Its possibilities for expression limitless, poetry can evoke many things, but as an art form it reverberates especially affectively within crisis, take for example the poetries of Homer or Sylvia Plath. Rosemary Daniell, who identifies as a Southerner, has been one of the South’s bravest poets and nonfiction writers for decades. In The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself (Faber and Faber, 1997), a memoir of being both a writer and writing teacher, she says:
When I began reading some new poets – Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath – I was stunned by both their virtuosity and their accuracy. But when I told Dickey [James Dickey] how much I liked these new poems, he was angry, saying, “They’re just shrill, hysterical females who write about throwing their abortions in the gutter.” And then I began to ask, who is Dickey – or any man – to say what is right about women’s experiences? From that point forward my writing began to change…I now began to write directly out of my experience as a woman, including my experiences of anger and sexuality. (pp. 61-62)
In her latest book, The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness & Mercy (Lavender Ink, 2021), Ms. Daniell writes directly, searingly, of her experience as the mother of a daughter hopelessly addicted to heroin and a son suffering with schizophrenia. Throughout these poems that move from the idyllic-seeming promise of childhood to the speaker’s children’s too often harrowing experiences of adulthood, it becomes quickly clear that we are in a realm of literature approached only in its highest and most serious forms, that is, the realm of tragedy. These poems make a diary of a seemingly cursed mother-child dynamic, times two. The book is divided into three sections: “Pain for a Daughter,” “Without a Mother’s Love,” and “Beautiful Things.”
The book begins with “Pain for a Daughter,” and in the first poem, “Ancient History,” the young mother/speaker has a foreboding premonition while still in the hospital recovering from childbirth:
serious?” the nun asked.
And why was I afraid….
What did I know then?
What do I know now?
Only how this girl-child
already holding in her heart
the seeds of some ancient grief
would become this woman
sodden and raging taken
in handcuffs the small blue stars
of needle tracks at elbow
ankle & wrist….
And the poem evokes the book’s dedication: “For my grandmother Lee, who like me, had a bipolar daughter and a schizophrenic son,” as if the speaker knows her daughter will not have the constitution, like Darl in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, to weather the inevitable catastrophes endemic to her lineage. In the poem “Freak,” the speaker wonders if her forgiving care is enabling her daughter’s condition:
…Is this what
it has come to? Have I through the power
of my love left you this helpless this hacked?
There is a thread in The Murderous Sky that brings to mind what became Flannery O’Connor’s famous literary sobriquet, “the Christ-haunted South.” In “Faith Healers” the daughter declares her life transformed now that she has accepted Jesus into it; her mother is unnerved, doubtful she will be so magically delivered from temptation:
…And now that daughter –
habitué of needles wrapped
like deadly candies in cellophane
of sugar daddies & the streets &
razor blades of candles burning
down at fast forward tells me
she is Born Again that it is only
the Spirit that will save her….
Where religion appears in the poems, the speaker is identifying with the pain in its stories, as in the last stanza of “Motherhood”:
And then there is the urge
to kill like that mother
in the Bronx who shot
her crack-addicted daughter.
Like God & his only son.
Or the first stanza of “Stigmata”:
always bursts from the palms.
While the actual nails
were driven through his forearms.
And how much of our joy
our pain is illusion?
In the book’s next section, “Without a Mother’s Love,” the speaker gives us a portrait of her son in the poem “The Rules,” stuck inside his apartment, living in a static way that makes sense only to him. Because he cannot find a way out of this, it is as if he is a man frozen here, captured by the poem like in a depressing Stieglitz black and white:
On your old Royal
you record everything:
minute by minute the messages they send.
They live in the apartment above.
They call your name through the heat registers.
And the lock on your file cabinet? Broken again.
There are spies everywhere –
the man who comes to fix the thermostat…
And why, you spew an inch from my face
can’t you understand: That you must be
vigilant. That they will kill you, too?
In the last section, “Beautiful Things,” and in its eponymous poem “Beautiful Things,” I think there is a key to the poetic cycle, the saga, of these damaged lives:
dangerous things are often beautiful
blinding us to the fangs the needles
the peaks that will throw us off-center
to the dogs but still we keep testing
The speaker knows her children are extraordinary, extraordinary with problems but also extraordinary with talents: the daughter a talented visual artist whose precocious childhood work is described in “Sacred Things,” the son an unusually, almost singularly, caring person, “Portrait: Boy with Dog,” a talented musician, “Squeezing the Cat”:
“Damn! He’s good looking!”
My son the guitar player
Holds the audience enthralled
In this little bar where a dozen
Women hang on his every note…
Those who rush forth to touch him
This son who has loved guitars
From the moment he held one….
Throughout these poems the mother/speaker in The Murderous Sky suffers anguish, overactive fear, doubts as to whether she can continue to mother these children who are well beyond the age now of her legal obligation to do so, but her care has nothing to do with what the law does or doesn’t require. She will always continue to nurture because it is who, what she is: a mother, THEIR mother. This is a story of how family should, must belong to us no matter what, no matter WHAT.
One thinks of Antigone’s devotion to her cursed family and determination to bury her brother Polyneices despite Creon’s edict marking him as traitor that forbids it:
Ismene: So fiery! You should be cold with fear.
Antigone: Perhaps. But I am only doing what I must.
Ismene: But can you do it? I say you cannot.
Antigone: Very well: when my strength gives out, I shall do no more.
Ismene: Impossible things should not be tried at all. (Sophocles’ Antigone, lines 73-77)
As a story, The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness & Mercy is this serious. As literature, it is this great.
Image Credit: cover image courtesy of Lavender Ink Press, used with permission.