Old Woman, New Poems
I lay awake for a long time before dawn, restless, feeling despair about my writing: a waste of breath. For all my working at it, my bliss in it, I’m not a poet. And then: no one has any interest in my being here. No one cares for me.
I’ve had these feelings before in my twenty-five years of writing poems, but they’ve never stopped me from writing, or from making a book or chapbook every five years or so when I had a batch of poems that embodied a period of my life. I’ve always felt a drive to have my poems out in the world, seeing the light of day, like seedlings seeking water and minerals and sunshine.
Now, at seventy-five, I have another sheaf of poems. But this time I feel a desire to consign them to a dark drawer, where they will lie in the dust of desiccated flies and hornets, never to be received with a pat on the back: welcome, come into the light. I thought I’d got the best of it in years of therapy, this despair from my childhood. But now, again, I find I want to hide what I’m doing, keep it to myself. Worse, turn against what I’ve done. It’s the old stuff, believing I have to keep myself to myself if I want to survive.
My therapist died two years ago. I can’t go back to her and say: Jean, I’m stuck, the old impulse to draw myself in, to disappear, is getting stronger. This feeling we explored and excavated and, I thought, overcame is back now. Is this what comes with age, this regressing to the sense of the isolation and loneliness that once led me to therapy? Is this the burden of age, more than backaches, foot arthritis, a pinch in my shoulders? I don’t have the stamina I had when you kept drawing me out, breath by breath, to embrace my being in the world.
Age is a crossroads. I’ve known that for a long time, watched friends come to the four corners, make their decisions. I thought smugly that I’d already passed through on the right path. Now I feel as if the road forward is blocked, the signal gate jammed.
Curiously this is happening at a time when I feel excitement bubbling into felt-tip pen drawings, mostly of women in motion, odd faces, arms, hands, hair, lots of saturated color. I don’t know who they are or what they mean, these figures that keep snaking from my fingers, except that they belong with my poems and are pulling me forward, refusing exile.
Yesterday I had time to read through my new poems again, this time aloud. I made small changes in some, cutting out or changing this or that word, getting the rhythm just right. Mostly I felt satisfied. Sometimes I felt transfixed. Yes! That’s what I meant. Always I felt accompanied, as if I’d rejoined the part of myself that feels my life. This is how I’m doing. This is how the part of me that expresses herself in poems and drawings is doing. The part that I, like many artists, don’t communicate any other way.
I have in front of me at the computer a photograph of the beautiful face and smile of an artist friend. It took a year before I heard the sad news from Oregon. Her husband sent me this memorial photo in which she wears a white sweater, dark blue scarf, her curly hair silvery white. Her smile is knowing. I listen again to her voice in cyberspace, reading her ironic, witty, original eight-minute poem about how we are tormenting our beautiful beloved earth. So much art, so little time, she inserted in one of her collages. She, Joyce Keener, always wrote encouraging words to me about my work and other older women’s voices I’d published. She lives here in my computer, just as my dead sister lives in her statues of a naked woman and man I keep out all summer in the garden, in all winter by the hearth.
Today there is ice on all the trees and shrubs on my road, a sickly gray, unhealthy-looking ice that doesn’t sparkle like ice in winter. It’s not winter. It’s spring, a chilly April. The crocuses are out in the cold, dozens of them. They’ve been out almost two weeks but have never had a moment to open wide, waxy and wet, in sunshine. I can’t think of gardening yet, though I’ve ordered seeds. But as soon as it warms, I will start the seven-month-long exercise of cultivating food and beauty from my soil.
So hard to imagine in this ice. I feel I’ve become old in the last five years. My sister dead. My therapist dead. Friends, close and distant, one after another dead. The terrible wars. My body fails me. These are the years of my feet hurting, arthritis making my whole body ache, lament. Fleetness long gone. Last year a woodchuck ate the heads of my carrots and the flowering of my broccoli just at the moment of fruition. I forget the sun will invite me outside, the ground will offer my knees a cushion, my joints—wrist, ankle, knee, shoulder—will ache. (I feel them now.) I will go forward. Sunshine will draw me.
I will call my collection: old woman, new poems. What else but art can take on this experience of life coming to an ending but lived in the daily? What else can communicate the minute and extreme changes that mark the drama of old age, this strange intensity of absence foreshadowed in presence?
These things matter: to keep going, to keep writing, making our art, or whatever brings us all the way out into the world, our print on the consciousness of the earth, of each other. I want to be known for who I am as an old woman artist. I want to be in the conversation. It’s as simple as that.
That’s what my friend is saying in the photo, her arms lifted, folded behind her head, leaving her chest, her breast, her heart open. She’s looking me straight in the eye.
Sondra Zeidenstein is the author of A Detail in That Story and Resistance. She is the editor of several anthologies, including A Wider Giving: Women
Writing after a Long Silence and Family Reunion: Poems about Parenting Grown Children. She is publisher of Chicory Blue Press (
www.chicorybluepress.com), a small
literary press that focuses on writing by women past sixty.
29 Aug 2010, 23:13
Now that I am almost 70 I too want to read more from you and I am anxious
to see your drawings. I hope that your garden has given you lots of carrots
and broccoli. Keep writing. Keep drawing.You are a beautiful writer. So
honest. So brave. Love and hugs, Roberta
14 Apr 2010, 21:31
Dear Sondra Z,
Your very touching essay this month, saddened me, but I'm happy that
you are still writing. Talk to your Muse more often, give her a gin&tonic
once in awhile, and watch what happens.
She'll thank you and open up other doors of your imagination. Be in
11 Apr 2010, 06:52
Amazingly honest and so much was`said! Thank you for all you shared.
carrie Luger Slayback
06 Apr 2010, 16:33
I am sitting at my computer, trying to write for a feature to be published
next Spring. I stopped to read PersimmonTree. You set a high standard.
01 Apr 2010, 07:23
Ah! This is what truth sounds like: bold and brave! I look forward to
visiting your website. And Bravo for Persimmon! Equally bold and brave ...
and to us its readers. Keep writing,Sondra, prose and poetry--the world
needs to hear you.
Nancy Bailey Miller
31 Mar 2010, 18:30
Sondra, I was very moved by your words today. Were you in a poetry
workshop I took at Omega with Sharon Olds? I remember your wisdom from
that week. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
Zdena Hyblova Heller
18 Mar 2010, 18:46
Thank you for sharing and articulating this unpredictable place. It
helps.At 75 I feel surprised and angry at myself for being often
immobilized about my writing.
18 Mar 2010, 07:17
I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Years ago my daughter said, "Mom is a
doer, not a thinker." Very true, but I do like reading others analysis of
life. I am 86, so I do not consider you old. Keep on writing---it is
wonderful---you have years yet.
17 Mar 2010, 19:01
At 81 (or as a child might say, "81 and a half" I have not been able to
express the feeling of age, and am really touched to see it well expressed
by a younger woman! I too will look up more of your writing.
I am slowly writing memoirs, including present thoughts; am part of a small
group of women meeting once a week to hear each other's work. We have
become friends and support each other. It is a high spot in the week for
Patricia Waters, Cotati, CA
17 Mar 2010, 14:01
At 75 as an artist (although I haven't had the impulse to do much art
lately) and sometimes writer (though I can't call myself a poet) I am going
through so many of the feelings that you name. It takes a lot to adjust to
limitations, some subtle, some extremely "there" and inescapable. Whatever
you do, do not relegate your poems to a dark drawer. I, for one, want to
read them! And soon! Our aging voices need to be out in the world. Thank
17 Mar 2010, 10:37
Sondra, I am moved by your reflections and see myself in them to be sure.
What a breath of fresh air to have the truth named so clearly. You give me
hope. I want to read more of your writing. Thank you for this.
16 Mar 2010, 11:26
What a delightful surprise to find your smiling face on the web with
PERSIMMON Magazine. I hope you are well and happy. I certainly am, about
to turn 86 in April, just published my
7th poetry collection - PAX VOBISCUM:Anti-War Poetry Collection, dedicated
to Germany's great Kathe Kollwitz, a portion of sales to go to
Doctors Without Borders in Chile and Haiti. Warm hugs, Patricia
16 Mar 2010, 05:18
I was really touched by your words so want to respond. There is such a
wealth of feelings in it and your description of your reality makes me want
to read more. Thank you for sharing your reality and I trust the sun is
out now where you are.
Best Wishes, Irene
15 Mar 2010, 21:20
Enormously touching, honest, not all at "negative"
or "sorry self." Truth is here. Keep writing Sondra.
75 is not that old. Today, we're on this planet many
years. My best, Elaine Starkman, Walnut Creek, CA 94598