A Poet Turns Memoirist
What happens when an accomplished poet turns memoirist? And when that memoir is about the legacy of suicide? Eloquent yet piercingly insightful describes Juliet Patterson’s latest book, Sinkhole: A Legacy of Suicide, a lyrical and elegiac work exploring the landscape of grief, loneliness, and redemption.
Is this appropriate reading for the summer? I asked myself this when debating what book to recommend for the HPPR Radio Readers program. Others certainly presented themselves: West with Giraffes, for instance, or the probing new fiction, Horse. But my own memoir, Walking the Llano, reminded me that memoir is that special genre which allows for internal as well as external investigation and tracks the truth of feelings as well as daily verisimilitudes.
Patterson bravely excavates her family’s history of suicide: her two grandfathers and her father-- a history contextualized by the landscape of Pittsburg, Kansas, a once prosperous town built on the economy of coal mining where one grandfather, a pro-labor politician and the other, an often melancholy businessman, lived. Among Patterson’s discoveries is the metaphor that informs her own journey in the book. The hometown is full of sinkholes—phenomenon which not only cave in due to mineral extractions but continue to suck, like a vacuum, anything around them. A telling scene in the book is Patterson’s revisiting of her grandfather’s house now threatened by a sinkhole.
Patterson’s search in Sinkhole is as much for an end to these destructive cycles as it is for the missing lives of her family. She knew neither grandparent and the loss of her father remains a reminder of a relationship of missed opportunities, of a painful love. When her father died her mother quickly disposed of mementos yet kept his suicide letter. What to hang on to? Patterson went looking for answers, for the reasons many survivors seek--the why.
What she found shapes the book. Ten years of researching family and personal history, the environmental challenges of Pittsburg, the role of politics—all layers pointing to the complexity of truth. Repeatedly visiting the men’s hometown now full of sinkholes, she reconstructs the lives of the two grandfathers, reckoning with the effects of capitalism on family and community losses, tracking the scarred connections.
Like her book of poems, Threnody, her brave journey is a process in which the natural and human worlds entwine. We are the environment, sinkholes included, our health its health. Yet as she peers into the abyss, her creativity, sheer language, becomes a way—if not to answers—to a process of understanding. By giving voice to those silenced by tragedy, she frees them from the obscurity of repressed emotions, of suppressed histories, if not wholly herself. We readers may learn from this gift.
This is Shelley Armitage for Radio Readers and HPPR wishing you journeys that lead to peace and a summer of deeper understanding and gratitude. Please follow me at shelleyarmitage.com where my new book, A Habit of Landscape, is featured.
Shelley Armitage grew up in the small ranching and farming community of Vega, Texas, in Oldham County in the northwest Texas Panhandle. She still owns and operates the family farm inherited from her parents. Most of her adult life has been spent away from the Panhandle as a university professor in Texas, New Mexico, and Hawai’i, but Armitage always has returned to the “farm”—mainly in summers—which offered until recently a 360 degree view of earth and sky. Witnessing the natural world and its changes remains for her a centering and care-giving activity.
Author of eight books and over fifty articles and essays, she has held a Fulbright Chair in Warsaw, a Distinguished Senior Professorship in Cincinnati, and the Dorrance Roderick Professorship in El Paso, as well as National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, and Rockefeller grants. She is professor emerita at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her scholarship and writing focus on the arts, popular culture, gender studies, biography, nonfiction, and poetry.
Even as the heartland remains in the Panhandle, the compass foot reaches out. She spends part of each year in Las Cruces, New Mexico.