Sunday, February 18, 2018



The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain 
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2018)

Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, author, editor, translator and poet Sheryl St. Germain directs the MFA Creative Writing program at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, and is a co-founder of the Words Without Walls program. She has written extensively about the culture and environment of Louisiana and has received several awards including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.

Anyone who has read Addiction, taken from her book Let It Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House Press) and anthologized in When She Named Fire (Autumn House Press), will know just how powerful St. Germain’s poems can be. Wild and impassioned, but superbly controlled, the close proximity of addiction and desire that she describes in this poem is like a rush of blood to the head.

Drug and alcohol addiction is a harrowing subject. Tragically, it is one that is all too present in our world today. This latest collection, which is dedicated to the memory of her son, Gray St. Germain Gideon, chronicles his struggle with addiction and death by overdose alongside the history of her family’s addictions and her own fragile recovery.

In an interview with Alison Schuette in October / November 2009, St. Germain says “if I’m confronting something really terrifying, I’ll write a poem instead of prose, and it will stay there for a long time. When I’m comfortable with it, I’ll begin to make it a story, but sometimes all I can do is write a poem.” St. Germain acknowledges that there is a dark undercurrent in her work but takes the view that there is a richness to be had in thinking about the things that have gone wrong and that this can feed the spirit.

This generous collection of 53 poems is presented in five distinct parts. A single poem, Benediction: A Suite marks the middle section which acts as a pause between her son’s death and the fourth part of the collection which deals with the immediate aftermath. It is a book that essentially looks back rather than forwards.  Yesterday is the very first word in the book. Even though it looks back over several months, the memory is raw – it is as if the events that she is describing happened yesterday.

The titles of several of the poems make references to tarot cards (Three of Swords; Nine of Swords; Ace of Swords; etc.). Tarot cards are associated with change, force, power, oppression, ambition, courage and conflict. Action can be both constructive and/or destructive, sometimes resulting in violence. Swords mirror the quality of mind present in our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. The swords themselves are double-edged. The negative aspects include anger, guilt, harsh judgement, a lack of compassion and verbal and mental abuse.

St. Germain uses the sword as a metaphor for the word: words that can cut to the quick. They are the words we dare not say or say when we do not mean to. The tarot cards give us this sense that everything is ordained by fate and that we are powerless to do anything about it.

Light and dark is another constant in this collection. In Feral she writes of her son:

Four months before you die,
you show up at my door
skittish, sober, not yourself,
whatever that self is,
like a dog lost too long in the woods

            all you once hoped to be
            still lights your face, though:
            it is almost a holy light

and in Rehab we are told that

………..the lights
in the rooms here, after all, are so bright.

Colour is also bound up with her son’s name:

We named you Gray because we hoped for you the thousands of hues that sing between black and white….though we knew, too, that gray’s the color of mourning, ambiguity.

In Summer Solstice, 2015 she describes him as being a person of the night and reflects that

This day, the longest of the year, you would understand as the shortest night.

Snow is another metaphor that is closely related to light but also to coldness and to the fact that it can cover up so much that we do not wish to see in our world. In Letter to My Son, Winter, St. Germain, referencing her own fragile recovery from addiction, writes:

………Today, two years sober, eyes burning with a white as cold and unforgiving as an unwritten poem, I walk into the backyard. Snow, snow and more snow. White, white, more white.

Needles are another factor that come into play. Sometimes they are pine needles, the needles of firs and spruces, needles used for stitching quilts, something to make a blanket out of balls of breathtaking yarn and at other times they are the needles that her son used to puncture …the small door of [his] death.

Returning to the interview with Alison Schuette that I referenced earlier, St. Germain says that, for her, “the heart of the poem is the metaphor….to say that something is like something else is incredibly powerful.”  She goes on to say how consoling she finds them because “like narratives, they’re ways of imposing an order on something that doesn’t have order…it’s a rich, textured way of making beauty and sense out of something that might not have beauty and sense.”

Despite its subject matter, poems such as Louisiana Oranges and At a Writer’s Retreat in France, Not Drinking and Reasons to Live: The Color Red catch sunlight in their lines with their vivid portrayal of the abundance of nature and its healing powers. Of particular note is the change of tone that becomes immediately apparent in the final part of the book. The long poem, Versions of Heaven is ecstatic in its exuberance revealing the passion for music that St. Germain shared with her son. The effect is effervescent as, high with adrenaline and wild with music, she kisses her baby on the cheek and says “one more before bath time” with its double-edged suggestion of one more dance for the child and one more glass of wine for the adult.

The format of these poems is varied. Quite a number of them are right justified as opposed to left justified. This gives the impression that some of the lines are “up against” the extreme margin of the page, lending a certain degree of intensity to what they are trying to express. Some poems are written with long-flowing lines, others use a much shorter line and some are written as prose poems depending upon what works best for each piece and the way in which it is expressed on the page. The cover art by Morgan Everhart is appropriately titled Gray. Helpful notes reference the lyrics mentioned in the text at the end.

These poems chart one woman’s colossal loss. Unflinching in their honesty, they also show her unbounded love for her family and offer consolation for anyone who has struggled with addiction or has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. These accessible poems shine with a sustained intensity that brings brightness and hope to all.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, editor, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey (Littoral Press, 2010), Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017). His work has been translated into Dutch, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.