Friday, January 13, 2017

Poem366: MOTHER MAIL by Pia Taavila-Borsheim

Hot off the press is Pia Taavila-Borsheim’s chapbook, Mother Mail, released today from Hermeneutic Chaos Press.

It’s a heartbreaking collection, and while I found the poems very moving, I find myself glad the book is small. There is a lot of raw emotion in it, and this is best consumed in small bites.

The book’s project is clear at the dedication: “This collection of poems is dedicated to my six children. To the three who love: thank you. To the others: thank you for teaching me how to live.” And the poet’s painful rift from her children is the subject of most of these poems.

A poem that embraces this difficult theme is “To My Estranged Offspring,” where Taavila-Borsheim writes,

I know nothing of your relationships, marriages,
and your children do not play at my feet. My lap
and arms long to hold their wriggling genetics.

For some reason, half of the speaker’s children have turned their backs on her, and she tries to reckon with the reason, asking “Was my crime so grim? Is the chain forever snapped?”

But this is not only a book about pain. As the dedication suggests, it is also about the poet getting past the pain. In the same poem, she writes,

                                  The years took their toll
and now I find that shuffling along, head bent,

no longer suits my future plans, which include red shoes
and dancing. I will love the orb of my earthly existence,
will hold near to heart all that delights, will clasp to my breast

my lover’s hands, whose tender touch rights what’s wrong.

Still, pain and recovery from pain teeter-totter through the book, and Taavila-Borsheim tries to assess how to get past the former and arrive at the latter. In “Past the Perimeter,” for example, she writes about being set up at a book fair and having a mother with several children stop by. One child lingers, and Taavila-Borsheim writes,

She gravitates to the lake view, to the sun
on lapping waves, to the far remove.
If I am not to know my grandchildren,

if this wounding is to be eased at all,
it will be through watching this child,
this stranger on the edge, her wandering there.

I appreciate how the poet envisions the life she wants, “devoid / of clatter, of clamor’s insistence.” Instead, she writes,

                                                           it is
a life of red rain boots poised at the doorstep,
of a handful of friends and good lines in the writing,

a life in which the postman, huffing up the stairs,
hands me a package of letters bound in cotton cording,
their messages tender, of good hope and cheer.

I really believe that this is where the redemption is found, in life and in this poet’s words: We have to be able to picture the life we want for ourselves—in Taavila-Borsheim’s case, “unseen, above the bookstore, / a small life,” surrounded by books and with hands full of gray wool and knitting needles clacking. And once we see it, we have to make it real. Mother Mail does exactly that.

An interview with Pia Taavila-Borsheim …

What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

I have known, since second grade, that I wanted to be one kind of teacher or another. That was the year Sister John Thomas asked me to explain a math problem that was giving all the kids fits. I thought I understood the “what to do.” When she gave me a chance at the blackboard, all those little light bulbs started going off. Satisfying. Fun. And gee, summer vacation to boot! Teaching and its possibilities for intellectual exchange is what led me to my current position as a tenured, full professor in the English department at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.

What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.

Hmmm. Probably it is “tenacious.” That is a word that sounds like its meaning. Or maybe it’s “ascendant,” a word from a poem in which the moon rises and the human spirit rises and love rises, all in the same moment. Or, maybe it’s ….  

Describe your worst poetic habit.

My worst habit used to be worrying if I’d had a dry spell in the writing. I had to learn that it was a “seeing” time, a time to observe, to absorb and to process before the effort to transform, via writing, emerged. I had to learn to trust it. Nowadays, my worst habit is that I tend to use too many adjectives, so I “slash and burn” in the final edits. Those words are tempting; they are our precious, sixty-dollar trinkets.

It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.

There is a new effort among publishers to engage and publish the work of the community of those who are differently abled. I work in the Deaf community, and it’s nice to see Poetry and some other top journals giving space for poems that are sometimes written from an American Sign Language lexicon or grammatical structure (which is very different from English). I’d like to see more word play in this area.

It’s your poetic obituary! Finish it up, but not with your bio—finish it with an essential statement about your poetry. [Your name] was a poet of/who/with …

Ha! I’d like to think my poems make some sort of beauty out of chaos, that they ennoble the bleak or that they, at the very least, allow something to rise out of this decidedly dicey experience of living, loving, working. “She tried to let the abstract reside in the visual, the tactile, the sensory. Her work, although shamelessly autobiographic and personal, is, ultimately, universal in its depiction of shared experience.” I came, I wrote, I passed along. My words remain.

Pia Taavila-Borsheim grew up in Walled Lake, Michigan, and lives now in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband, David Borsheim. She received her BA and MA in American Literature from Eastern Michigan University (1977, 1979) and an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. (1985) from Michigan State University with areas of qualification in English, Sociology, and Philosophy. She is a tenured, full professor and teaches literature and creative writing at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. In 2008, Gallaudet University Press published Moon on the Meadow: Collected Poems 1977-2007; Finishing Line Press released Two Winters in 2011, and her new chapbook, Mother Mail, was released just today by Hermeneutic Chaos Press.

Taavila-Borsheim’s poems have appeared in several journals, including The Bear River Review, The Broadkill Review, Southern Humanities Review, Narrative Northeast, Tar River Poetry, Barrow Street, Threepenny Review, and The Southern Review, among others. She is a frequent participant at the Bear River, Sewanee, and Key West writing conferences. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart Prizes. She has just finished a chapbook titled Love Poems and a full-length manuscript of poems titled Notes to David, both of which are just now beginning to seek publishing homes.

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