Essay

A Window Opens

How poetry offers a new way of seeing. 
Painting titled "Road Curves Ahead." The painting is of a road sign amid yellow fields.

Flipping through the college catalogs in the guidance counselor’s office, I come across a small college, Windham, embedded in the snowy hills of Vermont and feel an affinity. It is cold and snowy in the winter, and there is something magical and austere about the way in which the collection of white buildings is nestled in the hills. I fall in love immediately, and after receiving a small scholarship and a good financial-aid package, I make my decision to attend. I’m afraid to leave my little sister alone with my mother out of fear of my mother’s dark moods, but I have no choice. If I don’t go to college, I fear I’ll end up like her, without enough resources to be independent. The plan is that my mother and a close friend will drive me to the campus in Putney, Vermont. My eight-year-old sister will come too. My mother and her friend love to go to flea markets and antiquing, and after they drop me off, they plan to have a holiday of their own, stopping in small towns to antique along the way. All summer, they carefully plan the road trip, but the night before we are to leave, my trunk already packed to the brim with my jeans and sweaters, my mother becomes ill—pneumonia—and can’t take me.

I book a flight to New York, where I will change planes and take a smaller plane to Burlington, Vermont. But once I arrive in New York, the flight to Burlington is canceled. Unsure of what to do, alone for the first time in a strange airport in a strange city, I panic. I call my mother, and hearing the fear in my voice, she uncharacteristically lashes out at me. “How will you manage in college, if you can’t manage this?” She says, or something like it, her voice cracks and she begins to cry into the phone and I think this is the first time my mother will be without me and I without her and it is all terrible. I wonder if my leaving has made her sick. I hang up the phone, and once I return the receiver to its holder, I listen to my coins falling down inside the pay phone’s deep throat into the well. I tell myself I have to be strong and pull myself together. This is probably the first day I grow up. I go to the airline counter and book a flight for the next morning and wander into one of the kiosks and wretchedly spend five or six dollars on a fat paperback edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for then I did not like to part with my hard-earned money. I go to the gate and sit down with my book and read until the morning, wondering if the boy I’ve left back home is my Angel, like the character in the novel. Nothing is as terrifying to me as that day and night alone in an unknown airport in New York, and when I finally land in Burlington and take a cab to the small college in the hills, I recognize I am at a turning point. I step out of the cab and breathe in the fresh, cool Vermont air that smells like pinecones. The years of high school when I feared I’d be stuck in Cleveland forever are finally over. I push back my hair, take a peppermint Life Saver from my pocket and slip it into my mouth, inhale a deep breath to calm my nerves, and walk through the college arches to begin my life. In spite of the fact that, due to my late arrival, my new roommate, who has long black hair and is wearing dark lipstick before goth has come into vogue, has already decorated her side of the wall with posters of Kiss and other metal bands, and I am more of a Neil Young and James Taylor girl, it’s all good. Really good.

I enjoy being shut up in the library where I have a work-study job shelving books and organizing the card catalog, or in my dorm room reading and studying. I like listening out my dorm-room door to the chatter and occasional horseplay in the halls that reek of cigarettes and pot. I like sharing the coed bathroom with the boys on our floor and the routine of going to the cafeteria for my meals, pushing my tray along the line and deciding which item I will take, whether a plate of cottage cheese and fruit or a green salad, mashed potatoes and meatloaf, or the vegetarian lasagna. I like meeting new and more sophisticated friends from Los Angeles and New York City, the spontaneous dorm parties where we all crash in one room, walks in the woods discussing politics or parsing out the meaning behind a Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot poem. It is the first time in my life that I am separated from my family, and it is liberating. Unfortunately, the college goes bankrupt after my first year, and I don’t know what I’ll do. I spend the summer taking a waitressing job back home, but I’m restless, bored, and unhappy. It doesn’t occur to me—for a reason I can’t recall—that I can consider applying or transferring to another college of my choice. Sister number three is beginning her freshman year at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, known as Athens on the Hill. Without another plan, I decide to join her, packing up my trunk again and hoping once I arrive on campus, they will take me, and miraculously, they do. It is easy since since I am an Ohio resident. And, as fate will have it, now a sophomore in college, I sign up for my first creative writing workshop, and another new chapter begins.

In the classroom in Ellis Hall that held our poetry seminar, its open windows facing onto the college green, I am both excited and anxious. I’ve never written a serious poem before, only jottings in my diaries and notebooks. With his shock of salt-and-pepper hair and matching beard, and his gentle yet commanding voice, our professor-poet tells us to write poems about what we know and what hurts. Every week, he passes out copies of our poems freshly printed on mimeographed paper—I can still recall the paper’s sharp smell of metallic purple ink—and if we defy his assignment by writing poems with generic or meaningless subject matter, he tears up our poems and tosses them into the wastebasket.

I lived under the assumption that one must hide hurt and pain, that sadness and sorrow are reserved for the solitude of one’s own private world. I go back to my dorm and think about what my poet-teacher has said. What I know has to do with my childhood and being born into a world of grief and loss and I have been given permission to write about it. My desk faces the window. Outside, it is snowing, an unexpected snowfall in late autumn before all the leaves have fallen, and white flakes begin to fill the college green. I remember the snowy winters of my childhood, and the memories evoke a mood I want to capture. But how? Images spring forth. Sisters playing in the snow. A widow in her bed. Houseplants on a windowsill. A tall tree in the yard spreading its fatherly branches over the house. I write into that world of sadness and sorrow I experienced as a young child. Over time, the verse evolves into a poem in ten small parts called “Fathers in the Snow” about a widow caring for her small children and the undercurrent of loss permeating their home. For years, I’ve been trapped inside my own strange fear and grief, and now it is liberated into verse.

The idea that poetry should take as its subject matter the painful aspects of my existence opens a new way of thinking for me. I seem to have been waiting for it. I realize that through the artfulness of poetic form, one can trap experience and make it palpable to a reader. A poem might be about what hurts, and most illuminating, the subject might be drawn from one’s own life. A poem could be both personal and communal and save a person from the dark shadow of shame. It may take as its form an address to a person, real or imagined, historical or alive today. It might be an off-kilter love letter to someone as significant as one’s mother.

                          My Mother’s Feet
                          by Stanley Plumly

                                  How no shoe fit them,
and how she used to prop them,
having dressed for bed,
letting the fire in the coal-stove blue

and blink out, falling asleep in her chair.
How she bathed and dried them, night after night,
and rubbed their soreness like an intimacy.
How she let the fire pull her soft body through them.

She was the girl who grew just standing,
the one the picture cut at the knees.
She was the girl who seemed to be dancing
out on the lawn, after supper, alone.

I have watched her climb the militant stairs
and down again, watched the ground go out from under her.
I have seen her on the edge of chances—
she fell, when she fell, like a girl.

Someone who loved her said she walked on water.
Where there is no path nor wake. As a child
I would rise in the half-dark of the house,
from a bad dream or a noisy window,

something, almost, like snow in the air,
and wander until I could find those feet, propped
and warm as a bricklayer’s hands,
every step of the way shining out of them.

Like Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks,” this poem showcases how anything—even a pair of feet—can be subject matter for poetry and allow for revelation. “My Mother’s Feet” is not only a love letter from a son to his mother, but also a tribute to the universal “ideal” of mothers. The poem captures that turning point in a child’s life when suddenly he or she recognizes a parent as a person with an inner life, someone who has loved and lived outside her role as a mother. The speaker has watched his mother “climb the militant stairs / and down again, watched the ground go out from under her.” The poem uses the metaphor of feet to document the many worlds his mother has inhabited. Feet are intimate. They’re mostly hidden underneath stockings, or inside slippers, just as our mothers’ interior lives are concealed, and when they appear in open sandals or barefoot on the cold stairs, it feels as if we should turn our heads away, that we’ve been exposed to something we aren’t supposed to see.

Stanley Plumly, my poet-teacher and the author of this poem, was born in Barnesville, Ohio. His father was a lumberjack and welder who died at age 56 of alcoholism. Of his father, Plumly said, “I can hardly think of a poem I’ve written that at some point in its history did not implicate, or figure, my father.” His mother also figures prominently as the silent, helpless witness of her husband’s self-destruction, and we hear reverberations of that witness in the tender and poignant “My Mother’s Feet.”

I discover this poem years later in graduate school when I’m in my early 20s, no longer a child or a teenager, surrounded by a library of books, my days filled with lectures and the hint of opportunity, far away from my two sisters who have also left home to pursue their education, and my mother and youngest sister, now in junior high school, still living back home in the house I grew up in. Not a day goes by where I don’t worry or think about them. With all us older sisters gone, they have formed their own unit of two. I pray my mother is in a good period. When her melancholy lifts, her life ignites with new purpose. She goes out with her friends, works part-time at a clothing store in the mall. A window opens. I see my mother separate from me, a woman with her own history, struggles, burdens. She was once the age I am now, when she first married, her life filled with promise, and then everything for her shattered when my father died. I swell with empathy and love.

From Poetry Will Save Your Life, by Jill Bialosky, published by Atria.

Originally Published: August 14th, 2017

Editor, poet, and novelist Jill Bialosky was born and raised in Cleveland. She earned a BA at Ohio University, an MA at Johns Hopkins University, and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Bialosky’s free verse poems explore themes of desire, domesticity, and myth. In an interview with the journal Identity Theory,...