It has been said that poetry can save us. I learned the truth of this only through tragedy. In a place of extremity, I discovered that language can bring to light what is beyond words. In the process, it returns us back to ourselves. When my partner and then later, my son, died from suicide, it was poetry that threw me a lifeline and pulled me in from the tumult. I thought I would drown in the emotional storms, but poetry floated me back to shore.
In 2002, I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico with my partner, Michael, who was bi-polar and increasingly unstable. He spoke of suicide daily; one night, he read me the suicide notes he had composed. I belonged to a women’s poetry group and as I poured my frustration and fears onto the page, these women became my best friends.
I urged Michael to attend Write Action, a writing support group for those coping with illness. One week, when he was out of town, I attended in his place. In this safe environment, I could express myself with complete honesty. I kept coming back. As I wrote about my anguish, my rose colored glasses began to fall away. Gradually I saw that Michael didn’t want to be saved.
I lost my dynamic, affectionate companion and I also lost the grey pall of depression. A burst of creativity swept through me. In my determination to speak my truth, I produced a poetry CD. As I traveled and performed, audiences held me in their rapt attention. It was a powerful form of communion.
But I soon faced another crisis, the death of my youngest son. Shattered, I was unable to meditate or to pray or to write, the practices that had held me so firmly while grieving Michael’s death. And yet, since both writing groups were my friends, my support system, I returned to them. I thought I could at least distract myself from my unbearable despair.
Once the pen was in my hand, it was automatic to put it to paper. I wrote about my pain and shock, memories and regrets. The writing deepened, became raw, vulnerable and real. It amazes me how often writing makes me aware that gifts can be found in tragedy.
Time doesn’t heal but those
small actions of living--
the spoon of soup, the footsteps
through the park, the quick farewell
before more damage is done—these take
away the direct attention.
....This is a STUPID STUPID
STUPID death—no I won’t
stop screaming it—I blame
God as well and I don’t care if
there are millions lost
in the war or that children are
being gunned down as I
write. I am talking about
a death that did not have to be.
This death has teeth, they bite at my
insides, they have excavated a
hole in my womb.
--from Finding the Way Home
I moved to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in 2006 and created a bilingual poetry performance for Día de los Muertos. As my performance partner and I called out the various names of Lady Death (La Muerte) back and forth across the stage and the audience lit candles for their departed, I realized that Death comes for all of us. For me to accept death as another phase of life, one that touches us all, was healing. Later, as I wrote about my anger and my guilt, I understood that my story was a story: that I didn’t have to hold onto it and keep it, I could share it and release it. I felt I could be a voice for others. The recently published transparencies of light is a collection of women’s voices, some in challenging circumstances. For example, Ahmed’s Mother is a mother’s keening for a son who has been killed by a bomb. While she is fictional, her voice arose from my experiences of living amongst women like her. I have earned the right to be her voice; I know her rage and her anguish.
Poetry has transformed my suffering into a work of art with beauty and meaning. Language is how we connect to each other. By sharing language with open hearts, we step out from the abyss of our essential solitariness. From that perspective we see that we are held, all together, in a web of light.
Wendy Brown-Báez is the creator of Writing Circles for Healing writing workshops. She received 2008 and 2009 McKnight grants to teach writing workshops for at risk youth. Wendy has performed her poetry from Chicago to Mexico, and her poetry and prose have been published in numerous literary journals such as Wising Up Press Anthologies, The Chrysalis Reader, Mizna, Minnetonka Review, Interfaithings and We’Moon Datebooks. She is the author of a full-length collection Ceremonies of the Spirit (Plain View Press, 2009), and a chapbook transparencies of light (Finishing Line Press, 2011).
For more information or to purchase books: www.wendybrownbaez.com