Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 30, 2014

Finding Ways into Poems

During the past few months, age, grief, a heart condition, and who knows what else has brought more changes to my mother-in-law than in all the thirty years I’ve known her. She’s always been proud to be punctual and dependable, working at a library for many years without taking a single sick day, keeping regular habits, though those have switched in the past decade, so we’ve sometimes stopped in mid-afternoon and interrupted supper: “We thought we’d get that over with.” She’s famous for sticking to her opinion, which have recently been mostly about disappointments. Even food she used to like no longer tastes good. It’s a slippery world for all of us, as we navigate through conversations marked with denial and delusion, weighed down by depression. What’s true here? What can be of use?


My desk isn’t that dark – I’ve got tulips! – but these are the same questions I pose when writing a poem. A few weeks ago after visiting Alice in a hospital, I wrote in my journal as a way to order my mind back to what I’m more accustomed to, less ringing with desires that can’t be met. Hearing repetitions of small points of humor and compassion in my visit, and the way both Alice and I felt lost, I used those meeting places to structure Finding a Way.

That poem came together for me fairly quickly. More often I need to paste thick layers of words and phrases before I find a path from beginning to end. Listening for rhythms, the ends of breaths and echoes between words, I ask my more conscious self, who I’ve trained to be neither overly critical nor overly lazy, to note what may be of value, while paring away what’s not. Poet George Oppen wrote: “It is necessary to study the words you have written for the words have a longer history than you have and say more than you know.” We write and listen, as if following a conversation. If we keep at it long enough, and are honest about what we don’t know — perhaps because we’re writing fast enough to escape shame, or slowly enough to catch sight of something shy – we may catch something that’s deeper than our ordinary knowing. Maybe we can call it true.



  1. Oh, Jeannine. I’ve been wrapped up in my world and not paying attention to others’ lives. I’m so sorry for this painful journey and want you to know your beautiful poem made me weep. Alive knew you had to go home to write, because that is the essence of you. Putting words to paper that help the rest of us feel. Thank you for sharing.

    • Tracy, sometimes we need to be wrapped up in our worlds, but I’m glad you stepped out and found something that spoke to you. Sending best wishes to tracyworld!

  2. Marvelous post. Fabulous poem!

  3. I am going to let this quote echo around inside for a while. Thank you…

    • I’m finding that George Oppen quote a little too long to echo, but I keep sending it under my eyelids trying to fathom all the things in might mean.

  4. Your poem and this post have left me with so many thoughts, Jeannine. This is our journey, right ? We always hope that “we may catch something that’s deeper than our ordinary knowing.”
    I also loved the way you named this in the writing process, the “need to paste thick layers of words and phrases before I find a path from beginning to end”. So, so true!

    • Tara, I always feel honored when you say that I’ve nudged you into thoughts. And all that pasting of words. A friend says she gets an average of 3 poems after filling one of those 5 subject notebooks.

  5. “What’s true here? What can be of use?”

    Deep, immersing questions–they invite us to go inward, and perhaps help guide us forward. For me anyway, they serve as companions to another, significant question: “How can I be of service?”

    So glad you have tulips at your desk, and that the words are flowing, poems-in-the-making. Sending love to you and Peter, and to Alice.

    • Thank you for the love and thoughts during such a busy time of new beginnings for you. It’s so joyful to see your nest-building!

  6. I was talking with a friend at lunch about her mother-in-law, whose health is failing and is pulling her into a struggle with depression and anxiety. It *is* a slippery world for all of us. I enjoyed “Finding A Way” very much. Thanks, Jeannine. Hugs to you.

    • Thank you for reading and the hug, Tabatha. And understanding.

  7. I’m so sorry about what your mother-in-law (and all of you) are going through, Jeannine. It’s a beautiful poem, and hard-earned one.

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