Tuesday, March 28, 2017

#SOL17: Live in the Layers

Mono Print Painting (M. A. Reilly, March 2017)

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray. 
Stanley Kunitz, The Layers

What's sacred?  What definitions of self are unwavering? In Stanley Kunitz's poem, the speaker learns, “Live in the layers,/not on the litter.” I have pondered those two lines for a long time, intrigued by their brevity and bigness. There's considerable wisdom in that bit of advice. 
Across the decades, identity layers have been formed and reformed by the attention paid and missed, by pressures and weights, as well as through the many understandings composed while living. Reflection matters. How easy it has been at times to be overly attentive to what rests at the surface, what Kunitz would call the litter.  In the last year, I have learned--out of necessity-- to tune my ears to silence and name those deep strengths and earth-bound truths I call my own.
At the center of my identity is the bone-deep belief that I am highly competent--a problem framer. I remember being so surprised after Rob's death when I had trouble doing ordinary acts, like booking a flight. I sat for hours, unmoving, until I realized that I just had to get on with it. And I did.  
I also am empathic. When I was writing my dissertation, Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of "I for Myself, Myself for Other" was central to the learning theory I would later compose. The self, as Bakhtin said, is always in dialogue with other.  Identity is dialogic--I exist in relationship to others. Even memories that we often think of as private are socially composed. What Bakhtin's writing helped me to learn is that empathy happens in the return to self.
As a child, I came to understand that I was a problem framer and empathic.  Later, I refined these understandings through my roles as wife, mother, sister, friend, teacher, artist, business owner, and now widow. 
Some years ago I wrote a poem that looked at these beginnings based on  George Ella Lyon's poem, "Where I'm From." I wrote it during an exercise in a class.  (I suspect you may have your own version too.) The poem means more now then when I wrote it.  Then I did not have need of the deep, abiding trust in self that this last year has required. These losses, multiple and shattering, have been costly, even though I realize that I am the better for it. 
Like the speaker in Kunitz's poem, as I age, I too have struggled not to stray. 

Where I'm from (Based on George Ella Lyons' poem) 
Self portrait, March 2017
I am from blocks of ivory soap of ice wedged between milk bottles in the summer, from the white, gabled home with dark green shutters, so solid against sudden storms. I am from the gnarled Cherry tree, its pale pink blossoms translucent against the wet, black bark. I’m from tinseled trees and stacks of books from Catherine Mary and Robert Emmett. I’m from daily piano scales and two-part Inventions. From Pop who played ragtime, all the time. I’m from “batter up,” and “I was just passin’ the time of day.” From Marches on Washington to “say five Hail Marys,” knowing too well the slim comfort of the confessional-- so dark and thick with secrets. I’m from Stamullen, tucked tight alongside the Irish Sea. From late afternoon tea with those who came back from the war and those who could not give up the ghosts. I am from all of this from the limbs that formed those long afternoons strong in ways I’ve learned to test.


  1. I don't know where to begin. This is a beautiful post in all respects--so much thought, so much introspection, so much wisdom. Your poem is one of the best adaptations of George Ella Lyon's that I've ever read. Reading it, I feel as though i am become part of your life too. Thank you so much for sharing all of this today.

    1. Diane, Thanks so much. I appreciate your comments about the quality of the writing. I am still nervous when I post a poem.

  2. The comment above is actually from diane of dianeandlynne. It seems that I can only post using my Google account which I share with my husband.

  3. To realize this as a child is profound, "As a child, I came to understand that I was a problem framer and empathic." I wonder what those realizations looked like, through a child's eyes.

    1. That would take some digging, Kristi. But an excellent idea.

  4. I haven't read the original poem but your adaption is certainly beautiful and moving.

  5. This is one of the most beautiful I am From poems I have ever read. So many images that made me want to linger and reread.

  6. I could read and re-read each post. I too have my own version of Where I am From......I loved learning a little bit more about you. Big hugs.-Barbara

  7. I'm with Carrie - this is one of the most soulful "Where I'm From" poems I have read. Thank you.

  8. I feel there are layers even under those you shared in your poem, feel myself nodding after reading your ending, "rom the limbs that formed
    those long afternoons/strong in ways I’ve learned to test." As time passes we do form a facility around us that helps us to the next place, a facility of self-knowledge. To know that helps face the challenges. Thanks as always, Mary Ann, for adding to my own reflection.

  9. It's been said numerous times, but I will say it again-- one of the best "Where I'm From" poems! I must return and read again, reflect and filter through the clues you have left. Perfect paring it with "Self Portrait." Thank you for sharing it.


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