The dream tells me where I am:
nose close to a tulip tree
filled with lime green finches,
one that sports a spectacled mask
miming my every move. But here
all the palms look the same
and I am lost again in the parking lot
outside the hospital, searching
for my rental car, no stars,
no bearings, while across the planet
actual birds are falling from the sky.
At night I swim in the hotel pool
and look up past the trees. I have placed
the beach flotsam we gathered
next to the outdoor sink, said farewell
to sponge and seawrack,
and paid up the cottage and thrown away
the food we bought to move across town
into emergency housing. I have called
your children and sorted and shipped
your things and have ridden the elevator
up through the indoor atrium, past
the potted ficus trees and the pianist
playing holiday songs, and held firm
with the nurses and social workers
and moved your tray and adjusted the blinds,
the bed and the television and watched
the TV until it was time to go.
I rode in the ambulance and
crossed the bridge and trembled in
the waiting room and met the doctors.
While they operated I drove out to the shore.
I walked the beach and picked up a shell.
I practiced the slow steps I knew would come
later, after they opened your heart.
“Florida” springs from the dislocation of dealing with a life-threatening emergency in what came to feel like a very surreal place. In December 2009, my sweetheart the artist Neil Frankenhauser and I were in Sanibel Island on a vacation that ended up with his open-heart surgery on New Year’s Eve. The poem moved me step by step through that experience but seemed to be creating the events as I wrote, rather than mining them from memory. I knew the details, obviously, but they presented themselves in surprising ways. Using both “TV” and “television” in one sentence, for instance. It’s not something I would normally do, but it makes me think about the difference between the generic “television,” which one adjusts, and the “TV” one watches together with one’s beloved in a more intimate and time-delimited setting. The shell, the holiday songs, the potted ficus trees were also unexpected, but the most surprising line of all was the simplest: “all the palms look the same.” Feeling so helpless and frustrated and, most of all, alone during this time, with life and death decisions to be made, I developed a thankfully short-lived animus toward palm trees. I no longer resent them, but at the time their sameness, the way they look like templates or cut-outs, the way they don’t seem like their own individuals or change with the seasons like our beloved oaks and maples and willows in the north, drew my ire. I wrote paragraphs and another entire poem trying to express this irritation, when all I needed to write, finally, was “all the palms look the same.” As soon as I wrote that, I knew it was right. Now the struggle to get there strikes me as faintly ridiculous. I guess it’s an example of what it takes to get out of one’s own way as a writer. I like this poem, too, because its pacing is comforting and provides a sense of control over the chaos it describes, and because it will be in my new book, One Less River, with Neil’s beautiful piece of art on the cover. It was also selected by Denise Duhamel for 2013 Springfed Arts Poetry Prize.
Bio: Terry Blackhawk’s poetry collections include Escape Artist (John Ciardi Prize, 2003), The Light Between (WSU Press) and One Less River (Mayapple Press, 2019)—with awards from Nimrod International (2010 Pablo Neruda Prize), America (1990 Foley Prize)and others. A former high school creative writing teacher, Blackhawk is Founding Director (1995-2015) of InsideOut Literary Arts Project and a 2013 Kresge Arts in Detroit literary fellow. She received a Detroit Metro Times Progressive Hero Award (1999), the MI Governor’s Award for Arts Education (2001), grants from Michigan Council for the Arts (1998-2000) and National Endowment for the Humanities (1992-1993) and was twice named MI Creative Writing Teacher of the Year (1990, 2008). In 2015 WSU Press released To Light a Fire: Twenty Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a collection of essays that she co-edited with iO Senior Writer Peter Markus. To Light a Fire was named a Finalist for Foreword Review’s INDIE FAB 2015 Book of the Year in Writing.
Terry’s new book is available here: https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781936419890/one-less-river.aspx or at Amazon.