Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Re'Lynn Hansen's Quest in "To Some Women I Have Known"

Christal Cooper

*Article With Excerpts – 2,902 Words
All excerpts have been given copyright privilege by Re’Lynn Hansen and White Pine Press

Re’Lynn Hansen’s
To Some Women I Have Known:
Exploring Memory, Memoir, Meaning
& Death in Poetry  

To Some Women I Have Known, published by White Pine Press in April of 2015, is Re’Lynn Hansen’s first full- length poetry collection. 

Hansen, who is Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Columbia College in Chicago, breaks the rules and so eloquently by crossing the boundaries of form in poetry:  it is not limited to traditional form, but in memoir, essay, narrative, research and news reporting.

To Some Women I Have Known takes the reader on an emotional, spiritual, and mental journey, leaving the reader at a loss for breath, the reader’s heart beating so wildly it feels like the reader has two hearts instead of one.  

This collection explores the questions that every individual faces:  What is meaning?  What is happiness?  What is death?  And what role does memoir, memory, and meaning play in our quest to find the answer to the first two questions and conquer the latter?

In her quest for these answers Hansen finds comfort in the women in her life.  These women are the main focus in To Some Women I Have Known.

The first poem from this collection Hansen wrote is “From Where I Stand on the Steps of the Romanesque Church” where she attended her brother’s wedding and experienced a hyperawareness – living in a specific moment and how that same specific moment is already dying.

 “This happened at my brother’s wedding, on a beautiful day, as I was standing on the steps of the church watching everyone arrive in their tuxes and formals.  And even as I was living it, or trying to live it, I was already remembering how singular and beautiful and great it was, and how I would remember it.  I stood there aware that my grandmother, who was arriving, was dying of cancer, and I went into the act of remembering that moment already” (from an interview with Re’Lynn Hansen, Sept 2015).

From Where I Stand
on the Steps of the Romanesque Church

Weddings seem unreal to me, and so it seems that I am not here, but only that I remember I was here.  I’m already remembering how I stand on the steps of the Romanesque church and look at the vines growing gracefully on the building across the street and how the Cadillacs turn into the parking lot – which seems an old thing – to have Cadillacs arcing along the shaded vine-wall of the church parking lot.  What era was that?  And I am already remembering how I will remember it.  Providing it might be something worth remembering.  That it might be something.  Tony Lamont, an old friend of Aunt Ag’s, is getting the wheelchair from the trunk of the Cadillac.  He wears the painted-pony cowboy boots for Aunt Aug, who still flirts with the man she went skiing with in Aspen thirty years ago.  My younger cousins, two girls sixteen and eighteen, who will never be sixteen and eighteen, again, each go to help my grandmother and slowly settle her into the chair.  The linen dress of my grandmother is now pressed into the chair and pulled out at the sides, like the wings of a moth caught in the daytime screen.  My cousins close in around the woman in the wheelchair, each touching her shoulder lightly.  My aunt has her own moment to shimmer as the sun dapples the street and plays upon the ice-blue gown pooled briefly at her feet like water.  The girls wear ruffled dresses that swish as they walk.  They look both ways before crossing the street under the elms.  I am already remembering the orange and yellow dresses flashing light in the open canopy.  Aunt Ag, and Tony, the two girls, and the grandmother in the wheelchair come toward me where I stand on the steps of the Romanesque church.

         This hyperawareness is felt in all of the poems where, even as a 12-year old girl, Hansen understands the preciousness of the moment.

       In “One Night a Girl Appeared to Me” 12-year old Hansen has just moved from Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, to the city, where she lives in a Victorian neighborhood and finds herself fascinated by the neighborhood girl and the helicopter pad at the end of her block. 

 “As a twelve year old, I thought I found ‘truth’ just sitting in my bedroom, writing poems.  My parents were creative people.  My father liked to draw; my mother painted.  Their actual professions were as investors in real estate.  Even in that arena they were creative thinkers.  I didn’t grow up around books, but they bought me the books that I wanted.  My parents are great entertainers and socializers, and at every party they’d have me read a poem.  They’d hush and shush everyone and actually get them to listen.  I’d have this frozen audience standing there with their martini glasses and double malts.  But I think they did listen, and I developed this broad idea of audience as a consequence” (from an interview with Re’Lynn Hansen, 2015).

It is the first poem, The Ghost Horse,” that the reader is introduced to Re’Lynn, who is the audience, and June, who is the active participant.  Both women are on their quest to find out what the meaning of life is.

We were going to get a horse.  The horse would give us meaning or a feeling we didn’t have sitting in lecture halls during the day or waiting the tables at night.

We would ride the horse from Illinois to Colorado and meet people along the way who would also give us meaning.

Excerpt from “The Ghost Horse” 

       It is June that has the courage to climb on the horse, and Hansen who has the courage to observe this pivotal moment.   

Then for a moment June looked like a god on a horse, straight in the saddle.  It was as we had imagined ourselves – we who did not believe in god, but horses.

Excerpt from “The Ghost Horse”

In “Patty Hearst on the Prairie” Hansen is a 19 year old girl who has yet to apply for college, and is instead focused on death – her friend Nikki’s mother is on her deathbed: 

There was only the caretaker
ushering us to the corners of the bed.
There were chairs, but we stood.
Nikki was out.
Nikki is out?  We repeated to the caretaker.
There was that high school spike in our voice.  Didn’t she
know we had come to say goodbye to her mother?

We had come to affirm something.
All the curtains were pulled back from the floor-to-ceiling windows,
A shimmering display around the bed.

I thought:  She was a daughter herself of someone.

Excerpt from “Patty Hearst on the Prairie”

       The 19 year old Hansen is losing her youth, her pure ideals, and is facing death.
To the young Hansen, one year after graduating from high school, finding Patty Hearst would be an escape from the reality of her day:

I had a book by Unamuno
but was looking for Patty Hearst
among the airport crowd
as I stared at the open skies and ledger boards
listing destinations.
I listened to airport announcements
At any moment she would come, fronting the crowds
a ghost ship emerging

armed with submachine guns.
I closed my eyes
to see the essence
escaping me.
Excerpt from “Patty Hearst on the Prairie”

It took a variety of majors (accounting, psychology, Spanish, English Literature, and Journalism) before Hansen finally settled on a degree in Creative Writing.  It was during her days as a graduate student in Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago that she finally came to the realization that she was a writer.

“Everyone in my program thought we were experiencing the intensity and inventing the DNA of a writing program for the first time.  We’d have great, 2:00 a.m. arguments about Faulkner, Pound, Wright.  I was passionate about Marguerite Duras’ “The Lover” as I was about any real lover.  We’d hang out at our floppy grad school apartments and have impromptu readings – then depart for a neighborhood dive bar” (from an interview with Hansen 2015).

       The question of death, and how to conquer it in addition to what is meaning and happiness is answered in the last stanza of the poem “25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker,” where Hansen surmises that it is in our questioning that something we desire comes into being:

A documentarian, making a movie about the bird, mentioned that there is less to say about extinct woodpeckers than about your yearning to look for and even see them, whether they are there or not.

Excerpt from “25 Sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker”

In the prose poem “Woman in a Coma Had Taken Drug” Hansen and June are at a beach hotel in Guatemala when they read about Karen Ann Quinlan, whom Hansen identifies with:

The lobby tables of the American hotels were always strewn with American papers, tossed there by tourists who had had their morning coffee and who were now out in hired taxis touring the countryside.  Nixon had resigned. The Vietnam War had ended.  The newspapers were back to following people.  All of the stories outlined the life of Karen Ann Quinlan, the woman in a coma. The story was this:  she was twenty, about my age, at the time, and she had been raised in a loving home which is exactly where I thought I had been raised.  But it seemed lately, as some articles alluded, she had become obsessed about becoming someone, about doing something challenging.  She had quit her job, quit numerous jobs.  Since graduating high school she had gained weight, then lost weight.  She was worried that she wouldn’t accomplish anything.  Her boyfriend had broken up with her.  She had lately experimented with drugs.  Valium seemed to be her drug of choice.

Here’s where Karen and I differed:  I  much preferred amphetamines.

Excerpt from “Woman in a Coma Had Taken Drug”

Both June and Hansen face their own mortality with the news of Karen Ann Quinlan and a dying turtle that continues to be washed ashore by the black Pacific beach.   After reading a newspaper article about Quinlan, the girls begin their mission to search for the turtle, with hopes of bringing the sick turtle to a turtle veterinarian.  They are not able to find the turtle, but Hansen is triumphant when she realizes there is one thing she can do:

The most important thing to me was to catalog it.  Even as we walked the beach I was thinking, I’ll remember this.  June said, I know you’re going to remember this.

And then the El Mundo appeared, a white, low castle in the darkness, the small neon sign flashing.  The manager stood in the darkness on the beach waving, the white sleeves of his jacket visible and rippling in the moonlight, and telling us in Spanish what he had just heard – the turtle had rescued itself and disappeared into the night.

Excerpt from “Woman in a Coma Had Taken Drug”

The next morning Hansen and June read that the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Karen Ann’s favor and they would pull the plug, and she would finally be able to die in peace.   That same morning the black waters of the Pacific Ocean flooded into the cinder-block hotel and the girls go to the manager’s door for towels and rags:

I was still cataloging things, trying to pin them down, trying to test each moment for intelligence, or for a heartbeat, or for its affect upon me – and then wondering if similar things had affected Karen Quinlan similarly.  And I did remember it, his words to us as the ocean was rushing in and settling its sands on the linoleum floor.  I told them, he said, just to leave the floor of sand.

Excerpt from “Woman in a Coma Had Taken Drug”

       In “Lake Cumberland,” Hansen is now an adult woman going to back to see a  friend  who suffers from schizophrenia, and faces the extreme sadness that people change, and as a result, relationships can be lost:  

  In Chicago, where I first met her, where we lived for a year, she was famous for being the model for a department store that ran underwear ads in the weekend paper.  Then she worked for a steakhouse, and the manager, in some moment of

glad illumination, told her to run the bar, mix drinks, have fun, just to be young.

It could be
I’ve conjured that image of her in the yellow steakhouse shirt, running a couple of blocks in the rain with me because we wanted suddenly to go and get drunk somewhere else.

It could be
Only the rain happened.

She lives now near Lake Cumberland because she grew up there.  Now, I knock on the door.  Now she runs a doggie daycare business.  Now I think of her hands and wonder if they are the same.

Excerpt from “Lake Cumberland”

In “There’s a Shoe on Your Plate” Hansen is an adult woman, her grandmother (who used to be a ballroom dancer) has died, and she reflects on one of the last visits she had with her grandmother in the nursing home, sitting on her bed, both looking out the window at the trees dancing:  

Nor should I recall following the shape of her hands as she moved them to mimic trees outside.  Her arms titled like branches.

Nor remember the words she said – Look, the trees are dancing.

Nor should I recall that I looked at the trees beyond the wired window, beyond the curb of the parking lot and noticed, sure enough, one could say they were dancing.  Sometimes the branches swayed in pairs.  Sometimes they dipped and caught each other.  For this she hugged herself.

Excerpt from “There’s a Shoe on Your Plate”

       Soon two more people, the choreographer with the shoe, and the orator join in with her grandmother in this trinity of musical play:

I should not note that out in the hall across from us, a man in a wheelchair had a tray of lunch in front of him and was putting a shoe on his plate, and another man in a wheelchair across from him was yelling.  Don’t put your shoe on that plate.  Don’t put your shoe on that plate!

Nor should I further note that the first man continued to arrange his shoe on his dinner plate. Taking a comb from his pocket, he combed the laces carefully down each leathered side of the shoe and pressed the tips of the laces into some lettuce, mayo, and tomato. The man who had been yelling, now laughed and said, There’s a shoe on your plate!

Excerpt from “There’s a Shoe on Your Plate”

It is the second to last stanza that Hansen finally observes sadness and happiness mixed in with dementia and asks that great question:  is it possible to be happy and face reality or must one sacrifice one for the other?

And how ridiculous it would be to note this momentary sadness, because no one there that day was sad.  Certainly not the man arranging his shoe on the plate, nor the grandmother staring out the wired window.  And yet, there we were pinned – this grandmother swaying, this granddaughter watching, this choreographer with a shoe, while the other shouted, There’s a shoe on your plate.

Excerpt from “There’s a Shoe on Your Plate”

The collection ends with “She Has Given Me a Spectacle and I Have Given Her a Pear” about Hansen’s mother who is recovering from hip surgery.  Mother and daughter are able to communicate with one another over a Neiman Marcus catalog and a simple pear.


She thanks me again for the pear.  It is the best pear, she says.  What is your secret with pears?

Again I tell her again how easy it is to do the pear.  It seems, sometimes I can count the things between us.  One is – this narration on the pear.

You let them ripen, I say, and then cool them they day before serving.

Excerpt from “She Has Given Me a Spectacle and I Have Given Her a Pear”

The one thing all of these poems have in common besides memoir is nature, a haven for Hansen in her poetry, and a responsibility she feels she owes to her readers.

       I am trying to create that world that is as momentary as nature itself.  Hence, at the wedding scene there are “dresses flashing in the light of the open (tree) canopy.”  I tend to use the senses, to write about color – that old lover who wore the Yellow steakhouse shirts, and still had that halo of hair.  Writing this way, using color and smells, the senses, allows for an immersive experience.  When I read I want to encounter more than just words, and more than tidy cleverness, and more than well-explained themes.  I’d like writing to lead to a real sense of seeing the world, be it awful or lovely, through someone else’s eyes.  As audience, I want to be more immersed the way the writer was when he/she experienced it.  And as writer, I want to recall the phenomenal world for my audience.  It’s a tall order.   I hope I achieved it in To Some Women I Have Known.”

Photograph Description and Copyright Information

Photos 1, 21, 34, 37, and 40
Re’Lynn Hansen
Copyright granted by Re’Lynn Hansen

Photos 2, 7, 27, 32, and 35
Jacket cover of To Some Women I Have Known

Photo 3a
Web logo photo for Marie Alexander Series web page
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 3b
Web logo photo for White Pine Press web page
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 4
Columbia College
Attributed to Re’Lynn Hansen
Copyright granted by Re’Lynn Hansen

Photo 5
Two Hearts Beating As One
Attributed to Kari J Young
Copyright granted by Kari J Young

Photo 6
Sappho Praying to Aphrodite, After Margaritas
Attributed to Chadwick & Spector
Copyright granted by Chadwick & Spector 

Photo 8
Notre Dame de Chicago, built in Romanesque Revive Style
Attributed to Andrew Jameson
 CCASA 3.0 Unported

Photo 9
Wedding Ceremony in the Chancel of Stanford Memorial Church, built in the Romanesque Form
CC By 2.0

Photo 10
Steps to the Keep of Corisbrough Castle England
Attributed to Richard Croft

Photo 11
The Victorian Anne Queen House Ernest Hemmingway was born in
Oak Park, Illinois
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 12
The Girl Writing in The Pet Finch
Attributed to Henriette Brown
Public Domain

Photo 13
The End Of Dinner
Attributed to Jules Alexandre Grun in 1913
Public Domain

Photo 14
Attributed to George Stubbs in 1762
National Gallery of London
Public Domain

Photo 15
Lady Godiva
Attributed to John Collier in 1897
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum
Public Domain

Photo 17
At the Death Bed
Attributed to Samal Joensen Mikines in 1940
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 18
Patty Hearst graduation photo
Public Domain

Photo 19
Miguel de Unamuno
Public Domain

Photo 20
Patty Hearst as Tania, after being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Public Domain

Photo 22a
William Faulkner
Public Domain

Photo 22b
Ezra Pound
Public Domain

Photo 22c
Richard Wright
Public Domain

Photo 22d
Marguerite Duras
Public Domain

Photo 22e
Jacket cover of The Lover
Public Domain

Photo 23
Chapbook jacket cover 25 Sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Photo 24
First photograph ever taken of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Attributed to Doc Allen
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 25
Karen Ann Quinlan’s high school graduation photo
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 26
Newsweek cover featuring Karen Ann Quinlan
November 1975 issue
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 28
The Turtle
Attributed to Christal Rice Cooper
Copyright granted Christal Rice Cooper

Photo 29
Timeline of Karen Ann Quinlan’s New Jersey Court decision
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 30
Scenic view near Re’Lynn Hansen’s Michigan home
Attributed to Re’Lynn Hansen
Copyright granted by Re’Lynn Hansen

Photo 31
View of Lake Cumberland, Kentucky from the Wolf Creed Damn
Public Domain

Photo 33
Scenic view of trees
Attributed to Re’Lynn Hansen
Copyright granted by Re’Lynn Hansen

Photo 38
Three Pears
Oil on canvas in 1878-1879
Attributed to Paul Cezanne
Public Domain

Photo 39
Neiman Marcus cover
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 41.
Re’Lynn (left) with her partner Doreen

Copyright granted by Re’Lynn Hansen

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