Search Results for: breath of parted
Snags, Roadblocks, & Near Catastrophies
Admittedly, the temptation is there to leave off the Birth of a Press with a summation of our mission and description of our programs. It might seem then that our growth and development proceeded without a hitch, which is far from the truth. Though we have emerged satisfied and quite successful, we certainly have had our snags and roadblocks—even a few mild catastrophes (mild only in the sense that we would not be beaten by them).
Probably the most disastrous catastrophe occurred in 2002, when our distributor filed Chapter 11 and took our money and our inventory with them, but let’s back up for a minute. At CavanKerry’s inception, we had been of interest to both Consortium and University Press of New England. But after several meetings, both of them bowed out for fear that we would not be able to pull off what we proposed. I was never anything but completely honest about my lack of publishing experience, and since I had to find a distributor before I actually produced books and could build a track record, they were reluctant to take the chance. At this point, we were close to print with Howard Levy’s book, and we were very concerned about not having a way to get the books out there.
I spoke with a marketing expert who recommended that I contact a publishing consultant she knew who had worked for one of the large publishing houses as the company liaison with their distributors. He had subsequently left the corporate world to start his own consulting business and was available to search out a distributor for us; he found us LPC. They appeared to be an excellent choice because they were known for their interest in poetry, and in fact had represented it at many small press conferences. Soon after we signed on with them, our books were everywhere; sometime later we had a call from the Barnes and Noble corporate offices offering to do a special promotion of Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place in over 600 of their stores during the Christmas season.
But that never panned out; the honeymoon was short-lived. We could not reach the LPC sales representatives by phone, catalogs were not printed, and there were long gaps between payment checks. I was very wary and spoke repeatedly to our expensive consultant/liaison who tried to reassure me that LPC remained strong and healthy. I finally decided to bypass him and wrote to the LPC CEO stating that, as soon as our contract was up (which was a matter of weeks), I wanted to end our relationship. I requested the return of our inventory. I heard nothing. Within a month, we received a letter from the bankruptcy court announcing their dissolution. The next several months were filled with costly communications with lawyers and pleas to the court to release our inventory. During this time, not only did we lose tens of thousands of dollars owed to us in sales, but we had no books to sell, so we couldn’t even find another distributor to represent us. When we finally got our inventory back many months later, we signed on with Small Press Distribution and remained with them for several years.
I learned a great deal from that experience—firstly, that no one, specifically no distributor, would hold all of our inventory ever again; while it had been very seductive to have them house our books, relieving us of the responsibility and expense of storing them ourselves, it cost us dearly. Secondly, I committed to listening more to my own feelings and concerns early on. I had long been uncomfortable with the service we were getting from LPC (almost from the outset), and though I verbalized it to our staff and to our consultant, they cautioned me to be more patient and not jump the gun as I was often known to do. Though they were trying to protect the press and my name as an extension of CavanKerry, in retrospect, I wish I had jumped the gun and gotten out of the gate before our inventory was commandeered. I wonder if there is any such thing as jumping the gun when the business is yours and the buck stops with you? I think not.
A she lion, as are all creators of businesses, I knew intuitively when my baby was threatened, but I held back out of my concern that I not be too precipitous or rash. Rash?! What would have been so terrible?! I had a clause in my contract with LPC that I could also sell our books through SPD and SPD had accepted us. But we didn’t follow through; we didn’t think we needed two distributors. We were all hoping for the millions of sales we would make through our commercial distributor, so we were lulled into believing that things would improve. Alas, this was not the end of our distribution problems.
Though our relationship with Small Press Distribution was a very good one and their staff and service excellent, our book sales did not grow as we had hoped. After two years, it became abundantly clear that the only way to increase sales was with a sales force. SPD did not have one. A book wholesaler rather than a distributor, it relied on print catalogs and internet promotion. CKP already had a very liberal and generous advertising program in place whereby our books were well represented in the literary journals, Poets & Writers, and other trade magazines, but that was not enough. We needed sales people meeting in person with booksellers to draw attention to our books. Once again, our staff thought I should be patient. This time I was not.
In what felt like my endless search for a national distributor, I revisited Consortium but was turned down for the second time—this time because, though we proved we could do a great job of publishing poetry, all of their other presses were publishing poetry as well, and the market was glutted with it. Sales were very poor and they did not welcome another kid on the block. There weren’t enough sales to go around as it was.
In addition to several other national distributors, we also approached University Press of New England once again. They were going through their own growing pains and struggling with reduced sales of their own books and initially did not want to take on another press’ potential troubles. Relentless, I all but hounded them. Several good friends of CavanKerry— among them Syd Lea, Cleopatra Mathis, and Don Sheehan— approached them. We sent them our sales figures, our projections, our catalogs, our ads, our pleas. They finally agreed. From the outset, our sales increased over 150%.
After many successful years with UPNE, we noticed a drop off in 2018 in their marketing efforts and sales results. By summer, they announced that they would shutter operations at the end of the year. By November, they were gone and, yet again, we were set adrift. This time, at least, we had our books – our precious books. Nonetheless, this kicked off several months of hunting and consulting with other presses experiencing the same limbo, before we came to rest with the University of Chicago Press. We are grateful that, with their Chicago Distribution Center offering fulfilment and marketing support, we can return our full attention to the art of bookmaking.
Not surprisingly, the publishing of First Books/ New Voices has always been at the forefront of CavanKerry’s concerns. New, talented writers are abundant, yet the doors remain mostly shut to them! We decided to focus on this very worthy group with the hope that more publishers would join us in the cause; perhaps, others would start presses as well! This concern included a commitment to an embargo on competitions and reading fees. In their emphasis on winners and losers, competitions seem to subliminally pit writers against one another and exacerbate the envy and insecurity that often already exists. While fiction writers and poets of considerable reputation are often free from the burden of contest entries and reading fees, unpublished poets as well as those with short publishing histories face prohibitive and costly expenses just for the chance to get noticed. This breeds resentment and can be fatal to prospects of brilliant-yet- unpublished works of fine literature. We reasoned that these works deserved the same rights to be seen and read by all.
As a result, we made a commitment to publish 2-3 First Books/New Voices every year; manuscripts would come from open submissions and recommendations as well as from the considerable array of worthy poets I already knew. Due to the fact that publishing (like so many other industries/arts) seems to venerate the young, particular notice is given to older poets. That said, no generation has been neglected—our writers range in age from late twenties to early eighties.
Of the 100+ books we have published, we can proudly say that many of our writers have gone onto flourishing careers. Beginning in September of 2000 with our own first book, A Day this Lit by Howard Levy, we have since published reputable names, such as Karen Chase, Peggy Penn, Sherry Fairchok, Sondra Gash, Liz Hutner, Christopher Matthews, Eloise Bruce, Celia Bland, Catherine Doty, Giorgianna Orsini, Joan Seliger Sidney, Laurie Lamon, Chris Barter, Andrea Carter Brown, Robert Seder, Richard Jeffrey Newman, Ross Gay, Joseph Legaspi, Christine Korfhage and Teresa Carson just to name a few.
On the other side of the publishing spectrum, out-of-print books also concerned us. The plethora of exquisite work allowed to go out-of-print due to slow/limited sales is staggering. We added these to our list and committed ourselves to publishing reprints of fine books that we believe deserve permanence while doing all we could to not allow any of our own books from going out of print. Martin Mooney’s Grub was our first reprint. I was drawn to him first as a gifted writer and that interest deepened once I heard that his publisher had ‘pulped’ the 600 copies of Grub that remained in storage without informing Martin. Nor did they invite him to purchase or simply remove them. Worst of all, he discovered the fate of his books when he contacted his publisher and was unable to purchase books for a reading. Grub along with Moyra Donaldson’s Snakeskin Stilettos were our first reprints.
CavanKerry’s interest in writers who are “under-recognized” or “rejected by the literary mainstream” came to include a scope broader than merely poets who were previously unpublished. Many seasoned, mid-career poets are forced to solicit a new publisher for each new book. CavanKerry has provided a home for many of these Notable Voices, including Robert Cording, Mary Ruefle, Kenneth Rosen, Jack Wiler, Karen Chase, Baron Wormser, Sam Cornish and more.
Another interest of ours are intelligent, insightful works that focus on the creative process and the making of art; these are CK Critical Collections. Our Carolyn Kizer (introduction by Maxine Kumin) and John Haines (introduction by Dana Gioia) books collect the essays and poems of reputable poets and essayists across the country who have studied the works of these two brilliant writers and write in depth about it.
Our initial aesthetic commitment goes hand-in hand with our community focus which revolves around our interest in special projects. CavanKerry has published two collections to benefit another arts organization. The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, Volumes 1 and 2 were published to honor the great work of The Robert Frost Place Center for Poetry and the Arts in Franconia, New Hampshire under the protective mantle of former executive director, Donald Sheehan, where many notable and fledgling artists, including myself, have made and shared poems.
But we were not finished. Like any excited home or business builder we kept finding new rooms to add to our structure. During our second season, we found yet another category of book that we wanted to support: specifically, those that dealt openly and honestly with the profound psychological, emotional, and physical issues connected to illness. This came to us in the form of Life with Sam by Elizabeth Hutner, a book sent to us by Molly Peacock which recounted the deeply moving story in poems and photos of a woman who lost her 5 year old son to leukemia.
Having spent most of my adult life with serious (though not life threatening) orthopedic problems (two spinal fusions and one ankle fusion, among several other surgeries), I struggled as a writer with a need to confront the effects of these in my writing and a need to escape them. When I suffered a very serious fall that resulted in a trimalleolar fracture of my left ankle, I avoided the pain in my writing until Molly insisted I confront it. I balked. I didn’t want to appear self-pitying, nor did I want to write about what I was convinced no one wanted to hear. Yet, as a psychologist, I knew how important it was that I do so.
So much work about illness, including my own, seemed to tackle the problems either glibly or stoically; all seemed to avoid the emotional pain that, by necessity, accompanies serious illness. This is important and powerful work and very necessary for writers and readers alike. Readers need poems to help them live with and through their illnesses. Poems name things for us. Sometimes they name what we feel—what we cannot express on our own. They tell us that we are not alone. The incredibly courageous story of Sam brought to mind the whole array of important works that are a necessity to read for the families, caregivers, physicians, and those living with their illnesses. I wanted CavanKerry to claim this work as a major part of our mission. We approached the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for the Advancement of Humanism in Medicine requesting that they partner with us in CavanKerry’s imprint, LaurelBooks, The Literature of Illness and Disability. The name stems from my mad love affair with trees and a line from one of my poems:
Have you noticed
how the laurel dips down
crawls along the ground
to find the sun
like any life or body
that’s known love?
The Gold Foundation agreed and with them we have brought Life with Sam, in the form of both books and readings/discussions, to medical communities across the country.
Our second LaurelBook, Body of Diminishing Motion, by Joan Seliger Sidney, tells the story in poems and a memoir of a woman who has battled with Multiple Sclerosis for over 40 years. Body of Diminishing Motion was also distributed and read to the medical community as well as to a general readership. The third, fourth, and fifth LaurelBooks also deserve notice: Robert Seders’ To the Marrow is a memoir written by a man who underwent a bone marrow transplant for lymphoma; Mark Nepo’s Surviving Has Made Me Crazy is yet another powerful story in poems and memoir of a man who survived lymphoma; and Teresa Caron’s, Elegy for the Floater recounts in poems the life of an extremely dysfunctional family that focuses on the youngest sibling who committed suicide. Our 2009 LaurelBook, We Mad Climb Steep Ladders by Pam Wagner, tells the story in poems of a woman’s inevitable plunge into the madness of schizophrenia and her eventual but very slow return to a tempered sanity.
Since then, as of January 2020, we’ve had the pleasure of publishing LaurelBooks like Little Boy Blue (Grey Jacobik— a mother and her emotionally challenged son), Letters from a Distant Shore (Marie Lawson Fiala— a mother whose son suffers a cerebral hemorrhage), Motherhood Exaggerated (Judith Hannan— a mother’s story of a daughter’s Ewing’s Sarcoma), My Crooked House (Teresa Carson— experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder), Sweet World (Maureen Seaton— a woman’s recreation of life as a survivor of Breast Cancer), Cracked Piano (Margo Taft Stever— recalling a life through letters of a relative who was a victim of psychiatric incarceration in the 19th century), and The Body at a Loss (Cati Porter— a woman’s articulation of the complexities regarding diagnosis, treatment, and recovery of Cancer). LaurelBook readings have taken place at Columbia University’s Medical Schools, UMDNJ, cancer support groups, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and many others. I’ll go into greater detail in the next section of the Community blog in this series.
I am very proud of this work and the positive impact it has had both within the writing community and among a more general audience. CavanKerry’s tagline is “lives brought to life,” with a simple but powerful mission to explore what it means to be human. Each of the 100+ books we have published in the last two decades has furthered that mission and worked to bring fine literature to an ever-growing audience.
Part 4 in our ongoing series, The Birth of a Press, CKP publisher Joan Cusack Handler discusses the ins and outs of running a poetry press.
Not surprisingly, at the forefront of CavanKerry’s concerns is/was the publication of FirstBooks or New Voices. Since the talent was so abundant and the doors mainly shut, we wanted to focus on this very worthy group of writers. Hopefully more publishers would pick up the cause; perhaps others would start presses. This concern included a commitment to no competitions and no reading fees. In their emphasis on winners and losers, competitions seemed to pit writers against each other and exacerbate the envy and insecurity that often already existed. And they are costly. As are reading fees. Unpublished poets as well as those with short publishing histories should have the same rights to have their books read as do poets of considerable reputation and fiction writers, neither of whom are charged reading fees.
Our commitment was/is to publish 2-3 First Books/New Voices every year; manuscripts would come from open submissions and recommendations as well as from the considerable array of worthy poets that the publisher already knew. In addition, due to the fact that publishing like so many other industries/arts seem to venerate the young, particular notice was/is given to older poets. (That said however, no generation has been neglected; our writers range in age from late twenties to early eighties.) Our first New Voices book was A Day This Lit by Howard Levy published in September of 2000. As of the Fall of 2012, of all the books we have published, we have introduced New Voices: Howard Levy, Karen Chase, Peggy Penn, Sherry Fairchok, Sondra Gash, Liz Hutner, me- Joan Cusack Handler, Christopher Matthews, Eloise Bruce, Celia Bland, Catherine Doty, Giorgianna Orsini, Joan Seliger Sidney, Laurie Lamon, Chris Barter, Andrea Carter Brown, Robert Seder, Richard Jeffrey Newman, Ross Gay, Joseph Legaspi, Christine Korfhage, and Teresa Carson.
CavanKerry’s interest in writers who are “under-recognized or rejected by the literary mainstream” came to include many more than previously unpublished poets. So too the seasoned poets at mid career (or beyond) mentioned earlier, many of whom have already published several books by as many publishers, and must, with each new book, solicit another. These are CavanKerry Notable Voices and include Robert Cording, Mary Ruefle, Kenneth Rosen, Jack Wiler, Baron Wormser and Sam Cornish.
Out of print books also concerned us. The plethora of exquisite work that is allowed to go out of print due to slow/limited sales is staggering. We added these to our list and committed to both publish reprints of fine books that we believe deserve permanence, and to do all we can to not allow any of our own books to go out of print. Martin Mooney’s Grub was our first. I was drawn to him first as a gifted writer; that interest deepened once I heard that his publisher had ‘pulped’ the 600 copies of Grub that remained in storage. Without informing Martin and at least inviting him to purchase them or simply remove them. He discovered that the books were destroyed when he contacted his publisher to purchase books for a reading. Grub and Moyra Donaldson’s Snakeskin Stilettos were our first reprints.
Another of our interests is intelligent, insightful works that focus on the creative process and the making of art; these are CK Critical Collections. Our Carolyn Kizer (introduction by Maxine Kumin) and John Haines (introduction by Dana Gioia) books collect the essays and poems of reputable poets and essayists across the country who have studied the works of these two brilliant writers and write in depth about it.
Rounding out our initial aesthetic commitment and introducing our community focus is our interest in special projects; CK published two collections to benefit another arts organization. The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, Volumes 1 and 2 were published to honor the great work of The Robert Frost Place Center for Poetry and the Arts in Franconia, New Hampshire under the protective mantle of former executive director, Donald Sheehan, where many notable and fledgling artists, including myself, have made and shared poems.
Finally, it’s important to note that integral to CKP’s identity is our commitment to producing beautiful books. For CKP, books are art pieces whose visual/ physical art must equal the literary art that it frames.
Confessions of Joan the Tall
by Joan Cusack Handler
Channeling the indelible voice of her 11-and-three-quarters year-old self, poet and psychologist Joan Cusack Handler travels back to her Irish-Catholic Bronx childhood, circa 1954, in her candid, poignant, and witty new memoir, CONFESSIONS OF JOAN THE TALL (CavanKerry Press; November 2012; $21.00). Told in a series of diary entries-cum-devotions to God, this account of growing up amid the tandem comfort and anxiety of the Catholic faith explores young Joan’s adolescent growing pains, yearnings, and questions against a finely-wrought backdrop of family, religion, self-image, and blossoming sexuality.
“A truly remarkable book,” says Roland Merullo, author of Breakfast with Buddha and The Talk-Funny Girl. “ It captures both the complex emotions of an adolescent in an ethnic, working-class neighborhood, and the unwritten social and spiritual rules of 1950s American Catholicism. Somehow, though told in the voice of a young girl, the story has about it a psychological and emotional subtlety and complexity that is fully mature. It’s impossible not to like Joan, impossible not to feel for her in the depths of her coming of age struggles, and impossible for anyone raised in a devout Catholic family to keep from smiling and nodding at the author’s insights into the Roman Catholic mindset.” “The narrator is beautifully alive to the endless hazards, complications, and indignities of growing up,” adds Baron Wormser, author of Impenitent Notes and The Poetry Life. “So much of the wisdom of childhood lies in the strange blend of endurance and enchantment.”
Young Joan lives with her Irish immigrant parents and her three siblings in a small house in the Edgewater section of the Bronx. Daily life is circumscribed by the strictures of Catholic school and the deep-seated sense of morality and faith that dictates every aspect of home life as well. Joan’s father, a plumber, is a thoughtful, devout man whom she adores. Her relationship with her volatile mother is more complex. Joan also looks up to her “glamorous” sixteen-year-old sister, Catherine, and forges a companionable alliance with younger brother, Jerry. It is brother Sonny, just eleven months older than she, with whom she has the greatest strife. A talented artist in his own right, Sonny nonetheless resents his bookish younger sister, and he retaliates with cruel torments, much of it targeted at Joan’s inordinate height—nearly six feet tall before she is twelve.
As young Joan navigates her singular—and yet universally familiar—passage through puberty, she struggles not only with her height, but with other issues that we would today call “body image,” but which had no name back then. She wrestles, too, with faith, relishing the enveloping embrace of the Church, yet worrying that God might ask the ultimate sacrifice and call her to the religious life. She wishes nothing more than to make God happy – and her pious earthly father, too – yet she craves the trappings of the material world: poodle skirts and Cadillacs and shopping trips to Manhattan. Slowly, she begins to come to terms with her sense of self, to face her nascent sexuality, and to understand the peculiarities of her beloved, if flawed family, as she recognizes that every journey to Heaven makes a stop in Purgatory.
“CONFESSIONS OF JOAN THE TALL is a splendid book, and Joan the Tall is a splendid girl—brave, effervescent and vulnerable,” says Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden and The Second Blush. “She flubs the rules of the Catholic church, she flubs the rules of family life, and amidst the quandaries, sins, punishments, and totally divine greedy moment in this story of her Irish American family, she grows into what tallness can mean—the ability to see from a mountaintop.”
About Joan Cusack Handler
Bronx native, Joan Cusack Handler has two published poetry collections—GlOrious and The Red Canoe: Love in Its Making, and two anthologies that she’s edited: The Waiting Room Reader: Stories to Keep You Company and The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from The Robert Frost Place, Vol. 1. Recipient of five Pushcart nominations and a Sampler Award from The Boston Review, her poems have appeared in Agni, Boston Review, Poetry East and The New York Times and her prose, including chapters from Confessions of Joan the Tall, in Indiana Review, Tampa Review, and Southern Humanities Review. In her other lives, she is the founder/publisher of CavanKerry Press and a psychologist in clinical practice.
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I love this book (My Mother’s Funeral)! It reads like a novel, and it is a beautiful celebration of you mother’s life. What an amazing woman your mother was! I have a feeling you could spend a lifetime writing about her, that there are many more stories to tell.
Thank you Nin. This book is not just about my mother; it is also about the mothers of all those women of my generation who grew up fatherless and poor. This is a story about women who made it alive to the other side, against all odds, simply because they had, not only each other, but also an ironfisted mother like mine.
Yes, my mother was an amazing woman. But so are the single mothers of other women. There are single mothers all over the world who, despite being illiterate, poor, and full of flaws, manage to raise healthy, productive, and strong women.
It is my hope that the book is not only a celebration of one woman’s life, but that it rather serves as an extrapolation tool to celebrate single mothers across borders.
This book is so magical. It’s almost as if there is a halo around the book. Did you feel that magic when you were writing it?
I’m not sure if I’d choose “magical” to describe My Mother’s Funeral. The book is as real, raw, and grounded as a nonfiction book can be. I steered clear of magical realism, magical potions and magical anything, because I didn’t want the book to fall into the stereotypical Latin-American literature. However, there are parts that have a dream-like feel to them, such as the sections dealing with my parents’ turbulent relationship, my mother’s confession by the river in Alaska, and the climactic moment of my mother’s death with the rich imagery which accompanied her demise.
Did you feel your mother’s presence when you were writing this book? Did you wonder what she would have thought of your stories about her?
My mother was a very private person. I’m sure it would have taken a lot of work (on my part) to convince her that the book is not her daughter spilling the beans about our family, but rather a tribute to her strength, determination, love, and self-sacrifice.
About feeling her presence: Yes, of course. At times it felt as though she was dictating the manuscript and I was simply writing it down on her behalf. My mother’s presence in my life is all pervasive; it’s so real, so tangible, so omnipresent, that even now, seven years after her passing, I have to remind myself that she is dead.
Your mother raised all six of her children with little more than her ingenuity and steely will to keep out of poverty. Even after reading it, I want to ask how she did it. Do you think of her as a kind of Super Woman?
Nin, single mothers are not any kind of Super Women. They are Super Women. The real deal. My mother could have given up. She was borderline illiterate, poor and lonely. But her love for her children and her moral responsibility towards them were a driving force; they propelled the six of us in no other direction than ahead. My sisters, who were a lot older than I was, became mom’s unforeseen team members. They had to drop out of high school to work, to support one another, to carry the baby girl, me, on their shoulders.
Your mother was, it seems, a hopeless romantic when it came to your father, despite the way he treated her. She talked about his love letter forever. Could you quote that letter here?
Oh, the letter. We heard mom recite this little line so many times throughout the years that all of us know it by heart: Cuando usted me mira, me siento transportado al cielo de Mahoma enardecido levemente en ópalo y topacio. Whenever you look at me, I feel transported to Mohammed’s heaven, lightly engulfed by opal and topaz.
You talked about how your mother and father met, courted, married, and made love, as if you were there. You allowed your mind to go into their past so naturally and easily. Was that difficult to do? Did you mother describe your father in his early years in vivid detail?
It is difficult to reconstruct something you haven’t witnessed. Yet, my mother told me all about the courtship and the marriage with its few ups and the countless downs. By virtue of my being the youngest in the family I spent a lot of time alone with mom while my sisters were either at school or at work. We had a lot of “alone” time which she used to teach me life lessons—men want one thing and only one thing from women, a woman doesn’t need a man to be happy, men eat a lot that’s why they should be served more food at the table, men don’t give presents to women unless they want something in return—and to talk about the past. Her past. The things I didn’t witness but which she wanted me to know.
I can’t believe your sister dug up a skeleton and boiled it so that she could get an A in science class. She really did that?
Absolutely. Yes. Not only one but two skeletons. When I say that our education was the most precious gift my mother wanted to give us, I really mean it. If my sister needed a skeleton for her anatomy class, my mother would’ve gone to any lengths, to help her put the thing together and see the A on her report card. The first skeleton dissolved in a home-made sludge of baking soda, so my mother authorized a second skeleton, which we kept in our home for a long time way after the science project had been finalized.
I loved the character, Blanca, who your mother said had pubic hair all over, and who took care of your mother until she started to show interest in men. I felt so sad when she and your mother parted ways. Forgive me for asking, but did Blanca ever find a man?
Did she ever find out the color of Napoleon’s white horse?
I shared a few years with Blanca before I left Colombia. She possessed a kind of innocence you only read about in cheap romance novels. She was easy to tease, easy to fool, easy to like, to love. There was nothing intricate about Blanca. She was/is a simple woman with a heart of gold. I don’t know if she ever found a man, although I hope she did. And no, something tells me she is still wondering what color Napoleon’s white horse was.
Did Catholicism play a role in your mother’s strength? And in her love and faithfulness to your father?
Yes. My mother believed that a marriage was an indissoluble covenant and as such, it was a binding and weighty obligation. My mother also believed that this covenant meant that a good Catholic woman’s body (not the man’s) belonged to her spouse for life. What my mother felt for my father was not just love. She felt the kind of blind devotion, I imagine, a spiritually hungry follower feels toward his guru. She worshipped him, re-invented herself to suit his whims, forgave him for his inability to love her back, and in the process loved him some more. My parents remained married throughout the years-long separations and when they died, they were still legally married to each other.
Were there parts of your mother’s life you didn’t want to write down on paper?
No. I can’t think of anything I did not want to write about her. If mom had secrets, I never knew about them. After she died, while my siblings and I emptied her apartment, I looked for secrets. I searched her drawers, the backs and the bottoms of boxes, underneath coasters and among her underwear. I wanted to find a secret. Anything mysterious, sordid, extraordinary. Nothing. I found nothing. My mother was an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things, and I like to think that I wrote most of them.
Was it a healing to write this book?
There was nothing to heal. Her death is no longer a gushing wound; it is a scar. Rather than healing, what I found in writing the book, was a sense of reconciliation, of deep acceptance, and immense respect towards the woman who was my protector, my enemy, my tyrant, my ally, my friend, my everything.
What do your siblings think of your book?
Only one of my siblings speaks English. She has taken it upon herself to translate bits of the book so that my other siblings can be a part of it. Through my writing, I hope, I give them back our mother, with her euphemisms, her steely rules, her “angry food,” her sacrifices, and her boundless love for us, music, and my father.
I’d love to end with an excerpt from the text, a favorite paragraph or two?
Towards the end of the book, I imagine what went through mom’s mind as she took her last breath. I imagine:
That she began to snore in the “agonal respiration,” that ragged, gurgling patterns of breathing typical of those within minutes, sometimes hours, of their death. Mom’s chest bolted as if hit by lightning. The first bolt, like a violent hiccup, made her chest rise in the air; a few seconds later came a weaker strike, followed by something similar to a quiet belch. Then her lower jaw went south then east changing the geography of her face in quick succession. There was tension then pain then agony then silent resignation. My mother’s face rose and fell inside the perfect fit of the nurse’s arms.
That Mom felt something similar to drunkenness. Her head swelled and the crown relaxed and quivered, then melted into a blue sky. She was floating. Her thoughts went out like fireworks exploding onto each other, and in a flash of sparks, she found herself in the most beloved piece of soil in the world, Mariquita. And there, in that place that smelled of avocado and earth after rain, she was no longer my mother. She was Carmen. Just Carmen.
Women. Water. Blood. Carmen is by the river with her two sisters and her five girls. They bend their naked bodies over the rocks and wash their wombs and their hearts. Who has the bloodiest of all? One of them asks. Carmen! They shout in unison. And the women surround her with the intertwined arms of a needy vine while one of her girls carries out a song. Only this time, she halts the sweetness of her contralto voice at midsentence, and instead lets out a scream, more like an angry howl. The other women join in and so does Carmen who seems to be the angriest of all until they hear the voices of other women crossing, naked, the cordillera. By the time the sun had sunk its teeth into the horizon the water is thick and scarlet and there is not a single silent woman. Or one who isn’t angry. Or one with her womb and heart intact.
Earth. Love. Tears. Carmen wraps the letter in a plastic bag and puts it in a small wooden box. It’s a lacquered rectangular thing he gave her after telling her it was from China, but she knows it isn’t. She knows the box is a cheap knick knack he probably bought at a bar, either before or after passing out. On the day he leaves her for a younger, prettier woman, she takes the box out and sets it on the ground. It’s Wednesday and it’s beginning to rain. She walks inside and looks at the drops of rain bounce off the box, from the kitchen during the day, and from her bedroom at night. The weight of the life contained inside the box is beginning to bury it into the ground. On Sunday after church, she buys a hand trowel and with it she digs a hole at the center of the earth, places the box at the bottom and covers it with wet soil that smells of magnolias. She doesn’t tell anyone but whenever he looked at her, she felt transported to Mohammed’s heaven, lightly engulfed by opal and topaz.
I think that Mom’s memories began to faint. A vacuum sucked her upward with a violent jerk as if an invisible parachute had just opened above her head. Then everything was quiet, everything was white, everything stopped. She no longer gasped for air. Her face became unhinged at the jaws, a bead of foamy saliva formed in the corners of her mouth, her neck turned yellow like a withered daffodil, and her eyes closed with a slow flutter. It didn’t smell of sulfur and no marauding vultures bid her farewell. An unfathomable chasm of nothingness swallowed her whole.
Love. She is in his arms. She is safe. Every concavity of his dark body fits nicely into the corresponding convexities of hers. Perfection. There is a space on his chest where her face fits like the missing piece of a puzzle. She puts it there and hears the locking mechanism. Click. Perfect. His heart plays a tango, hers a bolero and they hum and dance to all the music in the world. Husband and wife, man and woman. He is fire; she is the earth. Whatever he destroys, she’ll replenish with opal and topaz. Gladly. Lovingly.