Memory, Poetry, and Healing from Trauma

Memories of my childhood are scarce. This used to frighten me as I was growing up, but I learned to adapt. In fact, I lived with a self that hovered just out of touch of memory. When I look back at myself as an adolescent, I see a girl who tried very hard to commit nothing to memory, to live disconnected from events around her, detached from a life that so often, so arbitrarily, offered moments of intense emotional pain.

We moved several times from rental houses to apartments from one state and city to another. I was born in Dallas, Texas. A year later we were in Los Angeles, California. I learned about this period of time from the stories my mother told me growing up. My biological father was named Woody. I knew him until I was about five, but my memories of him were impressionistic and vague. He had no face I could discern in my mind’s eye. I remembered only a sense of his presence. But my mother gave me memories: How he left me alone on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean; How he left me alone on a deserted beach a mile away from camp; how he threatened to throw acid at my mother’s face. The image above is from a collection of photographs taken by Rodney Alacala, the serial killer and found in a storage unit. He was known to take photographs at Laguna Beach, where my father used to take me when I was a child. I believe this photograph is me. I can’t prove it is me, but I think the ambivalence and the question about identity is even more interesting than the truth. My mother’s memories of my childhood became my own memories with the retelling. If the self is made of memory, it did not take long for me to lose my self and become a vessel for my mother’s own narrative.

Writing poetry helped me to reclaim my own story.




1989 and we were homeless and 17. We slept on the rooftops

at the dusk and dawn edge of downtown and in the attic


of George Washington’s boyhood home back then, a building abandoned

on the edge of the woods. Pigeons roosted on one end of our room


and cooed us to sleep and awake. The world in its indifferent beauty went on,

whether we were hungry or scared, its threads of cells unraveling


and raveling again, like the ghost of my great grandmother in her kapp,

knotting and unknotting a red string for healing fevers or casting a hex.


You could hear the spade-foot toads and leopard frogs weaving their songs

in the pond, the rush of blood and pulse of fear, when the police lights swooped


over the darkened catalpa tree below our window and washed

across the skin over the delicate ribs of your caged chest.  


Turning you blue like a corpse. We froze

like startled creatures and hid, waiting for danger to pass, alive with terror.


You shot up and I held your body, slumped like a pietà. Forgive

the sentimental memory, forgive the nostalgia for near death, the trauma bonds,


but we were human, our flesh gorgeous as the glitter and dazzle of sunlight

on water. We wanted to kill ourselves but not to die. You fell asleep in my lap


and I didn’t move all night so as not to wake you, your help-meet.

We wanted to protect one another. It was the best we knew how to love.


Men would come around to buy drugs and my body would become a lure and spell,

and I wanted it, to be like a stag,

wanted so much I staggered under lust’s weight

antlers top heavy with desire,

shot through with arrows.


But you were headship, hedge of protection, You said,

you don’t have to give yourself away, you don’t have to do that–


and you warned me there would be nothing left. And then you fucked me

violently against the dirty floor. But you were wrong., what’s left is all of it


and its mine as well as yours. All the beauty and the terror, Rilke said.

There’s more to this story than just us: Bats hung like plums in the branches


of evening light. Night herons flew at dusk silhouetted in the shape

of warplanes, against a sky glowing with particulates. Bitterns boomed their throats


in the wetlands and the wastes, and you could hear them if you’d still a while

and barely breath and listen. The eyelids of the redbud blossoms fluttered.


Between us white pelicans would float like angels, completely at ease in their hover,


unrolling the scrolls of their wings, as if they meant to tell us

the truth, a book of life written in their hollow bones,

leading us forward in the direction of home.


–From Tongue Screw, Spark Wheel Press

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