Places I have been, places I have loved or hated: all carry a “charge.” Maine or West Texas or Chicago: as it appears in my work, it stands in for certain feeling states linked to events that happened there. The place becomes a shorthand for the feeling and can return in leitmotif, even in other poems.
Place names come up often in my work. They mean: trauma, safety, love, domesticity, family. They mean: happy, curious, confident, translucent, exotic. They mean: childhood, parenthood, adulthood, marriage. They mean, I’ve been there and lived a chunk of my life there and I want to tell you about it.
This particular poem, Fun with Dying, is set against the backdrop of Seattle, Washington. Seattle is a city I don’t know well; the only time I spent there was when my father was seeking medical treatment for cancer at the age of 39. He was living in Alaska at the time and the resources there were not sophisticated enough to treat him; hence, his extended trip to Seattle. He rented a garden apartment, but also spent many days and nights at the hospital. His health emergency, juxtaposed with a glittering and interesting new (to me) city, combined to make this poem. I played up the tension I saw—between the place and the situation—considerably, as I imagined my stepmother and me leaving him in a hospital room to explore all the glitz and glam that Seattle could offer us. I hoped the irony would underscore the difficulty we all experienced as we faced his (fatal) illness.
Years later, long after my father was dead, I remembered, through flashbacks, that he had sexually abused me for most of my childhood. The dark tension in this poem, the rage that bubbles beneath the surface despite his serious illness, might be attributed to that history that I didn’t yet know consciously when I was in Seattle with him—but did know when I wrote the poem. Unlike most of my poems, drafted over months and years, this one arrived mostly in one breath and I struggled to get it down fast enough. It was originally published in the New Haven Review and is coming out in March 2016 in my book entitled Some Perfect Year (Shearsman).
Fun with Dying
The year you died was gala festive. Didn’t I party dress for monthly
plane flights from my lake to your ocean? Each time you gauntly
greeted, your skin poked carbon blue where needles entered, the strange
shunt dangle from its temporary home, you St. Sebastian and your arrows.
Your girl and I ate out and brought you cheese. We tooled Seattle
like tourists, its single rainless winter we sequined, brought you
accordioned nosegays. You seemed to like hospital sleeping, fluttering
nurses to morphine drip. Sometimes we restauranted sans you.
You loved to see us glow and we obliged. Layers peeled you papery,
trapeze-artist light, your fingernails gone to skin. The drugs took your hair
and left you seal-smooth; carved chin to chisel, lashless eyes, the shell melting
and your warm core soaking sheets, turning toward the grisly plants
we windowsilled. We shopped that city, found expensive knits, boutique
sweaters with slate buttons. We bought eyeliner by the tub. Your girl,
she held my hand while yours skeletoned. Nothing you said when we asked
what gifts. I zipped my knee-high boots, she fastened her trench, breezed
out. We always smelled of apricot scrub, avocado. Why would someone stay
bedside, listen to a rattle? Rattles come from coughs and lead to comas.
We weren’t the knitting type, we had exhausted crosswords. It was you
who urged us go, a day not circumscribe our wantings. We wished you well
again and burly but turned your sick ghoulish. The doc and residents predicted
nine more months—a long time in my short life. Let’s go, he wants us to,
I told her and we left you again, bright things to be bought, a turquoise scarf
my neck needed, crème brulée I loved to its caramel end. You lay
thirty-nine mixed years quilted on your rotten body: thought things through.
Set the pillows, rode the angles, fresh from your sponge bath. You
knew the shift change rhythm like a poker hand. Nightcap nurse
took your vitals and we dropped off a confection. When months ticked through
to April, we all agreed it had been a beautiful year and a fine one for dying in.
No one could say when a starless Washington winter had glimmered so.
About the Poet
Cameron Gearen published a poetry chapbook entitled Night, Relative to Day, selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Her poetry has appeared in Fence, The Antioch Review, Toad, the poker, Crazyhorse, The Bakery, Spinoza Blue and in many other journals. She won the Grolier Prize, the W.B.Yeats Society Prize and the Lynda Hull Prize from Crazyhorse and was a recipient of the Barbara Deming / Money for Women Fund. She publishes essays in Dame Magazine and blogs daily at camazon.tumblr.com. Her short fiction is up at The Easy Chair podcast here. She works as a freelance writer and college counselor and lives outside of Chicago with her daughters and her dog.
Her new book, Some Perfect Year, can be purchased on the Shearsman Books site here.
About the “On Place” Series
In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.
For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.