What Lasts is the Breath
Poems by Janet Eigner
Black Swan Editions/Santa Fe 2013
And as I listen to and read these poems, I am heart-broken, opened, and then enlivened, and begin myself to see those I have lost in the elements, in moving clouds, the rain, in dancing fireplace flames, and suddenly then feel strengthened by their presence.
In a journey of writing for ten years on the untimely death of her 37-year-old daughter Naomi from an inoperable brain tumor that was late in being diagnosed, Janet Eigner has brought forth a handsome collection of poems that are already in nomination for the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Isaac’s Blessing, a poem from this collection, was chosen by former U.S Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and posted on the Poetry Foundation’s website American Life in Poetry, and a chapbook containing a selection of these poems, Cornstalk Mother, was published by Puddinghouse Publishers in 2009.
Her loss was especially difficult for Eigner, because she did not get across country in time to be at her daughter’s side when she died. As Eigner presses to share of herself, her poetry is lyrical, sometimes angry, pleading, all too human, and eventually transcendent.
An idea that seemed to catalyze the entire experience and bring it forward in new ways for Eigner is a meeting with a Hopi woman. As it is for many of us who come to the Southwest, contacts she has had with other cultures touched off something deep within Eigner that had been forgotten or never before experienced, and that eventually brought her around to honoring her own wisdom.
In the book’s first part, the poems reflect on a life that foreshadows the coming tragedy. At first there are bitter self-recriminations, she recalls only missed opportunities, only the times as a parent she wasn’t available, didn’t listen, wasn’t there for her daughter. In Rue Madder, she writes, “Oh my girl slowly fed me rue’s bitter leaves trying to attune my mother-ear.”
Her daughter Naomi was a potter, and ominously was drawn to making clay skulls. In Clay Vessels, Eigner rages at the small town doctor’s misdiagnoses, “like a blindered horse, he said ‘depression’ and ‘sinus’” but she moves the poem forward to recall the clay shapes her daughter fashioned, “She formed mermaids inside cerulean, frontal lobe lagoons” and finally ends in a graceful loop: “Feeling her fate, she threw not dice but clay.”
Moments of grief shoot through unexpectedly, like the mason jars of blackberries her daughter had gathered with her young son Isaac, in "Last Harvest":
After his mother died, Isaac wouldn’t allow
the blackberry jam jars from his sight.
He ran toward us when his father tried
to bestow a jar, flexed his hands
like a cop directs traffic,
frantic and yelling, No, no, no!
Eventually there come the grinding days of moving forward, and then glimpses of insight, often precipitated by thoughts that were shared with her by a Hopi mother, a woman she met on a visit to the Hopi mesas, who she quotes in the frontispiece to the book and from which the title comes, “What lasts is the breath. Its moisture binds all creation. When someone dies at Hopi, and then real soon it rains or snow, we know that spirit has returned one last time.”
A particularly remarkable poem that follows that thought is "A Wheel in the Wheel."
About that poem, Eigner says, “When Naomi returned to me as a swirl of snowflakes when no snow was falling anyplace in the vicinity, (my poem “A Wheel in the Wheel”) I was both referencing Ezekiel, the Kabbalistic concept of reincarnation and experiencing and believing her reincarnation was in progress.” The poem coalesces for Eigner around the idea of her daughter’s spirit, that it had gone to join the moisture; and finally, in a fall of snowflakes, she rejoices in the return of her daughter’s spirit in the elements:
As I dragged down the cold
graveled path toward the mail,
a tickle tendered my lips.
A column of sheer lace had dropped
from the blue as snowflakes spun
around my face, spiraled solely around me,
and the wheeling now flamed me.
A melting joy pooled certainty
that my daughter deep-swam
through some new realm,
while the great circling prairie grass
glowed dry and gold, the mountains’
juniper ridges remained wholly green.
I thanked my daughter
for her embrace,
her spirit touching
Reflecting on her contact with the Hopi and how it deepened her understanding of Judaism, Eigner, said, “I do understand that ruach, (breath or spirit or wind) all can refer in Jewish belief, to God, and that the concept began simply and gained God meaning over the centuries of Jewish evolution.”
The poems eventually lead up to the joy in her daughter’s younger son, and their son’s new son. In "Nieto’s First Voyage Forward," she writes joyfully of his unexpected first crawling forward towards her:
crawls forward, spies me peeking,
my wild love—
my transformed grief careening off the bedroom walls.
The baby and I can’t stop laughing
at his determined, delighted forward creep.
Like a new-born star’s journey of light years
or a comet cycling back
he arrives, for now, in my lap.
Eigner, now 70, has had a long career as a psychologist and writer of dance articles and reviews. Her life-long serious studies as a poet began in college and continued through one-on-one training with poetry professors, workshops with illustrious poets like Carolyn Forche, and writing groups.
She said, “By the time I landed in Santa Fe, in 1999, I had attained a level of proficiency that I just needed a writing group of peers to keep the input coming and the isolation from visiting. I was still maintaining a busy psychology private practice.”
Writers from her two poetry groups have become good friends. She says, “I’ve been writing with one of those poets, Steven Counsell, for 25 years. Four of us have formed a small publishing house, Black Swan Editions. We meet once a week to critique each other’s poems, learn and laugh a lot. We present readings together and go to local and out-of-state book fairs together.”
Counsell’s drawings illustrate the poetry in a profound marriage, and interestingly were done before the collection was put together. “Steve’s India ink drawings are an integral part of What Lasts Is The Breath. He drew them in the couple of years I was worrying about Naomi’s health, and titled the series, Before the Fall, though I didn’t know he was doing the series, and I’m still not sure if he had an intuition or unconscious feeling about Naomi’s decline or if some other reason prompted him to do those exquisite drawings. Each drawing is a plant or flower that subtly transforms into a human, most are transformations into women. I knew the bold beauty of the drawings deepened the emotion and subject of each poem with which the drawings are paired.”
Eigner also meets with hospice and grief groups to share her poems and asks participants to bring and share “prayers, poems, music, jokes, experiences that helped them through their journey through grief.” She explains to them that she found a structure, “after I’d written all of the 63 poems that went into the book, the poems naturally separated into these stages, periods that fit for me,” and in her presentations goes on to share poems at each of these stages for discussion. She identifies them as her personal stages, not necessarily anyone else’s:
“The first stage, premonitions that something was terribly wrong, health-wise, with our daughter. Second: her passing and the rituals attendant with memorials, grief, terrible regret and so much support from family & friends; the desperation to connect with our daughter on the other side, and the desperation and fierce, protective love I felt for her sons, particularly the toddler, Isaac.
“Third: the lonely minutes, days, months, years, decade, eventually, when there was no one to support me/us during a particular wave of grief, just having to tough it out (this is when poems generally came to me and helped me through the pain).
“Fourth: signs of renewal: birth of our son's son who is a fourth grandson and all of the joy and savoring a new life.”
The next public readings Eigner has scheduled in 2013 will be on Wednesday, November 6, 6:30,pm, at Chabad Jewish Center, Jewish Women’s Circle in Santa Fe (reservations required; fee for supper buffet) and on Sunday, November 10th, 3pm, La Tienda Performance Space, Eldorado.
Eigner reads a selection of her poems on www.eignerdanceswithwords.com. Copies of the book can be ordered at http://eignerdancereviews.wordpress.com/595-2/ or by sending a check directly $18.85 (includes tax & shipping), make checks payable to: Janet Eigner, 6 Verano Drive, Santa Fe, NM 87508.
Diane Schmidt is an internationally published and award-winning writer and photojournalist. This article first appeared in the New Mexico Link, November, 2013, page 8, where she has been a contributing correspondent since 2010.
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