As we get ready for Jersey Mercy: Poetry of Place, Race, Sex, & Music as part of Light Of Day Foundation's Winterfest, Thursday January 12th in Asbury Park, I'm reflecting on why I wrote these poems, why I dedicated a portion the book to LoD and to people I know who have or are living with the terrible diseases the foundation raises money to combat. And I'm thinking about the idea of Jersey, the abstraction of mercy, and how they go together in my head.
I first began thinking about the difference between mercy and grace when Brent, my cousin's husband, was diagnosed with an aggresive form of ALS one February. He was dead by that September. He didn't know that previous Christmas would be his last with two young daughters, my neices, then just 2 and 6, and over the eight months from Brent's diagnosis to his passing, through the creeping paralysis that left him in the end unable to move a muscle from the chin down, he moved through suffering, we, his family, could not protect him from, but he also gained a clarity of heart in his experience.
A gruff, misanthropic guy as long as I'd known him, Brent was brutally humbled, as we all were, as anyone is when faced with such a devastating disease. He was only forty when diagnosed, just forty one at his death.
Just before he died, one day while I was taking a turn helping tend to his bodily care, having just cleaned the ventilator in his tracheostomy, a tube in his throat which would get gunked up with mucus, Brent began to weep. It's a terrible thing to watch someone cry when they can't move from the chin down, when they can't wipe their own tears, their own nose. He asked me to do that for him, and when he could speak again, he looked around the room, which was filled with cards and balloons and stuffed animals, all gifts of hope and care, all symbols of the many people--family, community members, local churches, volunteer groups, the kids' school--who were bringing food to his family now that he couldn't, helping clean house, take turns caring for him, helping with the kids, and more, and he said, "I didn't know how good people were."
There was an astonishment in his voice and an awareness in his eyes, an utter vulnerable but epiphanic surrender to knowledge of the heart of humanity he was being confronted by through his illness and through the kindness of people he had to helplessly depend upon.
In Brent's eyes, I saw something that stunned me and made me carry the tissue I'd wiped his tears with for weeks after in a pocket. I came to think what I'd seen was something like grace. I lost that tissue just like we can't hold onto grace.
Mercy is described as not being punished or being saved from suffering even though we deserve what might be coming to us, while grace is experiencing a blessing or gift not because we deserved or earned it.
It's hard to parse this out, but my book of poems, Jersey Mercy, is about the living music and about race and class and gender and the Jersey shore I've spent my life living along. A previous book, Panic, were also poems about the Jersey shore, about pain and loss, about the ugliness undereath the surfaces or our days and the beauty to be found even in the face of the horrendous, like Brent's experience. Panic is what I first felt; mercy is what I now try to cultivate.
A few years after Brent's death, my Aunt Judy was diagnosed with Parkinson's, as was my mentor, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Dunn. Both of them live with this debilitating disease with gracefulness, confronting their physical challenges with humor and dignity, a dignity born of confronting human frailty. They are both funny as hell. But man, you know it's hard.
Mercy in their cases might be that medical research has given them each treatments that are extending their lives, but Brent's suffering was off the charts and mercy for him might well have been the fastness of his death (eight months). But his daughters? His wife? We share suffering when someone we love suffers, and it doesn't end when they die. It lives in us.
I don't know who or what doles out mercy, but I do know we can lessen suffering for each other and that this place I've lived all my life--and maybe this is true of any place we root ourselves and give ourselves to and are claimed by--is filled with people trying to be human, playing the instruments of their lives, making music alone, together, dancing in the dark, in clubs, street corners, boardwalks, in kitchens, basements, and corner shops, with each other, alone, all of us dealing with private--and collective--suffering, all striving toward something like forgiveness. My Jersey is about that. To my mind, there's nothing quite like Jersey Mercy, and Light of Day exemplifies it.
And so did all the people who rallied about my cousin when he was dying, around his wife, his girls, the casseroles delivered, lawn mowings, house repairs, the volunteers who carried him in and out of the house when he had to go to the hospital, who gave Brent's wife respite when she was desperate, took her kids for icecream. And grace, too, was what I saw in them loving their dad the best they could, and his wife, man, I'll never forget this: when I and others begged her to send her husband to a facility and give up caring for him at home, she refused; again and again, she refused. She wanted to give him every dignity she could and let him stay with his family til the last moment.
I remember when she called to say Brent had passed. Eight brutal months. Her voice betrayed weariness. But it was clean. So clean. She'd done it hard but right as she could manage.
In my book, Jersey is a character who tries to find out who she is here on the Asbury Boards, in the backstreets of Eatontown and Long Branch, in 7-11 Parking lots and shore pizzarias. She's a stand in for all the people I've known here--myself included--facing things that want to break us, but we find a way to go on, with as much dancing as we can fit in as we do, and when someone we love falls down, we lean down with a hand to help them, haul them up if we can, or whisper something beautiful in their ear if we can't help them and have to let them go.
I hope you'll come out to this inaugural poetry event and support Light of Day and its mission. We'll have some great music by the Cornelius Eady trio and poems that will talk truth to power, speak the heart's sorrows and successes, and bring a little philly, a wee bit of Newark, some NYC, and a whole lot of Jersey shore power to bear. Here are some videos from my book. Maybe you'll like them; I took all the pics and vids.
Jersey Mercy Book Trailer I put together. Janna Smith, local writer and Jersey girl plays Mercy.
And here's a poem video: "God Stomp Glomp" by local videogropher Dan Kaufman.
This poem video was done by local artist and videographer Caleb Rechten:
"The Cops Never Busted Madam Marie" It takes its title from a song by a local singer song writer you might have hear of name of Bruce. He shows up in a couple of the poems as a character. Though everyone around her has met him and has a story, I never have, so I had to write him into one. Also, when I wrote the book, I'd never gone to Madam Marie's though I'd walked by it a thousand times. I went in recently, thinking it was time. Someday maybe I'll tell someone what she told me. For now, I'll just say grace comes in a lot of forms.