Sheryl St. Germain
The Small Door of Your Death
Autumn House Press
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
Sheryl St. Germain makes no secret of her secrets. She’s the kind of writer who opens all her closets and invites the skeletons to the dinner table. In 6 previous books of poetry and 2 memoirs she details her experience as a junkie and alcoholic as well as the story of how addiction and violence have decimated her Creole-Cajun family, taking the lives, among others, of her father and younger brother. The Small Door of Your Death, her latest book, recounts yet another tragedy in this unfolding transgenerational saga, the death by drug overdose of her son at age 30.
The Small Door of Your Death, then, is a book-length elegy, incorporating the traditional elements of grief, remembrance of the dead, and consolation. What sets it apart, however,
is the overlay of family tragedy, especially the complex dynamic between the mother, who is an addict herself, and the son. Nothing is straightforward, neither grief, nor memory, nor even consolation. Everything is tinged with guilt and misgiving. There is darkness here, and the poet does not spare either the reader or herself.
The book, especially the earlier sections, is saturated with blame. As a convert to The Twelve Steps, the poet employs ruthless self-interrogation. An ex-addict, she knows all the tricks and excuses, all the perils and joys of addiction. She is not deluded about her son. As she indicates in “Loving an Addict” she is torn between her love and her desire for a little peace:
it was always fights or lies
maybe at the end
I preferred the lies
Along with brutal honesty, we encounter a resigned fatalism, as illustrated in “The Rhetoric of Wrecks”:
If we’ve had enough to drink,
we may be lucky not to hear the song
of our own dying.
At times, the poet cannot help but feel that another wreck waits just beyond the next curve.
A recovering addict, she is hungry for other kinds of pleasure or at least release from her pain. She dramatizes this hunger, its twisted Eros in “Louisiana Oranges”:
the smell lingers on your hands long after eating it…
This one cost fifty cents in the French market,
and before I leave I’ll draw in all its sweetness,
let it run down my mouth.
…I’ve not had a drink for three months.
This language of embodied feeling distinguishes St. Germain’s approach to poetry, an approach grounded in the matrix of her senses. Lodged within this matrix is an obsessive attention to time, the pain of pure duration along with the timeless abandon which comes with momentary satisfaction of her craving.
A number of the individual poems are titled for cards in the Tarot deck, all of them from the suit called Swords. This suit, as Wikipedia helpfully explains, is the suit of the warrior, and exemplifies not just strength and authority but also violence and suffering. St. Germain is more interested in the latter two. In “Suit of Swords” she introduces the theme of a family compromised by its genome:
This, the family into which we were born,
all edges and blades, a seeing so sharp
some of us are driven to blunt
all the ways we hurt.
Her son of course is an inheritor of this double-edged legacy, a legacy she feels powerless to counteract:
My son, the little sword, is trying to sleep,
but he’s tossing and turning, cutting himself
and me when I try to help.
but I’m a sword too,
and have little else to offer.
This agon of the divided self is enacted in various ways on the page. Frequently the two halves of the poem hug their respective margins as if they can’t stand to be in the same room with one another. Her ordinary/conscious self clings decorously to the left margin, while her son’s voice and her own misgivings press against the right. “Three of Swords,” for instance, which is given over to her negative voices, is completely right justified:
All bad news creeps through phones, voices cracking and flat
over the years and miles: it burned down, son says of the garage,
he’s dead, mother says of brother, dead, sister says of nephew…
The poem continues for 5 additional lines, each line increasingly bleak, ending with, “I’m leaving, says the son.”
At other times the poems appear as shredded as the self, wandering across the page in fits and starts. The opening to “Overdose: What They Say to Comfort Mothers” is particularly jagged:
think cancer, diabetes
think father, brothers
think chemistry, dopamine
nothing you could do
Only at the end of the book does the poet achieve a kind of balance between grief and acceptance, a balance which is mirrored in the patterning of stanzas in the book’s final poem, “Prayer for a Son.” Here are the first two stanzas:
May your soul now be with the creek,
may it swell and flood in spring, brimming
with excitement and wildness
as you sometimes were in this other life,
ebbing and emptying in winter
to reveal what had been hidden
in those spring woods—
the wounds and bones of your heart.
On its way to this resolution the book attempts various kinds of healing and consolation. In the book’s final section the poet takes a European trip. The passage from grief to relief is anything but direct, and yet along with the pain we encounter hope. Exuberant in language and attitude, “On a Trail in the Languedoc,” for instance, is a praise poem in honor of renewed life:
Let the brook beside me
be noisy and blessed with trout I will never catch,
let it blather and blab, giving away nothing
of its secrets, let there be abundant
fig trees, heavy with fruit I will never
pick, let wildflowers be bragging
and ecstatic everywhere I look,
and let some of them have names I do not
Consolation is hard to find and difficult to hold onto. As St. Germain admits in “The Truth Is”: “heaven and hell / are the same place for an addict.” But as the book also demonstrates—in vivid language and compelling detail—healing does occur, consolation is possible, even for those predisposed to disaster.