Chris Rice Cooper
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Jimmie Margaret Gilliam’s Torn From the Ear of Night:
Marked With Grief
On December 27, 2016 White Pine Press
whitepine.org) published Torn From the Ear of Night by Jimmie Margaret Gilliam (https://
/jimmie.gilliam.9); edited by Paula Paradise (https://
search); the introduction “Love Made Me” by Debora Ott (https://www.facebook.
com/debora.ott.9); and cover art Moonlight on the Mountain by Mary Taglieri (https://
The process of tearing an ear of corn from the field similar to that of childbirth – the farmer is the doctor, the ear of corn the baby, and the stalk the mother. The stalk goes through the trauma of childbirth but unlike the human childbirth the stalk never receives her young back and therefore endures a grief – which will not end until she is once again pregnant with her next ear of corn, only to endure the same grief all over again.
There are numerous themes in Torn From the Ear of Night; self awareness, sexual awareness, homosexuality; domestic violence; shame; guilt; finding one’s identity as a poet; but the theme that is the focus of this blog post is how grief like DNA is passed through five generations of Gilliam’s family, or five generations of ears of corn.
In the prose poem “The Word Photo” Gilliam writes of her family members that are detailed in an old photograph, taken within weeks of great grandmother Emma Halford’s death. In the photo Gilliam’s grandmother Lucy is a baby in her mother Emma’s arms surrounded by Emma’s husband Joe, and Lucy’s siblings Johnson, Annie, Minnie, and Leah.
Little Lucy sits on her mother’s lap. Emma’s long hand keeps her within the circle of her right arm and hand. The child’s arms are crossed. Her oval eyes turn up at the edges; they are shaped like teardrops. The small girl’s gaze is reflective – outside the space framed in the pictures – as if she knows within weeks her mother will be dead.
It is through teardrop-shaped eyes that the poet Gilliam wrote all of these poems – detailing the sorrows and the joys of life and death, specifically with baby Lucy at the loss of a mother she cannot even remember, but can forever feel.
She will die in the night holding little Lucy in her arms. The child hears the death rattle, cries for Mama the next morning when she wakes alone.
In “Torn From the Ear of Night” Lucy is the orphan who doesn’t remember her mother’s passing or her father’s cries but will forever carry a mark of sorrow:
The bruise on her childhood’s heart
Turns purple in the dawning hour.
(What a girl was came clear in the throat of purple/blue iris.)
In “Beloved Daughter” Joe writes to his daughter Lucy where it is revealed that death did not stop at his precious wife but continued; taking his young son Johnson who was killed by a train; his daughter Leah who died in an asylum. Joe pleads with his daughter Lucy to come to his aid.
Dearest Lucy, come, please come as soon as you can. Peace continues to elude your daddy.
In the tale The Forgotten Ear, an Arikara woman is gathering corn from the field. When she thought she gathered all the ears of corn she started to walk away only to hear a child weeping: “Oh do not leave me! Do not go away without me!” She searches the field for more ears but can not find any and walks away only to hear the child weeping: "Oh, do not leave me! Do not go away without me!"
At last, in one corner of the field, hidden under the leaves of the stalks, she found one little ear of corn and collected it, adding it to her other ears of corn.
Gilliam is that forgotten ear of corn, except she is left abandoned in the field.
In the poem “A Girl Blue as a Bluefish” Gilliam details her own birth and how close she came to death:
Dr. Hensley delivers the baby
A girl blue as a bluefish
The umbilical cord wrapped around her neck
How can I tell them their child is . . .
Nurse Baumgartner’s quick movements tops
She repeats all the procedures
Clears the passages, nose and throat
Whacks the buttocks
Breaths into the stubborn lungs.
My head is sore and swollen
(from knocking it against the wall)
a penance I gladly pay
try to enter your dull stare
the lost brown of your eyes. Mother
you don’t love me
you don’t understand me
your daddy doesn’t love me
he doesn’t understand me
you don’t love me
I want to understand my mother
Her whirling mind/her head divided
But I die every time she looks up from the sewing machine
Fastens those words on me.
In “The Gun Scene” the speaker of the poem has a memory of witnessing domestic violence between her parents.
In her anguish she pulled me to her. She pressed her face into my small body and poured her grief into me filling the tiny quivering cups at the ends of all my nerves.
Her mother tells her small daughter to go get the gun and the daughter obeys, thinking that her mother is going to shoot her father.
The realization of her failure to shoot him spread over her like goosebumps before a faint – she turned the gun on me to wipe me out in one trigger.
What stopped her – all I know is some nights alone at that place between fall and winter I see the August sounds of katydids frozen and I hear silence louder than the discharge of a gun
All I know is inside me, terror – everything stopped.
Sometimes I don’t even know if this story is true – it might could be a fantasy. But I can smell terror – a metallic smell – a gun in my face, small black moon/full/looking me in the eye.
Lucy’s son and Gilliam’s father, Noland mourns the loss of his wife of 56 years in “My Father Says Farewell to His Wife.”
Later you tell me
he bends to her body
first on her forehead
then on her mouth
he presses his lips
into the hollow of her neck
loses his head in her bosom
then he howls
wild with amputation.
In “Graveside Sequel” the mark of sorrow is passed though five generations: Emily, Joe, Lucy, Noland’s wife, Gilliam, and her two daughters Jill and Jenny.
mountain iris/ purple batons
you hand to me
I pass on to Jill and Jenny.
In “Graveside” the speaker of the poem describes the grief that has been passed from her buried mother to herself. At first it appears the grief is due to the loss of her mother; but at closer inspection the grief is due to the fact that the mother still lives on inside the daughter, a grief she does not want to inherit.
I am your poet, Mother
Though my words do not grace your ears
I am bone of your bone
You stand in my frame
Bone catches in my throat
Of this grief.
In “Fall, Raking Leaves” a love poem dedicated to Gilliam’s wife Geri, the speaker of the poem finds goodness out of grief, which is the ability of the living to choose what not to repeat or repeat of the dead.
the dead remind us where
not to hurry to go
we are the only body
that they have
In “Graveside”, her dead mother holds the same mirrors, demanding her daughter which identity she should partake. It is through this grief that Gilliam finds her voice as a poet, and the strength of exhibiting triumph out of grief:
Your death still takes my legs away, Mother
But I will walk on air/ my will
Away from the mirror you hold for me
Deep in the earth.
*Jimmie Margaret Gilliam (08/07/1935 – 09/24/2015) was a co-editor of Earth's Daughters from 1975 to1986. She was Professor Emerita at ECC, she taught English Literature on the College's City Campus from 1971 to 1995. She was co-author of the poetry volume The Rime & Roar of Revolution (as Jimmie Canfield, with Bob Dickens, 1975) and author of the poem/novel Ain't No Bears Out Tonight (as Jimmie Gilliam Canfield, 1984) and Pieces of Bread (as Jimmie Canfield Gilliam, 1987), which was on the Academy of American Poets 1987 Fall Reading List. Her work was featured in Writers At Work, an anthology published by Just Buffalo in 1995 and used in the Buffalo public schools. She has given readings and workshops all over WNY, in Albuquerque, NM, and in her hometown of Asheville, NC. Her poems have appeared in a variety of publications, including the "Poetry Page" of The Buffalo News, Earth's Daughters, The Asheville Poetry Review, Eve Magazine, The July Press, and Black Mountain Review.
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