The Ghost Girl

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Dodrill, Davin James
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School of Letters, University of the South , School of Letters Thesis, 2018 , Ovarian cancer , Death and poetry , Grief , Understanding death , Transition after death
Seven years ago, the dynamics of my life changed dramatically. My mother died, followed three months later by my wife, Rhonda, from ovarian cancer. My father who slipped into the sad journey of dementia was next. Because of these tragedies, specifically my wife’s passing, my relationship and understanding how death becomes an intrinsic part of life became a radical readjustment. Navigating the multiple aspects and layers of grief, and its daily reminder of inveterate pain, became the crux of my existence. This transition was the major conflict in my life; the one left unsolved. After fifteen months of grief therapy, my therapist transferred to another section of the James Cancer Center. I turned inward in an attempt to survive by the use of compartmentalization, as I had become an instant single parent with a host of responsibilities without any network of support. As Yeats was drawn to poetry as a compensation for the loss of God, I too was drawn to the reading and writing of poetry which took over the prayers that never seemed to be answered and had set me adrift in the human condition. This saved my life, as did the opportunity to attend The Sewanee School of Letters at the University of the South. The focus of this thesis consists of fifty poems dedicated to my life and marriage to my wife, Rhonda. These poems will include topics of the multifaceted aspects of marriage, change, loss, ritual, guilt, children, forgiveness, truth, ii perspective, sorrow, conflict, sexual unity, closeness, awareness, sensuality, denial, recovery, and death’s stark reality. I can only begin to thank the professors who were my teachers, academic guides and mentors during my summers at Sewanee. They allowed me to emerge as a writer whose voice began to take shape via my own poetry. Charles Martin was well grounded in all the mechanics of craft. He introduced me to contemporary poets, their biographies, and the meaning of their work in historical perspective. His criticism was always focused on making students better writers. He knew the connection between other art forms and poetry and juxtaposed photography with poems in a relationship of intertwining artistic similarities. Andrew Hudgins helped me to understand every word counts; its poetic substance, word choice was crucial, as well as style. He helped me curb my use of archaic language. His gritty sense of humor and real life situations related to the southern experience and provided the realization that poetry lives everywhere in the everyday interaction of human beings as they are seen through the poetic lens. Daniel Anderson wrote rhythmic verse and pulled the reader into the detail of any scene using fresh perspective where he probed the nuances of the common experience and wrote vivid descriptions leaping from the page to fortify the reader’s imagination. He brought the works of contemporary poets iii like Frost and Bishop to life by his thorough knowledge of craft and was gifted in bringing clarity to understanding. Diane Thiel influenced me deeply by her personality and her authentic teaching style. Her numerous books on creative writing constituted the blueprints for creative thought in a clear student-oriented style, as well as the purity of craft. Her classroom discussions included the interjection of art, and the opportunity she gave students to express their written pieces led them to find their own voice and rhythm. She enhanced the opportunity to make personal experience fit into the style and format best suited for student expression. Her two volumes of poetry, Resistance Fantasies and Echolocations remain examples of deeply meaningful poetry, as well as her book The White Horse: A Columbian Journey. Chris Bachelder and Barbara Black were literature teachers who fortified the academic discipline in reading with an acute eye for meaning. They brought to life the characters and their actions as examples of literary masterpieces by the use of novels, novellas and short stories illustrating the excellence of craft in their genre. Many aspects of their instruction carried over to the interjection of poetic craft. Nickole Brown was invaluable as a poet, advisor, and mentor. She was an excellent teacher who cared about her students and the writing of good poetry over all. Her editing skills were flawless; her use of language was iv beyond reproach. She impressed upon her students that writing was a demanding business not to be taken lightly for those who pursue its impact as an art form. She emphasized craft and form, grammar, and correct usage. These aspects of discipline transformed my poetry. She emphasized word choice, clarity, and the avoidance of abstract writing that may confuse the reader, and she was an expert at paring down extraneous writing. She had a penchant for “saying it plain” and always advised to keep the reader in mind and to always look at things anew. She was an invaluable instructor who infused an honest, authentic personality to her instruction while emphasizing the importance of belonging to a community of writers. She forged a deep sense of accomplishment for any student who was fortunate enough to be one of her own. Another aspect of my thesis was learning from poets who had ventured into themes I pursued. The following authors and their books, as well as authors and their individual poems, had a formative impact on my poetry. This list is not inclusive, but their vision helped fortify mine. They are Stephen Dunn’s Walking the Light, Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fire, Taije Silver’s Houses are Fields, Larry Levis’ Winter Stars, Nick Flynn’s Some Ether. Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel: A Poem, Aldenen Nowland’s “Canadian Love Song,” Tracy Ryan’s “Bite,” Salima Hill’s “Desire’s a Desire,” C. K. Williams’ “Love: Beginnings,” Sharon Old’s “Last Night,” and “True Love,” W.H. Auden’s “Ecstasy,” “Funeral Blues,” and “Lullaby,” Jo Shapcott’s v “Muse,” David Constantine’s “As Our Blood Separates,” Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man,” Meg Bateman’s “Lightness,” Thomas Blackburn’s “Now Light Congeals,” Phillip Larkin’s “Aubade,” Jaan Kaplinski’s “ Death Does Not Come From Outside,” Anonymous, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” Pam Gillian’s “Four Years,” Jeanne Willis’ “Inside Our Dreams,” Theodore Roethke’s “She,” Pablo Neruda’s “Dead Woman,” Tess Gallagher’s “Yes,” Louise Gluck’s “Wild Iris,” Charles Burkowski’s “My Garden,” “Wasted,” “A Vote for the Gentle Light,” “Be Alone,” “The Singer,” “Stick With It,” “Roll the Dice,” “In this Place,” “ for Jane,” “For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which was Not Enough,” and “I Taste Ashes of Your Death,” C. Dale Young, “Precatio Simplex,” and Nickole Brown’s “The Dead.” Besides the impact of the above writings, I reread all of Rilke. The real transformation, most importantly, was when I discovered the writings of the poet Galway Kinnell. He changed my focus in a major way. His book The Essential Rilke was the beginning. Galway Kinnell seemed to be the poet I was looking for who provided the style, the communication with nature’s forces and simplicity, and, most importantly, the concept of death as an intricate part of life’s understanding, the dealing with sadness, and the phenomenon that loss requires a critical focus on the vitality of the world missed by so many before it is too late. I am still reading his fifteen books. Sadly, he was a personal discovery, and a poet I would have been more than vi eager to have been taught. His poem that ignited it all for me and relates to my thesis is “Guillaume de Lorris.” In my own work, the search for the right image and setting, as well as the encapsulated story within the content of the poem, make up the crucial components. I attempted to portray these aspects in the following poems: “Normandy Beach,” “The Blue Hour,” “The Last Iris,” “The Last Song of Chemotherapy,” “Ghost Girl,” “Winter Beach,” “My Boys of Summer,” and “Cloud Sculptures After Midnight.” Putting a collection of poems together demanded the “going back” and reliving some very painful times; it was not an easy task. My advisor, Nikole Brown, was instrumental in supporting me during the times when I had more questions than answers. I often weakened when I had to relive some of the traumatic events. There were times I felt like walking away from the project that seemed to be taking on a life of its own. My intention was that whoever read this thesis would not assume it was too heavily laced with sentimentality. To delve into the looking and writing about traumatic experiences anew had little to do with being sentimental. The enlightenment of new emotions was supplemental to the ones that almost ruined my life. By turning them into powerful words and lines with the impact I had imagined, I wanted to create a forceful thrust and artistic endeavor. vii In the future, I plan to publish poems as well as other writings. I plan to travel extensively to different locales and expose myself to different relationships and culture that will hopefully find a place within my poems.