not book reports, not scholarly, not comprehensive
week 4: have you had enough darkness yet
In January, the dark month of my birth, I read Irene McKinney aloud.
Around 30 years ago, my WV writing friend Colleen Anderson and I spent an evening reading aloud in a motel room with the poets Irene McKinney and Maggie Anderson. I sat on the cheaply carpeted floor, my back propped against one of the beds. The other three were on chair or bed, or on the floor, too. Maggie and Irene, and perhaps Colleen, were smoking. Words and smoke issued from their mouthes in what I, who had quit but who had not stopped remembering nicotine, imagined must be a giddy rush. The words, grand mountain words at that, became confounded with the delicious remembered crawl of smoke through my veins. And when the night was done, late, hours after we had started, I left that motel room with the sweet drowse, the muddled come-down of reading poetry aloud.
About twenty years later, I spent twelve hospital hours with Irene. After too-long of telling her doctor that something was not right, she had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and after some other attempts at treatment, had undergone a bone marrow transplant. In the corridor I hygienically and ritually washed my hands three times. I passed hospital room after hospital room in which someone lay emaciated or swollen, solitary or hovered over, plastic lines and leads and lit up screens and drapes on tracks. And there she was, a small gowned figure in bed, hair aflame (always). I didn’t know her well, so entering her room I entered twelve hours of rare intimacy, during which she spoke in her twang as pointed as barbed wire, her mind agile and busy as a sparrow. I offered her water and spoonfuls of ice. Maybe there was a small bird’s amount of food. We were. We were in that medical cell of sitting. I sat beside her while she slept, the space so small that we shared one another’s breaths.
She survived the transplant, returned to her country house on the land her family had worked for generations, for several years returned to her own work of writing poetry.
And then she died.
Reading McKinney’s posthumous collection, Have you Had Enough Darkness Yet? was to say good-bye all over again. Her mountain twang, her duality —saucy irreverence beside burning reverence — are so embedded in her work that even when I, born a Yankee, read her poems aloud, her mountain spirit rises up into this life. Reading these poems aloud was to come so close to death, to come to the very edge, to be ravaged again by the loss of this spirit who described the precipice before she slipped over it.
TO MY READER
There’s a passage through the night
where someone awards me, hangs
the tassle of distress off to the side
and replaces it with a badge
indicating that I did one thing
right by continuing what
I’d started when I didn’t know
it had begun, and I was sure
of no reward. Blessings were not
forthcoming, daily distress.
The path is aerial seen from
above. I startle myself
and feel I have no choice but
to proceed by inches. I pull down
the magic curtain, uncurb the car,
get in and drive, coaxing
the pattern to relief.
And you have been with me
through the long and hateful night
although you are only a shadow.
You have stayed behind
my shoulder and I’ve sheltered
you there, made a place for
you in my mind. In loneliness,
in rain, in the loss of breath,
you have been with me
and I have not failed you
because I continued to speak
when you begged me not
to inquire further and I spoke
to your fears in a voice of grief,
saying, yes they are gone and
will not return, but you
are still breathing. And I sang
you a song that came through
a trail of nerves down the generations
through all we have read together
and all we have remembered.
Remember the words, and I’ll remember you.
If you would like to hear Irene read her work aloud (including “At 24,” below):
The same irascible spirit at the beginning of her life as a poet wrote this blazing anthem (from her 2004 collection, Vivid Companion):
At 24, I had written and read until my eyes were bloodshot,
spending nights and early mornings in a fervor
of page-filling while the baby slept.
I was writing to save my life as I knew it
could be. I was writing to inscribe my body
on a stone tablet, writing in defiance and silence.
Nothing could stop me, I kept saying No
to the paper, I kept saying you can’t have me
to the Junior League, to the tiny streets, to impossible
jobs and prissy motherhood. I was certain
there was another way to love and work than the
simian forms evolved so far. One morning I drank
eight cups of coffee and wrote four poems
and I didn’t even care that my head was bursting
and I was lurching around while I scrubbed the bathroom.
Another time I left the children with my mother
and lay in bed all day reading a biography of Van Gogh
and groaning. What a life, what a life.
I thought about Toulouse-Lautrec, that little freak.
I was a freak myself, but only in private.
I stared at his bronzes and terra cottas and oranges
until they pulled the color nerves out of my chest.
That was a long time ago and now I know that
I knew nothing then, and if I had I wouldn’t
have gone on. Dear Mr. President, I said, Dear Dean,
Dear Husband, Dear Our Father, Dear Tax Collector,
you don’t know me. I don’t know what I am,
but whatever it is, you can’t have me.
photo: Julia Kramer