Originally published in Willow Springs 80
From the author
Notes on “Comfort on the Death of an Ancient Oak”
This piece started 5 or more years ago as a poem of about 15 lines. It had the image of the ruined ship and the story of a note on paper (I don’t know how to raise my daughter) becoming part of an ancient tree. I kept showing the poem to writer friends, and every response was along the lines of, “Huh? Something’s missing.” I was so sure the poem pointed to everything about my first years of motherhood, I’d tweak a few words and then ask another person to read it … and get the same puzzled or unmoved reaction.
I did what I usually do when a poem “needs more”: write loosely from what’s already on the page until I reach an image or idea that, condensed, belongs in the poem. In this case, though, nothing would condense—I had pages and pages of true statements that couldn’t be subsumed. And the stuff was hard to look at. Hard to admit, and hard to relive. Some years had to go by before I could make it seem whole, and some more years before I felt brave enough to send it out.
The beginning of motherhood had a hold on me for a long time, and making this essay was completely connected to the loosening of that hold.
The piece is also about envy and distance in a friendship–treacherous territory. When the essay was well on its way to publication, I shared it with the friend I wrote about–someone I care about very much. It’s probably no surprise to anyone that her story of that time is different from any of mine, and that my tiny view of the sweetness she experienced with her newborn was just that–a tiny view, a distorted sketch of a scene more complicated than I could portray or even see, flawed friend that I am. As the piece goes out into the world I’m mindful of the ways it fails this friend, even though it’s still the truest piece of writing I could make about those years.
Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.
You said you’re tired of hearing about books, but this is different: I listen to a lot of audiobooks while I’m running, gardening, driving, etc. It’s rare that the audio medium adds much to the book—usually it’s just a convenient way of taking in the words. But last month I listened to George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, and it was such a beautiful experience; it’s read by dozens of voices—one for each of the many voices of the book—a scheme that seems so right for the story, I can hardly imagine it would be as pleasurable to read it on paper. I hope it inspires many more interesting marriages of audio and literature in the future.
About Carolyn Williams-Noren
Carolyn Williams-Noren’s poems have appeared in AGNI, Salamander, Gigantic Sequins, Sugar House Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Small Like a Tooth, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2015. She is the recipient of a McKnight Artist Fellowship (2014), Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grants (2013 and 2016), and a Loft Mentor Award (2010). She founded and takes care of a little poetry library in the Minneapolis neighborhood where she lives with her family.