Barbara Wirkus is a Jill of all trades and mistress of none. In her lifetime she has been a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, Emergency Medical Technician, Medical Technologist, poet, tap dancer, gardener, photographer, writer, political activist, birder, and art gallery curator. She loves baking cookies, movies, books, Broadway shows and The Rolling Stones. She resides in “The Little House That Could” in a small New Jersey town. Now 83, she is coasting toward the finish line…
[Barbara Wirkus has become a dear friend of mine. She’s intelligent and wise. She lets her heart lead the way as she analyzes its silent language. She’s earth, fire, air, and water in harmonious cohesion with consciousness along for the ride…but it’s that heart of hers that overflows onto the paper, finds its voice in metaphor and translates into lush and poignant narrative poetry. I’ve studied Barbara’s poems closely for two primary reasons: their intense emotive power (she seems to mirror my own self—perhaps everyone’s true self); and they are so poetic that they inspired me in a voiceless time to simply “be real” from both the heart and the gut, and then to infuse that “realness” with poetry.
Barbara had published a chapbook, Echoes From the Bell Jar, through Middle Island Press in 2014. This collection is a deep chamber of memories of the different types of love. It reflects a struggle against time, a longing in which she relives moments and crystallizes them in poetry, immortalizing everything within those moments in true form of the magic of poetry.
That said, she takes her coffee—usually decaf—with a tiny splash of low-fat milk and no sugar. “When I can,” she says, “I opt for a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee but that brings me in close proximity to their donuts which I have a hard time resisting!” Ah, yes. Everyone loves a good donut…]
Hi, Barbara. 🙂 Many of your poems are dedicated to particular individuals. Would you mind choosing a few of your favorites and sharing some background on them?
This will require a look back over ever so many years. Let me start with “Reflections”, “Requiem” and “The Departure” which were written for my (ex) husband after his death. Ours was an uncommon relationship, beginning when I was 12. We wound our way through the teen years and finally married in our early twenties. We moved from our home state of Connecticut to Texas, where I gave birth to 2 of our 4 sons. At some point, he began drinking heavily and I realized we had grown apart in every way possible. We eventually moved to New Jersey, and I began preparing myself to live on my own, finally divorcing him after 21 years of marriage. Soon after that, he somehow gave up both drinking and smoking and although we never really reconciled, we became heartfelt friends until his passing at age 62. I shed sincere tears of grief and “…still hear the measured beats of your absent heart”.
I’d like to share “The Departure” if you wouldn’t mind:
great gusts of time
Reminders I am
unable to escape
keep tears flowing.
Surely the sad songs
will cease and
silence will prevail.
But in the quiet times,
I will still hear
the measured beats
of your absent heart.
“Almost” is a poem dedicated to a man, a writer, who became the clichéd “love-of-my-life”. He never returned my feelings, in spite of my best efforts to convince him we belonged together. (“Your soul declined to mate with mine”). Instead, he held out false hope over a period of three years causing me the loss of my self-respect, self-esteem and self-confidence which I have slowly been reclaiming. And yes, I still “weep for what might have been”.
…and a section from “Almost”:
move in, occupy areas
in my shuttered heart,
while this wasteland
of wanting reigns unopposed.
I could have gently
lead you to warm places
on sandy, sun-filled beaches.
Lifted you on soft waves
that rolled us back to shore.
But your soul declined
to mate with mine,
in safe spaces,
reluctant to explore
Then there was Randy and Nathan and others whose presence in my life I did not document poetically. They were all the same, however, and “Terminal Fishing” sums it up with “I am too small to keep” which is as good an explanation as any as to why I never loved a man who loved me back.
I’d also like to share “Terminal Fishing” (winner of the New Jersey Wordsmith Competition)…
Turning into you
I meet myself
in the mirror of your eyes.
We do not touch,
deliver only glancing blows
to each other’s hearts.
Swimming through tears
of past years
twist and tunnel
like some flat-backed fish
you’ve reeled in
on your line of love.
you throw me back.
I am too small to keep.
The poems I feel are my best work are those I wrote for my grandson Christopher: “Winter Walk”, “Beba and Beyond”, “The Visit” and “Grandmother’s Reverie”. I called him “Beba”; he called me “Macca” and “we rode on rainbows…” Experience had taught me however that our bond would be short-lived and so it was. He has since taken “manly strides…away from us” and I rarely hear from him. Because I had anticipated it, the pain is not as great as it could have been.
“Beba and Beyond” makes the eyes mist even now.
You shine with the glow
of a thousand candles,
sparkle like moonlight on wave peaks
illuminating my opaque heart.
You are generous enough
to kiss my dry and straight-lined mouth,
gentle enough to curl against me
when I read to you.
You are a miracle in the making,
an icon for life’s renewal,
an arrow pointing the way to courage.
As my years wind down, I find
all the lost loves of my life
distilled in the purity
of your dark eyes.
You protect me from fear
with the lilting cadence
of your laughter
as we kneel in the street
to find trees mirrored
in the puddles left over
from yesterday’s rain.
You bring tears to my aging eyes
as we explore, hand in hand,
the jungle at the end of the block.
I yearn to transfix you in time
as the sunlight filters
through high trees,
gilding your golden hair.
But you forge forward,
the joy of discovery
urging you on,
leaving me to follow slowly
burdened with memories
until you disappear
into future days
“On the Death of My Son” and “June 15th, 2004” were written out of untold agony that is still with me some 12 years later. Billy was my first-born and left life after a short 47 years. A series of medical mistakes led to his death and caused me to have a deep-seated distrust of doctors. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I procure a helium balloon, write “I love you” on it and release it at dusk. This is small comfort, however, to the “hard black knot” that “slowly replaced my heart”. I have not been, nor ever will be, the person I was before I lost him.
Your method of dealing with pain is so romantic. It comes through in your poetry which has such clarity of wisdom. How has your life shaped your poetry?
Interestingly, I wrote my first poem for a class assignment when I was 12. It was included in an Anthology of High School Poetry. Reading poetry and writing my own quickly became my primary procedure for dealing with emotions that often threatened to overwhelm me. My first efforts were predictably awkward but as years passed, I took classes and slowly learned to express my feelings in a more disciplined way. Still, my work has always been dark and frequently focused on death which I came to see as both my enemy and the answer to my pain.
I took refuge in my own words and was thus able to navigate life successfully these past 83 years. Somehow, the work of choosing words, similes and metaphors forced me to focus on the situations I encountered along the way. Writing the hard truths as I saw them, without trying to mitigate them, gave me the strength to endure and move forward.
Yes; things are what they are, and pain is like childbirth: “The only way out is through,” so it’s a valuable insight that your own words have been the “refiner’s fire” that has kept you strong. What else keeps you strong, what takes you away from the pangs of life?
The earth in my yard and gardens. The smell and feel of it in my hands and under my feet. I plant and weed and water till my back aches but the sense of peacefulness I experience gives me respite from my demons. Then, when I’ve coaxed buds into blooms, I take my beloved Nikon film camera to record them in all their colorful glory. In February, when I think I can no longer endure the dark days of winter, I select flower images from the previous summer and display them on a poster board. A feast for my eyes and soul till spring actually arrives. Lastly, but by no means least, is my devotion to dance. I have been tap dancing for well over 20 years and the sound of my tap shoes coupled with the music never fails to lift my spirits. Miss Kara, my wonderful friend and teacher, “tweaks” the steps so they are doable for my arthritis-ridden back. Tap class is arguably the best half hour of my week. My original goal was to tap till I turned 80 but I’m still at it!
I love it!!! I understand that you are grounding yourself, so to speak, from the deep sky of thought and the deep water of emotion. Terra firma lends its own solidity to “Here Now” and has its beauty that pulls one out of the pain, and your tap dancing is like drumming with the feet. I love it! I’d like to go back up to where you said “I took refuge in my own words.” Would you care to shed some light on how you (or anyone, for that matter) can “take refuge” in words, and what value or praise would you give to words in the sense of emotional healing?
I read somewhere that “Everything worth saying has already been said in the Bible or by Shakespeare”. The poems I wrote over the years in times of great stress were comforting to me but broke no new ground in the world of poetry. I still reread my poems because they refer uniquely to myself and say exactly what I was feeling at the moment. The words I chose were a snapshot in time much like the images I make with my Nikon. This affirmation of emotion wraps itself around me, saying “Yes, yes, you were here and there and you are still standing.” I tell my writing students that writing is simply talking on paper. Words give voice to the emotions that so shape our lives. Although when I wrote my poems, they were inspired by specific events in my life, I have discovered that by keeping the words simple and straightforward, other folks have been able to relate them to their own life. These “shared experiences” can bring comfort and healing when one realizes they are not alone.
So true! Your subject is LOVE, plain and simple, and you’ve learned a lot through it and touched the hearts of many with your words. I’d love for you to express what you’ve come to understand about how the power of words and the power of love fuse together.
Love is a kaleidoscopic word! It means so very many different things depending upon who is loved and who is doing the loving. I have experienced many different forms, if you will, of love. And yes, there is power in saying “I love you” or hearing it. Writing poems that define that love can distill it into a pure form that affects deeply both the writer and the person written about. Alas, most of the subjects of my poems will never read them, although I did experience the joy of having my grandson read aloud one of the poems I had written about him! (“Winter Walk”). Love is a primal emotion and as necessary, I believe, as air or water is to life. Being able to “talk” about it through my poetry satisfies a very basic need and although I have ceased writing, I still cherish the words I have written as well as those of others whom have trod the same path. I want to add here, that love does not always need to be expressed in precious words. Giving a gentle massage, preparing tomato basil soup for the loved one, lending them a sympathetic ear can also convey your love rendering the actual words unnecessary.
How beautiful. Thank you so much, and I wish you endless joy and peace. If there is anything else that we haven’t yet touched upon that you would like to share, please do so.
Bringing this wonderfully pleasant interlude to a close, let me thank you dear Christina for the opportunity to clarify my thoughts and feelings about my writing. As I mentioned, I no longer write simply because after a certain age, life is all deja vu. The names, faces and places change, but the emotional reaction remains essentially the same. Therefore, writing something fresh and new becomes exceedingly difficult. Having said that, let me assure you that my creativity has not dissipated, only transformed. I still make good use of my camera, recording images of things, people and places that speak to me. I frequently post them on Social Media and have the pleasure of people’s responses in real time. It is both uplifting and satisfying. I also have joined an online organization of photographers from all over the world who have banded together to promote the use of film rather than digital cameras. They, like you, have become my virtual friends although not quite in the same way you and I have connected.
I must add that I never expected, when I sent my poems to you to be published by Middle Island Press, that we would establish such a close relationship. We are indeed kindred spirits. I knew that the moment I received my copy of Echoes from the Bell Jar. You had executed my vision perfectly and for that I am grateful. The friendship that ensued was a bonus.
In closing, I wish I could say that after eighty-three years of living, I had some great insights to pass along. Unfortunately, all I can offer is that time does heal, and the sharp edges of life soften as we age. Compassion and empathy are easier to come by and one no longer judges oneself or others harshly. Life is, and always will be, difficult. There are no shortcuts or loopholes. My mantra has become “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” The rest is in the hands of the powers that be, whomever they are. One can only hope they will be merciful…
Barbara’s poetry collection, Echoes from the Bell Jar, was originally printed as a saddle-stitched chapbook, which she prefers for its hand-made charm; however, it is now an Expanded Edition (inclusive of this interview) in paperback form via Amazon.com.