Category Archives: Uncollected

eulogy for mom

On November 14, 2017 I delivered the family remembrance at my mother’s mass of Christian burial at St Jude Church in Lincoln, RI. After the ceremony a few people asked me to post the text of my remarks; those words can be found below. They may be of interest to anyone who’s had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, or anyone who’s had a mother who, like my mom Doris, was both the practical and spiritual heart of our family for most of our lives.


We grow up wanting our mothers to be proud of us.

We mostly don’t realize until we’re parents ourselves that a loving mother is always proud of her children, supportive of their varying wishes and dreams, proud of the struggle and fight regardless of the achievement. Mom was like this. Now comes the struggle, long foreseen, of being here without her.

The Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer describes the effect of a person’s death like this:

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long pale glimmering comet’s tail.
It contains us. It blurs TV images.
It deposits itself as cold drops on the power lines.

Here we are, today, still feeling the blurring impact of that comet’s tail at a wonderful life’s end. That disorientation that the poet describes can leave us feeling lost. I have felt this, in fact, for almost a decade as the family watched Alzheimer’s disease ravage the brain and body of this wife, this mother, this individual with her own life and love of God that began before any of us even knew her. Yet, time and again, when Mom smiled, you could recognize the person who in so many other ways seemed missing from our lives.

Over the last ten years, we felt the loss of her quick humor, her positive spin on even the worst days. What she missed in those years was not only the present but the past as well. Yet she recognized us as people she loved — beyond names and memory, and we recognized her, the Doris who would be there to the end, throughout that slow pulling away.

But bigger than that comet’s tail of distress is the invisible trail of lives made better by her everyday work and play. She was the mom who made our St Patrick’s day mashed potatoes a crazy bright green; the seamstress who designed and sewed us all matching pajamas one Christmas.

Floating across that long trail are her many acts of faith — as the CCD teacher, den mother, the neighborhood mom who drove us to elementary school on rainy days — in that time before seat-belts — squeezing as many of the local kids as she could fit into her gold Rambler, which she called “Goldilocks,” by having us sit alternately forward and back, like a rolling container of sardine scholars.

That invisible trail of works stretches ahead even into her retirement on Cape Cod, where she volunteered for literacy programs both for adults, at the local senior center, and for kids at Ezra Baker Elementary school. One boy was so excited to see her each week he began waking his mom up on those mornings, instead of the other way around, to make sure he got to school on time.

The invisible trail flows on, in all directions, past, present, and even drifting like stardust into the future. It’s a trail of enduring faith, in God, in love. In us.

We wanted our mom to be proud of us. As a dad now, I realize that what I want most is for my children to be proud of me, to grow up confident that they are loved. I’m sure that’s how Mom really felt, too, after all. Well, we’re proud of you.

As we wait these days out, as that shorter comet’s tail of confusion passes over us, as we may grow sad or even angry for what has been taken, it’s good to recall words from William Penn’s prayer for the deceased:

We give back to you, O God, those whom you gave to us. You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you. Your dear Son has taught us that life is eternal and love cannot die. So death is only a horizon, and a horizon is only the limit of our sight.

We’ll be looking for you, Mom. Long after our blurred vision of this life and this death clears, we’ll see you even more clearly, like constellations in our mind’s night sky, brightest on the darkest evenings, navigation points for us above the horizon. Like the stars, giving light long after you’ve returned to your loving source.




Favorite Poets: Gabriel Spera

standing-wave-poems-gabriel-spera-paperback-cover-artNote: Rambling through some old stored documents earlier this year, I came across a college literary journal from my Cornell days, and found in it a poem by a friend from those days, Gabe Spera. I wondered if he was still writing, and an online search quickly turned up that not only was he still writing poetry, he’d published a few books of verse and was alive and well and living in the city of angels. I touched base with him, and we’ve been trading poems back and forth since then. Recently he asked me to write an introduction to his work for publication in a catalog next year. The paragraphs below are the output of that effort. –JSS

There is nothing formal about this world. Our increments of measure can’t parcel pain or characterize a calm moment of love; the most advanced machines can keep us alive but not living. But still we measure. Like no other poet working today, Gabriel Spera happily explores this emotional arrhythmia of life, maintaining a wary lightness while understanding “all we are is what we’ve kept / of what we’ve touched.”

Like the skateboarder in Spera’s poem “Skate Park, Venice Beach” needs a man-made and challenging surface to rise to the occasion, the poet himself builds his work up out of and against gestures to imposing poetic formalism. He does so with an ease of wheel, with the grace and good humored fatalism of the skateboarder in his poem—knowing every great leap ends in gravity, every fall is the starting point of the next ride, that they are frustratingly and joyously entwined. It would be easy to write here that Spera negotiates passage between these opposing forces—the chaotic world and the reassuring rules of language—but that would assume an opposition that’s just another easy formality itself. Not opposing forces but aspects of a singular landscape to navigate, one that is often personal and subjective while subject to all the pitfalls and peaks of the objectively measured world.

For this voyage’s charter he claims those moments of wonder authenticated by difficulty, bringing them down to earth in a self-effacing way that makes us see the feat and not the featured acrobat. It’s the type of poetry that rewards and strikes personal depths without feeling personally confessional.

At heart Gabriel is a nature poet, and nature poets at their best perceive literal truths in ways that resonate without resorting to simile.  He writes of “The Decorator Crab”: “He has made a landscape / of himself … / too poor to walk away from all / he’s hauled this far”; in a poem detailing the ravages of battling cancer he notes “though more and more / there was less of him to sacrifice.” You can scan the phrases above a few different ways, find enjambed and entombed pentameters, and it can enhance and color your reading. The formal qualities are not the trick, just the ramp’s angle that launches a message connected to nothing but the wild air itself, and your own reader’s ear.

There is nothing formal about this world.  The seasons don’t care for the solstice, nor the trains for timetables. So how do we trust this verse that comes to us with the reliability of the metronome ticking out a time we can never quite keep in rhythm with as we pluck out the notes of our days on these imperfect instruments we are still learning to be? Because it’s more than a sound we set our clocks by. Gabriel Spera’s poetry runs the ragged banner of being up the flagpole of language and because of that we can see more clearly those things we’d give our life for.

Collecting the Uncollected

I’ve added a new section to the site called “Uncollected.” It’s a place where I’ll be posting the occasional work from recent years which has not found its way into my four books. Included will be excerpts from a book-length sequence of poems based on Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings (and also on my grandmother Helen’s life) called–okay, you guessed it–“Helen.”

The piece I posted today is from a trip to Folly Beach near Charleston, South Carolina a few years ago.