THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOKS, “TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS,” BY CAITLIN HAMILTON SUMMIE, AND “BARACK VS. THE ANTI-PC,” BY TOM ERSIN, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST, OR BY CLICKING THE AUTHOR’S NAME ON OUR AUTHORS PAGE.
THE BOOK: Seeking the Other Side
PUBLISHED IN: 2015
THE AUTHOR: Jane Olmsted
THE EDITOR: Sena Naslund
THE PUBLISHER: Fleur de Lis Press, Louisville, Kentucky
SUMMARY: Seeking the Other Side presents a quest for understanding and connection. Roughly half of the poems were written after the death of my youngest son, at age 20. Divided into three sections that are only partly chronological, the poems attempt to reach across the lines we draw between things. I realized in compiling the collection, that touching is a powerful way of reaching out, as well as of receiving. Touch may be physical, of the hand or of the eyes or ears—any of the senses—but it can also express a spiritual longing, loneliness, as well as humor and joy, embodied and known to us as a rapid heartbeat or a bubbling sensation or a dark weight. The act of reaching out is one of bridge-building, and I can almost visualize the arches as they rise and fall between us.
Part II—“Tree Forms”—contains the poems of my 2011 chapbook by the same name, with some exceptions and minor revisions. I began the series about a month before Casey died, when I was on sabbatical camping in the Rockies and searching for some answers to those sorts of questions that keep us wondering and seeking. I began photographing the trees, which were beautiful or strange, peculiar and sometimes ugly, at least at first glance. Many of them seemed to be telling a story—or was it my own story they were giving back? When I returned home my fascination with “tree forms” continued, and this section offers poems that came to me, in some cases, when sadness was the only place I could recognize.
The Requiem poem that ends the collection was inspired by the most fantastic of the trees, the bristlecone pine, situated on the shore of Lake Haiyaha, fed by Chaos Creek. Every photograph I took of the old bristlecone looks as if it belongs to a different tree, such are the turns and twists of its limbs. I imagined it as a family tree. Remarkably, the pinus aristas is the longest lived of organisms, reaching 4,000 years and more. What might such a tree have to say about the sudden and violent end of someone so young? The seven-part poem is inspired by Johannes Brahms’ Requiem, which was my mother’s favorite piece of music, and what I listened to repeatedly over the first two years. The other poems in the final section—“The Casey Poems”—tell a story of healing, another “side” I desperately needed to find from the place of suffering. These poems seek understanding, beauty, most eloquently expressed in the small, the simple, the truly sacred.
THE BACK STORY: After Casey died, I was flooded with powerful images and words and feelings. I longed for my son, and the continual pull from the world outside often made me feel crazy. The only way to reckon with the incredible weight of loss was to go into it. That’s how I thought of it: I must go inside where I can be with him. Music helped—Brahms’ Requiem in particular, but any sacred or melancholy music helped me go “to that lonely place.” I sat in my “serenity room” (wishful thinking) and wrote and revised and crafted, imagining that each poem was a letter sent to that impossible place, a plea, a cry—all those ways we call out when silence is the only answer. And then perhaps we begin to hear, to see, within the silence we thought was complete. The collection emerged, and by pulling in other poems, I could see that though my seeking Casey is probably the most powerful part of the collection, it is in a context of lifelong reaching for understanding and affinity.
WHY THIS TITLE?: I call this collection “seeking the other side” as a way to reinvigorate (in myself at the very least) what acquisitiveness and obsessive work habits deaden—the capacity to connect in some way with the Other, even when that turns out to be a part of ourselves. I hope in these poems to reach through or across the boundaries that keep us ignorant of truths beyond the readily apparent. I think of the “other side” not just as what’s across the line between life and death, between myself and my son, but as what’s across any other real or illusory line that stifles access to the fullness of life.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Anyone who has suffered loss might find the collection helpful—and as one of the poems shows, there is no one who hasn’t suffered loss. In “Memento Mori,” Krsa, the grieving mother went to the Buddha for help. She wanted him to take away her pain. She would not relinquish the dead infant in her arms. Rather than providing relief, the Buddha sent her away, telling her to ask for mustard seeds, but to take them only if they had not lost someone. This one had lost a daughter, that one a father, here an uncle, every step along the way a son, mother, sister, friend. Realizing the community of grief, her sorrow abated—perhaps enough to relinquish the corpse in her arms.
“I know this hole, but how?/I have to kneel to look through,” writes Jane Olmsted in her powerful collection, Seeking the Other Side. The “hole” quoted refers to the literal cavity that has caught her attention, yet Olmsted’s looking at the negative space of a great loss, too—a loss that must be lived with, if not understood. This poet ruptures the cliche, asking “Would the glass remain half-full if a fist/ripped out the heart and settled/into that slippery absence?” There are no answers metaphor or pathetic fallacy can provide, only more thoughtfully shaped questioning, “habits of noticing,” “strange pronunciations/of familiar places.” Poems about memory, loss, and the self’s adjustments are collected with poems about trees and the forms of trees, which provide arms and roots to what feels devastatingly vacant. In life as in thought, “there is cavity involved,” yet, as this poet makes beautifully clear, there is form and shape and listening: “if you have no answer,/ go then to the lonely place—/I will meet you there.” –Lisa Williams, author of Gazelle in the House
Electric with love and grief, the poems in Jane Olmsted’s Seeking the Other Side bear witness to what we might think unspeakable: the murder of the poet’s twenty-year-old son. But they bear witness to life as well, from the oak tree outside her Kentucky window to the bristlecone pine by Chaos Creek in Colorado. So deep is her relationship to nature that she writes herself into that oak tree, feels the roar of its cambium and the “tubes of xylem” fill her spine. In the final poem, a requiem, she takes on the wind-twisted torque of the pine as she reaches for her lost son “until the winds/have turned me full/and then it is I who turn the winds.” Inhabiting the mythic and the forensic, immeasurable loss and precise post mortem calculations, Olmsted’s poems stand up to the terrible facts of her son’s death, her struggle to survive it and to behold him whole in memory, dream, and through “a sacred portal between this world and / this same world made better.” –George Ella Lyon, author of Many-Storied House
Born out of the heartbreak that accompanies a devastating personal loss, these poems transcend the personal and reach for the other side of grief, seeking “a crackling testament to our joy.” Mourning her youngest son, Casey, taken suddenly and senselessly from her and from this life, Jane Olmsted unflinchingly shows us “how a nanosecond can hold a swirling cosmos of befores and durings and afters.” These are, ultimately, poems that celebrate, savor, and affirm life. –Tom C. Hunley, author of Plunk
Well, here is “God’s plenty” (as John Dryden supposedly said of Chaucer) indeed. How well this assessment applies to Jane Olmsted’s “seeking the other side.” The riveting cover design comes from Yvonne Petkus’ “Braced” and partially echoes the book’s motifs. . . . There is so much here. An introduction by poet and Western Kentucky University graduate Maureen Morehead is sensitive, thought-provoking and thought-assuaging. She writes (for one tiny taste of this elegant essay): “And it becomes a language that Jane Olmsted assumes for her private journey toward light, as these are ultimately sacred poems and those of us who enter them walk with the poet on sacred ground.” Olmsted treads lightly nowhere. There is no corner of grief too dark for her to enter. Her courage reminds me of a line from Robert Frost’s “Mowing:” “Anything but the truth would have seemed too weak.” I am made happier and enriched and consoled by her honesty and by the brilliance of her talent.
Please forgive a personal note: I knew Casey. I loved Casey. How vividly I remember him bringing his new baby girl down to the Women’s Study House to present her to Trish Jaggers and me. I always kidded Casey about looking like a Greek god, told him he should become a model. Now he tenderly lifted his baby from her pretty, little pinkified nest and moved toward the window for better light. How lovely she was! And Casey was even more handsome, as if his face was lit from within by his love and pride. Ah, god. Jesus and Buddha. Casey honored them both. — Mary Ellen Miller, author of The Poet’s Wife Speaks
AUTHOR PROFILE: Writer: Jane Olmsted’s poems and stories have appeared in Nimrod, Poetry Northwest, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Adirondack Review, and Briar Cliff Review, among others. Her chapbook, Tree Forms, was published in 2011 (Finishing Line Press). Her essay, “The Weight of a Human Heart,” won Memoir Journal’s prize for the guns issue, in the fall of 2013. She has written a memoir (circulating) about the loss of her youngest son and the long slow process of recovery.
Teacher: Olmsted is professor and head of the Diversity & Community Studies department at Western Kentucky, where she teaches graduate courses and coordinates the MA in Social Responsibility & Sustainable Community. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Mother: Jane is the mother of three sons and the grandmother of two girls and one boy. She and her philosopher husband have custody of their younger granddaughter. Their family includes three dogs, two cats, three outdoor goldfish, an occasional mouse, and countless birds.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: Since Seeking, I have not stopped. I wrote a memoir, titled after one of the poems, “The Tree You Come Home To.” The first half tells Casey’s story—something I realized I hadn’t attempted in the poems or in the second half of the memoir, which is comprised of my journal entries that trace the four years or so after it happened, focusing on my own thought processes. Casey’s story is powerful, difficult. He suffered from depression and addiction from about 12 years old. The story of how this came about and how Casey struggled and through sheer strength of will stopped all the substance abuse, but only after years of try-and-fail, is important to share. Too often we assume the causes of problems, falling back on easy assumptions. No child should have his or story trivialized into statistics or jargon. No family is peremptorily free from or doomed to trauma, no matter how rich or poor or educated or ignorant. All of us must struggle with our own accounting—our guilt, remorse, forgiveness. I hope these poems speak to others who are making their own way, as we all must, through the rough terrain.
The Shape and Size of Things
They say that a heart is the size of a fist.
And that a blue whale’s tongue weighs
as much as an elephant.
What does that tell us about the elephant?
Or the whale? They are big.
They belong in different places.
Would the glass remain half-full if a fist
ripped out the heart and settled
into that slippery absence?
A fist gnarled with rage, hungry for love,
might think that a ball of flesh and bone
could take up residence in this home,
without causing a stir—
How could it know, floundering
at the end of an arm, shaking at the skies,
zounds! zounds!, balled against the eyes,
burrowing into someone else’s flesh,
or clutching the pillow from the depth of sleep . . .
I want to whisper to the fist: mention the marrow
the affinity of bone and liquid,
then ask, Is there room at the inn for me?
The Tree You Come Home To
In the story I used to read to you
about the runaway bunny,
Mother Rabbit is always the very thing it takes
to bring her bunny home.
A page hangs in a poster frame on your wall—
“If you become a bird and fly away from me,
I’ll be the tree you come home to.”
Now that you have said, “I will die and
leave this earth and you behind,”
Mother Rabbit just wags her carrot and I don’t know what shape I can pour myself into that can possibly bring you home—
Shall I become a wisp of light and scent
so you will recognize the angel who embraces you?
If I become the place where your shadow feet can still leave an impression,
would you know me as the path you take to find yourself at god’s feet?
Beside the shivers of worm trails
and carcasses of insects,
I reach inside and grasp the place that weeps, so you will know in the way that spirits know
the weight is yours, is mine.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Fleur-de-Lis Press, Spalding University, 851 South Fourth Street, Louisville, KY 40203; (502) 873-4398 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Jane Olmsted, email@example.com.