I lay awake for a long time before dawn, restless, feeling despair about my writing: a waste of breath. For all my working at it, my bliss in it, I’m not a poet. And then: no one has any interest in my being here. No one cares for me.
I’ve had these feelings before in my twenty-five years of writing poems, but they’ve never stopped me from writing, or from making a book or chapbook every five years or so when I had a batch of poems that embodied a period of my life. I’ve always felt a drive to have my poems out in the world, seeing the light of day, like seedlings seeking water and minerals and sunshine.
Now, at seventy-five, I have another sheaf of poems. But this time I feel a desire to consign them to a dark drawer, where they will lie in the dust of desiccated flies and hornets, never to be received with a pat on the back: welcome, come into the light. I thought I’d got the best of it in years of therapy, this despair from my childhood. But now, again, I find I want to hide what I’m doing, keep it to myself. Worse, turn against what I’ve done. It’s the old stuff, believing I have to keep myself to myself if I want to survive.
My therapist died two years ago. I can’t go back to her and say: Jean, I’m stuck, the old impulse to draw myself in, to disappear, is getting stronger. This feeling we explored and excavated and, I thought, overcame is back now. Is this what comes with age, this regressing to the sense of the isolation and loneliness that once led me to therapy? Is this the burden of age, more than backaches, foot arthritis, a pinch in my shoulders? I don’t have the stamina I had when you kept drawing me out, breath by breath, to embrace my being in the world.
Age is a crossroads. I’ve known that for a long time, watched friends come to the four corners, make their decisions. I thought smugly that I’d already passed through on the right path. Now I feel as if the road forward is blocked, the signal gate jammed.
Curiously this is happening at a time when I feel excitement bubbling into felt-tip pen drawings, mostly of women in motion, odd faces, arms, hands, hair, lots of saturated color. I don’t know who they are or what they mean, these figures that keep snaking from my fingers, except that they belong with my poems and are pulling me forward, refusing exile.
Yesterday I had time to read through my new poems again, this time aloud. I made small changes in some, cutting out or changing this or that word, getting the rhythm just right. Mostly I felt satisfied. Sometimes I felt transfixed. Yes! That’s what I meant. Always I felt accompanied, as if I’d rejoined the part of myself that feels my life. This is how I’m doing. This is how the part of me that expresses herself in poems and drawings is doing. The part that I, like many artists, don’t communicate any other way.
I have in front of me at the computer a photograph of the beautiful face and smile of an artist friend. It took a year before I heard the sad news from Oregon. Her husband sent me this memorial photo in which she wears a white sweater, dark blue scarf, her curly hair silvery white. Her smile is knowing. I listen again to her voice in cyberspace, reading her ironic, witty, original eight-minute poem about how we are tormenting our beautiful beloved earth. So much art, so little time, she inserted in one of her collages. She, Joyce Keener, always wrote encouraging words to me about my work and other older women’s voices I’d published. She lives here in my computer, just as my dead sister lives in her statues of a naked woman and man I keep out all summer in the garden, in all winter by the hearth.
Today there is ice on all the trees and shrubs on my road, a sickly gray, unhealthy-looking ice that doesn’t sparkle like ice in winter. It’s not winter. It’s spring, a chilly April. The crocuses are out in the cold, dozens of them. They’ve been out almost two weeks but have never had a moment to open wide, waxy and wet, in sunshine. I can’t think of gardening yet, though I’ve ordered seeds. But as soon as it warms, I will start the seven-month-long exercise of cultivating food and beauty from my soil.
So hard to imagine in this ice. I feel I’ve become old in the last five years. My sister dead. My therapist dead. Friends, close and distant, one after another dead. The terrible wars. My body fails me. These are the years of my feet hurting, arthritis making my whole body ache, lament. Fleetness long gone. Last year a woodchuck ate the heads of my carrots and the flowering of my broccoli just at the moment of fruition. I forget the sun will invite me outside, the ground will offer my knees a cushion, my joints—wrist, ankle, knee, shoulder—will ache. (I feel them now.) I will go forward. Sunshine will draw me.
I will call my collection: old woman, new poems. What else but art can take on this experience of life coming to an ending but lived in the daily? What else can communicate the minute and extreme changes that mark the drama of old age, this strange intensity of absence foreshadowed in presence?
These things matter: to keep going, to keep writing, making our art, or whatever brings us all the way out into the world, our print on the consciousness of the earth, of each other. I want to be known for who I am as an old woman artist. I want to be in the conversation. It’s as simple as that.
That’s what my friend is saying in the photo, her arms lifted, folded behind her head, leaving her chest, her breast, her heart open. She’s looking me straight in the eye.