San Francisco Bay Area poet, Ann Emerson, was one of the first two people I invited to join in the collaboration we now call The BeZine. It was originally named Into the Bardo, in reference to the Buddhist state of existence between death and rebirth; so named because of life-compromising illnesses.
Ann was a gifted poet, but she didn’t find that out until after she was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. She discovered her voice in a hospital poetry class. Ultimately she studied with Ellen Bass in Santa Cruz, California.
After diagnosis, Ann survived for an almost consistently tortured six years. Physical pain. Trauma. Fear. Chemo. Poverty. She had signs posted around her house that said, “Live!”
While Ann spent a lot of time in the hospital, her home was a cabin in the Redwoods of La Honda, a stone’s throw from the log cabin where Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters so famously partied in 1964. She lived with her cats. Originally there were six and they were all blind. No one would take them in, so Ann did.
Ann was just a thesis away from her Ph.D. A few weeks before she died, four of Ann’s poems were published in American Poetry Review.
Two days before Ann died, she married the gentleman who was her sweetheart of thirty years. Ann’s wedding was held in her hospital room. Those of us in the attendance were required by the hospital to wear yellow gowns over our street clothes. The bride wore yellow too. The flowers and the ring were from the hospital gift shop. The founder and leader of our support group for people with catastrophic illness, a Buddhist chaplin, performed the ceremony. One of us took wedding photographs using a cell phone. I created a virtual wedding album. It was in its way lovely, but it was achingly sad.
When Ann died, we sat with her for some time because Buddhists don’t believe the soul leaves the body right away. Ann’s Buddhist teacher – someone she held in high regard – came and lead us in meditation and blessing.
Here – on the third anniversary of Ann’s death – are three of her poems. In closing, I added A Hunger for Bone, the poem I wrote the day her ashes were released to the sea near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. My poem in no way comes up to the gold standard Ann set, but it tells the story.
Elegy for Cat Five
Fuck the Glory that is Poetry,
fuck the smell of God in my hair,
The world is the color of driftwood,
this ordinary Wednesday in June.
Let’s have a moratorium on poems
about my shitty news from Stanford
and how I can’t tell heat from cold.
My blood dirty as brown sand in a museum,
and my cat, well, he has news too.
Death woman, skeleton cat,
I turned 57 yesterday when
the veterinarian said No.
I am taking us both to the ocean
for as long as we need:
red sand staining white fur.
I am smelling my cat’s iodine breath,
I am putting my hand in the wound
in my side. Dry brine stinking up
the air, seawater choking the
cawing gull in his throat.
And my face, he’d better
not fucking forget.
One more day leaving me
for a little peace of mind.
A Modern Poem (draft 1)
I am walking again through an American night,
past police stations with barred gates, windows
glazed warm with doughnuts, patrol cars in the lot.
I stand outdoors seeking coffee: someplace where
eyes will not wander through me when I sit in a red
booth filled with books as women fearing Altzeimer’s
hoard cats. I stay up until dawn, waiting for panic
to subside, to find the meaning in all things
in a city which says I am nothing.
I wake in my American forest, from a dream
of being shot: when one lives in a forest one cannot expect
the humane society always arriving in time. I walk through
the cabin and on down the path: moonlight blurs the redwoods,
wind blurs water. I feel like a girl safe in a picture book.
Indoors the television screen shines blue as topaz.
I am walking again through the forest aglow with
snowy owls and see-through salamanders.
Far from eyes broken like windows, and people
thinking they are nobodies, reading the paper
about life being rebuilt by night so that
no one notices it tumbling by day.
The Wrong Side of History
Fifty years ago, a house of
pale cinderblock. Sixty miles
north of here, Richmond
California, the poor
mending holes with colored thread.
I live in a house of
unnatural law, I am painting
landscapes in black: horses
and floating carpets of leaves.
When I am ten my father fills my mouth
with dirt for saying I want to die:
a ripped sheet twisted over my eyes,
my ankles hobbled in bed;
I summon the kingdom of horses
where lullabies murmur
brittle-legged ponies to sleep.
When I am twelve the city catches fire:
ruined faces of mares stretch for pages,
and when the tar roof seeps into
my room, I still do not run away.
Say nothing about the comfort of solitude,
stars crowded like sensations under the skin.
Say nothing about the morning blow of light,
the herd coughing on last night’s oily weed
– Ann Emerson
A Hunger for Bone
we scattered your relics, charred bone,
yours and your cats, to be rocked by waves,
to be rocked into yourself, the rhythm
enchanting you with cool soothing spume
merging your poetry with the ether,
rending our hearts with desolation,
shattering the ocean floor with your dreams
lost in lapping lazuli tides, dependable ~
relief perhaps after pain-swollen years of
suckle on the shards of a capricious grace
those last weeks …
your restless sleeps disrupted by
medical monitors, their metallic pings
not unlike meditation bells calling to you,
bringing you to presence and contemplation,
while bags hung like prayer-flags on a zephyr
fusing blood, salt, water
into collapsing veins, bleeding-out
under skin, purple and puce-stained,
air heavy and rank; we came not with chant,
but on the breath of love, we tumbled in
one-by-one to stand by you
to stand by you
when death arrived
and it arrived in sound, not in stealth,
broadcasting its jaundiced entrance
i am here, death bellowed on morphine
in slow drip, i am here death shouted,
offering tape to secure tubing, handing
you a standard-issue gown, oversized –
in washed-out blue, for your last journey
under the cold pale of fluorescent light
far from the evergreen of your redwood forest,
eager and greedy, death snatched
your jazzy PJs, your bling and pedicures,
your journals and pens, your computer and
cats, death tried your dignity and identity –
not quickly, no … in a tedious hospital bed,
extending torment, its rough tongue salting
your wounds, death’s hungering, a hunger
for bones, your frail white bones – but you
in your last exercise of will, thwarted death,
bequeathing your bones to the living sea
– Jamie Dedes
© 2011, Ann’s poems, her photo and that of her cate, Ann Emerson estate; © A Hunger for Bone and the yellow flower photograph, Jamie Dedes; photograph of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur courtesy of wordydave under CC BY SA 3.0