Sometimes, in the late afternoons, a woman comes down from the second floor of the retirement center to sit in our small café. She always orders a glass of white wine. With the chilled liquid in front of her, she gazes into the tall trees that sway outside the picture windows. Occasionally, I join her, uninvited. I’m curious to learn of her life. She was a dancer with the USO. (Click) That much I’ve gleaned. And entertained the American troops in Europe near the end of World War II. She must be in her 90s, though the years have been kind to her.
Soon tired of my questions, she’ll give me a smile as fragile as the vapor trail of a jet plane overhead. “Everyone has a story,” she says, then falls silent.
Esther Elizabeth’s second book of poems, When I Die Tell Them This, is one of those people with a story. Having traveled two-thirds of the world for social causes, her latest book is personal and courageous in its outpouring. Yes, she had a pedophile grandfather; yes she had a failed marriage; yes she raised a child alone and yes, her struggles left her with an alcohol addiction she had to overcome. Her wounds dot her pages like puncture marks. But, they are old wounds, remnants of a healing that has left her stronger, more compassionate, because she has managed to forgive herself.
“According to Fred,” is the profile of a homeless man Elizabeth knew for 20 years. When he died, she took it upon herself to clear his hovel. What she found was a sack of charitable receipts. That an impoverished man could share so much came as a revelation: I give my time according to my convenience. I give things away I do not want. My giving is tax-deductible. In three short lines, the poet strips away the smugness attendant with charity. We are asked stare past the mirror of our vanity to catch glimpse of what true compassion asks of us.
In “Her Son,” a single line will do. Its thrust is brutal, like a dime store dagger. Someone’s child has died. Not Elizabeth’s but the loss is no less senseless: He was the first Oregon soldier to die in Iraq after the U. S. occupation.
Why do you fret my dear? the poet gives us perspective on the perturbations in our lives: ….the world always keeps turning and no one falls off?
“Remember,” tricks us. It isn’t about remembering, at all, but about anticipation. When young, the poet noticed the old couples who walked hand-in-hand.. …is this what love looks like, she wondered. Now old, she has her answer. It is. She walks hand-in-hand with her husband but asks a new question. What becomes of love when the pair no longer can walk? Her guess is hopeful. I will remember.
When I Die Tell Them This is a collection of poems written with Biblical simplicity. One finds no images that burn the inner eye. No, petals on a black wet bough*. Elizabeth is plain speaking. She could do more with her images. Still, one gasps at the sharp observations and the ironies that follow. Esther Elizabeth has a story to tell., and one that is worth reading. (Click)
(Originally published 7/3.2018)