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Guest Post: What Shows Through by Poet Erica Goss

When you fiercely believe in a poet’s talent and their collection, you want to do everything you can to promote it and him/her to a wider audience.  You stick their book into strangers’ and friends’ hands and say, “Read this.”  Sometimes, that works and sometimes it doesn’t, but if you truly believe in a collection, you press onward.

Today, I’ve got a deeply moving guest post from poet Erica Goss, who I featured during the 2012 National Poetry Month Blog Tour with a review of her book, Wild Place.  She will talk about the joy of publishing her collection, but also the deep sadness that came with it when her father’s body was discovered in the wilderness.

Following the guest post, I hope that you will enter for 1 of 2 copies I am going to giveaway to 2 lucky readers anywhere in the world.  Without further ado, please welcome Erica Goss.

On March 29, 2011, I checked my email late in the afternoon. The subject line “Chapbook Acceptance: Wild Place” caught my eye immediately. I opened the message and read, “Thank you for submitting to us. Your manuscript has been accepted for publication.” Blue capitals announced the sender as Finishing Line Press in Kentucky.

Finishing Line. I loved that name and its connotations: making it to the end and winning. But on March 29, 2011, “finishing line” meant something else. Three weeks earlier, some teenagers out hiking had discovered my father’s body in a remote part of Western Washington State. That was his finishing line: death from exposure, hunger, and thirst, brought on by dementia.

Over the following months, I struggled with grief and depression. Some days were simply too hard to bear. My friends congratulated me about the book, but I felt compelled to qualify their enthusiasm with reminders that I was grieving my father. As much as I wanted to shout with joy over the book’s imminent publication, I was unable to feel much happiness at such a time.

The book did give me some welcome distraction from dealing with my father’s death and trying to put his affairs in order. Choosing cover art, formatting the book, deciding which poems to keep and which to delete, absorbed many hours. At the back of my preparations, however, my father’s death lurked, a persistent ache in the pit of my stomach.

It took me some time to realize that I was living in one of those ironic situations that make good poems. The best poetry is tinged with its opposite emotion; to quote Chase Twitchell, “remember death.” As Linda Pastan writes in her poem “The Death of a Parent,”

Move to the front
of the line
a voice says, and suddenly
there is nobody
left standing between you
and the world, to take
the first blows
on their shoulders.

How often I wanted to share the news of my book’s publication with my father. In phone conversations, I’d told him about sending the book to various contests and small presses. The dementia that had been taking his brain away would lift for a little while, and he seemed genuinely interested. Then, abruptly, he would say, “Well, thank you for calling!” and hang up. When he did that, I knew that he had probably forgotten who I was, and ended the conversation to cover his embarrassment.

My father was never more attentive than when I read poetry to him. A former professor of German, he would fix his hazel eyes on me with the look he must have given his students when they mispronounced something, and listen intently. At the end, he would usually say, “Huh! Too bad he was such an ass,” or some other insulting remark about the poet. That’s when I knew my real father was back, at least for a moment. “Even jerks can write good poetry,” I would respond, hoping for his sudden laugh or the way he would smack the table, making us all jump. But more and more often, he would just look at me, puzzled, and turn back to the television.

My father loved run-down, decaying, decrepit places. This explains why he spent the last few years of his life, before his dementia worsened and he moved to Washington to live with his sister, in a tiny village in Northern California called Locke. Locke sits in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, where two of California’s largest rivers meet. Eleven hundred miles of poorly maintained levees protect Locke, the other small towns of the Delta, and its surrounding orchards and farmland.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, unruly by nature, seep under the levees, giving Locke and the whole area a lumpy, moldering appearance. Artists love Locke’s tilted buildings and its atmosphere of benign neglect (Locke is the setting for “My Father at Seventy,” one of the poems in Wild Place). The first few years my father spent in Locke were happy ones; he loved the small town vibe, the artists and writers who lived in ramshackle houses where the river bubbled up through the basements, and being so close to Nature. That was before he stopped calling, stopped paying his bills, stopped cleaning his house.

Wild Place’s cover photograph, taken by San Jose artist and architect Howard Partridge, shows a view of the Sutro Baths on the coast of San Francisco. It’s clear from the photograph that the Pacific Ocean is reclaiming that piece of land, wearing down the seawall and the surrounding cliffs. Here’s another place that water will eventually take back, just like in the Delta a few miles east.

Is this a metaphor for death? Maybe. But I’d rather think of it as a demonstration of Nature’s obdurate personality. As the French poet Saint-John Perse (Alexis Leger) writes: “In vain the surrounding land traces for us its narrow confines. One same wave throughout the world, one same wave since Troy rolls its haunch toward us.”

One same wave. “The Death of a Parent” gives us this image:

The slate is wiped
not clean but like a canvas
painted over in white
so that a whole new landscape
must be started,
bits of the old
still showing through.

It’s been over a year since that bipolar month of March, 2011. I’m learning what it means to grieve. Some days I feel my father’s loss as an acute pain; other times it’s heavy and dull, like an overcast, humid day. I have gotten better at allowing myself to feel unqualified joy at the publication of Wild Place. And I look for those places where the old bits show through.

Thanks, Erica, for sharing your story with us. I know that your father would be proud of you, no matter what. Also, please check out this poem she wrote in response to a prompt about what she would tell her 16-year-old self.

For those of you interested in this stunning collection, please leave a comment here about your own father. Deadline to enter will be May 31, 2012.

  • Anita Yancey

    My dad though still living at the age of 88, I miss every day because I live so far from him. I have very fond memories of when I was little and he use to take me for long walks with him, while he told me about life and nature. I would really enjoy reading this book.

  • What a bittersweet guest post! Sounds like a great collection, and I’m sure your father would be proud.

    My father was a great man, and I’ve mourned his death every day for the past 12 years. It gets easier — now I can remember him with a smile and no tears — and I’m just glad for all the memories I have of him.

  • Hi Ti – I am so sorry that you and your father were/are not close. The most painful part of my dad’s dementia was his gradual withdrawal from his family. My dad was a difficult man too, and not always present in our lives. Often I thought he’d forgotten about my brothers and I. But we had a strong connection during my early childhood that lasted until his death. I think about him and miss him every day.

  • Ti

    What a touching, heartfelt post. I feel for Ms. Goss. I can’t even for a moment imagine how hard it must have been to balance both good news and bad.

    My father and I were never close. Never. I remember him pulling away from me at the age of 2. It’s the first memory I had of him where I could sense that he just didn’t want kids and the years that followed proved it. I didn’t take it personally though. Even as young as I was, I knew that it wasn’t me. Somehow he communicated that to me clearly. To this day, we are are at odds. I sort of feel as if he wanted to be alone and so I made it easy for him. The only time I really get sad about it, is when others talk of their own fathers and how wonderful they are/were.

  • My fondest memories of my dad are of him reading to my brothers and I. I loved the sound of his voice, and how he would create different voices for each character. My dad read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories out loud to us, with his idea of various English accents. How I would love to hear him voice Inspector Lestrade arguing with Holmes over a matter of police procedure!

    • That must have been fun to listen to…I love Holmes, and I think it would be great to read them out loud in different voices…though I’m a terrible impersonator.

  • Erica’s evocative piece reminded me of how much I miss my Father and continue to appreciate his guidance. I lost him in the 90’s. But I hear his voice every time I give myself encouragement, or reconnect with some pearl of wisdom that helps me reach a goal. Perhaps the phrase that I hear most often in my head is “it’s a cinch by the inch but hard by the yard.” Sure, it’s an old bromide, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant or powerful. I don’t think I’ll ever get to the point where I don’t need to be reminded of it. Whenever I’m struggling with something and I suddenly hear that adage whispered in my ear, I stop and say out loud “Thanks, Dad.”

    • I think we all have those people in our lives that provide the “sage” advice that has been passed through the generations and we always think fondly of them most when they are gone. It’s sad to be sure….but something we can all relate to in Erica’s poetry.

  • Erica, you’ve shared a very personal journey with us. Losing a parent is truly a difficult experience and it’s understandable that you were reluctant to celebrate your success. I have read Wild Place and I enjoyed reading the poem, ‘My Father at Seventy’ as well as the many other poems. Wild Place is definitely a collection to be proud of. I highly recommend it!

    • I agree that Erica should be very proud of her collection.