Friday, June 6, 2014

Living for Stories

I’ve been exploring some of the reasons we tell, write and read stories. And why they have so much power over our lives. In many ways, we live for stories. They keep us from feeling alone and allow us to experience other lives and other places. We tell stories so that others might understand us better. Stories comfort, explain, excite, and touch our hearts. They record our histories and give our experiences shape and meaning.

Stories allow us to spend time with the living and the dead. In the acts of telling, reading and writing them, we discover truths--things we didn't know we knew. I’m often surprised by where the words and memories take me. I write to discover my life and share it with others. Sometimes a poem or story will connect two, seemingly disconnected events and bring new insights. The following is a story poem about my favorite aunt  She is an old lady now, but each time I read this poem she grows young again and my dead brother is brought back to life. This poem rose out of an exercise to make a list of "off the bell curve" characters we'd known, choose one, and remember a specific moment in time. When I began to write this story poem, I had no idea it would lead me to my brother and the heroin addiction that killed him.  


I am ten years old and she, perhaps thirty,
Chanel #5 and whiskey.
She leans against the basement pool table,
Strikes a sultry pose, like Lauren Bacall,
Cigarette balanced in her right hand.
Her long, autumn-leafed hair brushes
Against the yellow collar of her shirtwaist,
Cinched in with a grass-colored belt,
Matching stiletto heels,
A purse the size of Portugal.

Lillian Nel inhales. Her cigarette
Glows ruby-colored gems,
Birthstone rings on every finger.
My brother’s dazzling smile,
Humphrey Bogart eyes, lures her to his game.
As white smoke curls into the light,
Hovers above her, a vaporous halo,
She takes her cue, looks up at me through
Spider-leg lashes and shoots—the white ball
Clacks against a triangle
Bright as Easter eggs dyed last night
Because Jesus rose from the dead.

As balls dart out, sink into felted pockets
And disappear, my brother raises a toast to
Our favorite aunt, for whom no rules apply.
Behind the bar, Patsy Cline falls to pieces,
And my father, his Hamm’s beer sign flashing
Blue neon on his hair, pours his sister another.

Upstairs, my mother, who doesn’t approve of women
Who smoke, play pool, and drink whiskey sours,
Fries our aunt’s favorite buttermilk-battered chicken
In a cast-iron skillet. Though she longs for glamour,
Lillian Nel can’t escape her Appalachian past
Any more than my brother, his school photos
Still smiling above the knots in the pine paneling,
Will dodge a future where the god of heroin waits—
A gaping black pocket
Where brightness disappears.

Susan Clayton-Goldner’s fiction and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, Our Mothers/Ourselves, The Hawaii Pacific Review Best of a Decade and New Millennium Writings. She has twice won the National Writers’ Association Novel Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. in poetry. Her novel, Just Another Heartbeat : A Story of Loss and Reunion was a finalist for the Hemingway Award. Her first collection of poetry, A Question of Mortality, was just released by Wellstone Press, Ashland, Oregon.

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Sue Coletta said...

That was so beautiful, Susan. I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing such a touching poem.

Eliza Cross said...

"A vaporous halo" - such beautiful imagery. Thanks for so eloquently showing us why your aunt Lillian Nel was your favorite.

Unknown said...

Powerful stuff, Susan.