Each year in November, I pull together some of the poems I wrote that year and create a chapbook of 24 pages of my poems, including some haiku. I have the book printed and give them to friends and family, as my Christmas card. I got a very thoughtfully written note from a friend, Steve, to whom I had sent a book, who noted that I seem to be looking backward in my poetry, writing about things in the past.
Of course, Steve is right. We write from our experience, and experience is behind us, so we can only see it by looking backward. But the inspiration for looking back comes, hopefully, from some immediate event, memory, or situation. We are brought up short by the shock of something we see, feel, taste, hear, smell and there's the genesis of our writing.
The more important or traumatic the event in the past, the more intense the images we see because of the immediate stimulus. One day in October of 2012, I read an article that said it was the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 I was a pilot flying KC-135 refuelers, and we refueled B-52 bombers with nuclear weapons on their way to circle just outside the Iron Curtain, waiting for the command to go to war.
Reading that article brought up all sorts of images of those terrible few weeks. The black sky over the North Atlantic in the early hours of the morning. Fear that we'd hear that command to go to war. Fear that our families would be vaporized with that command. Here's the poem that came from those memories.
October 24, 1962, 3:45 AM
We’re headed west at forty thousand feet
above the blackness of Atlantic cold.
A tiny light on the ocean miles below
marks a freighter bound for who knows where,
and blinking red and green lights just ahead
come from another tanker just like us.
An hour ago, we each were pumping fuel
into an eight-jet bomber with a crew
of six and bellies crammed with atom bombs.
While thousands of miles away, directly south,
a fleet of Russian boats draws near a line
of US warships who have quarantined
Cuba’s ports. If the ships don’t turn around,
the bombers we refueled will fly on east,
descend, and level Russian cities with
their nuclear bombs. And as their bombs explode,
Soviet missiles will land on bases we
are headed for, and vaporize them, with
our loved ones, in a sun-bright flash of light.
We cruise along this quiet night, maintain
our altitude, our thoughts, unspoken fears,
and pray the light we see this coming dawn
will be the peaceful sunrise in the east.
(Published in the WyoPoets July Newsletter in 2013.)
In a less dramatic situation, as I pulled out of the alley next to my home one December morning, I noticed a single leaf hanging on one of the maples on our lawn. It fluttered in the breeze and triggered memories of my mother in the nursing home just before she died four years earlier. The fluttering leaf took my mind back to that morning.
The Last Leaf to Fall
The shadows of desiccated leaves,
hanging from winter-bare branches,
fluttered on the hospital floor
the day my mother died.
She was the last of her generation,
outlived the rest by a dozen years.
She often said "I want to be with Dad."
Her last days were painful, hellish,
spine curled, head bent to her knees.
She was surrounded by other shriveled
women and men, who, like the leaves,
were barely hanging on.
Perhaps she waited for us to visit her
one last time. We held her hands
all morning, begging her to let go.
She did, but only after we left.
The same way a leaf will let go
when no one is watching it.
It's my feeling that writing about the traumatic events in my life has helped me heal from them, to weave their pain into a life narrative that makes some sense to me. Two friends asked me to write for their blog about writing as healing, I wrote in part:
I think writing about deep trauma helps because to write well, one must also revise well. When I revise I look for the right words, syntax, and structure. That means I have to look the memory right in the eye, think hard about it, and recognize the emotions it evokes. That, I believe, is how serious writing can promote healing . . . . The trauma never goes away, but it becomes easier to deal with.