By Tina Carlson
I keep rearranging you like a favorite satellite, dragging you
Into good orbit, your solar panels deployed to the stars.
-- Katherine DiBella Seluja
Gather the Night (UNM Press 2018) by Katherine DiBella Seluja is equal parts love letter and lament. The poems are spare, stark and beautiful, describing a younger sister’s devotion and grief for her brother Lou who suffered schizophrenia in the sixties, when Thorazine and institutional lock up were the treatments of choice. “I can’t stop buying trees,/ planting them in your name” the poem reads.
The wild and vivid logic of her brother’s psychotic voice begins each section and is also threaded throughout the poems in lines like, “Dad is a lump of wax and mom is always talking spaghetti or lasagna…” Lou is in love with his guitar whom he calls Bella “for the ancient orchard of her birth” and finds pleasure and meaning in her music and rhythm. His poems add a counterpoint, a jazzy version of reality that are both disturbing and musical.
Even more poignant is the teenage sister’s agony at watching her brother’s mind fall into an abyss:
Maybe it was spring, maybe the E string was tight
but the sheen in his eye made me want to white out my tongue.
I waited several days before telling our parents
Lou had turned into wax.
Seluja staunchly avoids the sentimental pity laced with fear that defines so much writing and many attitudes toward those with mental illness. Instead, we enter into the lived experience of the onset of schizophrenia's symptoms and its terrible treatments:
Now he’s a pillow
or a block of ice
wrapped in cotton gauze
eyes a matted quilt
lashes pulled mid-stitch
These poems exhort a culture of denial and stigma towards those with mental illness to understand the loneliness, creativity and humanity of those who “gather the night.” They do not attempt to build dams against the unrelenting progression of her brother’s decline. Instead, her strong language rafts us for the journey.
These poems tell poignant stories about community, birth, addiction, death, healing, and grief. In the end, it is a sister’s love that creates poetry from experiences of ruin and redemption.
Tina Carlson is a poet and a psychiatric healthcare provider. Her poems have appeared in many journals and blogs. She was featured in the 2017 Nov/Dec Poets and Writers ‘5 over 50.’ Her book Ground, Wind, This Body (UNM Press) was published in March 2017. She recently completed a collaborative manuscript called We are Meant To Carry Water with Katherine diBella Seluja and Stella Reed which will be published early by 3: A Taos Press.
Katherine DiBella Seluja is a poet and a nurse practitioner. She is the author of Gather the Night (UNM Press, 2018), a first poetry collection that focuses on the impact of mental illness. Winner of the Southwest Writers poetry award, her work has appeared in bosque, Broadsided Press, Claudius Speaks, Crab Creek Review and Intima, among others. Her poem, “Letter to my suegra from Artesia, New Mexico” won honorable mention in the Santa Ana River Review contest, judged by then US poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. A collaborative poetry collection, We Are Meant to Carry Water, written with Tina Carlson and Stella Reed, is forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press in 2019. Katherine lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.