Swan Song: A Life in Thirteen Lines
by Jaime R. Wood
On a blue-sky summer day in 2005, I was walking with friends to a picnic when my father called me from Mexico – his voice an off-kilter metronome – to tell me that his brother Chris had taken his own life. I nearly collapsed on the sidewalk. But my grief had nothing to do with losing a loved one. I’d never met my Uncle Chris. He was bits and pieces, stories and photos. He wasn’t a real person to me, but my father is. And my father was devastated. See, my dad is the oldest of three siblings and his sister, my Aunt Judy, also committed suicide nearly twenty years before Chris did. So my father was suddenly an only child. But this is a story that still hasn’t found its way into poetry form – at least not yet.
A poem is a frame, or maybe it’s a cradle, something that holds a life, a moment, an idea. Whatever metaphor we use to explain what poetry is, it will always include limits. Even Whitman and Ginsberg with their ever-winding lines had to stop somewhere. When writing “Swan Song,” published in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, I had to set aside my father’s story, expel my Aunt Judy’s traumas, and quiet the questions of cause and effect, of heredity and mental illness. They wouldn’t fit. I could only cradle so much of this in one poem. The task was to decide what essence, what grain of truth, I would commit to for this small, gentle piece.
for Chris Wood
Whether the summer leaves waved
in the wind, shushed and crackled
as you walked into the woods,
whether the pulse of crickets –
their threet-threet-threet keeping time
with the breeze – altered the pace
of your breathing, whether you
were stricken by the sounds
of the forest, whether you saw the stars,
paused as in prayer before you tucked
the gun under your chin, or whether
the clouds stared down like milky glass,
makes a difference.
First, I should admit that this process isn’t ever linear for me. Is it for anyone, really? When I began, for instance, I didn’t know the piece would be small or gentle. As a poet, I’m a whirling dervish attempting to reach ecstasy, or at least satisfaction. I often begin with a phrase that haunts or a rhythm of words that won’t subside. My initial attempt was a long, seven-part poem called “Picnic on a Suicide Day” that tried to encompass all the events, all the emotions. The title was the catalyst phrase and I worked on building it into a meaningful poem for years. Of course, it failed. This poem came from a place of grief and anger, not a desire for understanding or love. Maybe that means something.
That original poem was more about me than about Chris. It was an attempt at gravitas I couldn’t pull off because – even with only one degree of separation, even with shared blood – the human connection wasn’t there. I couldn’t get past the fact that I didn’t know the man, or that I couldn’t feign a grief for him that was felt second hand. I had to take a different approach, because some degree of the grief I was feeling was real and was mine, not my father’s.
So I started thinking about the whole event in a different way. I started asking how I could make it more about discovering a universal truth and less about me. To do this, I had to try to place myself inside Chris’s head. This was an impossible feat, so the next best thing was to follow him through the woods, to paint the scene.
My poem takes Chris’s act moment by moment, considers the leaves, the crickets, the breeze, and asks which factors were present that day and whether it would have made a difference to him. Regardless, it makes a difference to the rest of us. We want to know: Was he calm? Was it a nice day? Did he reconsider? Did the woods speak to him? Did the clouds convince him to go ahead with it?
And of course, none of that matters, not enough to bring a life back. But we need it, because stories are all we have to make meaning. Metaphors are the glue that holds our souls together, tricking us into believing we understand each other. Those thirteen lines became my journey through the woods with my Uncle Chris – a man I’ll never know. “Swan Song” is small request for clarity: If I think of my father’s brother out there alone, heart pounding under a milk grey sky, I mourn differently than I would if I saw him standing calmly, saying goodbye to the world on his own terms. In the end, I had to paint the scene both ways for it to be honest. Otherwise, I’d just be assuaging my own imagination in the face of an inexplicable reality.
Welcome to our new Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Jaime R. Wood is the author of Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom (NCTE 2006). Her poems have appeared in Dislocate, Matter, Weird Sisters, Rivets, Juked, ZYZZYVA and DIAGRAM. She currently teaches in the English department at Clackamas and Mt. Hood Community Colleges and lives in Portland with her husband and their family of cats.