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To Write Silences


Zachary Zuckerman

Former Rhode Island Poet Laureate Lisa Starr talks about her life and work.


To Write Silences Zachary Zuckerman

Lisa Starr: I started memorizing poems at a very young age. It just delighted me. And then I started writing my own poems so I just always did it. And when I was 11 my father got really sick and had a long slow dying process about four years. And during his illness language increasingly left our household and my mother couldn’t really communicate so we didn’t talk about my father’s illness. We were discouraged from talking about it outside of the home I guess for fear that we might seem we were looking for pity. And so nobody was talking about the fact that my father was dying and I was a little kid and I couldn’t quite figure it out. And when I would sit in my room and try to write the many different silences that were infesting our household the poems would come quite naturally and I would learn something even if it was something I didn’t want to learn.

Oftentimes it’s the things that make us feel most uncomfortable that we most need to hear we don’t need to wallow in our levels of discomfort but we ought to explore them a little bit more. The main thing is that I see the poems as an invitation. So when I tell you something that happened to me the idea is maybe it happened to you too. So here’s a poem called CVS:.

In the vast brightness of this pharmacy. Everything seems like more of itself. The Halloween masks, the pantyhose, most of all the loneliness of a 12 year old girl trying to be noticed by her mother. Can I get this. She asks. Though it takes all her nerve. Didn’t I just get you one her mother answers from a place so far away she hardly notices that the item in question is a notebook. Yeah but I filled it in like three days the girl replies. Her mother doesn’t answer which apparently means yes and the girl looks happy or at least less sad. For a moment. Standing in line behind them I want to ask her I want anyone to ask her what she wrote to fill all those pages in just three days.

So we’ve all seen that haven’t we. Some parent who’s just I’m not judging the parent either. I’ve been that parent I think I’m both people in that poem I’ve been the parent that hasn’t listened to my kids and I’m revisiting journal entries where where I’m haunted by things that I might have gotten wrong in a parent as a parent. I also know that as a as a young girl filling notebooks and writing poems my poems brought huge levels of discomfort to my mom and to my brother and sister largely because I was writing about us. I was writing about our family and you feel like you’ve got something to offer and nobody has any

interest in it. So there is that sort of fear of appropriation you know taking somebody else’s story and turning it into your own. Did I project too much about that girl in the CVS. That you’re violating somebody else’s self and selfhood by trying to give voice to them. One of the things that I tell people who are who have stories to tell who have characters that they want to give voice to.

I think if you’re doing it from a place of respect and compassion and not any sort of place of judgment that those are some of the things we ought to be exploring and verbalizing here’s a poem that’s exactly about that called other people’s poems.

Perhaps I should leave other people’s poems to other people but I’m afraid that left unsaid they grow. They thicken. Never mind how they accumulate. The poems of others this one’s my brother’s. He was 15 my father was dying and perhaps even worse needing a bath. And perhaps worst of all no nurse on duty all day. My brother then at 15 my mother trying to manage things and my father’s sore body just needing a bath. Perhaps my brother sulked most of the day. There was a lot of sulking then perhaps he slammed his bedroom door for effect. I remember how weak he was, he finally said to me nearly 20 years after locking it away. And how I hated that I had to bathe him hated that mom asked me even though I knew she had to. And of course he knew how I felt and he just sat there quietly. Another sip of wine lovely candlelight and the soft voice of my brother ready after twenty years to try that afternoon again. Honest enough at last to understand that even if he could revisit that moment nothing would change. He would still be angry. There would still be all that silence. Still the warm washcloth would sting our father’s body. Your poem then my brother the weariness of knowing that what’s done is done except that then it’s yours forever. It takes twenty years sometimes to discover it’s not that your secret is so dark it’s that it’s always with you. Always you will ache differently than others because of the way a washcloth feels because of an afternoon you barely remember remembering.

It’s not that our dark secrets are so dark it’s that they’re secret. I think we make them much worse when we don’t explore them. I happen to be somebody that language comes to naturally and always has. So my way into it is language. Some people might do it by running twenty five miles. You know some people might do it by making a sculpture. Some people might do it by planting a flower bed and some people might do it by taking a shovel and bashing in somebody’s

headlights on their car. You know we all have different ways of repressing what it is that we feel the most and it’s something that we’re we’re taught from an early age and we’re taught culturally and I’m really interested in breaking down those barriers and and hearing what people might think of as traditionally unsayable because nothing is unsayable.

One of the things about poems and I noticed them in my own is that sometimes when you’re writing about one thing you’re able to bring in the other stuff. So this poem basically I’m telling one whole story because I’m avoiding another. So the poems called this and that and titles are really important to me especially good titles and my poems don’t always have them but a title like this that appears to just be very casual. it’s a title that’s telling the reader a lot and hopefully after they hear the poem they’ll understand that.

A while back you said you know one of these days you’re going to have to write that poem about that deer. And I agreed even though there is nothing poetic about that night nor about the way she tried to clear the stone wall in the stunned moments after I’d hit her or she’d hit me or however these calamitous intersections come together. Nothing poetic about the way she tried so desperately to scale the wall in those time funny moments before both she and I realized she was broken. She gave it four determined tries before resigning herself to the final taming and like the dog does sometimes with one paw on the couch as if to say I’d like to be up, she raised one perfect hoof to the lichen covered stones and then just looked at it sadly. Oh sweetheart I said trying to ease her into a resting spot with me in the wet grass oh sweetheart I said over and over again. Oh how the spasms rippled down her long strong side relentless. Oh how her body shuddered as the gorgeous living left it. Oh how I held her weeping and how she forgave me and how all the silent eyes of the night birds and night animals forgave me too. It’s been nine months since then. A perfect amount of time it’s been proven for incubation and I seem to have lost the notebook with the specifics like the particularity of the thwack on the windshield or the slow rolling thud onto the hood of the car. So I understand I know I’ve got to get to it and get it right.

And especially not forget her nostrils flaring in the familiar glass when everything else at last had mercifully stopped moving. Nor her staggering look of puzzlement as she lost her recognition of even that. And then last night at dinner across the table your eyes and your face suddenly wet with tears. What is it? I asked. I don’t think I’m ready to die yet you said. I mean ever. And you

looked up and around at a room filled with people we didn’t know dining in a place we’d never been before. And it was difficult to swallow then and it was hard to speak. And I knew right then that I was ready to write this poem about that deer.

So right. I couldn’t I couldn’t write the details of that horrible night killing a beautiful animal until I was faced with something that was almost more unbearable which is the imminent death of my best friend who happens to be an older guy who’s not in good health. I hit the deer the night after the worst fight that I ever had with my former husband. And it was a fight that happened in front of our kids and I took the drive to get away from the rage before one of us actually hit each other we came that close. And I reached a point of forgiving him and forgiving myself and I rounded a bend and I felt like I could go home. And then I killed this animal and it slowly it slowly died. Without being too heavy or trying too hard the deer was a real metaphor for my marriage and that’s something that I’ve never quite said but it was a beautiful thing.

And it did die slowly and it did die painfully. And there’s a bit of my husband in that poem my former husband in the oh sweetheart there’s a bit of that letting go. There are so many griefs that I was letting go of. And when I talk about the night birds and the night animals their forgiveness I think I think in that poem I’m finally forgiving myself for all of it. I was the one that wanted to leave. That’s where the anger came in, he didn’t want me to leave the marriage. You know so. So hopefully a little bit of all of that is in the poem.

What I’m really trying to do is get life right. I’m not trying to get poems right. And the poems are a way for me to somehow be better at being alive.

We talk about the unsayable and I want to bring the joy back into it you know because one of the things that I’ve been told a lot in particular with the joyful poems about my kids and one of the things that I’ve learned in life and not just through poetry is that we’re also you know we’re told to hold back you know like my mother don’t talk about your father’s illness don’t cry in public. But we’re also not able. We’re sort of from shamed from celebrating our triumphs and our joys too. Like it’s almost a dangerous thing to be too happy because it feels like you’re rubbing it in people’s face. And and I write with a group of women who were all about 20 years older than me we do two retreats a year and there in particular – my kids are older now they’re 20 and 21 – But at the younger ages

when it was just one triumph after another without realizing it. I was always apologizing for writing happy poems.

And I remember one of them taking me aside and saying there so few people that write from a place of joy. And it’s really really really important to do that if only to give other people permission to do that. I’ve read some really heavy poems. So I’d like to read one that’s a little bit lighter and again it’s just like one of those thousands of days where I just can’t believe I’ve done this sort of thing to my children. And it’s remarkable how normal they’ve turned out despite me. So here’s a poem it’s called Mama Bear postgame a little bit lighter than the others.

I’m so upset that they lost by one. So disappointed for their disappointment. Never mind that it all came down to a few really bad calls and some epically terrible officiating that I rush her without realizing it as she approaches the locker room. What are you doing? She asks, mildly annoyed to see me by her side. We lost. That’s all. We just lost and you want to know what’s even better. Now I have to go to the last 15 minutes of history and she storms into the locker room and unable to prevent myself, I do too. Her teammates are in various stages of changing and looking for phone chargers and notebooks and I need Millie to know, I need them all to know that they did not lose. That the game was stolen from them. Millie hurting because she fell so many times and angry at herself for the missed foul shots and angry at me because I am ridiculous says in her team captain voice, We lost because we didn’t rebound. And I say no you’re wrong. And I say to all their sweaty gorgeous racing to history and English and chemistry faces. Make no mistake girls you lost because that pathetic ref with the awful toupee had a very unhappy childhood and so now he is trying to take away yours. Millie’s head pops through her sweater. One eye raised through anger into curiosity. Mom she says, I just have to ask if you think this is helping in any way? Do you think you’re making anyone feel better? And by the way what are you doing in our locker room or are you the new team mother now? And though she doesn’t slam her locker door she closes it derisively grabs her backpack and heads off to class with the others. Left alone I tidy things up like those cheerful bathroom attendants I adore in the Charlotte airport and help myself to a leftover orange wedge and answer my know it all daughters question. Yes I say to her though she is already sitting at her desk upstairs, I do think it’s helping. I’m actually feeling much better now. And I take another orange wedge and dump the rest and rinse the plate. Then I get in the truck drive home and write this.