The Small Door of Your Death
(Autumn House Press, 2018)
Writers of elegy are compelled to remember their dead, even when they can’t forget them. Therefore, the art’s best practitioners offset despair with a sense of affirmation. They must also articulate universal experience through personal suffering and master aesthetic distance while conveying emotional intensity. Such balances, always hard to strike, are that much more difficult when the poet is a parent mourning the loss of a child. Only the bravest bard risks that charge—and the relentless focus Sheryl St. Germain invests in The Small Door of Your Death proves she’s very brave indeed. With unwavering restraint, she records and deconstructs her son Gray’s losing battle to heroin using an original, disciplined language to express maternal anxiety. The remarkable control with which she handles her subject does not disguise or dampen moments of searing pain. On every page of St. Germain’s fifth book of poems, she manifests what Adrienne Rich once called “wild patience.”
Organized into five sections, The Small Door of Your Death charts Gray’s struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, his earnest yet fragile attempts at rehabilitation and, finally, his sudden fatal relapse. St. Germain serves as witness to this doomed journey, empathizing with her son’s suffering while realizing she is unable to rescue him from its inevitable perils and degradations. Sometimes the resultant poems, such as “Christmas 2013,” reveal the two’s predicaments with disarming nakedness:
He’s no longer a boy, but a young man
with eyes that ask to be left alone.
I’m driving him to his apartment
after two days of cooking, movies, holiday cheer.
I don’t know, Mom, he says suddenly,
through tears, what will become of me.
I freeze and thaw, unsure of what to do—
always that dance of how much touching
he wants, how much I can stand to give.
Terse yet tender, this poem, and others like it, push lyric utterance to its barest, most unbearable limits. Elsewhere, however, St. Germain develops a slightly more elaborate metaphorical strategy. About 1/5 of The Small Door of Your Death is comprised of poems titled after tarot cards. Most of these are related to swords, as in “Suit of Swords,” where the author admits, “This, the family into which we were born, / all edges and blades, a seeing so sharp / some of us are driven to blunt / all the ways we hurt.” In the best of such poems, St. Germain weds direct utterance with telling allegory, as evidenced in “Knight of Swords”:
You call in the middle of the night
to tell me you’ll never stop drinking
because it feels so good.
You aren’t like your grandfather and uncle,
you say, long dead of it.
you are you,
and you’ll go out of your own way.
Maybe, you slur, I’ll do it now.
The “Knight of Swords” card warns of information arriving at an inconvenient time, usually delivered in an insensitive manner. St. Germain introduces the concept in a scene both powerful and restrained. Throughout its presentation, she avoids any commentary or reaction, letting Gray’s taunting voice through the telephone speak for itself. Whatever spurs him to call can only be surmised through irony: “it feels good” should not be taken at face value, for if his drinking did he wouldn’t have called so restless and defensive in the middle of night. Hints of prior accusations and recriminations color the second stanza where Gray, refusing his place in the family suit of swords, disavows his relation to the dead who fell before him and refutes his mother’s previous warnings that he will end where they ended. The expert break between lines four and five—where “you say” undercuts the assertion of the previous line—reinforces the significant gap between Gray’s limited awareness and the awful inevitability that awaits him. Ultimately then, in just three compressed stanzas, St. Germain delivers a scene fraught with history and performative contradiction while never once losing sight of the pleasures and satisfactions the beauty of her craft affords.
The heartbreaking beauty of St. Germain’s craft is perhaps most evident in [it comes down to this], a small suite of fragmented lyrics that distill Gray’s death to a brutal reduction facts, as is clear in the first of the poems:
it comes down to this:
a friend’s bedroom, a needle, you newly clean,
a small envelope of dope
that delivers the same dose
as always, though this time
it’s been so long, your body’s forgotten
what to do
with so much.
In a poem that is as seemingly objective as an autopsy, moments of metaphorical power emerge, such as in the contrast between the body’s reaction after long starvation in line seven with the deadly abundance that tamps the poem shut. Elsewhere, in the same suite, the “this” referred to in the title is a “last intimacy / a puncture mark...”.
For St. Germain, even the most harrowing limits of the body’s endurance are understood in terms of one’s hunger for authentic connection. Such hunger extends to the heart and mind’s desire for understanding. In “Ode to Needles,” a poem ostensibly about pine needles, her study of trees provides a poignant opportunity for confession and knowledge:
I look the trees over and over, touching and smelling,
trying to memorize their shapes and colors,
trying to forget, for a moment, the needles
I know best, the ones I used in my youth,
the ones you’ll use in yours.
Not all of the poems in The Small Door of Your Death are as serene as this. The serial “Versions of Heaven” chronicles a mother-son bond through music across several years of shared experiences. At one point the two become “clowns, / laughing, swinging, bowing, twisting, until we’re out / of breath…” Such moments of levity and light may provide temporary respite, but they are tinged by our bittersweet knowledge of what is to come. Later, in the same poem, St. Germain watches Gray d-jay at a nightclub: “You’re probably loaded,” she observes, “but you seem happy.”
Another moment of comparative levity comes furnished as satire. “A Perfect Game” models itself on Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” though deflating the austere tone of the original poem by opening with an earthier declarative line: “Sundays too, I tell my son, your grandfather drank—” What follows is a vivid but rather undignified portrait of a man whose love for bowling was outmatched by his addiction to alcohol, an addiction that eventually rendered him “quaking, almost incoherent.” The allusion to Hayden works so well because, as narrator, St. Germain is aware of the comparison and establishes a bitterly ironic tone in quoting it.
But perhaps the most potent poems in The Small Door of Your Death are those that concentrate on St. Germain’s grieving process after Gray has left the world. In a prose poem called “Viewing the Body,” she ponders:
Invulnerable in death, perhaps you’ll become some terrifying angel. Or
will evaporate into millions of breaths flowing through sky and water
Never again this body, never this vessel through which I knew you.
The telling space surrounding “Whatever” reveals that no amount of speculation as to the soul’s continued life elsewhere will cancel the finality of the body Gray occupied on this earth. Such speculation may merely be a way of fantasizing against irretrievable loss.
However, in “In a Church Two Weeks After Your Death,” St. Germain finds herself trying to seek comfort in empty rituals: “I don’t believe,” she admits, “But here I am lighting a candle.” If grief makes us selfish, it can also connect us to unexpected truths. Later in the same poem, as she sees a statue of Mary holding the infant in her arms, she realizes “She lost a son, too, I suddenly remember, / could do nothing / for his suffering.” Occasionally, we even find ourselves, as St. Germain does in “The Drug-Pusher Friend Speaks,” expanding our hearts in ways we never thought possible. By giving voice to the young man who essentially killed her son, St. Germain allows us to see the wider picture far more clearly: “I said I was an addict,” the drug-pusher cries as he defends himself against the wrath of Gray’s mother: “I said he was my friend.” Indeed, so much of St. Germain’s The Small Door of Your Death delivers us to places we hadn’t intended to visit, though we are wiser and more open to others because we have.