Pine Row Issue No. 6 Winter 2022-23 - Featured Poet
I can hardly stand to tell you
how when my dad was a boy,
his father put their cat, whose name
was Helen, into a burlap sack
with her kittens and some rocks
and threw them into the Columbia River.
If you’ve ever stood on its banks,
you know how it runs dark gray-green
below the Angel’s Rest, how it rolls
and churns and twists along the Gorge,
where hemlocks and blackjack pines
bear witness, and clouds press down
like a shroud. But now that you know,
I can tell you how when I was a girl
in California, the cat we named Muffy
had kittens not once but twice: the first litter
born too early, hairless and stillborn
under the ferns, the next a spirited gang
of five. I can tell you how their eyes
opened like stars coming out at night.
How fearlessly they climbed,
our curtains pocked with snags
forever after. How they fanned out
around a saucer to wean themselves,
stubby tails sticking out like rays,
the way I used to draw the sun.
I knew nothing of Helen then.
But when the kitten-gang had gone,
we watched as Muffy’s spay-incision
twisted and swelled from angry red
to pink to paler still, finally smoothing
into scar—a marvel, how damage
can undo itself to something new.
May it be so with all the old
Interview with Brett Warren
About This Poem: "Helen"
My dad grew up in an era when domestic animals were generally not considered companions or family members the way they are now. Traumatized by something his own father did (something that, sadly, was not unusual at the time), my dad consciously chose another way. I am forever grateful for the many choices he made to become an extraordinary father—not least because they created a bond that would get us through considerable difficulties in his later years.
For me, all poems about trauma and loss, by their very existence, are poems of resilience and healing. This poem is not only about survival, but about how suffering can be transformed through intention and compassion, breaking the cycle of trauma. These ancestral stories are part of who we are, even before we hear them for the first time.
How did you get started writing poetry?
I’ve been writing since I learned how to write! Like many poets, I started out writing colossally bad poetry in high school and college. But I kept reading, beyond what I had to read for my English degree. I started writing poetry seriously around the time I turned 30, and have continued since, with some notable interruptions when life had other plans. The limitations of the pandemic and the overwhelming desire to escape the turbulence and anxiety of recent years created a “perfect storm” of productivity.
Who has had the biggest impact on you as a poet?
To name just a few (of many): Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Jane Kenyon, Dorianne Laux, Diane Seuss, Ross Gay
What inspires your poetry?
Just being alive, being out roaming around in the world, noticing things. More inwardly, trying to capture and understand the complexity of this whole experience of life on earth, which I realize is basically impossible, but it's what our brains like to do. I think being an avid reader helped me see life in terms of story, theme, character, and metaphor from a fairly young age. Poetry, in particular, is a way to pay attention and to look more deeply at life experiences.
What is next for you?
In addition to continuing to write, read, take poetry classes, and work with my two critique groups, I look forward to bringing my first collection, The Map of Unseen Things (forthcoming from Pine Row Press), into the world.
Anything else you'd like to share?
My website is brettwarrenpoetry.com
A long-time editor, Brett Warren holds a BA in English Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her poetry has appeared in Canary, Cape Cod Poetry Review, The Comstock Review, Eunoia Review, Green Fuse, Halfway Down the Stairs, Hole in the Head Review, One Sentence Poems, Pine Row Journal, Right Hand Pointing, Rise Up Review, and elsewhere.
Brett lives on a peninsula in the Outer Lands archipelagic region of the Atlantic Ocean, ancestral lands of the Wampanoag people. Her house is surrounded by pitch pine and black oak trees—nighttime roosts of wild turkeys, who sometimes use the roof of her writing attic as a runway.