My parents adopted my sister, Toni, in 1968, when I was 7 and she was 5, from Catholic Charities in Chicago. The family story goes that my parents tried for 15 years to have me, and by the time I began to wish very vocally for a brother or a sister, around the age of 5 or so, my mom felt she was too old to have more kids — thus the decision to adopt, and also because: a.) my mother didn't want me to be "alone in the world" and b.) she "wanted to do something positive for someone." (My mother was the middle girl between two brothers in a first-generation immigrant family, so she must've experienced a loneliness that she wanted to assuage, if she could.) Toni was actually the second child who visited us, and she arrived, accompanied by a social worker named Mrs. Benti, on June 7, 1968. She was half Mexican, half American Indian (I use "American Indian" because Toni hated the term "Native American," and "was" because Toni passed away in 2009). As we sat at the bottom of the porch stairs, eating ice cream, I could hear my mother talking with Mrs. Benti in the kitchen upstairs about feeling that she might've seen Toni's photo in one of the papers, attached to an article about five children who'd been abandoned in an apartment. It was obvious to everyone that Toni and I had really hit it off, and so two weeks later Mrs. Benti brought her back, to stay. We adopted Toni in 1972.
In 1971, when I was 10, I saw something involving Toni that influenced my life in my ways I'm not sure I can properly articulate here (and maybe this is the answer to the second question, about how the adoption experience affected my poetry; I'll get to that a little later). It was a Saturday, and I'd been lying on my bed, listening to my transistor radio instead of doing homework. I got up to go into the living room, and as I turned the corner into the short hallway I saw Toni and my dad sitting on the couch: she was closest to the television, watching it with her chin resting on her hand, and he was next to her, his face close to her ear, as if he were whispering something to her. Something about it wasn't exactly right, but I didn't know exactly what, so I backed away, back into the bedroom. I sat on the edge of the bed, trying to figure out what I had seen, and what — if anything — I should do/say about it. I didn't say anything, ultimately, because I just didn't know how to describe what I'd seen -- "Dad was whispering something in Toni's ear" didn't seem quite right, and I didn't want Mom to be mad at either Toni or Dad; she was quick to punish, and some of those "punishments" could last a long time — she once went 6 months without speaking a word to Dad for some reason I can't even remember now. I was keeping a running count of the days in my diary.
I spent the subsequent thirteen years trying to figure that image out, and then it came back around in the winter of 1984. I had come home for a visit after having moved out earlier that year, and found my parents and Toni sitting around the kitchen table, obviously having a family meeting without me. Toni had had a baby by then, was not married, and was living at home with the baby. As I walked in, my mother said, "Toni says Dad molested her." Of course, I flashed on that moment from the winter of 1971, though it had never been far from my mind. The questions that went through my mind right then were protean; the ones I originally had morphed into new ones. The conversation we had with each other that night — and how things were dealt with after that — is too complicated to go into here, but the guilt I felt at knowing that that image was connected to a larger and more tragic situation (that I maybe could've prevented) has never gone away.
Maybe a day or two after her announcement, Toni apologized, saying that she only said what she did because she was angry with Dad for having yelled at her (for making out with her boyfriend in the bedroom; he'd said something like, "Do you wanna make another baby?") She continued living at home, but she also started drinking heavily and doing drugs; our mom found a coke straw in the bathroom. A few months later she started leaving the house on the weekends, then for weeks. Then she didn't come back. Our parents raised her son, Nicholas, then moved to a different house in 1989 after our dad was diagnosed with cancer (so he could be nearer to my uncle's house because someone had to take him back and forth to chemo, and our mom didn't drive). At this point, a kind of unspoken wish was communicated to me that I should move back home and help raise Nicholas (I had already moved to New York). Thus began, for me, an incredibly anxious period (ten years?) of dealing daily, over distance, with issues related to Dad's cancer and death; Mom's failing health; Nick's involvement with gangs. There remained, as always, my feelings about Toni: I went back and forth between being really angry with her for having put me in that position, to feeling incredible sadness and regret and responsibility. The foundation of all those emotions, though, was the love I had always felt for her, and a longing to try to help her. At one point, I can't remember what year, she returned to our mom's house with her other three children because, ostensibly, she had found a new apartment and needed to leave the kids there so she could move in. She never came back for them. Our mother was in a wheelchair and on oxygen by then, and had to ask Nick's social worker (he'd gotten in trouble with the police and the Department of Children and Family Services had become involved) to try to find good homes for them — something she absolutely hated to do. In 1999 my mother made the decision to go into a nursing home, and the family of Nick's best friend took him in as a foster child (and he remained with them until he became of age and moved out). When I cleaned out Mom's house, getting it ready to sell, I found hundreds of things related to my life with Toni: our First Holy Communion dresses, school papers, report cards, drawings, toys, etc. I also found her two birth certificates: the fake one issued after her adoption, with our parents listed as her parents, and her real one, with the names of her real parents. Her name on that document was "Baby Girl Sanchez."
Toni and I reunited in 2004 in Chicago. She had run into the mother of a childhood friend of ours on the street, and got a message to me through them: she had breast cancer, was living in a shelter, and wanted to know if I could forgive her. She told our friend's mother that she felt the cancer was punishment for all she'd done. I wrote her a long letter and mailed it to the address she'd passed on to me. I was going to be in Chicago for AWP [writers' conference] in a month or two, and so we made plans to meet again at the shelter. Again, that day and its aftermath are not things that can be adequately described here.
It was often hard to keep track of Toni after that meeting — she was in and out of shelters, apartments, hospitals and nursing homes — but we kept in touch by letters and phone calls until she died in November, 2009, of cirrhosis, at the age of 47.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
In the introduction to his novel Queer, William Burroughs wrote about the relation between the death of his wife, Joan — he accidentally shot her, of course — to his writing:
"I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing ... and maneuvered me into a life-long struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out."
This pretty much describes my own experience. I know that over the course of my writing career I have tried to find ways to articulate the things that slip in between the walls that language creates/provides. In light of what I saw in 1971, there are issues of chance, of seeing, of not looking away, but then of trying to describe accurately what is seen so that it can be of value to someone. There are issues of shock and humor. Then, there is the actual struggle with writing itself — the struggle to be able to write. I often feel guilty about writing, that by doing so I am inconveniencing someone, robbing someone of something (time, attention, assistance). At the same time, I feel like I have a certain kind of talent and I should use it, and I need to push past those who would try to stop or silence or shame me. Then there is the idea that someone is suffering and I am doing nothing BUT writing — can't I put my writing to use in the effort to alleviate suffering? How? I think in all of my writing, though, I have tried to find a way "to speak the tongue known as Suffering." I have no idea if I've succeeded, or if I have demonstrated that suffering is not something to run from, but I do know that I have to keep trying.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
"Metaxu" — a kind of a "prose-poem memoir" — is probably the first time I've directly addressed my sister's entrance into, exit from, and effect upon my life. I said earlier that adopting Toni influenced my life in ways I'm not sure I can properly articulate, but this was my attempt at a processing, and a goodbye. The excerpt I'm including as an attachment here (the first seven pages) will be published in a forthcoming issue of Hanging Loose.
For Toni, October 30, 1962 — November 17, 2009
I have someone dead on my mind.
I'm walking down the Kotex aisle at Wal-Mart not because I need Kotex — I don't, anymore — but because I'm taking a shortcut to Automotive, and I have someone dead on my mind.
Someone dead is on my mind as I take the shortcut to Automotive and there's a Tears for Fears song playing and I'm wondering: is death really the remedy all singers dream of? Are there mistakes too monstrous for remorse?
Into a panic of sunflowers at the edge of Housewares, but at rest in the origin of all things, I have someone dead on my mind as I cross into Automotive and I'm wondering if I'll ever find the zero point field in the space-time continuum, at the intersection of which resides, forever, the someone who is dead and on my mind. Time sucks but space is okay when you have someone dead on your mind.
I have someone dead on my mind and I am longing to vomit the opaque, gelatinous loaf lodged at the back of my throat that she needed to eat to be healed. To be utterly transformed in order to do this, for I was never a sorcerer. I cannot heal. To know in which book, and upon which page, the magical words are written. And whether those words conjure a distant, brilliant nimbus or just an ordinary morning.
Last week I saw a movie star get out of an SUV in front of a theater and fifty people took pictures and all the while I had someone dead on my mind. I was longing to know that my dream of her had been true, to have something of her I could point to. Like the first Friday of June, 1968, the first day of second grade summer vacation, when her black bangs first came into view, bobbing above the fence. She didn't arrive via the magic vessel that sails the skies, bearing children to fated destinations, but rather a beige station wagon with a dented fender driven by a blonde, broad-faced social worker. We were already sisters, sitting together in the light at the bottom of the dark porch stairs, eating vanilla ice cream from Blue Willow bowls. I could hear, upstairs, Ma and Dad sealing the deal with the social worker. Did Ma really say she recognized her from a photo in the paper a year earlier, from an article about five children left alone with no food or water? What kind of mother lets a child die? Why do I continue to wonder? We were sisters of different mothers, but the link remains those mothers, strangers to each other. Even the mothers we love are strangers.
Up from the underworld and into the brightness of Automotive: someone I loved is on my mind, and she is dead, and I'm longing to know if she — and the dead — can forgive. To be shown a sign that this is true. To know if words — perhaps these words — can bring a world of being back. We played "Lady of Fatima" with towels on our heads on top of the shed on the first Friday of June, 1968, and ran between wet sheets hanging on the clothesline to dry. I taught her to write her name with a red, white and blue American Airlines pen. We were mortal together. She was dead three days before I knew. There was a clean gleam of spilled soapy water on the bathroom floor on the last Friday of November, 2009, the day I knew.
How did I get here, to Automotive? How does a spot of blood end up on the ceiling, a blue blotch, like a baby blanket, in the crook of the roof? Who is the solitary bell-figure ringing in the gangway, protecting strange trinkets? What do the dead know, and how do they know it? Are the dead merely the spent electricity of a million all-night grocery stores? No more or less than superficial voltage? Can they navigate their way out of Automotive? Can they forgive? Is this longing nothing but the longing to see the dead arcing in their ragged cloud masses around a more brilliant nimbus? To understand the outraged heart, its pure sylvan tone?
I love someone who is dead. Can you guess who?
Here's a clue: I am longing to see her unpack her box from the other home again, the box containing two books — The Stories of the Saints and The Big Circus Book — a pair of striped pants and two pair of socks. To watch her watching, from the back seat of Dad's Rambler, the sun going down behind the airport after we shopped for shoes and perfume ("Desert Flower" and "Tabu") at the department store with the winking world logo. With the airport in front and a prairie behind, the store seemed like a remote outpost, harboring secrets no one could know. But I am not longing to know those secrets now, but rather to go to bed again while it was still light out, bare legs on clean sheets, and dream that bad dream again — of vomiting an opaque, gelatinous loaf lodged at the back of my throat — because it was that nightmare which allowed us to come up with the code of knocks on the bedposts: two knocks for yes, one knock for no. Every separation is a link, every link a code.
I love someone who is dead. Who said all obstacles point the way through? In the meantime, you've probably stopped guessing, because you know that the someone I love who is dead is you. You were dead three days before I knew.
Do you remember the big storms that summer, mid-afternoons, the storms that rose up in the mornings from the cornfields and prairies, the tornadoes reported in northern Cook County, funnels sighted in Kankakee, large hail and damaging winds in Hammond, in Gary? Ma raising her long arms over her head at breakfast, beating the air with her fists and saying, with giddy expectancy, "We're gonna have boomers today!" And then the rain-drenched stench of the Stockyards? How about waving at cows in racketing cattle cars on the tracks at 47th Street, not knowing they were doomed, despite Dad's blood-soaked butcher aprons and yellow work boots? Playing "It" between the carcasses hanging in the cooler at the back of his butcher shop? The nosebleeds and Colorforms? Ma telling relatives about your arrival over the phone: "Her name's Long ... but she's short!" Your purple necklace from the gumball machine at Walgreen's, and the jump rope song you brought with you from the other home:
On a mountain
Stands a lady
Who she is I do not know
All she wants is gold and silver
And the finest gentlemen
What about laughing so hard at Dad's joke — "Ain't that a funny place for a wheelbarrow?" — that a Fruit Loop shot out of your nose and hit the sugar bowl? The great desire to have everything cold, to run laughing down the long porch stairs and out in the yard, before the sun had moved above the roof? To run so fast into Grandma's for a drink of water we were blinded by the bright blue darkness? While she napped on the couch and Uncle Stas cut photos of naked girls out of dirty magazines we pried open the metal box that she kept next to her pillow and discovered brittle postcards and rosaries, a baggage claim ticket from a boat — White Star Line, Liverpool — and old photos with blue ink fingerprints. We found her thorn from the Crown of Thorns while snooping in her dresser for perfume. She didn't yell, or tell Ma; she made a rainbow appear over a wooden bowl of muddy rainwater collected for three weeks between the three big evergreens, and a healing salve for skinned knees from the mud of the sacred place. There is a longing for the memories that sit at the end of nostalgia to be a true communion. Because the dead sing encylopedias so immense we tremble. Their tone is lonely, sylvan, always after. Forever after. Never before. Why is it that the bell-figure ringing in gangway never warns of mistakes too monstrous for remorse?
Wandering out of Automotive, the panic of sunflowers at the entrance to Housewares reminds me of the flower aisle at the department store with the winking world logo, where fat plastic lillies and roses were stuck into a cardboard trellis and canopy that stretched the length of the aisle, and where, on the day before Labor Day 1968, while shopping for school supplies with Ma and Grandma, we joined hands and threw our heads back and twirled, laughing as the colors kaleidoscoped above us. A floor clerk gave us dirty looks, but Ma explained our situation, cranked her thumb at us and said: "We got the love affair of the century goin' on here!" Back at home, before bed, we sat next to each other on the edge of the bathtub and watched Dad take his dentures out — "I got teet' like the stars; they come out at night!" — and talk to himself in the mirror hanging from the dusty wire on the rusty nail above the sink: "Ooh, Frankie ... you should be in Hollywood!" I told him to tell you my favorite story, about how he worked in the Stockyards before the war and cut the cows' throats with a knife: "There was a guy that'd right away hit 'em in the head with a sledgehammer, and another guy'd pull a trap door open. Then the cow would go slidin' onto what they called the killin' floor. Then another guy'd tie a chain to the back legs and hoist it up to where I was, with the knife."
"And there was a lot of blood," I said, "right?"
"Sheets and sheets of blood!" he said, and dropped two Efferdents into the cup. The next morning, after the Cream of Wheat and uneasy cigarettes, real life began. But sometimes, because of the slim, slatted light across the wooden floorboards of the porch, the winter mornings seemed like spring.
What shines between ineffable being and imperfect humanity, between Automotive and Housewares: a distant, brilliant nimbus? an ordinary morning? a rainbow from the mud of the sacred place? the gray faces of afternoon game show hosts distorted by used TVs forever on the fritz? the feeling of agitation at being confined to the nubby couch for some infraction? There is the longing to stand alone — forever alone, now — at the boundary between Automotive and Housewares and know for certain that souls who were mortal together continue together, forever. Like school children the dead wait anxious in the dark behind closed doors, sweating and restless and longing for recess. Even in the hot, Clorox-smelling darkness of St. John of God's first floor hallway, thick with restless children, I knew you were there: I could smell your sweated-up blouse and green plaid wool jumper, your thick black hair. There is the longing to see you break rank and hit Lori Kulikowski again with your big cloth umbrella and yell, "Stop making fun of my sister!" To sit next to you again on the nubby couch on an anxious, uncertain Saturday and watch the Jackson 5's Super 8 home movie on "Soul Train," narrated by their father, and then Scotch-tape a poster of Michael Jackson surrounded by cupids and kisses over the painting of blue windmills in the parlor. We loved him because he played badminton with a blonde girl instead of eating with celebrities from the fruit trees in the bower.
Does childhood exist somewhere forever? Does it die naturally or do we kill it ourselves? Is it a necessary sacrifice? How does it move through time? What are its rhythms, its tones, its poses? What is its opaque nature now? Those strange trinkets of moods, rooms, routines — the swirl of dust in a beam of light is neither weightless diamonds nor evidence of a filthy floor; it is merely a site of division, a marker, lodged like a sliver in the finger of memory. It stings the senses, like the Clorox smell of longing, which always arises, unexpected, when we are restless and sweating and searching for lost parents. It's natural to search for lost parents. The ones we knew are also lost.
What does it mean to pause between Housewares and Automotive, transfixed in a site of division? How long can one be given to lingering? It was in sixth grade that nostalgia set in, that longing for when you first came, for the days when I only had one number in my age; the wondering about where spent electricity went, where residual light resided. One morning in spring, home sick from school, observing the diamond glint of swirling dust in a shaft of sun from the dusty blinds in our bedroom, I fished The Big Circus Book out from under boxes of baby clothes at the back of the closet, and breathed in its cold, moldy scent. I thought about buying watermelons from the red truck parked under the viaduct by Damen that first summer, and the old man who showed us what he believed to be the world's oldest watermelon — shrivelled, overripe, putrefied. Sometimes a childhood can overripen, shrivel and putrefy. Given to lingering, one must move, despite the longing to stay, to sit with Dad at the Goldblatts cafeteria counter again and have a foot-long hot dog, fries, and a Peps, for fifty cents, because "Man oh man, that's good eatin'!" To watch storm clouds gather above twin limestone steeples again, to feel the wind begin, and hear Ma yell from the second floor window, "Hey girls, come on in! That black kid you like is on television!" But then to not listen, and instead jump rope and sing "On A Mountain," loud, in the rain, then cling to the slender trunk of the pear tree playing "Mexican hurricane," and run soaking wet into Grandma's dim kitchen, where water trickled from the slop sink faucet into a colander, over a beef tongue, and steal secret glimpses of the thorn from the Crown of Thorns while she napped on the couch and Uncle Stas clipped dirty pictures. And to later console you when you had to stand in the corner, not because we'd stayed out in the rain, but because you'd scribbled with green crayon inside the lid of Ma's cedar chest. You stood facing the wall, your fist swiveling in your eye socket, your small body sweating, while Ma prowled the perimeters of the cramped four-room apartment, scanning for infractions. She said she was sending you back, told you to pack, handed you a brown Certified grocery bag. You cried harder, over the thunder, and I swung fists at the stain on the hip of her shift, defending your mishandling of the wedding silver. She may have won it at the Back of the Yards carnival when she was a teenager, but I was a big sister.
What is a big sister? Is she is a lovely, shampoo-scented popular teenager in a plaid maxi skirt and halter, surrounded by adoring jocks at the counter of a television soda shop? Cute Patty Duke belly-flopping down on a ballerina bedspread under "Go Team!" pennants? Pretty Marcia Brady in white knee socks opening a locker decorated with love letters? Poised Laurie Partridge pausing in homeroom to put her pencil to her lips? Is her name Cindy, does she wear plaid pedal pushers and pink Keds on campus and call her little sister "sis"? Or does she get ridiculed in gym class during volleyball for not knowing how to rotate? For having greasy hair and dirty arms all winter? Does Lori Kulikowski call her a palsy, and taunt, "You live in a polack apartment!" and does she then pretend the Brady Bunch parents are her parents? That she is the most beloved child star of all time, playing badminton with Michael Jackson in a Super 8 movie, and throwing the whole world into mourning when she dies? Does she "run away" to Ashland Avenue for two hours to make a statement? Does she love doing homework at the convent because the carpet is clean, there is no peeling wallpaper, and the rooms smell like oatmeal and hand lotion rather than blood soup, cigarettes and the rain-drenched stench of the Stockyards? Does she sweat and long for recess? Is she not a knower of soap operas, and can she not do the Robot? Doesn't she know there are mistakes too monstrous for remorse? What do big sisters who are still children know, and how are they supposed to know it?
What big sister turns her attention from something grievous to beams of energy emanating from broken kitchen linoleum? To the dying baby tiger on TV, looking up into the sun after being abandoned by its mother to vultures? To a plastic transistor radio under a pillow playing "There's A Kind of a Hush"? To the ordinary storefronts of Division Street seen from the back seat of the Rambler as Dad drove, lost on local roads, to Oak Forest to visit Uncle Bob and Aunt Alice "way out in the country" because he hated expressways because "Ya gotta have a t'ousand eyes"? It's natural to want to examine oblivion from the back seat of a Rambler, to take in the sights of division. There is a longing for catharsis, for the lost parts of the star soul to come together, to trust in the breath, in the basic nakedness that helps flesh and spirit achieve synthesis. To grieve for the loss of childhood once you have two numbers in your age, and for the loss of parents still living. Time sucks but space is okay when you're grieving for parents still living. They live "way out in the country," or next to the sinkhole that was the store with the winking world logo, or at the boundary between Automotive and Housewares that becomes the zero point field in the space-time continuum, at the most distant limit of which stretches the invisible Capital City of the dead.
What do big sisters know, and how do they know it? Do they believe they can bring still-living parents and little sisters back, big sisters being the most formidable force in the universe? Right now they are prowling the perimeters of the boundary between Automotive and Housewares, smashing figurines of farm animals and pulling down flowers. They have someone dead on their minds. They are not interested in what floor clerks think.
But I am still interested, after more than forty years, in knowing exactly what happened between you and Dad that last Saturday of December, 1971, when I was ten and you were eight, and I came around the corner of the living room from the bedroom, where I had been lying in bed listening to the transistor radio, sad at having two numbers in my age and fantasizing that I was the most beloved child star of all time singing "There's A Kind of a Hush" on "The Dinah Shore Show," and I saw you and Dad next to each other on the couch watching TV: he was leaned toward you, his face to your ear, against your block of black hair as if whispering, and you were staring at the TV, your chin resting on your swiveling fist — there was something unreadable, unspeakable there, and so I backed away, back to the bedroom, and sat on the edge of the bed, silent, sweating, watching beams of energy emanating from broken linoleum, a gelatinous opaque loaf lodging at the back of my throat. I was trying to decipher the code that that image divulged, trying to answer its questions: What did you see? What should you tell? Who should you tell? If you tell, will there be punishments, repercussions? Who will be punished? Will you be punished? Or just dismissed? Hated? Will the radio get taken away, like for bad grades? Will your little sister have to pack a brown Certified grocery bag? Will she get sent back? What if Dad did something bad?
I couldn't formulate a statement; there was no one to ask, no one to talk to, nothing but silence — the true communion — and a failure of imagination. All I wanted was to go back, back to the past, to the flower aisle on the day before Labor Day when I only had one number in my age and we waved at cows in racketing cattle cars and sang "On A Mountain." Then you came skipping into the kitchen. You looked into the bedroom and asked, "What the heck are you doin'? Starin' at the laloleum?" I said I had a stomachache; it was probably something I ate.
"Death being the remedy all singers dream of" is a line from Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish," and "Are there mistakes too monstrous for remorse?" is from "Tristan" by Edward Arlington Robinson.
ABOUT THE POET:
Sharon Mesmer's most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose, 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books, 2008); previous collections are Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press, 1998) and the chapbooks Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna Books, 2006) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Books, Tokyo, 1997, published to coincide with a month-long reading tour of Japan). Fiction collections are Ma Vie à Yonago (in French translation from Hachette Littératures, 2005) and In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000). From 2003-2006 her column, “Seasonal Affect,” appeared in the French fashion magazine Purple; currently her music and book reviews can be found in The Brooklyn Rail. In 1998 “Virgo Mater Creatrix,” her libretto in Latin composed for Prix de Rome-winning composer Barbara Kolb, premiered at the International Festival of Women Composers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her awards include a 2009 Jerome Foundation/SASE grant (as co-recipient/mentor, with poet Elisabeth Workman, grantee), two New York Foundation for the Arts poetry fellowships (2007 and 1999), and the 1990 MacArthur Scholarship given through the Brooklyn College MFA poetry program by nomination of Allen Ginsberg (through a gift by John Ashbery). For the past fifteen years she has taught literature courses, fiction workshops, and graduate poetry seminars at the New School in Manhattan. She is a member of the flarf collective.