by Maureen Morehead
Spalding MFA Poetry Faculty
There was a period during my sister’s life as a visual artist when she built literal hiding places into each of her paintings. I was reminded of it the other day when I was talking to my youngest sister about how Susan’s paintings and my poetry often paralleled each other in one way or another: this, despite the fact we lived far from one another, she in Boston, I in Louisville, with busy lives, and without the benefit of social media or cell phones to keep up with each other day to day. We did keep in touch with long distance phone calls and handwritten letters; so, I knew this the years my sister included hiding places— tents and boxes, closets, huts, shadows and rabbit holes— in her paintings, I was writing poems about something similar: safe places. Where is it that is safe? I wanted to know and asked in my poems.
Safe places are literal. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and during the Cold War, they were bomb shelters in public places and in fortified concrete rooms we built in our own homes to protect us from the fallout of nuclear bombs. I do remember Russia threatening America with its missiles pointed at us from Cuba and going to sleep each night with a prayer to keep everyone safe through the night. Susan and I shared a room. She was eight, I was ten, and we both knew something threatening and potentially deadly was in the air.
We lived in Illinois, where you could see ominous storm clouds forming regularly above our houses and beyond the flat corn and soybean fields surrounding our small town. Most houses were built with cellars and basements, storm shelters stocked with flashlights, candles, transistor radios, blankets, and dried food to outwit the frequent, devastating tornadoes of the Midwest. “Safe Places” sprang up in the 70’s to offer wayward, misunderstood, unhappy, and abused teens shelter. Communities built shelters for the homeless to eat and sleep and sanctuaries to keep abused women and children safe, and eventually shelters for whole families, struggling in economic or spiritual downturns.
I believe the shelters in my poems are not as personal as were my sister’s hiding places, but I did use these places as metaphors for psychological shelters, just as my sister’s hiding places reveal her emotional need to seek shelter from things that hurt her. It was no secret that hers was a hard life. She struggled with OCD* years before there was a name for it, and she grew up in an era in which there was little understanding, tolerance, even less help, for mental illnesses. You can look at Susan’s art and see it, but you can also see, now that she is too physically ill to make art, how the body of her work was her safe place, moreso, I think, than my poems were mine. She knew from the time she was a child that art would save her, whereas I played around with words for years before I learned exactly what my sister had known intuitively.
I’ve been thinking for a long time about why poetry matters. It’s clear it matters to the psyche of the individual poet: we Americans write a lot these days about ourselves and the details of our lives. We’re complicated and we know our lives matter. We are most often our own personae rather than the created personae of the past. How does this matter? Well, it gives us license to discover, to figure out, to learn. We write about things that confuse us, heartbreaks we’ve experienced, people we love and those we lose, a country apparently falling apart, a world at war. Some of us write poems arguing that this or that ought to be changed. Others write to tell what we’ve witnessed in an effort to wake sleepers up. Some of us are imprisoned for risking the right to say what we see and what we think. Some of us die holding firmly to our views: poets understand that limits on freedom are spiritually deadening. We write because we believe we have a right to do so and to be heard. We write also to find the way to say what we know and feel and need to say; we write poems to push the boundaries of language, to clarify, to celebrate and eulogize, to let loose our joy and pin down our grief.
From time to time, I’ve written about my sister Susan, the second in a family of five daughters. There’s a poem in A Sense of Time Left in which I imagine her safe in the belly of Jonah’s whale. A line in the poem acknowledges her childhood hurt and need for respite. Since she’s been ill, home from Boston where she lived over thirty years, and in the safe place of family, I’ve been studying her paintings and writing poems about her. Eventually, hiding places disappeared from Susan’s paintings. She took the world head on with images of fire, bombs and holocaust. Her storms raged dark and abstract, yet no matter the subject, her paintings were always beautiful. My sister acknowledged the world as a dangerous place, but, to her, it was and is always beautiful.
How does one shift one’s attention from personal to collective suffering? From seeking solace to offering compassion? This, I think, is the essence of maturity. I write poems seeking to represent the good that often accompanies the tragic. These poems contain my understanding of safe places. Perhaps my sister’s hiding places transformed to safe places. As she shifted from painting to printmaking sometime in the 80’s, she created large collages rife with hope. But even if you look at earlier paintings, those of her beloved ocean, sky, and beaches of Cape Cod, she was painting what I now see as the safest of places. I see it in the painting of our sister Ann diving into the ocean sky from the highest height; in the painting of our sister Mary’s daughter Erin concentrating on something, maybe a shell, a small pebble herself on the vast seashore. There’s a painting of my son at eight walking that same shore toward me, and there are others I love with people walking away from the viewer toward sunset or sunrise. Either way, if the brilliant sky is another of Susan’s hiding places, it is an enlightened place, far from the human safe places in my poems. I think my sister’s always been there a little ahead of me, and I’m just fine with that.
*Eventually, in her late teens, medicines became available, and Susan finally knew what it meant to be healthy, free from both obsessions and compulsions.
Maureen Morehead has published five books, the most recent Late August Blues: The Daylily Poems (Larkspur Press). She served as Kentucky Poet Laureate 2011/2012.