Susan Laughter Meyers will read from her new collection My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass at the Poetrio Reading Series Sunday, November 3, 3 PM at Malaprops Bookstore, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, NC. Two poems from My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass appear below. Susan will be reading with 2 other poets—Kathy Nelson and Tom Lombardo, who runs this Poetry of Recovery blog. Susan’s poem “That Year,” a deeply moving poem about the year her mother died, appeared in the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, a compilation of 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations.
—for my mother
by Susan Laughter Meyers
When the black-eyed susans begin to bloom
in the backyard, and the moonbeam coreopsis
bursts into tiny stars, I think of the year
I banished yellow from my life. It was the year
I dug up the lantana, when I didn't plant
narcissus and all the buttery bulbs
but chose white, and a little blue, for the garden
without knowing that I was readying
for two long years of her dying. The next spring
I painted our kitchen, once a lemony gloss, ecru.
I threw out from my closet all the blouses
hinting, from their hangers, of glad canaries.
Beginning that fall I dressed in a dull haze
of beige, toning myself down for the end.
I ignored the incandescence of morning, the amber
of dusk, and leaned to clouds billowed in black.
The week in November she died I loaded the trunk
of my car with flats of pansies, three sacks of bulbs.
I wanted my hands working the dirt, a dark loam
that would spring into jonquils, daffodils—bright
coronas of yellow, and yellow, and yellow.
From Keep and Give Away (University of South Carolina, 2006). First published in The Southern Review
San Pedro River, Arizona
I, who know little of ornithology,
wear sticker number nineteen. This release,
the last of the day, is mine. Under the awning
the ornithologist at the table puts a straw to her lips
and blows, parting the feathers to check for mites.
There are mites.
She cradles the bird in one hand,
sexes it, names the species (Anna’s), and figures
the approximate age. Places it in a miniature sling
and weighs it, wraps the metal band around one leg.
I walk over to the designated grassy area,
both hands in my pockets.
The day is raw.
When it’s time, I hold out a palm, now warm.
The assistant fits the tubes of a stethoscope
to my ears, pressing the disc against my bird.
I hear a low whir, a tiny motor running in my hand.
Up to twelve hundred beats a minute, she says.
I, who know so little,
barely take a breath. My bird’s head is a knob
of red iridescence on the fleshy pad of my hand.
I am nothing but a convenient warming bench,
yet for now I am that bench. Warm.
His breast is thin—bone hollow, she says,
where he should be round.
His eyes are dark and still, his feet tucked
behind his body. He lies there, that tiny motor.
I don't think of years ago, my mother, my father—
those I loved who, having lain down, never rose up.
For once, I know the worth,
at least to me. What is unknown
is whether this bird in hand will rouse
as he did earlier, pinched between thumb
and index finger and tipped toward a feeder,
when he drank with conspicuous hunger.
You could see the tongue.
—first published in North Carolina Literary Review Online 2013
as a finalist for the 2012 James Applewhite Poetry Prize
Dear Atamasco Lily
Nothing else in the swamp rises beyond
the surprise of you
and your sweet repetition.
Your boldness I'd expect of the cottonmouth
sunning by the bald cypress,
your plenitude matched only
by last year's
tent caterpillars, whose droppings,
when they fell,
ticked a steady shower.
And what of the music in your name,
hiding your poison?
You are danger, deep-throated cup
lipping the stippled light,
brightening the leaf mold.
Dear red-stained lily. Rain lily.
Zephyr lily. Dear fairy lily.
Wild Easter lily.
My dear, dear stagger grass.
—first published in Linebreak
Interview with Susan Laughter Meyers
How did you come to write this poem?
I was enrolled in the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and one day before class several of us were talking about colors and the emotional effect they have on us. I surprised even myself by saying that I had once, for a year or more, banished yellow from my life. Cathy Smith Bowers, poet and instructor, immediately said, “Susan, there’s a poem in that,” and I knew she was right.
The back story is that I had just gone through two years of being responsible for my mother’s care before her death, and during that time yellow was simply too bright for me to invite into my life. It felt falsely cheerful to me.
Susan Laughter Meyers
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
Once I said out loud that, during my mother’s decline, I had actually rid myself of a color—and one that I had always liked—the poem began to take shape in my mind. It was a freeing experience to put into words what had before existed as only a blur. From the moment I started writing the poem, I knew that it was a fortunate part of my grieving process. Something clicked. I had been aware all along that I had begun to grieve for my mother long before she actually died, and this poem seemed to be proof. It felt hopeful to me to know that I had moved past this difficult time of no yellow.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
Turning to concrete details—as William Blake advised, “to see a world in a grain of sand.” Had I not tried to name the ordinary traces of yellow that I had banished, I wouldn’t have been able to write the poem. The habit of trying to home in close—to stick to the particulars, to the one brief moment rather than the whole scenario—kept me writing.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
I came to poetry mainly through Shakespeare, the Romantics—Byron, Shelley, Keats—Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Dickey, Sylvia Path, James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop. In more recent years I’ve greatly admired the work of Li-Young Lee, Larry Levis, Jane Hirshfield, Carolyn Forché, Rita Dove, Charles Wright, Tomas Tranströmer, Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komunyakaa, among others. Poets newer to me whom I admire include two poets I’ve studied with, Carol Ann Davis and Emily Rosko; as well as Atsuro Riley, Malena Mörling, Kimberly Johnson, Traci Brimhall, Jude Nutter. And, wait, I can’t forget the three Nicks: Nick Lantz, Nick Flynn, and Nick Laird. Hard to stop naming.
What are you working on now?
Since the completion of my last book I’ve been writing poems influenced in one way or another by Sappho. Too, I've lately been obsessed with the story of my youngest aunt, my namesake, who disappeared years ago. Mostly, though, I like to write poem by poem—whatever comes my way—without aiming myself in a particular direction.
Susan Laughter Meyers, of Givhans, SC, is the author of two full poetry collections: My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, winner of the inaugural Cider Press Review Editors Prize; and Keep and Give Away (University of South Carolina Press), winner of the inaugural SC Poetry Book Prize, the SIBA Book Award for Poetry, and the Brockman-Campbell Book Award. Her chapbook Lessons in Leaving won the Persephone Press Book Award. Her poetry has also been published in numerous journals—including The Southern Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Prairie Schooner—and has been selected to appear in Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. She is the recipient of fellowships from The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) and the SC Academy of Authors. A long-time writing instructor, she has an MFA degree from Queens University of Charlotte. Follow Susan on her blog.
My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass is available at Amazon.com.