My father, an electrical and mechanical engineer, a designer, a builder, a plumber, a sound engineer, a sailor—and later, a CEO—stayed home during my WWII childhood because he was inventing things the war effort thought it needed. He built his own automobile—this was Detroit, it was not uncommon. His father did the same and was also a hunter and all-around outdoorsman. Consequently, it has never occurred to me that a thing could not be done, if sufficient respect were paid to the laws of nature, as my father would have called them.
His knowledge was primarily perceptual, sensing the depth of water by the color, navigating by feel. I was mystified by what he saw in the air—these laws of nature—for indeed he just saw how things worked, the way I might see a marigold. And he was frustrated, and I was frustrated, that I could not do the same. He acquired, but disdained, book knowledge that supported his intuition, and he never trusted books nor any “pencil-pushers,’’ lawyers, ad men, or other nefarious workers in language.
This is a complicated heritage for a child who feels drawn to write. A disavowed, if not proscribed activity.
We moved to Chicago; I adored the huge buildings. My father bought architecture books with pictures, including one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a house built over a waterfall. By fifth grade I wanted to be an architect and was drawing plans, I loved math. In some respects I have become an architect, an envisioner of digital- or installation- or, indeed, print-poem-structures. These I do see in the air, somehow, and work to make them materially or virtually real.
My Scots-Irish grandmother believed in fairies. These could almost be spied in the thick lilies of the valley growing beside her driveway, or skirting the Queen Anne’s lace that we would stop the car to inspect in a field. She married a German doctor during World War I and was harassed by the local authorities: was she hoarding food in her attic? Her husband had been exiled by his mine-owning family in Silesia for helping to organize mine workers there. [My poem “slippingglimpse” in Zone : Zero uses language from a Silesian folk tale, “The Passion of the Flax.”] In this country he went from mining to medicine and died, of blood poisoning contracted during a surgery he was performing, when my mother was only 18 months old, before antibiotics. There was a great unspoken emptiness at the center of their lives, my mother’s and my grandmother’s.
My Welsh-English grandmother’s attic was the third floor of a house. It was full of rooms and trunks and old books, including journals from the 19th century that were bound as books. She wanted to capture me, perhaps from my mother, certainly from my other grandmother—I lived near them both. This contest was perhaps the first of many tugs-of-war where I felt pulled apart in very different directions. She was strict and formal and taught me card games. She made superb pies, using cherries from the tree in her garden. She kept icy cold water in ribbed glass refrigerator bottles. Hummingbirds came to her window.
My active, archivist grandmothers! The one who believed in fairies had been a suffragist (suffragette, she would have said) and a musician, earning her widowed way as an accompanist. The other, the archivist of journals, the Christian Scientist, a woman who had gone to teach on Indian reservations, who had studied to be an opera singer, then stayed home, imperially, but not happily.
My mother? The center: so quiet. Not thinking she should speak. Not believing she had anything worthy to say. She could serve. She could clean. She could help. She could listen and she did, to neighbors and to strangers. She was sought out. She did not seek. She did not speak.
This is a complicated heritage for a child who wants to write.
Especially . . . because I knew, unspoken, that she wanted me to write. For her, it seemed, to my young self. And that made it hardest of all. Hard to know whether it was I who wanted to write. If I were to do so, beyond kindergarten crayoned copying of verses, I felt and feared I would never escape her orbit of silence and service, the unbuilt and the unsaid. I wanted the life of the easily-traveling-about men, the easily-speaking men.
I tasted words, I loved poems. My fairy-acquainted grandmother had taught me songs and rhymes. That is, she taught me formal structures. So on all sides, formal structures—musical or architectural or engineering—all mesmerizing, immersive, enchanting: structures that encode the laws of their making and their meaning.
Nonetheless, all the way through college, I solved only math and science problems and wrote only critical essays about literature and history. Even before it ended, I had a child and two more within five years, more physically constrained than I had felt even my mother to be. At home with babies in the 1960s my creative resource was the radio and the explosion of popular music in that decade. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix and others, yet half against my will, reluctantly, wrenchingly, I began to scratch words on scraps of paper—and to throw them away. This situation changed only when my youngest son was almost two years old. I vividly recall rocking him in a room lit only by flashes from Christmas tree lights bursting against the ceiling. Overhearing my brother and a friend speaking softly, I heard this friend mention his poems. It suddenly, truly suddenly, struck me—dawned on me: he doesn’t tear them up. And that was it! There was tearing up—and not tearing up.
I have raised children, worked as a college librarian, and cared for several family members with longterm disabling illnesses, which I continue to do. The library job allowed me to get both an MS and an MFA in exchange for my work hours. I was originally rejected from the college’s MFA program. They told me that I could write prose, but not poetry, and suggested I take a summer workshop with Cynthia Macdonald. I did and was then admitted to the first year of a new graduate program at Sarah Lawrence. It was able to draw on the college’s outstanding undergraduate writing resources: teachers Jane Cooper, Grace Paley, Galway Kinnell, June Jordan, Alexis DeVeaux, and many others. Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser visited. The library had collected contemporary poetry since 1926.
Only late in my life have I taught writing and digital literature. In the course of my library work in the 1980s I faced the challenges of automating a college library and digital search. In my poems, I speak in the vicinity of science, one might say, including computational science, which I believe to be a juggernaut of the 21st century. I speak in forms—not only inherited literary forms, but forms the world is rich in. I focus on what women know and their varying historical experiences. I have been interested in the body, the sensing intuiting body of the engineer, the body of the nursing caretaking mother, the body of the woman who knows—and knows that she knows, even though the world does not affirm her knowledge. I have not ever wanted to claim one knowledge at the expense of another.
My 2019 book, How the Universe Is Made: Poems New & Selected (Ahsahta) has a through-line focus on women and forms of embodied knowledge. Ringing the Changes (Counterpath Press, 2020) is created from code that draws on the ancient art of tower-bell ringing. For sport, ordinary folk in 17th-century England rang every possible arrangement on seven bells. Sounded from a church tower changes are resonant peals, but in this book they are samples of language taken from writers who explore intertwined real / virtual worlds. A much smaller interactive toy companion, Liberty Ring!, probes Liberty through passages sampled from many writers, including The Framers. In both works, seven threads of thought weave new contexts for each other, in a ring, or in a line, as forms of civil conversation.
My mother died when I was 40. Simone Weil is the mentor of my adult life. I found her writings serendipitously and immersed myself in them in my thirties and after my mother’s death. Weil is a philosopher and a mystic, initiated in many forms of knowing and unknowing, interested in ethics, but interested most in a kind of spiritual knowing that is not possible in language alone. She was also awkward and difficult and exasperating, trying to do things in a world not at all ready to hear what, or how, she had to say. All of my books, after the first, have been affected by Weil and my relationship to her. She speaks in Bell 5 of Ringing the Changes.
I am late to the party because so many changes are needed before some of us can start.
New York City, 2020
Stephanie Strickland lives in New York City. Her 10 books of poetry include How the Universe Is Made: Poems New & Selected (2019) and Ringing the Changes (2020), a code-generated project for print based on the ancient art of tower bell-ringing. Other books include Dragon Logic and The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil. She has published 12 collaborative digital poems, most recently Liberty Ring! (2020), a companion piece to Ringing the Changes; House of Trust, a generative poem in praise of free public libraries; and Hours of the Night, an MP4 PowerPoint poem probing age and sleep. Her work across print and multiple media is being collected by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University. http://stephaniestrickland.com