The Bookshelf: Poet Carol Westberg

May 29, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's new series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello will interview authors, cover literary events and publishing trends, and get recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email - the address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Hanover, New Hampshire poet Carol Westberg. Her new collection, Terra Infirma, dives head-first into the heavy, messy, stress-inducing parts of life: aging, parenthood, loneliness, and cancer—just to name a few.

It’s Westberg’s first collection since her debut, Slipstream, which was a finalist for the 20-11 New Hampshire Literary Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry. Take a listen to her conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below her book picks.
 

Carol's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.    Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein. "It’s just a wonderful compendium, and if you’re interested at all in meditation, it’s a great way to be taken through the meditation system."

2.    Middlemarch by George Eliot. "I think Middlemarch is something to read when you’re older. I absolutely disliked George Eliot when I first read her, but this book I read in my sixties, and I think it’s a totally different experience, based on when you read it. She’s funny, political in ways you don’t appreciate right away, and incredibly wonderful writer."

3.    A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. "This is her Earthsea Trilogy. Her protagonist is a young know-it-all who wants to become a wizard and gradually learns many life lessons. I couldn’t put it down."

4.    The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. "Ondaatje is a wonderful writer of fiction and poetry."

5.    Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. "A fabulous book and I think everyone should read it."
 

If I had to pick one thing that this book was about, I’d have to say that the stress of change. So my question to you is—is this a book about change, or if not, what’s it about to you?

That’s interesting. I never really thought about it as a book about change per se, although there’s a lot of change in it, because everything changes. I thought about it as a book about loss and love more than anything. It’s also a book about illness and coping with change. And there is stress in it for sure.

That definitely comes through. I wanted to ask you, since we’re talking about loss, about your brother. You have a series of poems about your brother. Could you tell us about him?

I dedicated this book to my brother, Craig, who is four years older than I am. He died in a mountain biking accident in Arizona. He lived for a long time in southern Colorado and that loss was very unexpected and difficult for the whole family.

You say he died in an accident, but he actually finally died in a hospital bed.

Right, he died from an accident. He was mountain biking and he was paralyzed by the fall and the whole family—his children, wife, sister, brother—all of us gathered and were able to say goodbye to him when he asked to be taken off life support.

And it’s a beautiful moment in the book, and I’m glad we arrived at this point, because I’m hoping you can read that poem for us. I think it’s called Halo.

Halo

You inhale through a hole in your throat
attached to the machine that breathes for you.
A silver halo drilled into your skull

secures your caged body, silent as sand,
They’ve stitched the cut that gaped
from your mouth into your cheek. You sleep

as long as the drug drips into your vein, wake
to hear, see, mouth words, unable to escape pain.
It’s my turn to see you alone.

How small you look, big brother—
hands still, legs still. I’m afraid to wake you
but touch your shoulder, wrist, foot.

I worry that your swollen feet will get cold
exposed with no sheet, then remember
they can’t be a source of pain. Only a miracle

could let you move again below the neck.
How could you not fear this tethered life
more than death? You climbed high into the Andes,

cast your small plane’s shadow over ocean
and desert, and just yesterday tore breakneck
down a Mazatzal trail to crash and sever

the lacework of nerves at the top of your spine.
A mercy that you, who don’t believe in miracles,
wake able to shape the words Let me go.

After your children smuggle in the dog
to lick your face, the hospital sends a slim angel
to turn off the machine.

That last stanza seems to be the key that turns the whole poem open. Did it come easy to you? Or was it a struggle?

This poem—I think for me the poems that work come fast. That particular stanza has been in and out of this poem many times. I agree with you, but I’ve also taken it out as too sentimental, and put it back in. But it’s in. And that’s the way it was published.

I know poets who labor for years over the same poem, and you’re nodding because you must have experienced this yourself. So how do you know when a poem is finally done, or is a poem ever finally done?

The saying that a poem is never finished, just abandoned—at a certain point you give up and call it done. Plenty of poets publish and later change their poems because they keep on tinkering. I would say I write very slowly. I’m not a prolific poet and I love the revision process. Sometimes you can make a poem worse that way, but in general I would say there comes a point at which you say, “It feels right.” Endings are very difficult and it’s hard to get the end that clicks.

My favorite poem was also one of the shortest, “Scrabble Lesson.”

I have to say I love this poem, too, but partly I love this poem because it’s about my favorite aunt, and she really was a Scrabble master and had a wonderful sense of humor, sort of biting and dark. And she and I carried on a correspondence from the time I was five.

Like letters, actual letters?
Postcards or letters. And I would send them out to her, and she would often send them back corrected.

Could you read “Scrabble Lesson”?

Scrabble Lesson

My daughter eyes a triple-letter square,
pleads wordlessly until
I abandon levity, spell out viral
in a less auspicious place.
Aunt Clary, a master at eighty-three,
smacks down mug above
the coveted space. The child sulks
in her chair. Stick around,
says Clary. It just gets worse.

(Both poems reprinted with permission from the publisher, David Robert Books)

That's Carol Westberg, author of the new poetry collection, Terra Infirma. And we want to know what's on your bookshelf. Write to us: books@nhpr.org.