MYSTERY, MISCARRIAGE & MENDING: How Epistolary Erasure Poetry Threads Old Letters with New Narratives
We crave it, but we never get the whole story about our family of origin. How our parents came to create us––so much remains a mystery. Impossible for us to have been there at the beginning. Were we wanted? Were we planned? Did we come by accident or prayer, by passion, or by mistake? Always, there are secrets. We are given, as we grow, clues and hints. We track them, like detectives, piecing clarity together from a patchwork of what we intuit, what we overhear, what is told, or what is implied without telling, by silence.
Sometimes, by accident or luck, silences are broken in unpredictable ways. As my mother’s was, after she was dead. It was a gift I had no expectation of receiving––this box of surprise that came into my hands a few years ago. Inside: All the letters, handwritten, that my mother had sent to my father during their courtship, from 1953-1954, starting with their first date, and ending soon after they married. She was working as a records librarian at a hospital and living with her parents in Athol, MA. My father was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts while attending the Harvard Business School. My father’s mother, Flora, saved the letters over decades and handed them on to my aunt, who handed them on to my brother, who stored them without looking at them in his basement. Until he gave them to me.
Some of the letters were loose––many of them still had their envelopes with canceled stamps. I did my best to put them in order by date, or by weather suggesting a season, or a mention of a holiday. Touching the stiff paper she wrote on––moving my fingers over dark blue ink from her pen––was a delicious experience. My mother had lovely hand writing, and I easily recognized it as belonging to her alone. But who was she? This young woman falling in love with the man who would become my father, who wrote, playfully, “You’re just too much for me, I guess,” after spending a weekend with him in Cambridge.
Reading the letters brought her to back to life––at an age I never knew her. As a daughter, I was emotionally engaged with the voice of the letters as well as their content. As a poet, I knew I couldn’t let this fantastic source material languish in a box. I had the impulse to create something from her letters. But what?
…………….Oh how we want
to be taken
want to be mended
……..by what we enter.
—Excerpt from Jorie Graham, Scirocco
Entering my mother’s letters, I became involved with her emotional life––the highs and lows of their long-distance relationship. Despite more than a half century between when they were written and my encounter with them, I felt a gripping sense of immediacy. My parents didn’t know, day to day, letter to letter, where their relationship was headed. As a reader, I did. Even so, the letters were full of surprises and foreshadowed conflicts I watched them encounter in later years.
Most of her writing involved making plans to see him, updates on knitting him a sweater, her bowling scores, fond concerns about his exams and how she was spending most of her time missing him. But, in January of 1954, the plot thickened. My mother anxiously wrote to my father about the lateness of her period. Had a new life been created in the back seat of his mother’s car during a winter holiday when they were both in Athol? I realized her vulnerability, her worry, her guilt about interrupting his studies and becoming a financial burden to him just as he was graduating from business school without a job. Proof of her love for him was palpable in her letters. They wanted to be married; just not this soon. In April, when pregnancy was confirmed, I read about her embarrassment of telling her Catholic parents, and her gratitude once she felt their support. I read about their wedding plans, his father’s unwillingness to attend a wedding in the Catholic church, and his ultimate attendance. All the details of a ring and a dress. But not the miscarriage. There is no record of losing the pregnancy. It happened after they were married and living together––no more letters.
Here is one from March where she is telling my father there is still no sign of a period, but not to worry:
One of five siblings, I am the third born in my family. We grew up together from birth in the home my parents kept for over fifty years. One of five. It was through an aunt, my father’s sister, that the first hint came––my parents “had” to get married. My aunt thought I should know this––if a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, then she better marry the father before the child is born. This makes the child “legitimate.” I was a preteen when I learned this. Oh! Did that mean they only got married because she was pregnant?
My aunt’s tone seemed to imply something forced or false about my parents’ marriage. But my heart was fixed on a romantic ideal––that my parents had married for love. After all, they slept in the same bed. Kissed each other hello and goodbye. In the normal ways, they took care of each other. She made him dinner after we were in bed when he arrived home late from work. I smelled delicious smells she fed him after hours. He went to the office every day to earn a living, pay the bills. Sometimes, when she was at the stove on a weekend, he would pat her behind, nuzzle her neck before she giggled and shooed him away. After my aunt told me this secret, a fear that they hadn’t really wanted to get married festered.
I assumed it was my brother, the oldest of us, who was the baby on the way when they married in May of 1954. I never talked to my mother about this. Once when she had too much to drink, and I was a young teenager stationed beside her on the couch, the listener, she alluded to having had a miscarriage. A miscarriage? A baby never born––a pregnancy before my brother? Did that mean they got married and then lost the baby? At this stage of maturity, I could put together date of marriage, date of birth of my brother, and grasp the gap. They married in May of 1954. My brother was born in August of 1955. There was a baby, lost, in the early marriage, before my brother was born.
None of this origin story was anything my mother wanted to talk about or explain. When I had a miscarriage, a baby I wanted, and she drove me to the hospital for a D&C, we were silent about what I was going through, and about what she had gone through. I look back, of course, and see a missed opportunity. What if we had risked this conversation about feelings, about loss, about grief? It was kind of her to drive me and be with me at this vulnerable time. This was her emotionally remote kind of mothering that was very familiar to me. Not the kind of emotional intimacy I craved.
I was very much in love with my future husband, Frank, when I discovered I was pregnant. Almost at the exact same age as my mother––twenty-six. A week before Christmas, and we immediately became engaged. We wanted to raise a family together. But I lost the pregnancy. We were staying with my parents. Frank and I privately grieved. Within two months, and just a few months before our wedding in June, I became pregnant again. This baby, our son, was born the following December in 1987, the first of our three children.
Startling, the similarities in our stories. Through the letters, my mother was alive in an entirely new way. She was, and was not, my mother. Her writing invited me into a new relationship with her. As I writer, I had no desire to keep the lively scriptof her youth shut inside a dusty box in the closet. As I poet, I needed a form that would let me bring my own imagination and voice to the project––I wanted to preserve and challenge the text of the letters. Instinctively, I decided to try erasure. As the poet Laurie Clements Lambeth writes:
With erasure one story, one text informs the next, and they circle back upon each other, endlessly spinning, opening and closing, simultaneously with and without contrast.
I looked to the original work of the poet Mary Ruefle for ideas about how to proceed. But, where Ruefle works primarily with original texts that she alters––using black out, white out, and ink––I didn’t want to damage my mother’s originals. So, I spent hours photographing each page of a letter and both sides of every envelope and uploaded the images onto my laptop. Once I could work with digital images my creative strategies materialized. I followed Ruefle’s idea that. . . The words rise above the page, an eighth of an inch. . . they form a kind of field. . . I pick my words as if they were flowers. . .I, too, let my eyes scan a letter, plucking words that grabbed me, instinctively, and then I shaped my poachings into poems––one per letter. Guided by my intuition, my unconscious and my sense of beauty and irony, I made what I needed to make: a marriage of my mother’s letters with my poet’s craft, my daughter’s awareness of outcomes, and my unmet needs. After my collection was complete, it was my editor from Lily Poetry Review, Eileen Cleary, who dubbed what I had made “epistolary erasure poems.”
The letter I erased to make the poem “junior,” is not the one above, but a later one, after she knows she is pregnant and getting ready for the wedding. The palimpsest, or background, on which I placed my poem preserves a comment she makes about her obstetrician that foreshadows the miscarriage. The poem is a direct address to the unborn child. I wrote what mended, for me, the conversation about miscarriage that we never had.
Through my process of selecting and shaping, I entered the shared experience of longing and loss, of miscarriage, excavating the “rough” that we both experienced. I suppose I have written my poem, “junior,” as a letter back to my mother, as an apostrophe, as a way of thanking her for unraveling some of the mystery of our family of origin. And mostly, for letting me meet her in the kind of intimate, unguarded moment only two mothers can feel, but cannot always acknowledge in real time.
Incorporating ideas on form from erasure poets, I established these rules for creating this collection: One letter per poem. Many of the letters consist of multiple pages. Sometimes I selected only from the first page or the second page, or from all pages. However, I could only select words working forward through the letter, never backward. I followed the original use of capitalization. Original spelling is preserved. The palimpsest, or background, on which each poem is set, is made from an erasure of the original letter or its envelope. In revision, I aimed to shape the poem around what the poet DavidSchaafsma calls finding nuggets of beauty in something surprising.
My epistolary erasure poems are made from what I poached––by instinct, by hunger, by intuition, by mischief, by whimsy––to create what Mary Ruefle calls “a poetic experience.” And, I’ve discovered that erasure of personal letters of a departed loved one is a way of establishing a new phase of relationship––one that cannot escape the past even as it leaps into a new form. As Muriel Leung writes in her essay,“Erasure in Three Acts,” Tell me about disappearance, and I will tell you about palimpsests. Everything we try to erase still manages to leave something behind. Becauseerasure is an organic process, like cycles of nature, where loss is transformed into something worth keeping in a new way.
Kelly DuMar is a poet, playwright and workshop facilitator from Boston. She’s the author of four poetry collections, including jinx and heavenly calling, published by Lily Poetry Review Books in March 2023. Her poems and images are published in Bellevue Literary Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Thrush, Glassworks, Flock and more. Kelly teaches a variety of creative writing workshops, in person and online, and she teaches Play Labs for the International Women’s Writing Guild and the Transformative Language Arts Network. Kelly produces the Featured Open Mic for the Journal of Expressive Writing. Reach her at kellydumar.com