For a long time I held my breath. “Breathe from your diaphragm,” my Scottish grandmother would say, fluttering her hands skyward. She recited Robert Burns while cooking and instructed me to speak in “dulcet tones.” In the unknown realm of my chubby body, I had no sense of diaphragm, or much else. I did not live there.
Inside a book, my breath released. I read novels and poems that found words for feelings and showed how people lived with them. I felt mostly eager to please, achieve, and perform the self expected of me. Though I could recite poems and sing, my high-school nickname was Breathless. Even years later my stepsister remarked, “You’re not breathing.” I had not yet become myself.
"Inside a book, my breath released."
In college I discovered women poets, and a slow breathing through silence to find my own words began. It would be twenty years before Voiceunders, my first poetry collection, was published. The title was my word for a voice I detected under the official story I told myself.
Working after college as a newspaper reporter in my hometown, I learned how to report and write those official stories. I loved the smell of ink and paper, and the basement roar of the press. I was living inside a giant daybook learning how to observe and interview others, ferret out facts, and write on deadline.
One day I was interviewing 90-year-old Frances Dorsey about local African-American history. She asked me if my name was once Heather Roland—my birth surname unspoken for years. I was stunned. Frances knew my forgotten family, the father and paternal grandmother from whom I’d been long estranged. The breathless girl within me, like half a person missing, stirred. Frances’s gift launched my investigation of who I was and how it felt to be me. For this report, I pivoted to poetry.
"The breathless girl within me, like half a person missing, stirred."
At times I felt like an alienated performer in life’s carnival. Circus Freex, my second collection, looked out from the platform where I was a trapeze artist, a mother trying to walk on water, a girl on the dare seat talking to her dead father, imagining him as her muse. I felt the pressure of forgetting and erasure at work in American history, poetry, and culture. We celebrated the new by tearing down the old, writing an often-errant history. But the losses incurred in Practicing Amnesia, the title of my third poetry collection, required a reckoning. Omissions were not accidents, as the poet Marianne Moore once wrote.
"I was a trapeze artist, a mother trying to walk on water, a girl on the dare seat talking to her dead father, imagining him as her muse."
I used to walk past the row-houses on North Fifth Street in Reading, Pennsylvania, looking for my father, whom I’d lost to alcoholism and divorce when I was 6. No one ever said his name. I was fortunate to have gained a new father, family, and home through my mother’s remarriage. My surname was changed with the best of intentions, so that legally I would belong, but the erasure of my last name left me feeling false. I was a carrier of buried truth. My childhood memory had blinkered gaps.
I found my grandmother in a North Fifth Street apartment, but she spoke to me as if I wasn’t there. She, too, had forgotten the past. In the next block I found the birthplace of poet Wallace Stevens at 323 N. Fifth, an address I dimly remembered. My mother said yes, we had lived with my father in the second-floor apartment of the poet’s house before she and I left. I never saw or heard from my father again until his funeral. Resurrection Papers, my next book, explored language as a mode of recovery from loss. I became an avid reader of Stevens. The writing process was changing me.
"The writing process was changing me."
I learned to listen to myself, hear what my body was saying, and consciously breathe. I was also dealing with a chronic illness. I struggled to embrace all that was a part of my life, inside and outside the official story. Like myself, that story was always in revision, taking new form. My fifth book, Blue Ruby, extended this inquiry more directly into the larger world.
My sixth book, Vortex Street, imagines the world as a series of vortices connected through air and water, starting with my own riverside street and extending to Newtown, Connecticut; Tanta, Egypt; Tel Aviv; Sarajevo; Istanbul and elsewhere. As a phenomenon of fluid dynamics, a vortex street disregards boundaries we think we have in place to protect us. In these poems, private and public urgencies travel through time and converge in a space that is borne, accepted, and reimagined.
"A vortex street disregards boundaries we think we have in place to protect us."
Throughout my life, poetry has been a steadfast companion as I gain consciousness of language, myself, and the world. I’m grateful for the work of other poets and for the writing process I’ve come to trust, regardless of outcomes. I’ve learned how breath can open the difficult silence into which language comes.
I hope you will join me on your own search for words that release your voice, inscribe your poems, and tell your story.