.