Updated: Jul 19
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café welcomes back one of our talented regular contributors, Gillian Kessler, to share a selection of poems from upcoming new book, Ash in the Tree.
Gillian can be found dancing to loud music, teaching exuberant teens to appreciate language, writing in the early morning when everyone is asleep, and exploring the wilds of Montana with her beautiful family. She studied poetry at Santa Clara University with Edward Kleinschmidt, at UCLA with Suzanne Lummis, and more recently, in Missoula under the exceptional guidance of Chris Dombrowski, Mark Gibbons, and Phillip Schaffer. Her poems and essays have been published in Mamalode magazine, and she writes frequently for Flapper Press. Her poetry was featured in the anthology Poems Across the Big Sky Volume II. She has written two collections of poems, Lemons and Cement and the forthcoming, Ash in the Tree.
We reached out to Gillian to ask her about her work and inspirations and to tell us more about her poetry.
AN: What brought you to poetry? Why do you write?
GK: I've always written. When I was a young girl, I'd fill journals with big feelings, random observations, questions, concerns. I wrote poetry a bit as a teen, but it was really in college that I realized how deep my love was. I had some wonderful instruction at Santa Clara University as an undergrad, and my poetry friends brought a rich diversity into my college-girl life.
I write to feel, to see, to wonder, to hold. As a young mom, I blogged multiple times a day just to make sense of all the brilliance and frustration that was being a new parent. When my mom died, poems fell from me, almost as if she were speaking through me somehow. I would be hiking on the mountain behind myself and suddenly stop, open up the "Notes" app on my phone, and talk. Much of Ash in the Tree was written with that sort of random and divine intervention.
AN: What do you hope people will come away with from reading your poetry? GK: I hope that my work helps people see themselves just a bit. I know that I stepped on to the grief train with a heavy thud; I wondered where the words were to help me understand what I was feeling. I hope that Ash in the Tree helps people through the loss of a parent if, at least, to help them recognize that the magnitude of their feelings is absolutely okay. In the U.S., it seems that our understood rituals around grief (three bereavement-leave days, a funeral, a burial, and moving right along . . . ) is perfunctory, at best. I was wholly unrecognizable to myself for many, many months after my mom died. This book was a way for me to process the hugeness of it all.
These three poems are all a part of the forthcoming collection, Ash in the Tree, due in late July 2021 from FootHills Publishing. Ash in the Tree is a memoir-esque collection of musings and memories, heartbreaks and noticings following the death of my mother in November 2019. While in the throes of processing a world without her, the pandemic hit, and everything became even less settled, even more full of grief and unknowns.
"Eagles and Waxwings" is a memory poem. The title stems from my mom's strange distaste for birds but then moves into the moment she died—I was holding her hand, and four strange pulses went from her hand to mine. She didn't take another breath after that. This poem also plays with how much my mom loved watching my sister and I laugh, how many questions she asked us about whatever we felt was so dang funny.
Eagles and Waxwings
were never her thing,
that she’s flown,
gone and left me
squeezed of sense,
squeezed and tossed like an
old song, I hear it
over and over again,
its silence evaporates
and then pours forth.
I feel her hands
on my shoulders –
a minor shudder –
the electric current
plays her chord
through my fingers –
I jolt up –
wait on her next
breath and the little girl
with white blue eyes
stares at the wall, tears
welling and says,
“She’s here! She’s here with us!”
and Sissy and I nod along,
sit closer, lean forward,
look for her on that
blank space and we’re
drunk on home, on memory,
on lazy Saturdays
where we’d laugh and laugh
our bony wings pink with delight,
flutter. Craning her neck,
us, smile, ask –
“What ever are you laughing at?”
her feathers perfectly arranged.
"Deaf Girl" was written at the start of 2021. I had been back at teaching in person, fully masked, since September, and my professional life was continuing to move forward in the blurry haze presented to a hearing-impaired person in a masked world. This poem feels like a bit of a proclamation to owning my disability. The repetition of the lines "I'm a deaf girl" becomes a bit of a mantra, perhaps a way to own and hold all the challenges and face them with a bit more gumption and gusto. I've never had to talk much about my disability before; it was something that I masked really well through lip reading, hearing aids, and the innocent "can you repeat that?" and "pardons." The pandemic shut down my quiet dealings and made me have to face my impairment in a whole new way.
We somehow knew the silence
would bury us all - the stillness and
warnings of ash and sharp tongues
screaming across the valley.
I’m a deaf girl in a volcanic world,
my drums ruptured and stilled,
no longer willing to thrive, even in this
fertile opening of a new year.
I’m a deaf girl in a voluminous world,
warning signs blare over Echo Park,
they spatter and shout and still, all I heard
was the quiet of shadows, the way you began
to resemble a moon. I’m a deaf girl in a sick world
and behind the masks, there’s nothing but
muffle - muffle - ruffle - splat - sound smudged
like a ceremony I’m no longer a part of.
I see in ruptured haze, fits and spurts and
even if it’s a skill I’m learning, eyes don’t
read like a mouth, the shape of lips, the placement
of tongue, upturned or tight, open or afraid.
I’m a deaf girl in a quaking world and all
around me is the movement of mountains,
the questions of children, I know they need me
but fake another answer, sometimes it’s simpler than: