A Conversation with Grace Vermeer
Kim Jernigan: I’m curious about the timeline implied by your poem—how long an interval was there between hearing the stories and the wise healer’s “It is finished”? The last verse takes us back to the old story…Are we to see that as the ache from the old wounds?
Grace Vermeer: I heard the stories as a child. The wise healer’s “It is finished” occurred 40 years later. At the time, I was very ill with a disease that had gone undiagnosed for a number of years, when I finally started treatment, it was advanced. I was too sick to read, even talking was difficult. It
was a devastating time. This woman helped me move toward life and healing. Her own suffering
had led her to her gift, she was what some might call a wounded healer. She was a quiet woman,
ordinary and remarkable, strong in spirit.
When I decided to enter The Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest, this poem came to mind
as an occasion of pivotal change. I’d written it about five years ago and then thrown it in a box.
There were several drafts, none of it felt finished.
I came back to the poem with one question: Could I write about the past without getting stuck? As part of my healing, I had practiced cutting old limbic paths in the brain and creating new ones that nourished life, but I also wanted the poem to hold darkness and light. It was an experiment; I wasn’t sure which way it would go.
Kim Jernigan: Is the shift of the line “Who can say how” intended to draw attention to the turn from remembering to healing? Why that as opposed to just a line space before the third verse?
Grace Vermeer: “Who can say how” is the turn in the poem and shifting the line does draw attention as you suggested and links the two verses. I had tried it in various positions, but it seemed to get lost.
My mother gave me my grandfather’s book, it sits behind glass in a barrister bookcase. Before I wrote the first drafts of the poem, I randomly opened the book and read a letter that a man wrote to his wife the night before he was burned at the stake. He wanted to make sure his wife wouldn’t blame herself for his death—he had thought they should flee from the area but his wife had wanted to stay close to her family. His tenderness to her in his last hours, in the midst of such horror—I shut the book carefully and put it back on the shelf.
I was thinking of that story when I wrote some of the lines in the second stanza. I almost dropped the word “forgiving” but when I shifted the line “Who can say how” it sat close to “forgiving.” I decided to leave it.
“Who can say how” felt like a question that applies to most of the poem. Who can say how these atrocities happen or how these patterns repeat in nations and people groups or how they pass down into families? Who can say how they show up in our bodies? Who can say how we are led? By some great mercy we find the right person who helps us and shows us kindness. Our hearts break and we change—who can say how?
Kim Jernigan: Can you speak to how the peril lodged in your throat becomes your throat deep in shadow?
Grace Vermeer: Yes, as I mentioned, I came back to the poem wondering if it was wise to return to an old story that involved trauma. Would it jeopardize healing? So, as I was revising the poem, I was also watching the process. Would I bring the old fear on this new path of joy? I reworked some of the verses but it still ended with the fourth verse and felt incomplete. I wasn’t sure what to do. I asked myself if the ending felt true, five years had passed since I’d written it. I remember standing by the window looking out at the snow falling slowly through the lamplight. The house was dark and quiet. I started feeling my way through the poem and as I came to the last line, Be the doe, set free, I felt myself merge with the image. Yes, I was the doe, easing down among the tall grass, but I was also the doe sensing fear, stepping back into shadow, watchful, alert.
I had found a new ending for the poem, but in the process, I had also felt the throat deep in shadow. Would it always be so? The wound and the gift?
Grace Vermeer lives in Sarnia, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Vallum, Beyond Forgetting, and Tamaracks and was longlisted for the 2021 Mitchell Prize.