Inside Her Story: The Poetry of Terry Blackhawk

Terry Blackhawk is everything a poet could ever hope to be. She writes with a rare sincerity that entices her readers and makes her poetry relatable to a wide audience. The author of two chapbooks and three full length poetry collections, Blackhawk is an inspiration to people and poets everywhere. In her books, The Dropped Hand and Greatest Hits: 1990-2003, her calm acceptance of life’s events and her perpetual hope and positive outlook guide the reader on an unforgettable journey of life.

In The Dropped Hand, Terry Blackhawk writes with the knowledge of grief that is associated with the loss of a loved one, while allowing her acceptance and hope to shine through. Blackhawk is a master of emotion. In the twelve-part poem, “The Dropped Hand,” she weaves the fabric of loss seamlessly, beginning with her visiting her deceased mother’s house for “the first birthday she will never see.” A waitress working at the restaurant she stops to eat at on her journey finds her “curious, a woman eating and writing alone.” Her stop for food delays her arrival; she had wanted “to say goodbye / to the leaves, but it was already dark.” There were only four hours left in the day her mother passed away and the author was determined to stay up until the day had officially ended. She begins to remember dreams she had of her mother’s last words, how her brother, perhaps, kept calling the house to hear her voice on the answering machine one last time. She sits by the light of the candles, four, “not the tension of threes. Four is static.” As the night continues on the candles burn low and the author continues an earlier theme of playing cards, remarking, “Say she had trumped / or passed or overbid or doubled….And then there was the stunned husband / staring at the dropped hand.” The references to cards are noted in the “Letter” encompassing the author’s yearning to “be there when they set you / to the flames…..adorned with spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts.” Then the final candle burned down and blew out, signifying the end of the day, the end of a life.

In “Everything About Elephants” Blackhawk confronts the sadness of watching someone age with a humor that borders on relief. ““This is not a joke,” Metro traffic explains” of a herd of escaped elephants blocking traffic on the freeway. The author is “glad to bring to you (this news) in the Health and Living Center / where you lie, curled most days.” She is excited to share such a bizarre story to someone sheltered beside a small window that should be made bigger to let the world inside, someone who strains for words that are too elusive, “scoffing at the pachyderm report, eyes bright / with the humor of it.” The “quick laugh” makes the author “grateful for everything / I know about elephants-their stately walk / to the grounds of their dead, the placid browse / of their great wide heads and their escape today / from the traveling circus into waist-high grasses.” This is, perhaps, one of Blackhawk’s most relatable poems. The theme of watching someone you love age and eventually pass away is something most people deal with in their lifetime. It can be difficult to come up with new and exciting stories to share with these people every day so an escape of elephants is more of a relief than anything else. The elephants bring with them hope, laughter, and the ability to deal with the situations of life.

Blackhawk’s writing style is fluid and upbeat in “Peter Pan on Derby Day”; she smoothly switches from the topics of fairies, to the Kentucky Derby, to the theatre. She asks the reader, “Do you believe in fairies?” connecting the footfalls of people and fairies alike to that of the horses’ hooves on Derby Day. After missing War Emblem’s victory the author and her colleagues vow that at the next Derby “We’re planning to wear gaudy hats / and let horses make divinest sense.” Upon planning for the future, time begins to spin slowly backward to the previous Derby where they “explained the race to the Bengali waiter /…from the counter in the Manhattan bar” and the author put her money on the “colt whose trainer saved his life / with a mixture of milk, turpentine, and faith.” No one can remember who won the race, but the author has decided to buy a “comical hat” one “bursting with spring / and belief, like the wires and pulleys I couldn’t see / when I was five- supports that kept the actors / flying out over the stage.” This ending line enlivens the poem, transforming the future hat into a living thing, a combination of her past, present, and future.

“Holding Hands with the Tin Man” is a more thought-provoking, whimsical poem combining fantasy with harsh reality. “How many times / had she sliced apples? How many / Dorothy’s have landed in Oz?” the author wonders while simultaneously peeling apples for a meal and watching a football game. “She wouldn’t mind holding hands / with the Tin Man” to escape her everyday life where her relationship with her husband mirrors the arc of her apple peels falling “tangled in the sink.” She hears the cheers on the television and relates them to the boisterous mentality of barrooms where “a man drinks alone / until his rage spends itself in sleep.” Yet here she is at home with her son who is waiting to “don pads and armor, crash about.” She remembers how her brothers on “cold autumn evenings” would play, she remembers the “exposed place (of the helmet) / below the crew cut stubble, a soft dent, / like a kiss, an offering.” Then she jerks back to reality, realizes that she is not in Oz, “the knife / slips and cuts a thumb. And here / she yearns for that hollow man, / his heartfelt, heart-less grace.”

The topic of loss is approached again in the poem “Signaling Bridge.” After her father suffered a debilitating stroke, he lost many of his former capabilities. Blackhawk manages her feelings toward the state of her father in a poem that can only be described as beautiful. It begins with “My father gropes for words” which brings to mind a man as a mime, the words almost within reach if only he could escape the imaginary confines of his box made of air. Surprisingly, the father “is signaling bridge” signaling through cards the bridge he needs to find inside his mind to become part of the world he once knew. “Today he puts his jacket / into the refrigerator. Then he / corrects himself.” The pain and confusion of not being able to remember takes a toll on the whole family: “What can we do but wait now”— wait for him to remember or wait for him to accept that he will always forget. With “I want to label his world” the author yearns to help her father remember, “but where to fix / surge, current, lift, breathe?” Tonight the author will “drive toward the moon” and travel to a time when her father was still able to write poetry and read aloud to his child, to get away from this night, “so unlike the ribbon of moonlight / he recited for me when I was ten” or to remember when “I was three and he read to me / Goodnight Moon, Mother Raccoon. / The story said wait, wait till the moon is full.” Although his vocabulary is still intact he “writes the verse but does not know its name.” He might be thinking “chartreuse perhaps- / Perhaps lavender but can only signal ‘C’ or ‘L’”. He was once the man who stood up at “the wedding feast” and welcomed a new daughter; now he “makes his way with clues; who peed and sang / and crept back under the sheets. Who wanted to disturb / no one. Who put the time at the end of his line. 4:06 a.m.”

Blackhawk explores the relationships between parents and their children in many of her poems in The Dropped Hand. Those of us who are perhaps too young to have had the same relationship with our parents as she had can relate through watching our grandparents age. Watching someone pass away is one of the hardest things to endure, yet Ms. Blackhawk shows through her poems that courage, patience, and respect for time and age are three of the greatest things that can sustain mankind on the journey from life to death. “Primer” is one of Blackhawk’s most heart-wrenching and heart-warming poems, “These were the words / you put in your pocket- / hearth table window chair.” Her father’s stroke took away his ability to read. Blackhawk struggles, perhaps, the most with this disability. Her father taught her how to read: “I loved reading the lines / as I sat with you in your chair.” Coming back to the present the author concedes that now “you sit in your chair / no longer expecting to read.” “The doctor said: Try headlines. / you creased and caressed the words before putting them in your pocket.” The author continues to stress the importance of words to her father, “how precious they felt in your pocket” sometimes having something special to us, knowing that it’s there is all one needs to feel calm.

“Now mother says the lines / of your own poems for you” and sometimes he remembers the words, he finds a different way to feel them. The author in a symbol of gratitude and love for her father begs him to “read the moon. Tonight / she pulls songs from the lining of her pocket / and sings them for you, rocking in a chair of words.”

Blackhawk’s Greatest Hits 1990-2003 holds a treasure chest of poems quite different from those of The Dropped Hand. Greatest Hits chronicles an earlier portion of Ms. Blackhawk’s life, most notably the time her son is about to embark for college. Blackhawk’s poems are not yet filled with the knowledge that grief bestows upon those who have felt it, resulting in many poems of a lighter tone. Blackhawk explores the meandering rhythms of rhyme in her poem “The Dawn of the Navajo Woman.” Blackhawk’s ability to bring differing worlds together is evident in this poem opening with; “The Navajo medicine woman gets up early / to greet the sun. So my radio tells me / and so I stayed tuned.” This contradiction of lifestyles becomes more pronounced as the poem continues and another character, the woman’s husband, enters. The author introduces him by saying “Perhaps it’s the way your arch fits my instep, / my instep curves over your arch /… our limbs linking and unlinking.” This repetition of words brings a lilting happy feel to the poem quickly contradicted with the author’s “calm talk of death.” She tries unsuccessfully to imagine the devotions of the Navajo woman “but get only as far / as yesterday” where she found herself in a cemetery after a shopping trip. Her eyes alight upon a pond of ducks “their emerald heads flashing a green and palpable fire.”

The poem, “Reader Response,” written in response to the poem, “My Father’s Love Letters,” by Yusef Komunyakaa is filled with the emotion expressed by a boy who was left behind by his mother. “My Father’s Love Letters” chronicles a family of three; mother, father and son. The mother leaves her husband and son behind because her husband is abusing her. Every Friday the husband asks his son to write a letter to his mother asking her to come back home, a letter filled with promises that will never be tested. “Reader Response” was written after a classroom of students had finished studying “My Father’s Love Letters,” and one boy’s reaction to the poem was different than that of the other students. “When they point out that the line breaks / at “happy”…. McMaine reads right past the happiness. The sentence ends with “gone”” McMaine finds a deeper more personal meaning in this poem, having been left behind himself. The author thinks “how what the mother serves the child / dishes out, creating always the same / painstaking pattern: the plate beside the knife / between the fork and spoon.” But what happens when the pattern is disrupted? If the plate jumps to one side or becomes a runaway dish? “I know I’m reading / an emptiness that has surely become / his polestar, his fixed center, a leaping beast, / an absence forever present in his sky.”

Blackhawk crosses cultures yet again in her poem “Burmese Girls Sold Into Prostitution In Thailand.” She repeats the words “she is…nothing” often throughout the poem, reinforcing the view that many believe that the life of a Burmese is expendable. The girl proclaims “she does not kill herself” to save her parents from falling deeper into debt, she is “the bargaining chip” the last hope. Sold to men from a foreign country “Thai…misaligns her tongue” she is kept in a windowless cell “she loses value quickly” she can only be passed off as a virgin so many times. “She feels nothing” she becomes sick physically and emotionally “she is coated with sores and / sent back to her village where she is / whispered about, no friends, nothing.” She makes her story “something to envy” so she is not left with nothing, yet the illness overtakes her even though she dreams of someone to save her. She has “so little flesh / left for the pyre, but they burn her body anyway.” They “burn all that is / hers: the city clothes, the plastic shoes, the drinking cup.” This poem resonates deeply; the reader’s heart goes out to this Burmese girl who has nothing, who is nothing anymore.

The closing poem in Greatest Hits continues the theme of storytelling reinforced by the collection in “What The Story Weaves, The Spinner Tells.” Blackhawk poses a question central to the book, what will protect us? “When everything vanishes but the light / of memory, what will protect us inside / our lines, this darkly echoing space?” Are we protected by dreams? Can we be protected by stories? “Grimm’s little girl had it right: light / is the only way to fill us from the inside / out, the match in her apron pocket, the tale / a bright window against the dark forest.” Blackhawk can relate to this constant search for inspiration. She was a prolific writer in her teenage years, yet found upon entering college that her time to write was greatly diminished resulting in a temporary hiatus from her craft that was broken when she wrote her senior thesis, a poetry collection titled “ex/per/i/frag/mental”.

She spent the next twenty years of her life raising her family and teaching in the Detroit school system where she became the founder and executive director of InsideOut, a nonprofit program serving over 2,500 students annually in Detroit, Michigan. The program provides creative-writing instruction along with possible publication opportunities. Blackhawk is the author of numerous essays and poetry collections. She is the recipient of various awards including the 2002 John Ciardi prize, the Foley prize, United Black Artists 1994 Pioneer Teacher in the Arts Award, Detroit Metro Times Progressive Hero, Michigan Governor’s Award for the Arts, and many others. Stories and dreams have been told and passed down by generations teaching lessons, passing on hope. Blackhawk passes on her stories with grace and sympathy, seamlessly merging fantasy with reality, death with life. Perhaps it is true that in a society of suffering and success, determination and resignation, it is the stories that keep us sane. “We tell and grow new with every telling, amazed by the space we shape, the way we regard one another inside it.”

Works by Terry Blackhawk

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