“This epistolary essay felt risky to write, and not just because of the challenges I mention in the opening paragraphs. Inviting readers into any room of your life can suck some of the energy out of it: the space is now public; it is scrutinized, maybe no longer quite so potent. That principle has proved helpful for me when writing about personal tragedy—it draws out some of the sting—but here, I wondered about draining off the power of a fruitful creative partnership. A handful of times in the course of a human life, you chance upon ‘a brother from another mother, a sister from another mister’ (if I can use a silly phrase for a profound thing), and those bonds are worth guarding. But risky essays are sometimes worth the risk.
“For me, those soul-siblingships always seem rooted in writing or spirituality, so other hazards loomed. Writing about writing seems awfully self-referential, especially for a writer as early in her career as I am. Writing about spirituality risks sentimentality or alienating the reader. But both subjects, here, seemed unavoidable. I hope I managed it.
“A few final behind-the-story details: 1) When I say ‘music both sacred and profane,’ I am calling on those terms in their musical sense. Eli and I don’t often find ourselves in the same city, but when we do, we still get together to record songs. 2) The writing program that launched this whole thing is the Bennington Writing Seminars, itself a place where the sacred soaks the secular. And 3) Milo, my baby, is now a toddler, healthy and wild—and I am back at my desk again.”
Jen Hinst-White’s writing has appeared in The Common, Big Fiction, the Southampton Review, Image Journal’s Good Letters, Cactus Heart and elsewhere. She is a regular reviewer for ImageUpdate and blogs at jenhinstwhite.com. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she was a Liam Rector Scholar.
“A Stirring in the Blood” is the first in a new series of TMR web prose exclusives.
A Stirring in the Blood
By Jen Hinst-White
Midway through the white page, my girls scrawl black
lines like a reading of the squiggly-slack
electric activity in the heart, a muddied
Telecaster caked with the blues-bloodied
earth of a Jug’s Bend, Mississippi
—Elijah Burrell, “The Scribbling Blues”
You have written a book, and for months now I have struggled to say something about it. When two writers are good friends, and one publishes a book, it seems fitting for the other to reply in writing, even if only to dash off a flattering Amazon review; but I’ve failed even to do that. I try and then scrap it all and wish I had the inspired abandon of your scrawling girls in “The Scribbling Blues.”
The problem is this, I suspect: I can’t separate this piece of art from the friend who made it. And our friendship, in particular, is fruitful and rare; it sings a music sibling-strange, both sacred and profane; and when things border on the sacred, you do not go telling the town crier.
Since you appreciate wonderful sentences, here is one that I found in the New York Times recently, from a writer musing on the cloistered chemistry of creative partnerships. (Sarah Lewis, it was. She was reviewing of Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book on the power of creative pairs: duos like McCartney/Lennon, Wozniak/Jobs, and many others less illustrious but equally charged.) Such pairings, Lewis writes, are rife with “private languages,” “private realms.” And now here comes the sentence, wonderful because I have never heard this particular truth expressed this particular way, especially not in our very public age:
“The pair is a precious unit—private, generative, even holy.”
I tread warily, then, on the ground of this story. Still, there is a story to be told. And your book is too good and cost you too much in blood to go unsung. Let us see, then, if I write you a letter—if I pretend no one is listening—if I can speak more freely.
The first time you saw me, you said, was a summer day in the Green Mountains of Vermont, and I was carrying my firstborn in a nut-brown sling. I was the only one there with a three-month-old baby, so I was difficult to miss.
I beg your forgiveness for not remembering the first time I saw you or anyone else in that whirligig blur of that time: we were there for an intensive grad-school residency, and I was channeling all my limited powers into books and breastfeeding. I remember only the creak of wood floors and stroller wheels, the smell of milk-dotted pages, of coffee and the tick-tick-suck of my hungry babe as I nursed him before running off to the next lecture.
So you and I didn’t get to be friends until more than a year later, at our penultimate residency, when the baby was weaned and toddling, I’d finally finished the novel I’d been laboring over for years, and I emerged blinking into the waking world again.
One night, someone organized a musical open mic at the campus bar. I probably sang some sweet Irish thing with mischief and fiddle on the side. And you played melancholy alt-rock on an acoustic guitar.
“Maybe we should try one together next time?” you said.
Making music with other people is one of my deepest pleasures in life, one of the things that working parenthood had mostly put on hold. “Yeah,” I said. “Let’s.”
We were both surprised, I think, at how easy the harmonies were.
If this sounds like the beginning of a love story, well, of course it is—but not of the predictable romantic kind. I deeply loved and was heartily married to the man I’d loved since high school, and so were you to your own high-school love. What both you and I needed, I suspect—though I don’t think we’d been looking for it—was a creative partner. You and Polly had two young children, as Rob and I had our one. You both had demanding jobs back in Missouri, just as we did in New York. And this meant you were struggling hard, as I was, to navigate that threefold vocation: family and work-that-pays-the-bills and, finally, somewhere in there, writing. After graduation, when I got too absorbed in mothering and job to put pen to paper, your occasional text message often called me back: Listen to this song. Read this poem. Whatever you sent me, it was often the grain of sand that spurred the pearl of a new piece of writing.
Martha Graham once said that for artists, there is “no satisfaction whatever”—only a “queer divine dissatisfaction.” You seemed to know that queer divine dissatisfaction as well as I did. Each of us was trying to brew something potent for another human being to drink: a cup of wine wherein we could share the mysterious aching experience of being alive. Liam Rector, the poet who founded the writing seminars where we met, used to call it “the communion between writer and reader.” I don’t know about you, but only on the rarest graced days does my wine come up to snuff. Still, we labor, and try to be honest about the ache. And over time, that labor yields poems like the ones you write: poems that trawl the past, asking big questions, poems that long for fathoms-deep things, all the while knee-deep in a muddy, weedy world.
Of all your poems, here’s one of my favorites—or a sip of it, anyway. It’s never been published, to my knowledge; I smuggle it into this letter like a Prohibition bootlegger, and I hope you won’t mind.
I AM JUST A LIMITED ELIJAH
and how I’d love a spilling pull
from that fermented cupful
he swallowed, be word-boozed like the
pit-livered voice of Swansea.
To toil in the Jordan,
camel hair stole immersed,
the glaze of honey on my breath,
bald locust heads washing past
my knees on down
to the Dead Sea…
The biblical Elijah, of course, was a fire-casting prophet; John the Baptist, “the glaze of honey on his breath,” said he came to blaze a trail for “the light, the true light”; and the “pit-livered voice of Swansea,” I’d wager, is the same Welshman who raged, raged against the dying of the light.
Later in the poem, after invoking these three shaggy, fiery howlers, the “limited Elijah” takes the measure of his own fire. “Sparkle,” he calls it. “I sparkle,” he says, “like ditch weed”—the roadside marijuana that connoisseurs don’t bother to smoke.
Queer, divine dissatisfaction.
The title of your poem sometimes rattles around my head on days when I have given everything and still fall short—in life, in writing. When I flounder at my desk, fail at mothering, drown at work, when details trump wonder, I am a limited Elijah. I want the whirl of a holy cyclone, but here I am all gummed up in the muck.
Did you hear back from that agent? you texted me one day.
She says… I tapped back… She says she loved the plot, the characters, the setting, and the writing. But she didn’t “fall in love.”
Ellipses appeared; you were replying. Somebody will, you said.
Maybe so, maybe not, but I didn’t wallow. You and I were walking a twin journey, trying to see our books into print. But I could afford to go slowly, querying literary agents as time allowed.
You didn’t have that luxury. Around the time that you and I became friends, your mother was diagnosed with cancer, a cancer with a complicated name. She’d been battling it for two years now, and the treatment options were dwindling. She was always the greatest champion of your writing; as a young teenager you won a newspaper essay contest with a piece praising her. Some people, faced with the death of a parent, move up their wedding dates or pray the parent will hang on long enough to see them graduate from college. You—you needed to publish that book soon, or she would never hold a copy of it in her hands.
You’d been submitting the manuscript regularly to poetry presses, but no one was biting. The poems were potent, but something was off: “They don’t play well together,” is how you put it. Some of them needed to come out, and you had nothing yet to replace them. And all the while you drove your mom to treatments as time seeped away.
Ellipses again. You texted me a link. I’m thinking of doing this.
I tapped through. Another friend of yours was organizing a walkathon-style challenge to raise money for some worthy cause. Except it wasn’t walking. It was writing a poem a day for a month.
Do it, I said.
YOU should do it, you said.
I think I have plans in February.
You knew exactly what they were, too. I was seriously pregnantjust weeks from my due date now. This accounted, in part, for my patience with the publishing process: I was about to be very busy.
Anyway, if a genie had offered me one wish at that moment, as much as I wanted to see my book in print, that’s not what I would have asked for. My first birth was difficult. My second pregnancy had ended in miscarriage. What I wanted, more than anything, was to see this baby delivered—safely, easily, uncomplicatedly delivered.
Fortunately, all seemed healthy so far. In the evenings, Rob and I sat on the couch, watching my belly earthquake as our son-to-come rocked and rolled like a one-man mosh pit. His heartbeat was strong, he was facing the right way, and I was content.
Do that poem a day thing, I wrote. I mean it.
So it was that I found myself eight-and-a-half months pregnant and receiving a poem every morning.
That you sent them at all was surprising. I didn’t expect that you’d share any of them for weeks, at least. I mean—committing to writing a poem a day is like buying a dairy cow. Each day, the poet hauls himself out of a warm bed for the chill, dark walk to the barn, hoping to find heavy udders; and the poems, often, will be as raw as fresh milk. You wait until the cream rises.
But every morning I hefted myself out of my own warm bed, hip ligaments aching under the weight of my rock-and-roll baby, and when I checked my email, there it was in my inbox: a new poem. Every morning. You were crazy.
You don’t have to send me these, you know, I wrote. The time stamp was usually after midnight. You were teaching all day, spending evenings with your family, and then staying up late to write these poems.
I want to give you your money’s worth, you said. I had donated a little bit to the effort, not because I am the kind of virtuous soul who cared about your friend’s worthy cause, but because I am a hedonist greedy for more good art in the world, and wanted to spur you on.
First came the here-and-there poems, still assembling themselves—gorgeous language and the hot flicker of fresh-caught thoughts, but things still getting themselves in order, fuzzy and wriggling the way new poems often are. It was such a privilege, such a pleasure; I wasn’t writing, but it was so heartening to know that you were. Every once in a while I sent you a note back about this or that thing I liked.
And then one day, this poem appeared. It was called “Blood.” It described the transformation of an entire town’s water supply to blood—the faucets, the rivers, the sprinklers in the gated communities. And then these final frightening, enticing lines: “Folks fought seven days/to answer the question of how, not why.”
The next day, you sent a poem called “Frogs.”
The day after that, “Lice.”
You were visiting the plagues of Exodus on a contemporary Midwestern town.
The poems were chilling and eerie and sometimes blackly funny. And they were different than anything you’d ever sent. They had a dreadful weight to them. Nobody could call this the sparkle of ditch weed.
You are on to something good, I wrote you.
As you were doing this daily ritual, I was doing a weekly one. Rob knew what I was doing, and my mother, but I wasn’t telling anyone else—including you—because it wasn’t clear yet what it meant, exactly.
Each week I walked into a laboratory where a woman tied my arm with a tourniquet, scrubbed the crook of my elbow with a rough pad soaked in alcohol, and probed for a good vein. Because something strange was happening in my blood.
My platelets were dropping. Each week, the count was lower. The more they dropped, the riskier my birth would be.
I refused to worry. Until Valentine’s Day, when I went in for my routine appointment with the midwife. She studied my chart line by line, and then looked at me. “How do you feel,” she said, “about an induction?”
I shielded my belly with my hands and breathed evenly, as if her words didn’t terrify me. “Why?”
“You have thrombocytopenia,” she said. “Your platelets are dropping more quickly now and won’t return to normal until you deliver the baby. We don’t like to induce, but I want to schedule you for next week.”
I’d heard horror stories about the force of induced births: contractions fearsome in their intensity, a complicated cascade of interventions. Dizzy,I lay back on the table, white paper crackling under me, and I asked for juice.
It was a few days later, with still no hint of contractions commencing, that I finally texted you: Pray for labor.
I will, you said. Then you added a cheery postscript: Try walking, sex, and eggplant parmigiana! Ever helpful, you.
Thanks. We haven’t tried the eggplant yet.
But labor did not begin.
That Sunday I went to Mass at the local Franciscan friary. A handful of us stood in a circle around the altar, passing the chalice: The blood of Christ, we said to each other, the cup of salvation. After the service, a ninety-two-year-old friar put his hand on my belly and prayed that my baby would be safely delivered. Outside, deer browsed the fields.
Meanwhile, you were slaying livestock. The plague poems continued. The herds lay strewn in pastures/ for miles of road, you wrote. Foals, in midnuzzle with dams,/ dead…
The night before my induction, I cried until the wee hours. Contractions were coming, but they were weak and irregular. I took a warm bath that morning and drove with Rob to the hospital in my softest shirt, the one I’m probably too old to wear: Love Will Lead the Way, it says.
I feared so much. Complications and their corresponding remedies. Needles and drugs; labor not progressing; that cascade of interventions. Some unforeseen danger to my baby.
But I was a match for those induction drugs, it turned out. I had been practicing the breathing for months. The contractions rose and crashed like breakers, and I breathed through it all, my arms around my husband’s neck. Three minutes of pushing, and there was the boy. Unspeakable joy. They put him on my chest.
Then they took him from me again. The cord had been tangled tight all around his body when he was born. He was blue-gray, the color of his daddy’s jeans. “Come on, baby,” the nurse said, flicking his heels. “Give me a good cry.” He didn’t.
“Is he all right?” I said.
“He’s breathing, he just—” She began to rub him briskly.
I don’t remember what I was thinking during those moments or even what I was feeling, or how long it went on. All I remember is him, him in the nurse’s arms and not in mine, the littleness of him as she rubbed him and coaxed him and he didn’t cry, this baby who’d felt so strong kicking and rolling in my belly—this little gray baby.
But she rubbed him and rubbed him. She rubbed him to pinkness. Blood radiated through his torso and then, finally, slowly, into his face.
Soon, he was at my breast.
The next day, the final plague poem came.
I didn’t see it until I was waiting to be released from the hospital. I’d dressed my newborn in warm crimson clothes, and he lay in the bassinet—snoozing, birth-bruised and perfect. For a long while I watched him, then sat at the window, looking down on the ambulances as they came and went; then, idly, I checked my phone.
And there it was, the final poem in a terrible crescendo—the last of the plagues. The reason the Hebrews brushed their doorframes with blood.
“The Loss of His Firstborn,” it was called.
I read it. Walked to the bassinet. Checked to make sure the baby was still breathing.
We’d named him Milo. It means mild, peaceful, merciful.
My phone rang. The car was packed and the wheelchair ready. Rob returned; I hugged him tight. He gave me the baby.
That last poem was hard to read, I wrote you.
It was hard to write, you wrote back.
Before fate’s flood of misfortune,
I learned to make the good wine…
Call me Crescendo Maker, Grape Crusher.
Bring forth your water pots and watch me work.
—from “The Archipelago of Bats,” Elijah Burrell
On the first of February, the first of those twenty-eight poem days, the snow moon was a sliver past new. You took all you’d learned and you made a new thing, and you did it again the next night—every night, making anew, till the moon waxed and waned back and you’d done it; you’d written your poems, a double-fortnight’sworth.
And it started to become clear. What needed to go into the book, what needed culling. Clarity came slowly, but it came. And of course it sang of your mother, front to back.
You called it The Skin of the River. Fitting for a limited Elijah.
And then a press said Yes.
Scant months later, she held it in her hands in her hospital bed.
Scant months after that, you sat by the bed as she took her last breath.
You did what you set out to do.
But still she is gone. I know you well enough to know you would trade every book you’ll ever write to have her back—as I gladly would have chosen Milo’s life over every book I might ever write.
Neither of us gets to make that choice, of course. Or do we? We do get to choose how to spend our own breathing, heartbeating days on this earth. So why do we spend a single one of them writing? Why choose the creation of a single page over an hour with our flesh-and-blood loves, when any of us could die at any moment?
I read a striking paragraph recently in an essay called “Why Do We Write?”:
William Butler Yeats observed that ‘neither Christ nor Buddha nor Socrates wrote a book, for to do so is to exchange life for a logical process.’ In other words, there are those who write and those who live.
—Kristopher Jansma, Slice Magazine, Issue 12
Well, okay, Yeats. When you put it that way.
But what if writing is something more than just a logical process? In the course of his essay, Jansma explores about a dozen reasons we write, but the one that rings truest to me—and I suspect will to you, as well—is a quote from Jonathan Franzen, who says that “the deepest purpose of reading and writing” is “to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness.” There it is: Liam’s “communion between writer and reader.”
And when it is a true communion, we return to our flesh-and-blood lives changed. An inch closer, maybe, to being the humans we’re meant to be. We are changed because we have touched something fundamentally real and vital—which is to say holy. Not the schmaltzy, pastel-positive, Sunday-School-simple kind of “holy.” I mean the messy, passionate, blood-sweat-and-tears, rock-and-roll kind of holy—190-proof love. The ecstatically distilled lifeblood of all that lives.
I see you writing like that, Eli. I see it in every poem where you enter the cockleburs and creek-splash of your memories with all your senses sharp and awake, searching for something, something, left there for you. I see it when you stumble out onto the prairies of the imagination keening like a psalmist—
Before You made the light, took the light
away, hovered over the waters, bloodied them,
grew flowers from nothingness, sent locusts
to plunder them…
—with all the truthful gall of lines like those, and the dread-filled questions that follow.
I see it there, but not only there. I see it in the poems of wonder at your daughters—in the love poems for Polly—the “pleasure in the mouth” of poems like “Divinity”—
There is more, but I won’t. You have made a fine case of wine, my good friend. So go and make some more.
And for me: Please pray for my labors. I’ve written so spottily since my second babe came, and I want me back at my desk, too. I am a limited Elijah, scared to come up empty, but I stand knee-deep in the river and press in deeper. I look for the squiggly-slack activity in the heart. I wait for a stirring in the blood.
Cheers & love,