With the Edges of her Eyes

Today I’d like to share a poem I wrote about my maternal grandmother, who died in 1980, when I was only a senior in high school.

My grandmother was probably my favorite person on the planet.  I adored her and thought, as a teenager, that I could deal with just about any challenge, as long as it didn’t involve losing her.

Nana and I, two years before her death

My grandmother, born in 1903, was beautiful as a young girl:

However, when I was myself an adolescent, Nana fell and broke her hip.  She  was subsequently unable to reach her own feet, so when I visited her, my favorite place to stay in the summers, I often washed them for her–something I allude to in the poem that follows.


(in memory of Martha Gilbert Kunkle)

we are oblique and
at odd angles:
     me at the feet
     i once washed
     on a regular basis
in the dream:
     she is getting older
                melting or
looking at me
only with the edges
     of her eyes.

Though often in my dreams my grandmother is still alive, I’m grateful in the mornings  to know Nana, in all the ways that matter,  has never really left–blessing enough–in my own now aging  eyes.

Sanity Sucks (even on a Good Day)!

I’m not nearly  as crazy as I used to be.  Now you could say I’m even semi-sane–though I’m not sure that’s always an advisable way to survive the madness that is image-obsessed, media-driven, fast-food-consuming  middle America.

We may all be better off a little more crazy and a lot less obsessed with success.

However, and this is an over-sized qualifier indeed, my head has never quite figured out how to do sanity full-time.  If only it were 9 to 5 instead of 24/7.  That’s a lot more normal than I’m able to manage–even on a good day.

Too often still, my brain looks like this:

I feel the surreal that is this:

I enter the tangle
     of sleep
     beside you into the thick
     of camel hair
     and without water
the hand, a sudden
     five-pointed mutiny
     against the decay
                    a nightmare
of folded sheets

So don’t worry if the dishes aren’t done, the laundry looms.  The kids are bound to grow into semi-civilized adults despite your best efforts.

Normal’s not all it’s cracked up to be.  So go a little crazy today.

Do something radical and off the wall:  GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!

A Sister Lost: a Twin Remembered

In honor of Memorial Day, I’m remembering my identical twin sister Martha, who died several days after we were born. 

Twins born a month premature had little chance of survival in 1962, a time before medical science knew how to save the tiniest of infants.  I weighed just over 3 pounds, Marty just over 2.  The doctors promised my parents neither of us would survive, but it seems even then I was determined to beat the odds.

This poem is written in the voice of my sister, who describes our experience in the womb:  the veins lining the inside of the placenta we shared, her efforts to recite poetry about our time together , the fact that I was growing more quickly than she.

Hope you appreciate this poem about a primal kind of bonding and the profound sadness of losing someone whose DNA was identical to mine, someone who mirrored me even before the beginning, when “I” was “we” and “we” were wombed as one.


 To my twin sister who lived to tell about it


The room, which was poorly lit

     and warmer than we wanted,

     curved around us

               like planetarium


               like the rind

                    of cantaloupe

                    as seen from the inside


I remember how you traced

     the networking of veins

     with the stub that became

                  the index finger

                  of your left hand


While I recited garbled

     poems about

           the splitting

                  of space

          the fact that you were

                 gathering more




Writing Round the Vertigo

At the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month, I posted a piece called “Leaving the Seclusion Room  (some not-so-crazy notes on recoverying from mental illness)” about my stay at an Oklahoma psychiatric facility.  In that post I wrote about the voices I heard—an echo of children’s chatter—a description that prompted a question from my friend Sarah, who asked if I had ever explored those voices poetically—exploited their poetic potential, so to speak.

It turns out, I had.

Sort of.

The poem I’ll share below is written in several voices that interrupt one another—echoing—overlapping—dizzying.  Though there’s only one child’s voice in the mix of layered sing-song, this poem reminds me of the voices I still sometimes hear during times of vertigo-inducing stress–a surreal “reality” that looks a bit like this:

(photo by John Drysdale, " High Living Crocodile," 1976)

So–I hope you’ll wind these stairs with me–

And take a listen—




My head is killing

     me and he is talking

     about the etiquette

          of date rape


     cassette in the player

     cassette in the player






Where have you been?


The staircase is winding

     off the edges of the lawn

     and I am here



     lilies of the valley






I’ve told you not to

     go there





There you

                     daughter in the photograph

                     age three in front

                     of an antique typewriter

Kathy--already a writer--age 3

Why can’t you be more like . . .


    lilies of the valley






The world according to cats

     is not a crazy sphere

     of influence




          in my


     cassette in the player

     cassette in the player




another variation on not-so-sane

Today I’ll share yet another poem I wrote during my 1990 admission to Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If yesterday’s poem demonstrated how my associations had loosened (in the psychotic sense), if it betrayed the way my brain was processing (or not processing, as the case may be) something we’ll loosely call information, then today’s piece provides the same kind of evidence, indicating even more strongly how strange my “thinking” had become. 

parkside hospital       

     “I am in my own mind, / I am locked in the wrong house.”

      —Anne Sexton, “For the Year of the Insane”

you wonder why I am sick but
you must come to understand
that apple trees drop apples
before they’re ripe and the
apples rot.
you must come to understand
that I am made to think of
kitchen utensils and screwdrivers
which belong in separate
drawers but which for me
are all mixed up with cotton
balls and alcohol and clothes
pins that are used to
hang laundry on the line.
doing laundry is a difficult
chore.  i have trouble getting
the spots out, getting blood
out of panty crotches, so that
when they dry, they dry stiff
more like cardboard than cotton.
(25 march 1990)

I apparently went round and round with this during my stay at the hospital, as I have several variations in my journal.  I won’t bore you with the embarrassing awfulness of any others.

Please know though, that I have no earthly idea what this means and will rightly claim the insanity defense, for what it’s worth.  What was I thinking?  Likely, a strong case could be made that I wasn’t thinking with anything remotely resembling reason, let alone sanity.

But then again, maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, maybe my inability to make sense of this is a lesson in learning to develop empathy for myself, for who I was at that time.

How scared I must have been!  How confused! 

And what about others, the ones who are still struggling, right now–in real-time? 

Let’s remember them————————

A Poem from Parkside Hospital (for Mental Health Awareness Month)

Today I’ll take the story of my 1990 admission to Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one step further, passing along a poem I wrote as a patient there.

One of the things I find most striking in the poem below is evidence that my associations had loosened–a common symptom of psychosis.  Here, in fact, they’ve loosened  to the point that the poem, I think, lacks cohesion in literary terms.  However, I believe the piece provides some clues about the way my mind processed information at that time and how my sense of reality was largely based on loose leaps in logic.

mental illness

the edge of this
is not like other
edges.  I approach
it from the angle
we associate with
bent sticks stripped
of bark and the inner
coating which comes
off in layers against
the flat edge of
fingernail pressing:
     paint peeling
     orange peeling
     skin peeling after
and all of this only
to reveal error and
a false start.
so stripped i enter
naked into the oblivion
and am washed
ashore along with tomb
stones on which we read
about the deaths of
certain navigators.
sailors are a special
breed of the explorer—
straining toward the edge
of anything—crazy to
believe in spheres
they say—all is as it
appears to be—flat as
slate and born of one
dimension—folded not
pleated—pleats are
said to complicate the

Notice that an image I now call the “event horizon”  has crept into my description of mental illness–“the edge of this/is not like other/edges.”  I seem to believe I’m approaching a kind of emotional frontier, not knowing what’s next, what’s beyond, comparing my experience of “crazy” to that of the early explorers fighting the misperception that the world was flat.

I wish I were able to recall more clearly and concretely what I was thinking during these weeks in the hospital.  However, most of what I wrote was like this poem, a web of loosely linked images, a gauze in the guise of information, more evocative than overt.

Does anything about this poem seem important to you?