Sharon Mesmer
Flood the World with Beauty

A big literary conference is probably not the best place for a poet dealing with a mental breakdown. But there I was at AWP, skittishly perusing tables at the book fair, under the garish lights of the Minneapolis Convention Center. For two years, paralyzed by depression and anxiety, I was barely able to leave my apartment. Staying inside was also a problem because the TV, phone and microwave seemed to be emitting high-pitched whines. I’d contemplated suicide. But with the help of my husband, a good shrink and poetry, I was slowly recovering. I still wasn’t 100% myself, but just being in that crowd felt like a great victory.


At the Tavern Books table, I picked up a poetry collection with a striking title: The Fire’s Journey. As I paged through it, I read these words:


I cast myself in a hollow of shadow

from the highest contour of the blood


from the skin to the light entering through dawn

climbing up through the syllable



The voice, a combination of Sappho, Dickinson, Whitman and Blake, felt both ancient and contemporary. The poet told how creation began with sacred speech from the mouth of a poet-god. Then, like a shaman, the deity embarked upon a perilous Underworld journey to bring back wisdom and healing to humanity. I was especially attracted to the idea of descending into darkness for the benefit of others. I’d walked my own painful path; what knowledge could I share?


I looked at the cover again: The Fire’s Journey by Eunice Odio.


I’d never heard of her. A quick search on my phone revealed a stunning, movie star face: long dark hair framing a high forehead, eyebrows like black wings above fierce, luminous eyes. A visionary. However, her biography told a different story. Born in 1919, Odio was “the mother of Costa Rican poetry in the twentieth century.” But her work never saw publication in her home country until after she’d died, alone and undiscovered for days, in Mexico City at age 54. There were only a few examples of her work on the Internet, despite an impressive publication record. The book I’d just been reading was making its English language debut, the first volume of a 456-page epic that Odio had completed in 1957. As a poet myself, I felt desperate to know this brilliant, neglected woman — and how she’d come to that tragic end.


Back home in Brooklyn, I obsessively Googled. I ordered anthologies of Latin-American poetry and source books of Spanish-American women writers. As I researched Odio, I was shocked to discover many other talented female poets who’d suffered similar fates. Paging through one anthology I found the work of Delmira Agustini, shot by her estranged husband (who then turned the pistol on himself) in a hotel room in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1914.  She was only 27. She’d published her first collection at 21, and was praised by critics of the time (for her beauty as much as for her work). Her poem “Lo inefable” (“The Ineffable”) struck me:


Have you never endured a star like a white dwarf

inside you that gives no light but entirely consumes?



Those lines described exactly how I’d felt during my breakdown.


In the same book I came across this biographical note for Alfonsina Storni:


“Depressed and in bad health, she walked into the sea in October 1938.”


She was 46. Born in Switzerland in 1892, she’d come to Argentina with her Swiss-Italian parents when she was three. Her first book was published when she was only 24. Like Agustini, she’d frankly depicted female desire and depression. Pages later, I read the lyrics to “Gracias a la vida” (“Here’s to Life”) by Violeta Parra, born in Chile in 1917. The version in the anthology was co-translated by Joan Baez. An activist like Baez, Parra had collected and performed Chilean folk songs. She toured Europe for four years, introducing her audiences to regional singers and local customs. In 1963 she founded a performance space in Santiago called La Carpa de La Reina — the Queen’s Tent. The following year, she became the first Latin-American artist to have a solo exhibition of her paintings, sculptures and arpilleras (patchwork pictures constructed from scraps of cloth and burlap) at the Museum of Decorative Arts of the Louvre. Unfortunately, the public’s response to the Queen’s Tent was not positive. Feeling abandoned, Parra shot herself in the head in 1967, in the space she’d created.


I had to close the book. I was reminded, of course, of Plath and Sexton, but I’d personally known poets like that. My best friend Lydia Tomkiw passed away in 2007, alone like Odio, of alcoholism. We’d met in a college poetry class, back in Chicago. Together, we plotted our rise to literary fame, sent work out, and gave readings. We’d even hatched a scheme to kidnap Allen Ginsberg, to get ourselves on the cover of Time magazine. (When we met him at a reading, and told him about our idea, he was all for it. Too bad we didn’t have a plan.) But we grew apart when her drinking began to consume her life. I’d always wondered whether it was artistic sensitivity that created the conditions for depression, or was depression the gateway to great art. And why did women seem to succumb more than men?


I also wondered: How had I survived, when they hadn’t?


The answer was obvious. I had things they lacked: monetary resources, medical information, love. I wanted to embrace these lost sisters, tell them they’d never be forgotten because they’d managed to flood the world — or at least my world — with beauty. During my breakdown, poetry had sustained me. Now, I realized, I had a debt to repay.


I got up and Googled Delmira Agustini’s face, printed the image, and pasted it in the anthology next to her selection. I did the same with Odio, Storni and Parra. I read their work, stared into their eyes, and made notes. I compiled everything I could find on the Internet about them, and ordered more books. I felt like I was following a breadcrumb trail: the more I read, the more women I discovered. Soon, I had a growing stack of books next to my reading chair and a list of “under known” women poets from throughout the Americas, from Canada to Uruguay. I wrote in a fever pitch — poems that incorporated details of their lives, that spoke directly to them. At times, I could feel my language blurring into theirs. It was the only thing I wanted to do, and I rose at dawn every day and wrote for hours. I hadn’t written that much since before my breakdown. One day I realized I was creating a new manuscript, one poem for each woman. I decided to include their biographies and call it (after a line by Agustini) Even Living Makes Me Die. I would honor them using the art form we shared. Because they’d descended to the depths and never returned. Because I did. Because through their work they’d brought back knowledge that speaks to us in difficult times — that poetry is a long conversation with wise friends over time, a kind of justice, a kind of peace. Because they never knew they had done that.




The Poet’s Decalogue


            — after Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alcayaga), Chile, 1889 -1957



1.) Be always conscious of your wings. Darkness is overtaking, churning, and even tension is tired. In the house of keeping still, all is hollow-eyed, and groaning.


2.) Shiver and tingle outside the automobile. Grandma is on life support. The nuns and nurses found her, and called you a wanderer. They know nothing of your wings. Or do they?


3.) Disrobe. The holiest were often required to be naked. Under the dome of the winged serpent, all was stillness. In those days the sun door stood open, and all of creation flew through it,

in radiant rounds of joy.


4.) Is your chimney warm? Is the air in it warm, and the air in your room? Is your hearth redolent with the scent of flesh? If so, fan the flames to produce a cooling jewel. Use this jewel to scry only the most necessary knowing.


5.) Make a pilgrimage to the Mountain of Butterflies. Love descends on those defenseless.


6.) The ocean-born virgin is nicknamed “Fishy Smell,” but her real name is “Bird.” Find her in the nick of time. Her vagina is enough; you don’t need the legs. Remember that initiation takes a lifetime and transpires purely by accident. Soon, a triangle of morning light will come pouring through the porch.


7.) Take the mantle of an earth-colored insect and make a wand with twigs and leaves. Use it to replicate the cunning beauty of certain corpses. In the end, your face should resemble a luminous, apricot-colored cloud.


8.) Soon, you’ll stall. Your coverts will beat to no advantage. You may choose to sacrifice your happiness to restore what was lost, but the sacrifice itself is a privilege. How long will it take you to forget this?


9.) Everything that torments and suffocates, everything that imparts sorrow and despair, is the moving water that turns the wheel that transforms air into tree into prayer into air. Breathe deep. Make scribble pictures of the stain on your ceiling and try to sell them. Very few will buy.


10.) Now recall the glory of your wings.






The Changeling Husband


            — after Jane Johnston Schoolcraft/Bamewawagezhikaquay, US,                      1800 –1842



Far from me and star-like, twilit with amplitudes of stars, Sir Somebody is somewhere with arms akimbo, wet with dead tobacco. My thoughts of love grow young and I go forward in the mornings to greet the supple water, jiggle the particulars — roses, dresses, rugs and vases — from the center of my mother’s maple sugar cake. Night-bound still, and wire-folded, my feelings cramp around me neatly as I rise around the rooms, a bateleur of the taste of plain water. In old days, one set down to compose in best clothes, with manicured hands, and told of seas that move along the world’s shores, through all hours, the seasons called into being by the moon and sun. But soon, all things lose their form. Nations loll and wane, or are cut down. Light drops its coins on the eyes of the dead, the dead rest in their bloated foam. My man-venus, alive, flies between those high and low tides, in darkness between those same seas and their sands. When he finally arrives he seeks only the shape of sleep; oh, the danger of allowing myself to be coaxed back to his cocoon. What is the sound the stars make, rushing through the sky? what is the way of the sacred acre? who speaks to the tree that holds the morning sun in her arms? In vestal luster lie longing and grim limitation. Oh, this rough hour. In beauty may all things be accomplished.




Given To Fire


            — after Elise Cowen, US, 1933-1962



Not from nowhere

not the consort of a river —

what I remembered best

were accidents

of quiet brightness


            Allen’s arms around me


and if he said I was standing

in the middle of the room

at dawn all in black

high on mescaline

more beautiful than the poem


            then I was


And now I am

passing back into the rocks

into the god of the rocks



Betty said it was birds

who first fitted witches

with wings

while fir trees

of great antiquity

sang lays they’d learned

from their mother



I say it was too easy to love

the leggy one.

He made me run up and down

the Statue of Liberty

until I learned to fly

past the frosted skylight airshaft

thru the closed window

like an arrow cast

without a bow

without an owner

but borne on feathers


            just a cool stream of air





A Talisman


                        — after Olga Orozco, Argentina, 1920-1999



All I need is my heart

fashioned in the image

of a god of girls.

All I need is to be

its boon companion,

to never release it

to the gravity climbing

up my spine.

There’s no breathing in

a change of season,

no comfort in watching

winter wheeling into spring.

There is only this one sun,

my secret star.

Somehow this brackish cavity

became its home.

And if its love must be won

by riddle

or in battle,

let my talisman be

the thin rivulet

etched in my wrist —

evidence of long years

spent learning


to be a girl.






Found In Volume 48, No. 06
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Sharon Mesmer
About the Author

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collection, Greetings from My Girlie Leisure Place (Bloof Books) was one of Entropy’s “Best of 2015.” Her essays and interviews have appeared in the Paris Review, the New York Times, and New York Magazine/The Cut. Four poems appear in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (second edition, 2013). She teaches in the creative writing programs of New York University and the New School.