In three weeks my cousin Pat is going to take a small step into the vast unknown. Pat Riviere-Seel is going to spend a week at the NC Zoological Park in Asheboro as its first Poet-in-Residence. She and I have been whispering and tittering (in the email sense) about her preparations almost daily because just a few weeks after her sojourn ends I am going to follow her in the same role. And yes, before you ask, the curators have promised fresh straw in our cages.
How does one qualify to become a Zoo Poet? The decision process of the artistic committee that established this new program remains obscure to us, the selected, but I can tell you a little about Pat’s qualifications as a poet. She has the ability to imagine herself into unimaginable personalities. She can speak in the voices of the voiceless . . . so many voices. To read her poetry is to be touched, mind and heart, by people you could never otherwise have known.
Perhaps some of this creative skill has grown from her affliction, as she describes it, of ”recovering journalist.” In the thousands of interviews and articles over the years, how many personalities consumed her? How many epiphanies when she suddenly saw with another person’s eyes and felt the whole of their motivations? In her book The Serial Killer’s Daughter, Pat has completed the astonishing transition from journalist to poet. Through the poems speak not only the daughter and mother, but other family members, victims, onlookers. The story as it unfolds, and as the daughter begins to suspect, gives me a chill every time I read it. It can’t be easy to weave together fear and desperation with calculating cruelty and still leave the reader with a sense of compassion, but my cousin Pat is someone ever willing to take a step into the vast unknown.
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My Brother’s Keeper
My brother doesn’t believe me
when I tell him it’s no accident
everyone close to Mama dies.
Always Mama’s favorite, he’s
the smart one, college degree,
office job. He can’t afford
a stain of doubt ringing
the collar of his starched
life. How could he forget
what happened when
he enlisted: Mama declared
the Army wouldn’t take him,
a widow’s only son. Two weeks
she railed like a street preacher
calling to the lost. My brother claimed
Mama’s grief soured his stomach.
It’s nothing, he told me. Just the stress
from seeing Mama so upset.
He forced himself to eat with us
the day before he left. No cake,
he said to me. But Mama insisted.
Clumsy, she screeched
as I slipped
and the cake shattered.
© Pat Riviere-Seel, The Serial-Killer’s Daughter, 2009, Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Additional sample poems at Pat’s homepage.
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Yes, Pat and I are really cousins. Her great-grandfather, the Reverend J.N.S. Daub, is also my mother’s great-grandfather. That makes us second cousins one generation removed. (Your attention please: due to the vagaries of genealogical arithmetic, this does not mean that Pat is old enough to be my mother.) We discovered this connection only about ten years ago when we met at an NCPS meeting and she mentioned that she’d just attended a family reunion in Lewisville. I said, “Hey, that’s where my great-great-grandfather is buried,” then later mailed her a photo I’d taken of the headstone. Cosmic!
And as far as her being selected as Zoo Poet, I also happen to know that Pat has written a number of poems about bears.
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