One illuminated Letter of Being is a sequence of poems—by turns lyric, narrative, and dramatic—that limn what it means for a son to watch and be fully present as his mother prepares to die. These poems are about living in the midst of death and about dying, “while everything is coming into bloom.” Donald Platt records the natural world flowering and fruiting, and its autumnal fading into winter around him. The book bears witness to grief and how this son remembers with exquisite clarity—and comes to terms with—his mother’s passing and its aftermath. Anger, great sadness, but also revelation and transformation are the emotional terrain that the poet walks unwaveringly. Wherever he goes, dying illuminates what it means to live.
Platt, who holds a doctorate in Creative Writing from the University of Utah, is the author of seven volumes of poetry. In addition to One Illuminated Letter of Being (Red Mountain Press, 2020), these books include Man Praying, Tornadoesque, Dirt Angels, My Father Says Grace, Cloud Atlas, and Fresh Peaches, Fireworks, & Guns. He is a recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three Pushcart Prizes. Three of his poems have been anthologized in The Best American Poetry series. He teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University and divides his time between Lafayette, Indiana, and Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
PK Eriksson: A major theme in the book is mourning for the death of a mother. There is something so very universal and yet so very personal about that loss. Why do you think we feel so alone while in the process, even though everybody goes through it?
Donald Platt: You’re very right about how personal the death of a parent is, but also universal. If the “natural order of things” happens, everyone goes through this loss. The grief and “aloneness” seem to me unavoidable. We can be supported through loss by friends and other family members, but the grief must be fully felt by each of us in order to be reconciled to that loss. No one can feel that grief for us, though it’s very healthy psychologically to share it, talk about it. My book One Illuminated Letter of Being is my way of both feeling the full weight of grief for myself, but also my way of letting others share it, partake of it, and find their own grieving within my grieving. Several of my readers have found themselves crying because my loss made them recall their own. Not to make a too brazen plug for this my own book, but that’s one of the things that poetry, or really any writing or visual art or music, can do.
PE: I noted that religion and Christianity play a continuous role in your poems. How important is that to appreciate your work? Do you think it limits your audience in an age that seemingly has shifted away from explicit connection to religion and Christianity in particular?
DP: My dad was a priest of the Episcopal Church, and so I was raised in that particular religious tradition. After a long stretch of thirty years as an agnostic, I returned to Christianity. I’m not a very dogmatic Christian. For instance, I find it difficult to believe in an afterlife. For two years in my mid-twenties, I was a member of a spiritual community centered around a guru, who had been trained in a seated, open-eyed (literally) meditation practice in India. We would begin the day with an hour of meditation. Several of us, including myself, experienced krias, or involuntary physical movements caused by prana (or the life-sustaining force) passing through the body. Krias are an accepted part of Kundalini yoga, but also exist within other spiritual traditions. For instance, the trembling that Shakers reported in themselves during their prayer meetings are a Western version of krias. Metaphorically, I like to think of poetry as a sort of cosmic kria. It is something that comes to us outside of our conscious control, and we as poets act as conduits for that energy. It originates outside of us.
During recent years, I have attended Quaker meetings. Currently, my spiritual practice is divided equally between saying the rosary and doing Qigong. The purpose of Qigong is to put the practitioner in contact with qi, an energy field that we can’t see, but can experience through movement. Qi is another name for prana, the life force. The original title of One Illuminated Letter of Being was Cloud Hands, Earth Hands, which are titles of two of the book’s poems, but also the names of two “forms” from the particular variety of Qigong that I practice. All of this is to say that my spiritual life is fairly quirky.
I hope that a reader who is not Christian and isn’t familiar with Qigong can enter this book. I hope that readers may recognize that at the book’s core is a confrontation with death, that taboo subject in our culture, and an attempt to speak about it as honestly as possible. Religion, oddly enough, has never really “helped” me come to terms with death or grief. It’s stereotypically thought to be a “consolation,” etc. But I never found it to be so. Death seems to me one of those great mysteries that many religions would like to explain, but can’t.
PE: Your lineation speaks fluidly and freely within some regimentation of stanza and line. You effectively strike a nice balance between sentence, rhythm and comfortable American speech. What are your intentions in your style since we are all living in a poetry culture that is so very intense, so cultivated and, as we contemporary folks must recognize, specialized?
DP: Well, I would like people who don’t have much education in poetry to be able to read these poems and “get” them, even if they can’t articulate everything that might be happening within them. That said, I should add that I write primarily for myself, meaning that I don’t really consider “audience” that much when I’m writing poetry. I’m trying to find a language that seems to me authentic. The hope, I guess, is that if the utterance is genuine for me, it might be captivating or, at least, intriguing to someone else.
My style, with those tercets that have long lines followed by short ones in that reversing pattern, is based on a rhythm that seems to embody how my mind moves. The longer lines permit the poem to include quick narratives or anecdote. The shorter lines can get lyric. I want a poem that is both lyric and narrative by turns. Not exclusively one or the other.
PE: I had similar experiences to those you had with a mother in hospice as my own mother died of metastasized breast cancer. I have always been a person of weak faith at best. Lutheran and Swedish. If you know that combo, it speaks volumes especially as somebody who feels more cultural affinity to the old country. Religion is a box ticked for the most part. I struggled when my mother died with accepting that my mom would just be a body in the ground, dust into dust. I came to terms with it, and now as a budding Buddhist, I feel even more comfortable with it. Where have you landed after your experience?
DP: I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s death. But death deepens us, doesn’t it? It sounds as if you’ve gone through a lot of transformation spiritually, with her death as a kind of catalyst. Buddhism strikes me as the sanest of all spiritual practices. I wish I could be that sane. Christianity feels like an inheritance from my parents, who were such firm believers. I can’t ever believe in a non-skeptical way. But I do find daily sustenance in the practice of prayer, which for me is a fluid dialogue with a force that is larger than myself and that I can’t understand. What was amazing to me about the whole process of my mom’s dying and death is how much she was at peace with dying and accepted her own death completely. I think part of that acceptance did have to do with her faith. She was raised a Lutheran. She’s become for me an example of how one might die in an open-eyed way and be part of that natural process without fighting it. The opposite, say, of Dylan Thomas’s famous plea to “not go gentle” and to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
PE: There are many ways to capture and experience our present moment in life in poems. Some folks head right to questions and concerns that are on people’s minds at the moment, whether that be #blacklivesmatter/BIPOC people and concerns with racism or queer life or immigration and immigrants or whatever flavor of the month that happens to be pricking people a little more awake like David Foster Wallace did with television and entertainment back in the ‘90s. You appear to take a different tack. In your poem “Happy Day,“ you weave in both local and national touchstones in the poem, which gets the poem very much in the here and now. It’s a sex poem, a description of a small town in Indiana and rich meditation on a Rilke quote. Do you feel you must only write to your own experience? Do you think individuals of America feel bound to it in ways that are perhaps limiting to collective imagination?
DP: I’m glad that you like “Happy Day.” I’m a great believer in the heterogenous poem, one that can be about lots of things at once. Probably, that’s just the way my mind works, but truly I find it hard to separate one thing neatly from another. Thoughts are always sliding from one to another and melding together in our minds. “Monkey mind,” as the Buddhists rightly say. I want my poems to present indiosyncratic and arresting meldings.
You’re asking a great and essential question. I believe that it’s paramount for any writer to acknowlege her/his/their subject position explicitly or implicitly within their writing. For instance, I am a white, middle-class, bisexual, raised on the East Coast now living for the last twenty years in the Midwest, which happens to be my mother’s place of birth. I come, on my mother’s side, from German immigrants who settled in central Michigan and farmed the land. On my father’s side, I have ancestors who sailed from England to Massachusetts on the Mayflower. Perhaps this ancestry explains some of my own spiritual experimentation and searching. One of my distant relatives was Peregrine White, who was born on the Mayflower. More personally, I have helped raise two daughters and am newly divorced. Therefore, I come to writing with this history, both that of my own life and of those ancestors who are inextricably part of me. From that point of view—that experience, that ethnicity, that genome—I hope that I can write about any question or concern that seizes my imagination and holds it hostage. But I can occupy only my individual subject position—with all its limitations, inherent biases, and privileges—and write from that vantage point.
However, I believe much can be seen from that vantage. As long as one doesn’t fall into the trap of believing that the white, liberal, humanitarian imagination can know what it means, say, to be a person of color at this juncture in the history of these very Disunited States. The great and original sin (please forgive the Christian language!) of America is, of course, slavery. I believe that white writers can and should attempt to address racism, but must do so without appropriating black or brown experience. We must acknowledge our own ineluctible complicity in that economic system. I know all this is no easy task. Many white writers feel unable to address these issues, and I completely understand their hesitation. White writers are so likely to get it wrong. But I’d rather we get it wrong than not try. As Ibram X. Kendi says, you are either racist or anti-racist. There is no middle ground.
I remember going to a little country church in Montague, Massachusetts—not too far from Amherst, where I was attending Hampshire College—to hear Adrienne Rich and James Baldwin speak about politics and writing. It must have been 1984, that Orwellian year. They spoke of how all writing is political, whether it’s ostensibly so or not. For me, I’ve always felt a strong urge towards the political and historical. Now, One Illuminated Letter of Being is clearly not engaging in political debate, though my other six books often do. However, I’d say that this most recent book too speaks politically, though very obliquely. My personal experience of my mother’s death in 2014 is being published in 2020 during the Covid pandemic. At a time when death is so widespread and omnipresent, grief has become a very public experience and a much more visible part of the discourse around us. Inadvertently, the book seems to me to have acquired a different spin and resonance from any I had originally intended.
PE: Surrealism makes an interesting appearance in a collection that otherwise leans more heavily on an American realism. Renée Magritte makes an appearance but also explicit discussion of juxtaposition. This vein of surrealism dissects reality in compelling ways, and yet it seems a bit limited. Why do you think that surrealism must be limited in an American literary culture so deeply rooted to naturalism and realism?
DP: I have to admit that I don’t see surrealism and naturalism/realism to be in such a binary opposition in our literary culture. While I do agree that One Illuminated Letter of Being favors realistic description in order to convey the texture of my relationship with my mom and the specific occasions of my grief in the aftermath of her death, the book ends squarely on a surreal note. The poem “Recipe for a Rice House” grows out of a dream that I had. Only through its surreal imagery can the effect of my mother’s death on me be fully expressed. That’s the thing about surrealism. Realism, while powerful, can go only so for, or so it seems to me. Surrealism starts where realism fails.
Therefore, surrealism is a natural completion of the real. I think that’s the profound truth that the best poets realize. Emily Dickinson, who for me is the mother of us all, is supremely surreal in her greatest poems. Plath has surreal imagination. Closer to us, Mary Ruefle or, closer still, Franny Choi. Besides Russel Edson, that agent provocateur of all things surreal, we have poets like Ginsberg in “Howl,” or Simic, Tate, Strand, and, more recently, Dean Young and Michael McGriff. Or Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis, my colleagues at Purdue. Surrealism is a fine-tuned instrument in the American sensibility. Elizabeth Bishop started as a card-carrying surrealist and never completely deserted that cause. Read her late poems, and the surreal rears up its phantasmagoric head in “Crusoe in England” or “In the Waiting Room.” Or take Robert Frost, that quintessentially American poet of the real, and look again at “Directive,” which becomes, without obvious effort, disconcertingly surreal. I’d venture to say that the backbone of American poetry is surreal, even before surrealism was invented. Perhaps it’s because we’re such a consumeristic, practical culture. The perfect antidote is surrealism. It’s up to poets to provide that antidote.
You mention rightly that “juxtaposition” is an essential surrealist move. In my poem “Cloud Hands,” I say, “Everything is juxtaposition,” after describing for my mother on her deathbed how the Thrifty Car Rental office at the Albany International Airport is located next to the New York State House of Corrections. My mom and I both laugh at the confluence not only of the jail and a rental car place, but also I think because of the absurdity of me telling her this story while she’s dying. The world at its most mysterious and marvelous is surreal.
PE: I have personally felt tied to two traditions: both Swedish and increasingly a midwestern view of the world. Do you consider yourself a midwestern writer or a writer that represents the Midwest? What does that mean to you?
DP: I came to consciousness in New York City and New England. But was certainly prodded into poetry by the ten or so years that I’ve spent in the South, in Virginia and Georgia. I also lived in Utah for five important years. But now for the last twenty years, without meaning to, I have become a Midwesterner of sorts. What I like about Midwestern consciousness is that there’s little pretense or posing and little sense of a limiting hierarchy. On the East Coast, at least where I come from and often visit, there’s a kind of uptight striving to be elite and important, which is often accompanied by a disparagement of others. As Monsignor Regan, a rather enlightened Catholic priest whom I got to know in Georgia, once said, “Those who don’t feel up about themselves tend to put others down.” I find the Midwest largely free of that spiritual smallness. It has to do with the landscape here, I think. It’s flat land with big sky—there’s physically, geographically, spiritually a sense of openness and inclusion. It’s hard to feel self-important in such a large landscape. I’m also attracted to the work ethic of the Midwest. Great pride is taken in work here, and that artisanal seriousness is useful, I find, in writing.
That said, I feel at home in two places very different from the Midwest. The Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts seem to me ravishingly beautiful, and I love how they are overlaid with my memories of growing up there. Currently on sabbatical, I’m planning to drive east to the Berkshires in a week or two to see the autumn foliage. I am also very at home in Virginia Beach, where I would go with my family every summer for three decades. It’s the ocean thing. I grew up partly on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, and lived for many years a few blocks from the ocean. As a kid, I spent all my free time (and there was lots of it) on the beach with my friends. The northernmost part of Virginia Beach—with its long miles of sand, the sun rising out of the Atlantic at dawn, and a few solitary beachcombers or people out walking their dogs—seems part of my soul. I’ve always written well about the ocean at Virginia Beach, lots of sea poems throughout my career. “Ocean View from a Hotel Balcony in the Off-Season,” a poem from One Illuminated Letter of Being, is set there.
PE: What do you ultimately hope for your readers to get out of a book so heavily focused on mourning?
DP: I’d like everyone who reads the book to become more comfortable with death, the physical process of it, and then become more aware of the life and vibrancy that exists all around us. Again and again in its poems, One Illuminated Letter of Being describes how the natural world flowers and bears fruit and becomes a kind of illuminated letter from a page of holy text. This movement through death and grief towards life is what I experienced in those two crucible years of my mother’s dying. My hope is that my readers may become more alive.
PE: What do you think a poet can hope to accomplish in this day and age? What keeps you writing?
DP: I’d like to answer your question by a quote from Diane Arbus, which the poet Marianne Boruch, my friend and former colleague, e-mailed to our English Department a few days ago. The quote is from Arbus’s application for a Guggenheim Fellowship. It reads:
I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it … While we regret that the present is not like the past and despair of its ever becoming the future, its innumerable, inscrutable habits lie in wait for their meaning …. These are our symptoms and our monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.
I think that we all want to photograph the things around us to save them and discover their meaning, to realize that in the commonplace dwells what is curious. We want to turn our lives and all that they hiddenly contain into ceremony and legend.
PKEriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicagoland. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in Adroit Journal, Anomaly, The Literary Review, Quail Belle, and The Santa Fe New Mexican, among other publications. Find PK @pkeriksson10.