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Flapper Press Poetry Café: Gillian Kessler, Part 1

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

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.

Poet, Gillian Kessler

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,

until now

that she’s flown,

gone and left me

sober, relentless,

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,

she’d watch

us, smile, ask –

“What ever are you laughing at?”

her feathers perfectly arranged.