A Form for Memory and Grief

Susanna Childress, Ph.D. | Associate Professor of English

After a deeply personal experience with grief, poet Dr. Susanna Childress turned to a new-for-her form of writing — one that requires vulnerability, trust and creative risk-taking, both personally and professionally.

Her new collection of essays, Extremely Yours: Observations on Being Disordered, will be published by Awst Press, with an anticipated release in 2020.“I think of the book as a lyric investigation of certain aspects of what it means to be human,” Childress says. “I want to ask, What happens to us when we have too much of something?

For Childress, this question has found focus in the experiences of women, especially in reproduction and child-bearing. The essays, to which she dedicated several months of 2018 and on which she continues to work, are based on her own experiences and those of women she knows. She’s using creative nonfiction to explore stories of hyperthyroidism, hypersomnia, prolonged bereavement disorder, hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme nausea and vomiting during pregnancy) and the maternal healthcare experience of black women.

This mixture of personal narratives with medical and scientific literature is among the reasons Childress turned to creative nonfiction after publishing two volumes of poetry. “An essay has a scope that can handle more cold information,” she says, like the latest research from an obstetrics and gynecology journal. “Essays are more porous; they can move back and forth between modes in a way that the kind of poem I write can’t.”

The genre Childress chose — the lyric essay — seems especially suited to the complex subject matter of the book. “My idea of stellar creative nonfiction is not necessarily narrative and linear and neat,” she says. “I don’t want to represent it as tidy. It needs to be fragmented because that’s truer to the way of experiencing it.”

Her experience as a poet is informing her work as an essayist in valuable ways. “Poetry has trained me to value image and hovering over a moment,” she says. Her lyric essays resist spelling out connections for the reader in favor of “purposeful ambiguity and writing to suggest rather than to state.”

The shift to a new form that demands personal vulnerability, and trust in the reader’s ability to connect dots and find meaning — all of this is stretching Childress in new ways. “You have to take risks beyond what you’re normally comfortable with, and that’s what I’m doing with these essays,” she says. “It’s exciting and uncomfortable.”

Age Appropriate

By Dr. Susanna Childress

My sons know I had a baby in my tummy and then, after a surprise trip to the hospital during a blizzard, I didn’t. They know the baby died. They call this baby by the name we have chosen, Jericho. They know it happened again, a second time, though that baby was no bigger than a strawberry. That baby didn’t get a little yellow hat of yarn or held in our arms or pictures taken. That baby wasn’t a boy or a girl, only a strawberry who slipped away in the summertime, so we named it Tiernan, which is a boy and a girl’s name at the same time.

My son stands in my closet, stripped down to nothing, piling up oversized pillows to reach for my clothes. He pulls the orange sleeve of a blouse until it pops off the hanger, then a billowing dress of brown silk. He discards them both on the floor.

Son, I say, what’s happening here?

Mama, he asks, Do you have anything for a Fairy Queen?

He is four, his naked body all vine and melon,a shimmering of knees, lobes, belly, knuckles, things he doesn’t yet know how to dream. He’s never heard of Spenser, and I have no idea where he’s come by this phrase, or what he imagines a fairy queen might wear. I gamely paw through the options anyway, remembering the epic poem I’d studied with zero enthusiasm in grad school. How was it spelled, something like, F-a-e-r-i-e?

When I turn around, my son has found the plastic hospital bag I buried in the back of the closet, and, in a foggy, slow-motion sort of stupor, I watch him pull out the small purple sateen box that holds his dead brother’s footprints, certificate of death, the only photographs we have of him. He shakes the box, and it offers the secretive huck-huck of its contents shifting back and forth. He touches the purple ribbon holding tight the box’s top. I can see he wants to untie it, his fingers twitching toward the ends of the bow, but something stops him. He looks at me.

What is this, he asks, and then, when I fail to answer, asks again. What is this?

Excerpted from an essay in the summer 2018 issue of Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith