levineThe other day while I was driving, the radio announced the death of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer. I saw behind my eyes the green and white cover of his collected poems on my shelf at home.

This same scene, but with a different book cover, occurred a few weeks earlier when I heard that Philip Levine had died. And in the months prior to that, the radio had announced the passing of many others: Stanislaw Baranczak, Claudia Emerson, Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Seamus Heaney, Maya Angelou.

And those are just the poets. Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have left, too.

The rational part of me knows that artists whose work has mattered on a great and public scale are mortal. But the poets who have recently passed are those whose work I came of age with, and their collective departure seems a marquee announcing my entry into middle-age. It reminds me, too, that my friends are losing their parents, and our conversations and holiday cards always carry something of the quickening of mortality. In this, I have become more aware than ever of the fact of fiction: in death, everyone becomes a character steeped in legend, existing in a world apart from the one I watch and walk in.

angelouThe one comfort is that, when it comes to the loss of a writer, their books remain. Whether or not it is right, whether or not I know better, I often equate a writer’s books with their individual, real mind, and so a writer’s death does not feel so much a loss as it does a passage of the body. Even after their breath has ceased and their flesh has grayed, I can still enter a writer’s mind. In this way, the writer seems still of this world. The loss feels less sharply-edged.

But two deaths in the past year or so, both poets, caused me to weep. And when I take these writers’ books off my shelf, despite my best efforts, something tightens in the back of my throat.

On the surface, Wanda Coleman and Maxine Kumin might seem as different as a subway and a horse-cart: Coleman an urban, black, Los Angeles poet, and Kumin, a rural, white, New Englander. Likewise, Coleman and Kumin’s subject matter and style seem to come from opposite ends of the earth. Coleman’s work is a study in the brutality and compassion of a city, and the racism and poverty endemic to her geography. Her work is often described as playful, experimental, edgy – but those are code words for outspoken, sexual, outraged. Until I read Coleman, poetry was pretty. She made poetry real, the way a woman should be real: “we belonged to the same club, you and i … the unrepentant women with strong loves & stronger woes /the women accused of & found guilty of / taking their spare lives too seriously, the women / who rudely refused to bend for the soulfuck // the women who live on the astonished wind.”[i]  

Kumin, on the other hand, is praised as a formalist, and her subjects include neighbors, family, her horses and garden, and the fraught yet natural cycle of life and death: “we can almost discuss it, good and harm. // Nature a catchment of sorrows. / We hug each other. No lesson drawn.”[ii]

Yet  both women were fiercely political, intensely aware of injustice in the lives of others both like and unlike themselves. They lived and wrote on their own terms, aspiring to what they wanted from their art. They made no compromises, no excuses, no complaints.

However, despite a prolific number of books and critical acclaim, Coleman for many years struggled to make a living from her art. And Kumin, despite a Pulitzer Prize and teaching positions at prestigious institutions, remained in the shadow of her short-lived and more anthologized friends, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The steely resilience of Kumin and Coleman, in the face of the racism and sexism that permeated their personal and professional lives, remains for me one of the best lessons in what it means to live an honest and authentic life as a writer, yes, but also as a human being.

Coleman 284I met Wanda Coleman once, in the early 2000s. She came to Pittsburgh where I was a student, and in those years I didn’t know what to say to a writer whose work I admired (if I’m honest, ten years later, I have the same problem). So I sat and listened to her chat with the other fifteen or so writers in the room. I had expected a persona somewhat like that of her 2001 collection, Mercurochrome: raw, electric and inventive, by turns unruly and sorrowful. But her conversational voice was low and steady, her face open and calm. It wasn’t my first lesson in remembering not to equate the persona in the poems with the poet herself. But it was the first time that lesson made me sit up and listen. After Coleman died in November 2013, I went looking for her voice – that instrument that was both in her and her poems – to see if what I remembered about her voice, off the page, was as true as her poems. It was. I found it here, in her reading of “Requiem for a Nest.”

I never met Maxine Kumin. A dear professor introduced me to her work in the summer of 2000, with the book Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief (1982). I then read everything Kumin had written, and I considered, for over a decade, writing her a letter of admiration, one that described our shared love of horses and nature, and the way her work gave me a permission to write about motherhood and the natural world like no one else’s. But out of procrastination, nervousness, and self-doubt, I never did. Then, on my thirty-sixth birthday in 2014, her obituary appeared in The New York Times. Someone else, finally, had written her the love letter she deserved.

If someone had told me, in the earliest days of the twenty-first century, that I would in the space of a year encounter two mentors in language and thought; that the mentors would be two women from opposite ends of racial, economic, and geographic experience; that those same women would over the course of more than ten years become two of the greatest influences on my own writing and thinking; and that these women would die within three months of each other, I would have disbelieved them. When I was in my early twenties and thought I knew what it meant to live an artistic life, I really knew nothing about anything. I wouldn’t say I know much more now. But back then, more importantly, I had no idea what it meant to have a mentor, much less see the end to a mentor’s long novel of art.

As I finish writing this, downstairs my daughter plays the piano, and the keys under her fingers sing her soul, a person whose face I know as well as my own. When I hear my daughter make music like this, it is like touching the pages of Kumin and Coleman, the words of writers who came before me, the poems that will stay past my life and into my daughter’s. Words crafted by women who never knew I loved them, but they shared their gifts anyway. 


[i] “For All Your Flavorless Effort.” Mercurochrome, by Wanda Coleman. Black Sparrow Press: Santa Rosa, CA, 2001. 116-118.

[ii] “Catchment.” Selected Poems, 1960-1990. By Maxine Kumin. WW Norton: New York, 1997. 257-258.


Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewChester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.

Car, Snow, Glass

Photo credit Jared Schmidt
Photo credit Jared Schmidt



I’m fascinated by glass, how it’s made of sand and heat – elements of the world – yet the glass itself, when it’s formed, seems other-worldly. Indeed, it seems like a solid, but is more in its viscosity a liquid.

How can something transparent be both window and barrier, the thing that allows us to see beyond the confines of house, office, and car, yet separates us so fully from that same beyond?

To be able to see clearly but not touch. To be so close but yet not part of. It’s easier to want what you see but can’t touch. Can’t yet open.



When I think about glass, I also think about snow. Perhaps this is because I grew up in western New York, where people spend many months of each year looking out of windows at snow. Perhaps, too, snow is something like glass: snow makes a place seem other-worldly, and it is both beautiful and dangerous. Intricate in design, yet treacherous when it accumulates on surfaces.

One snowy night when I was fourteen, Lauren was driving her parents’ minivan to musical rehearsal with me and our friends, Sam and Pete, in the passenger seats. So much snow had come down, so fast, that Lake Shore Drive wasn’t yet plowed. The distance ahead of us stretched gray in the streetlight, and the few cars ahead crept along through what seemed a long passageway. Lauren’s hands gripped the wheel at ten and two. We leaned forward and peered out the windshield.



Not long ago, nostalgic for my snowbound hometown, I re-read Davy Rothbart’s essay, “Human Snowball.” The story takes place in wintry Buffalo as the characters drive around the city in a stolen SUV. On every page, the reader is certain something awful will happen: a 101-year-old man will die; someone will lose their job; the police officer who pulls them over will discover the vehicle’s provenance; the protagonist will never find the girl he came to city for.

But in Rothbart’s story, for one snowy night, all is right with the world.



If such a snow as the night of the minivan fell where I live now, in southeastern Pennsylvania, everyone would stay home and the schools would be closed. But that night, and always it seemed in western New York, snow was excitement, a challenge, a new world to conquer. Sixteen-year-olds learned to drive in the snow, and everyone grew up watching their parents drive in weather that today makes me shudder. On Christmas Eve, my parents would drive my brothers and me an hour north, past Buffalo and into Grand Island, to my aunt’s house. The way there would be clear, but many years on the way home snow would be falling fast, the depth already halfway up our station wagon’s tires. My father steered slowly through the whiteness where abandoned cars lurked like whales, Moby Dicks, on the shoulder. As much as he and my mother voiced their concern and told us to sit back and be quiet, I never felt afraid. We had done this many times: warm and dark inside the vehicle, cold and white and night outside, and that thin sheet of glass in between.

Always, we made it home.



The night Lauren drove her parents’ minivan, we were rehearsing for Grease; I was Sandy and Lauren was a Pink Lady, and Sam and Pete were Greasers. In real life, though, we were nothing so cool as Pink Ladies and Greasers. We were honor roll nerds who lived for band or chorus or both.

But the nights that our musical packed the high school auditorium, we were more than cool. The theatre lights illuminated us, and the audience applauded in the dark, and the crumbling town on Lake Erie felt, for a few nights, like possibility. We didn’t see how small the auditorium was, or consider how worn the fabric of the seats. How low the town’s buildings. How lonely a van on a snowy road.

For a few nights, most of us forgot that we wanted out of that rust-belt town. We were young and naïve, though of course we thought otherwise. We wanted to be people we weren’t, which explains why we spent so many nights devoted to musical theatre alter egos.

Like Davy Rothbart, us kids in the van, we were lucky.  We got home all right. Then we graduated from college, got jobs. Some of us got masters degrees or PhDs. Some of us left town for good. Some of us left and came back.

A few never left at all. I can’t remember any of my friends cracking up their parents’ cars in the snow. In our town, the trains destroyed more cars. Every few years, a car flew off the city pier and into the water. Several times, I knew the names. All small towns have their share of tragedy, and they hurt no less than tragedy anywhere. Sometimes they hurt more because the place is so small, because everyone knows everyone else, because the place is a place where it seems nothing of consequence can happen.



The night I was allowed out in a minivan with my seventeen-year-old neighbor driving while the snow came down seemed when it happened the most exciting moment of my life.  And in some ways, it still is:  heart in my throat, my eyes full of a tired, familiar beauty, and the question of will we make it hanging in the air. All of it cradled by the town I would later think let me down just because it was small and shabby and poor. But that night I didn’t think that way. Cynicism and the city hadn’t ruined home. The crumbling facades, empty storefronts, and small houses with plastic sheeting over the windows instead of curtains were just the way things were. As a child I accepted this as the world because I was part of it and hadn’t really been anywhere else. Later, in college, I saw that town through a new window. It looked like a hole of misery, and I felt somehow superior because I left it for good.

But the truth is I now live in a place where window treatments are discussed as a matter of utmost seriousness, and nearly all of the houses have been renovated to historic standards. The fabric on the seats of my children’s elementary school auditorium smells new, and the floor’s carpeting is never threadbare. Worn fabric, the parents would agree, would be an embarrassment.

We weren’t embarrassed in the van. We didn’t know how to be. We lived in shabby houses, we shoveled the driveways because no one’s parents could afford a snow blower, and we drove around in rusty, late-model cars.

It’s not my old home, the snowfall, or a rust-belt ethos I long for. But I do miss the kind of not-seeing that allows a child to be satisfied when she peers out the glass window at the world, a world she thinks she knows, a world often covered in snow.


*Names have been changed for privacy.


Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Chester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.



The Book and the Rifle

RUN SKUNK RUNWhen I finished reading Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay collection, Loitering, I wanted nothing more than to look away.

This hadn’t been the case at the beginning, though.  In the early pieces, I had marveled at the speaker’s capacity, to develop wit and empathy across politics, class, and race. Addicts and the downtrodden, abusive spouses, glitzy media personalities, environmentalists, and native whalers: the persona held that even as he tried to understand other people and perspectives, he knew he could never get anything right. This, I thought, was a truth I could get behind.

But as the book progressed, the persona deepened, and beneath its witty surface roiled a man deeply harmed by his father’s violence and his brothers’ mental illness and suicide. His greatest empathy, it seemed, rested with two misunderstoods: Holden Caulfield, the troubled protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, and Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who became pregnant by her middle school student.

By book’s end, I didn’t want to spend more time with Loitering, intelligent and insightful as its speaker was. The world presented rang hard and cold, and I was unsettled by the presentation of women: they are largely absent in the essays, but when women do appear, they are in some way unsavory or conflicted, as Letourneau. And so I spent a long while trying to decide if my unease was more my shortcoming than the book’s, or not a shortcoming at all.

In any case, I finished Loitering, and I looked away.

There’s something else—another element from which I look away. A gun. Or rather, guns in general. Each time I try to hold one, dread builds in my chest; the bile seems to reach my fingers. When I was small, perhaps nine or ten, my father was teaching my younger brother and me how to shoot a BB gun. Then a visitor arrived at our house, and Dad told us to stop and wait while he had a conversation. My father had entrusted me with the unloaded BB gun as he talked, and I was holding it with its muzzle straight in the air, as he’d directed, so I wouldn’t put an eye out. Or that’s what I thought I was doing, because when the gun went off, I startled. Everyone and I snapped our eyes to the sound, and we saw the gun’s muzzle pointed not in the air, but at my brother’s eye. I have not trusted myself around guns since, and the guilt and shame of that accidental triggering has shadowed me for almost thirty years.

I predict the shattered world of Loitering, its “coincidence of wants, taking place inside a huge, broken promise,” will shadow me as well.

At the beginning of December, when I was in the middle of reading Loitering, we discovered a skunk in yard. The skunk came out of the shadows at rainy dusk, a few feet away from my eleven-year-old daughter.  I called to her and she ran away from the skunk, but then the beastie, unprovoked, charged my sixty-pound dog. The dog stood still, its hackles on end, and I did not know what to do, much as I didn’t know what to do with Loitering. In this instance, though, I couldn’t look away.

I stood frozen with indecision and imagined endless vet bills and tomato soup baths in my future.

The only thing I could manage was to yell, and it seemed nearly useless since the dog, now hackled and growling, ignored me. The skunk, single-minded, kept coming as if it were a dog, too, rather than a small and odiferous critter. And it wanted, it seemed, to do battle with its teeth But just as the skunk’s snout  reached my dog’s, and just as I was certain a bloody fight would commence, the dog turned and ran into the house. Though I slammed the door, the skunk clambered up the stairs in pursuit.

I called my husband, who was due home any minute, and warned him about the skunk. He knew, as I did, that a skunk this aggressive was most likely sick, even rabid On his way home, my husband  stopped by his father’s house and borrowed a .22 rifle, and by the end of the cold, wet evening the skunk had ravaged the neighborhood and bitten someone else’s dog before my husband finally shot it dead.

The evening’s harsh end and my response to it reminded me of a line from Loitering: “It was beautiful, and a relief, mostly a relief, to feel the rain coming down and know how resistant reality was, how durable, even in a world drained of love.” I didn’t think I was a person who believed in taking another creature’s life in order to protect my own. Yet I was relieved, even giddy, that the skunk was gone. Where had my empathy, my love for wild creatures, gone?

Two days later the health department confirmed the skunk, indeed, had rabies.   It became clear I was ill-prepared to deal with a rabid skunk or any other sick creature that might emerge from the woods that surround our house. Unlike handling a difficult book, which takes much time and thought, handling a rabid animal requires a person to think quickly and shoot it dead. Thinking quickly is not something I do well, and of guns I am incompetent. I had thought of these as entirely redeeming qualities, but this skunk, which had been so near to my dog and my child made me see otherwise.

And so, just yesterday, I asked my husband to teach me to use the .22. God, I was nervous – I didn’t know how to hold the thing, much less load it and understand its mechanisms. I felt like I was trying to assemble a model ship while wearing mittens, and I wanted to run away screaming. But at the end of an hour, I had loaded the rifle several times and finally made seven accurate shots in a row. I am not yet ready to slay a skunk or any other moving, breathing target, but something fundamental has changed. Fear has been replaced with competence, though I am still wary each moment the rifle is in my hands. The memory of my brother’s eye still loiters.

So does my unease with D’Ambrosio’s book. The speaker in those essays is far from who I am, and the book reveals truths I would prefer not to hear. But the book and the rifle are powerful and demand the utmost respect. Despite a measure of bile and my desire to flee, the effects of these forces, my discomfort with them, is something I must face. Something from which I should no longer look away.


Cate Hennessey’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg ReviewChester County Dwell, and Polish American Journal. Noted in Best American Essays, she has also been a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction.