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The Flapper Press Poetry Café Welcomes Memoirist and Poet Catherine Anderson: Part One

By Annie Newcomer:


The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets of all ages from around the globe. This week, we highlight the life and poetry of Catherine Anderson!


For almost twenty years, Catherine Anderson has worked with immigrant and refugee communities in Kansas City, where she currently lives. She also facilitates the Kansas City Writers Place Poetry Reading Circle, where participants gather monthly to discuss poems and poets. For two decades, she worked in Boston as a teacher and writer, primarily focused on the lives of new immigrants. She has received awards in poetry from the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation (many years ago) and, more recently, the I-70 Review and the Crab Orchard Review.

Catherine Anderson

In addition to the memoir My Brother Speaks in Dreams: Of Family, Beauty & Belonging (Wising Up Press), Catherine Anderson has published four full-length collections of poetry, including Everyone I Love Immortal (Woodley Press), Woman with a Gambling Mania (Mayapple Press), The Work of Hands (Perugia Press), and In the Mother Tongue (Alice James Books). She participated in a group translation project of the classical poet Nonnus’ Tales of Dionysus, published in the summer of 2022 by the University of Michigan Press.

We reached out to Catherine Anderson to talk about her passions, inspirations, and poetry.


Meet Catherine Anderson!

Annie Newcomer: Welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café, Catherine. We are so delighted to have you here to discuss your book My Brother Speaks in Dreams: Of Family, Beauty & Belonging. Let's begin by asking you to explain to our readers the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?


Catherine Anderson: Thank you, Annie, that’s such a great question. The main difference may be one of tone. To me, the memoir is subjective, personal, and intimate. A memoir can be very elastic, containing a range of styles and genres, gliding through a scale of emotions, while perhaps hovering over a few specific themes or periods in a life. An autobiography also reveals the subjectivity of the author but primarily sticks to the facts, the details of a life, the linear sequence. We seem to be experiencing a renaissance of hybrid writing, and the memoir form is a reflection of that. Contemporary consciousness now tends toward collage, montage, layering, in contrast to older (still interesting & exciting) ways of thinking with its emphasis on the linear, sequence, and logic. Traditionally, a person didn’t attempt a memoir until very late in life, and usually the author was famous already, and often not as a writer but a public figure. Thankfully, that stereotype has been upended, and now anyone can write a memoir! To me, currently, autobiography resembles that old idea of a memoir written after a long career. I’m thinking of Katharine Graham’s Personal History. In contrast, the personal memoirs I went to for inspiration included Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, a poet’s account of mourning the sudden death of her husband, and sculptor Anne Truitt’s Daybook that tracks the growth of the artist’s early consciousness.


Charlie & Catherine

AN: Catherine, why was a memoir the best way to tell the story of your brother Charlie? Did you try other paths before settling on this form?


CA: Often you strike a path for the sake of momentum, not knowing where it will lead. I had published three brief essays about Charlie over the years, marking the course of our lives as siblings—our shared childhood, his institutionalization, our young-adult years living in separate cities, and then experiencing the loss of our parents. After Charlie died, I felt it was time to revisit those previous essays, fill them in a bit, and try to explore the full arc of his life as best I could, realizing it was a story told primarily through my rather limited, neurotypical lens.


I also wanted, through the long form of prose, to explore the more spiritual dimension of our relationship, how we connected beyond language. The result, primarily narrative but also hybrid, still remains only a glimpse of a life. So much I didn’t include for reasons of length and veracity. Another thing that compelled me: Each time I had read or published a poem centered on Charlie, perhaps exploring the limits of language—a significant theme for me—someone would always ask how he was, who he was. They wanted to see the full person. I was always thrilled to hear those queries, that curiosity. I knew his life deserved a deeper rendering, his place set in a particular era, within our unique family, and then as an adult, living among others. His life contained more than the stories of his autism and intellectual disabilities. Charlie had a realized life. He was a friend, a son, a brother, with adult interests, hopes, and disappointments. He made friends, he held a job, he mourned the deaths of his parents.


Charlie - Photo by Robert Cole

AN: How did you choose the poems that you included for your book? Might you share lines from these poems here and why they are important to you as you remember Charlie?


CA: Two important poems to me, written years before and very central to how I felt about Charlie, needed to be rewritten slightly to fit the context of the memoir. Language isn’t stone or bronze but ever changing. It’s more like water; it flows, gushes, or evaporates, a river we’ll never enter the same way again. “The Bread of Childhood,” a poem at the beginning of the memoir, was originally titled “My Brother Recalls the Bread of Childhood,” published in Woman with a Gambling Mania. I changed it because it now felt different set against the story of our shared childhood, the theme of that section of the book. These lines depict Charlie at a complicated time in his childhood, when there was so little understanding of his autistic syndrome. In the earlier poem, I was observing him; in this version, I am there with him, which felt more honest. The poem begins, “Born among wolves, we learned grace,” referring to my brother’s uniqueness and continues a bit later:


Names rained down like the sweat of Zeus.

We ignored them all and swallowed

the spark-flicker, shook foil

of things—salt diamonds dancing


on a crystal floor.


The poem then depicts a store and a storekeeper (enormously kind) and ends with the two children lost in the store, highlighting a more ordinary experience of childhood and showing that moments like this also existed in our lives:


We entered her store and smelled


the bright scent of bread

wrapped in circus colors, laid out

like babies in a delivery ward.


Turning down the aisle with our eyes closed,

we thought this bread was infinite.


Another one appearing later in the book, “Two Brothers Washing for Dinner,” originally published in The Work of Hands, is shown as a prose poem, its best form within the memoir. This poem portrays our younger brother Bill’s delight in knowing Charlie, who was finally home after living in an institution for eight years: “Though he would dream of bearing his older brother like a gift to the world, for now he led him through the hallway of our house, not narrow or dark for long, but reaching an end where a table was set and the candles were burning.” Charlie, the boy who was once hidden in an institution (no one had wanted that) had now come home. We would introduce him to our community; he would be the gift we wanted to share to the world. And the gift was received very well, over time.


AN: In addition to your memoir, have you written poems specifically about Charlie? If yes, might you include?


CA: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. The whole “The Bread of Childhood” is here, along with two poems from my last book of poetry, Everyone I Love Immortal. One touches on how Charlie used language and reflects my own disappointment (possibly misdirected!) with how he spoke. The next one shows how Charlie helped me accept the death of my husband, predating the memoir, but touching on similar images. The last is brand new—lyrical and non-narrative—reflecting Charlie’s love of nature and, I hope, the nonverbal side of his expression when read very slowly. John Clare was an astonishing early nineteenth-century poet with a keen sense of nature, who was unfortunately institutionalized during his life.

 

Charlie

The Bread of Childhood


Born among wolves, we learned grace.

Born in a time of fire, we slipped

through ice, tiny things

the weight of sand.

Names rained down like the sweat of Zeus.

We ignored them all and swallowed

the spark-flicker, shook foil

of things—salt diamonds dancing


on a crystal floor.

In childhood, the sun

cast a Leica sheen on all minutiae—

the wondrous Mrs. Z inhaling


a Lark behind the grocery counter

on old Moravian Drive,

her scarlet babushka and ring of blonde.

We entered her store and smelled


the bright scent of bread

wrapped in circus colors, laid out

like babies in a delivery ward.

Turning down the aisle with our eyes closed,


we thought this bread was infinite.

 



Reading Room, Detroit Public Library


On the page a lake sturgeon appears, thin barbels

brushing the riverine, its primitive head

receptive as dark water conducts

waves conducting data only the fish sees.

No light needed for a lake sturgeon to feed.

The lake sturgeon swallows the body electric.

I don't think we’re harmed touching it.


Whenever I read, the first person

singular arrives

with its lyric cry no one else hears.

My brother, born in the same cold-watered

land as the lake sturgeon,

never learned to think as an I

to declare himself an I among other Is.

He resists by pairing each perception

with his own name, such as “Charlie’s water!”

shouted when we pass a hill dropped to shore

and which means in my brother’s idiosyncratic tongue,

“My beautiful lake, somewhere

I can’t reach.”


Lightning woven under water,

thunderbolts along a shoreline, how the ancients

met the lake sturgeon—pre-historic,

cartilaginous, covered

in bony plates. Of the lake sturgeon’s vast multitudes

now diminished, the fathoms

don’t suffocate as much as frighten.

The morning rains. Our books, our stillness,

an aqueous grey in reading room light.

When we were ancients, we rubbed

amber blocks to spark glints in the pooled dark.

“My beautiful lake,”

what my brother would say if he could say it.

 



On a Hinge


My love flies out of the blue-grey cirrus to join

me in my car, dropping softly into the passenger seat,

lithe body turned this way, toward me. We pick up

our talk about the garden or neighbors from the last

time, our relationship a story I can tell my brother,

a man who has never spoken without help though

he listens to everything I say, tracing my words as if

they were beads gathered on a long string. My brother’s

broad face beams when you first meet him as he extends

his hand in silence to start the rhythm of human connection.

He understands those blue flights into my car. He once

traveled by plane through a dark cumulonimbus, not

knowing as many of us ever know, where he would come out.

He was home on the ground when I asked him where

he’d been. “The moon,” he answered. The moon

was softly buried, the earth cooled by last night’s shadow,

the morning I looked down the driveway to see my love

again, his fisherman’s knit sweater and tan khakis hung loose,

windblown. He came to help me fix the window high above

ground and hard to reach. An odd-working hinge kept

the frame in place and now the window was ajar,

flashes of sky reflected in the glass. He came because

I needed him, the house empty, unwieldy. He knew it

better than I and drew solutions to mind like nails

to a magnet. He was machine grace, he was imperfect,

without apology. I thought I could work the broken hinge

back together on my own, but there he was. He didn’t look

at me or take me into his arms. I woke up wondering

what change had occurred between us. At night

I saw a girl selling Asian pears, each separated by thin

paper, the sky combed velvet, awaiting a summer arc

of meteors, and the girl enveloped by household dust,

by faded stars. Mornings as I made coffee conversations

would come back, then surface throughout the day

when I did something automatic, like attach a file or

scan a document. The lit depth of the neighbor’s bedroom

could be seen from our window so we covered it with

plastic that became a rippled, far-off herring bone.

I wondered as I often did, if being in love was impossible.

Near the door of my childhood home a bookcase

made of green bark grew from floor to ceiling

and served as a kind of wall against our chaos.

My parents, the gods, left saucers filled with ashes in the trees.

The acres of sleep I farmed, the months a constant season

of clouds, my love would bring me white peonies from the garden.

He had on the tweed jacket he wore hitchhiking from Montreal

to Vancouver. He turned and asked me how I was doing,

the sky a metal shelf casting grainy light with no shadows.

As Virgil writes, we leave our sweet land, we go beyond our borders.

The lake of my childhood is layered over nine-hundred acres.

Lake water laps the shore in constant waves, the rhythm not tidal,

as I once thought, but created by the shallows of the lake itself.

My brother speaks in echoes, echoes of what you tell him, as if he

were checking his own comprehension or playing out the sound

of your speech in his mind. The day I sit him down and tell him

my beloved is gone, will never come back, he repeats it over and over.



 


My Brother Who Sings the Voice of Poet John Clare


But the sweetest of all seeming music to me

were the songs of the clumsy brown beetle & bee

—John Clare


Trill in the hay mint—

tymbals or wings?


Flutter glide

meadow open


end of summer

loud as blue


cicada

cricket soft rush


air


float like smoke

swallowtail


sapphire

brights


passage over the arc

the din

 

AN: What feelings came to you as you were writing the memoir?


CA: The main feeling that arose was a yearning for a different set of circumstances. The years Charlie was in the institution were desert years. More knowledge during his childhood of his particular form of autism—the kind leading to little speech and resultant intellectual disabilities—would have been enormously helpful. A chance for him to have received a specialty education would have made all the difference. At the same time, I know full well that if he had been born just a decade earlier, he may have had no chance to develop as full a life outside an institution.


As I wrote and thought about what I was writing, drafting and redrafting many times, the pursuit for clarity became the most important thing. Why was my brother not allowed in school, why was he perceived to be “limited,” and why does our culture continually “other” people? My interpretation of some details of my brother’s life—the institutionalization, his medications— was subjective, for sure, but I wanted to view his life not dispassionately (that would be impossible) but with a deepened understanding of the time period and our family dynamic. In casting some difficult scenes from memory, I tried to make them as three-dimensional as possible for people to really envision our lives. That was hard, and it made me sad.


I tried to keep the scenes focused on Charlie, his language, education, and the shared culture of the time. I constantly queried my own interpretations, fact-checked, and thought and thought. More than once I encountered my own limitations, such as the heavy value I placed and my family placed on verbal communication, spoken language. Charlie didn’t think much of that way of communicating, and it was only through the process of writing this memoir did I come to really feel and value other nonverbal forms of connecting. Through that extensive process, and with the keen wisdom of my editor at Wising Up Press, came the calm that writing can sometimes offer.


AN: Your cover art is mesmerizing. Is there a story that goes with this art that you created?


CA: While I was writing and teaching, I was painting in oil sometimes, mostly landscapes. This was many years ago, and I wanted to try a portrait. I had always been enchanted by a childhood photo of my brother. One rainy day, I think it was Memorial Day, a day off from work, I stood before my very small, north-facing window to paint this portrait from the photograph. Learning from another art form is invaluable, I believe, especially one that moves in the opposite direction of your own. Poetry can be ethereal, so I find it helpful to learn from people who do or make things. I had lived six months with the mother of a friend of mine, a woman who was a marvelously accomplished painter in oil, a native of Boston, who knew the ins and outs of artistic survival. She led me to explore oil and recommended instructors. She also knew how to make furniture, and we did that together, too. We were living in Cambridge; I taught English and she was a PRN nurse. On our time off, we’d spend hours talking about perception, how the artist’s eye is so often fooled by the mind. Our mind tends to close lines, fill in shapes, revert to a stereotyped memory. To train against that, an artist will practice by only following the contours of an object—strict observation, no rush. In oil, follow only the colors—not line against line but color next to color. Those precepts still stick with me as a discipline in writing: adhere first to a careful rendering of things before ideas.


You have to trust that through these sensory details emotions will emerge.

When I finished my first poem about Charlie, one I titled “My Brother’s Shirt,” my former roommate was the first person to hear it. She approved, and I was grateful.


AN: My young sister was born with severe disabilities in the same decade as Charlie and died when she was four. My mother found talking about this experience incredibly painful, so we didn’t often ask her to share. In reading your memoir, I felt as though I had found answers to deep-seated questions that had created such angst in me as a child. How did you go about the research for this part of the book?


CA: Annie, thank you for sharing the experience of your sister. I hope others will feel more at ease talking about family members and friends in their life who have a difference. It is so unfortunate that these questions stir up angst. Like your mother, my mother dearly loved her child, no question about it. She had no doubt about his sincerity, his beauty, his unique intelligence. Yet she feared this beautiful person would not survive the brute reality outside the home. She felt anger and guilt, rooted in shame, such an unnecessary feeling, a feeling connected to the greater culture’s unrealistic expectations of mothers and judgment of those who don’t fit in.


In researching the book, I read as much as I could about the history of people with autism, including all of Temple Grandin’s books. I tried also to learn about the varied aspects of autism and how the syndrome has changed in our understanding, especially within the last ten years or so. I didn’t want to presume that simply because I had a brother with autistic characteristics I knew everything about autism. I also sought literature that depicted cognitive differences, and some of those books are noted in the memoir. Many classics I went back to re-read to see if the prose still affected (often baffled) me in the same way as when I first read it, such as The Sound and the Fury, Of Mice and Men, two examples of novels with characters who had some form of developmental disability. An interesting novel I still want to re-read is Harry Crews’ The Hawk Is Dying, about a friendship with a young man who seemed to have autism and doesn’t speak.


AN: I was fascinated by the details you included over a period of years. It seemed as though throughout your whole life you knew that you would one day write this book. Did you? And how did you go about documenting and saving the facts of your life? What was your process?


CA: A mix of genres seemed to emerge as I was writing this memoir of my brother’s life—poetry, narrative scenes, reportage, so I think all the time I had been searching for a form to contain what I felt about Charlie. In addition to reading everything I could about autism, over the years I had collected all kinds of articles on the syndrome, from news to science; so when I began to write, I could trace the evolution, a bit, of how we view it. Many of these I didn’t quote but used them as a kind of tonal background.


One specific article by Rick Bragg recounts how a young boy, feared to have drowned in a Florida waterway, survived for days by swimming and swimming, miles from home. His mother said his autism helped him survive—that intense focus. When he was rescued he said something like, “I see fish, lots of fish.” I also had my parents’ letters to me as an adult about my brother, and I had all of my mother’s saved paperwork from Charlie’s years in the institution, including blue mimeographed newsletters sent to parents. To round out the depiction of Detroit, I also had every article my father, a newspaper reporter for The Detroit News in the 1950s and ‘60s, wrote about Detroit communities. Ragged newsprint clips, hundreds of them, a treasure trove. I also had decades of my own journals. Our family photographs were revealing, too. Many were unposed, in the moment, taken by my father.


Both my parents possessed a love of comedy and were riveting storytellers. Many of the lighter scenes I used from childhood were so vivid because the stories were told and retold many times within the family. There was a lot to use, if not directly at least, to jog a memory. Most importantly, I told Donna Lunn, the marvelous force behind Charlie’s group home, about the project, and we talked before she died about her memories of how her mother started the home on Paseo, in Kansas City. I wish Donna could have seen the final book. I’ve dedicated it to her. Josie, her daughter, who also cared for Charlie and his peers, read over the memoir, giving me her blessing, which I knew came from her mother, too, in spirit.


AN: How do you think that a person might benefit from reading this book, even if they have not experienced a family member with special health needs?


CA: At some point in our lives, we will have to grapple with physical and/or mental limitations.


We are all fragile and temporary, and so are the ones we love, the ones we wish to keep as they are forever. For the curious, compassionate reader who cares about others and who knows that there are no guarantees in life, I hope the memoir will light a path, demystify the complexities related to communication differences.

Early in the book, I write: “Anyone who knows someone with a communication difference has witnessed how difficult it is for that person to become visible, to be known and understood.” I think many people care about that experience, even if they haven’t seen it up close, yet, in their own lives. The incredible disability-rights activist Fred Fay, who led very effective protests in the Massachusetts Statehouse from a gurney, stated often that most of us are only “temporarily abled.” This is sobering. If we don’t know someone with a disability, a language communication disorder, an intellectual disability, a neurodivergent syndrome, or other difference, within time, we will.


AN: Please share some excerpts from your book that are especially tender for you and that help capture how much you loved your brother.


 


Photo by Marcello Consolo

Portrait of a Boy and Beetle


With one ear to the ground, I think it may have been possible to hear ghosts of fallen oaks, the land once wild, now flattened for the upright brick house and two-car garage on Ferris Street. For years, beetle larvae, curled like commas, had gestated inside the oak walls of the garage until one warm morning a stag beetle woke to maturity where it shouldn’t be, dropped behind a gasoline can. There it began a slow journey to find tree sap and rotting apples. At the same time, Charlie ran to the garage searching for marbles and smooth pebbles, things below his feet. While he lay on his stomach, the stag beetle crossed the concrete floor into the gritty cave of his palm. The boy who never spoke then stroked the beetle’s black iridescent thorax and red mahogany wings. He lightly touched the mandibles, projecting like miniature deer antlers in the slatted light. His eyes followed the beetle’s waving antennae and he stared at it as if the beetle were his first friend in kindergarten. When our mother asked to see what he’d found, he wouldn’t show her and ran to a corner of the garage, cupping the beetle in his hands, his hands close to his heart. For a few hours there was comfort in this sadness, as if by connecting to a small insect he might come closer to us—mother, father, little brother and me. By noon, the beetle, caged too long in the prison of Charlie’s fingers, revolted and bit him. Charlie wailed and wailed. Then he stopped and turned inward again like the quiet ghost of an oak tree.

 

Photo by Cullen

My Brother’s Roller Skates


What did they do in winter, the street slick with run-over ice, the snow pounded like rolled-out dough? What did they do while I was away, Charlie a grinding gear in the tight walls of the house, our mother chasing after him? I can see her sit him down on the kitchen floor and take his left foot with its worn leather shoe into her hand. She would set the sole in place between the metal brackets of the roller skate, and then fix his right foot in the other skate. She tightened the key until both skates were snug. She lifted him up, steadied him, as he glided over the kitchen linoleum and hallway carpet back to his room with its one bed. She kept the door open. There he could do what he’d wanted to do all morning: glide and crash from wall to wall in the tiny room with the spit-ball–coated ceiling. The bare window he looked through, skating by—white yard, blue sky—glowed in the snow shine of winter. To see and move at the same time was the hinge of his boy’s consciousness, how he learned the world. When he spoke the word “tree” we watched him become an acrobat—arms high, palm touching palm, fingers flared, as leaves, as pine needles. More words he shouted when prompted were a visual glimpse, a blink—“sky blue,” “cloud white,” “tree green” in his inverted grammar. He skated the wooden rink of his mind in that bedroom, the circle he embraced, the spiraling loop of consciousness: his echoes, his terrors and quirks. How can a person know himself, I wonder now, until childhood enters a room where a thousand windows open? Back and forth, he rumbled the small box of a house, blessedly solid, lasting beyond childhood, beyond death. In 1965, when a neighbor at the front door asked what the racket was, my mother said, “He’s roller skating in his bedroom.”

 



Rooms on Paseo Boulevard


One morning I saw where they slept, under plaid or flowered coverlets, one bed beside the other, deep within the rooms of the old house on Paseo. Their towels hung on a rack by the sink, each man’s name inked at the edge. I could see how their white sheets whipped in the air as their beds were made as if the men who had slept in them were honored guests, for they were each day honored, borne in their dignity by the care of someone who loved them, these young men growing to middle-age and beyond. Their clothes were silently laundered and ironed on the ironing board set up in the kitchen. Even the blue jeans and pajamas were laid out delicately for picking up again, for putting on the body, for filling the imagination with the purpose of the day, these honored men, only half-known, miracles of our incomplete understanding of what we expect in men, that heavy log settled in our eye. For don’t they open their arms each day, all color and sound speeding to embrace them? My brother, one among them, rising from his bed, his cradle and beginning, entered an orbit of his own in the company of these brothers, far from their families. In these rooms my brother’s many lives were woven, a wrinkled and soon-to-be-ironed cloth, shadows and glints in the folds, a resonance become elemental, almost light, fixed yet fluid, my brother, his brothers, all of a time in a house filled with rooms on Paseo Boulevard.

 

Annie Klier Newcomer founded a not-for-profit, Kansas City Spirit, that served children in metropolitan Kansas for a decade. Annie volunteers in chess and poetry after-school programs in Kansas City, Missouri. She and her husband, David, and the staff of the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are working to develop The Emily Dickinson Garden in hopes of bringing art and poetry educational programs to their community.


Annie helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to both read and write poetry!


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