The Language of the Heart (Bonus Blog)

If I said that this blog was about poetry, those of you who were forced to recite the Ode to a Grecian Urn in sophomore English would probably have already hung up by now. Please don’t.

I grew up with poetry in my life. To this day my most cherished book is my father’s copy of the Treasury of the Familiar, given to him by his brother, Elmer, for Christmas 1945. The first poem in the book is called The Way of the World by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. It goes like this:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Weep and you weep alone,
The brave old earth must borrow it’s mirth
But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing and the hills will answer
Sigh is it lost in the air
The echoes rebound to a joyful sound
But shrink from voicing care.

My father and his two brothers grew up in a terribly dysfunctional family. For ten years their parents didn’t speak to one another, and the three boys had to pass messages back and forth between them. I know my father, and most likely Elmer, too, drew a good deal of comfort from that poem. It was one my father read to us often. But that wasn’t the only one.

During the fifties, before television signals made it over the Mule Mountains and down into Bisbee, Arizona, our father spent evenings reading to us from that now tattered book, and I can recite some of my favorites to this day.

There were fun poems like The Blind Men and the Elephant. One feels a knee and pronounces the elephant a tree, one feels an ear and says it’s a fan, one touches the elephant’s side and says it’s a wall, and the one with the trunk says it’s a snake.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding loud and strong
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.

So oft in theologic wars
The disputants I wean
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other means
And prate about an elephant
Not one of them has seen.

In I Had but Fifty Cents, a young man takes his girl out on the town where she eats and drinks everything in sight.

When she hollered for more,
I fell on the floor.
For I had but fifty cents.

And then there were the heroic ones. I loved Horatius at the Bridge. As a huge army bears down on Rome, the flooded Tiber River is between the enemy and the city. The only way across is over a single bridge. As the enemy comes nearer one man springs into action:

Then up spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate.
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his father
And the temples of his gods.

Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may.
I with two more to help me
Will hold the foe at bay.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three,
So who will stand on either hand
And keep the bridge with me.

I loved that poem as a child. I love it still.

In my twenties, when I realized that marriage to my first husband was going to be a bumpy ride rather than a happily ever after, I turned to writing poetry in the dark of night when my husband was passed out cold in his recliner. We were living on the hill with the nearest neighbor and or telephone seven miles away, and that’s how I whiled away those long, lonely evenings.

From the beginning, I knew my husband was a drinker, but he told me he’d stop drinking once we had kids. Turns out he didn’t keep that promise and lots of other promises as well. At the University of Arizona, I was barred from the Creative Writing program because I was a girl. He had the correct plumbing, so he got in and passed the course although he never published anything. Nevertheless, shortly after we married, he told me, “There’s only going to be one writer in our family, and I’m it.”

I never showed him the poetry. I hid it away in the strongbox—a place where I knew he would never venture. And it turns out, that although I continued to write the poems for some time, I never looked at them either. Years passed. My husband didn’t stop drinking when we had kids. And when I finally told him he had to choose between me or booze, he didn’t choose me. So I divorced him. He died of chronic alcoholism at age 42, a year and a half after our divorce.

And that’s when I saw the poetry again—when I went to the strongbox to retrieve all the documents that must be presented when someone dies—birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees. They’re among the documents I found all those scraps of poetry. Reading through it was like seeing my life in instant replay.

I was shocked to discover how early on in the marriage my creative self obviously understood that the relationship was doomed while my conscious self was still deep in denial. I showed it to a friend, and she said, “This needs to be a book.” Now it is, with each poem accompanied by an essay saying what was going on when I wrote it is. This is the title poem.

After the Fire

I have touched the fire.
It burned me but I knew I lived.
It seared me but it made me whole.

He called me.
I went gladly thought I saw the rocks,
Fell laughing through the singeing air.

I have known the fire.
I’ll live with nothing rather than with less.
The flame is out, there’s nothing left but ash.

After the Fire

People who have come to live events have heard me talk about this book, and they’re always surprised to learn than when they come to a mystery event they end up getting a poetry reading, too. Because in every audience, there’s always someone who needs to have this book in his or her hands.

When you’re caught up in an addictive relationship, it’s easy to feel completely isolated—to believe that you’re the only person on the planet dumb enough to fall for all those lies. You gradually come to believe that the relationship you have is what you deserve and the best you can ever hope for. And then, if you do make it out, months or years later, when that former love of your life ends up dying, you’re astonished by the amount of grief that comes flooding back to smack you in the face.

So that’s why I’m writing about After the Fire today. It’s not a new book. It was first published in 1984, and it was by doing my first very first poetry reading at a widowed retreat in 1985 where I met Bill, my husband of 37.7 years, but who’s counting? He says my first husband was so bad that it’s made his life perfect.

But the thing about being married to my first husband is this. Living through those tough times and coming to terms with it are what made me who I am today. And as you read through the poems, if you’ve read my books, you’ll spot the origins of many of my characters and storylines.

But more than that, as you read through the poems you’ll also come to realize that there’s at least one person in your circle of influence who needs to have that book in their hands—someone who needs to feel less isolated and alone. Someone who needs to know that you can come out on the far side of all that bad stuff and have a wonderful new life.

And once you know who needs a copy, please send it to them or hand it to them. It’s a beautiful little book. I call it my “all occasion greeting card for bad occasions.”

Because that’s what poetry is, after all, the language of the heart—even for broken ones.

29 thoughts on “The Language of the Heart (Bonus Blog)

  1. Oh Judy… I was up early one Sunday morning writing a poem long before I began writing anything “for real.” My then-husband came out of the bedroom and I pushed the poem across the kitchen table. “Read this,” I said. “I think it’s pretty good.”

    He barely glanced at it. Slapped his hand down on the table and wadded up my poem beneath his hand, then tossed it into our fireplace wood box. “I’ll read it when it’s in a book,” he barked. “Until then, it’s just junk.”

    To make a long story short… it was the first poem I ever got published. In The Oregonian, THE Portland newspaper, in their Sunday supplement. My $20 dollar payment arrived just a month after my divorce was final.

  2. Thank you for this blog. Hard to believe: a family in which the parents don’t speak to each other for ten years; a husband who insists he is the only writer in the family; a UofA creative writing program that wouldn’t let you in. Some world we live in.

  3. You signed my copy of After the Fire at a Carmel-Clay Public Library (IN) appearance a few years ago. I treasure it. I was an active alcoholic for years, but have been in recovery for several years now. Luckily my marriage survived and we will celebrate 50 years in August. Alcoholism is a disease, but that doesn’t absolve the afflicted of all responsibility. I always wanted to be a writer, but never made the leap. After I retired 9 years ago I discovered I just wasn’t a natural story teller. But maybe someday I’ll put my own struggle with alcoholism to paper-I’m still on the road of self-discovery. Perhaps writing would be a catalyst in that process. Look forward to reading your latest release.

  4. I have that book. I think enjoy is totally the wrong word to use in describing my feelings about it. Maybe appreciate would be a better word. I never had an alcoholic husband, or any other husband for that matter. But everyone has had hard times and hopefully came out the other side.

    I too grew up with a dad who loved poetry. His favorite was “The cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. After brain surgery for the tumor which would later kill him, the surgeon came to see him. The surgeon is asking him questions such as the date. My dad said “You want to know if my brain still works. Then Dad proceeded to recite ” There are strange things done in the midnight sun………” Doctor did manage to get him stopped before he got all the way to the end of that long poem. Dad’s been gone for nearly 40 years and I still miss him.

  5. I have that book. I think enjoy is totally the wrong word to use in describing my feelings about it. Maybe appreciate would be a better word. I never had an alcoholic husband, or any other husband for that matter. But everyone has had hard times and hopefully came out the other side.

    I too grew up with a dad who loved poetry. His favorite was “The cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. After brain surgery for the tumor which would later kill him, the surgeon came to see him. The surgeon is asking him questions such as the date. My dad said “You want to know if my brain still works. Then Dad proceeded to recite ” There are strange things done in the midnight sun………” Doctor did manage to get him stopped before he got all the way to the end of that long poem. Dad’s been gone for nearly 40 years and I still miss him.

  6. I ordered the book this morning! This will make a very nice birthday gift for my wife of 56 years – Margaret!

  7. Thank you Judy for reviewing AFTER THE FIRE again. It helped me so much, soon after my divorce. After reading this blog, I went back to rereading it again. You are so right to mention this book on your book tours. Alcoholism is the most isolating disease, when you’re in the middle of it, you truly believe there is no way out. At least that was me, married to an alcoholic, at home, with three young children and only a high school education. I’m a survivor!
    Thank you for continuing to share your beautiful writing talents!
    See you Bowling Green,KY

  8. I have had a copy of this book for some time-it is amazing and tells a story I relate to. This post strikes a similar chord in me. I was raised by a stepmother who spent a lot of time telling me I was horrible and could not do anything right. I went on to put myself through college, earning a BA and a Master’s while raising two children, adopting one, and fostering several more after my husband was killed in a car accident when our child was a few weeks old. Sometimes, support and encouragement looks different!

  9. Judy: I’ve enjoyed your work for so many years, and I’ve felt a sort of “connection” from what I know about your life and my own. I first found your books in a tiny bookstore here in Albuquerque. I believe it was called “Tasha’s Books” or something like that. I loved your work immediately, and had been contemplating writing a mystery for a long time. I, too, have been married more than once, and my precious husband and I have now been married 37.2 years! I’ve now written four mysteries (one of which was a “Best Cozy Mystery” in 2017 at the NM/AZ Book Awards. My last book was a “Biography/History” of my mother called “Raising Ruby.” Raising Ruby won 2nd place in the Biography/History category at the National Federation of Press Women this year. I’m now 85 years old and my daughter wanted me to write my own story, so I’m currently working on that. I hope to be able to read your biography one day because I know it would be a best seller!! I have your poetry book I bought one time when you were in Albuquerque at Bookworks. Thanks for keeping us going with your talent.

  10. I absolutely loved listening to this book. I found it when I was desperate for another book of yours and realized I had read everything available to me. And what was so special was having you tell the back stories about each poem, making the poem even more meaningful. I wrote to you when I finished it and I share your sentiment that this little book of poetry could be helpful to so many. Thank you again for publishing it and now reminding your readers of it.

  11. After the Fire is an amazing book that spoke to me in any ways. I saw many of my own experiences and feelings expressed in ways I never could have. Thank you for your post and for this book.

  12. I bought and read the poetry book many years ago. I realized quickly that it was my best friend. I gave it to her to read and she cried. Her high school sweetheart, whom she married and had 3 children with, was also an alcoholic and abused drugs. She loved him so much and said he was the funniest man she’d ever met but finally had to divorce him. She and his mother sat by his side in the hospital and sang to him as he too died at the age of 42 from alcohol. She is gone now and I’ve so hoped that when they met again in heaven it was a beautiful reunion. I know it was so full of love and laughter and no more pain.

  13. Where you had the drinking, I had the abuse. Mom could not help it because she was very unhappy as a child. Her brother shot himself, I believe, in front of her. From then on, her life was awful, according to her. I used to hate her for the way she treated me, but now I just feel sorry for her that she never received any help. I was lucky because I had my dad and Grandmother around to help me. When I look back on my childhood, I wish I had known how to get her help, but I did not. I ended up having to place her in a nursing home for the remainder of her life. She died January 10th and Dad died January 24th, 1995. Oh, and they were 8 hours apart in time of death. Guess they showed me – 2 weeks and 8 hours apart.

    That was a horrible month. We spend more flying from Alabama to New York State that month than we had in all the time we lived in Alabama. I was lucky to be one of 7 cousins that always seemed to be there for one another. I lost my last cousin the weekend of August 26, 2023 and not to be outdone by my parents, her husband died Friday, September 1, 2023.

    My anchor through all of this has been my husband of 50 years. He listens when I am upset and holds me to comfort me. I am a very lucky lady. He was there for me before we were married also because we went to high school together.

    I find that you had your poetry, I had Dan from 9th grade on, plus all my extended family to help me through the really tough times. I do wonder why some of us seem to have more problems than others, but my dad always said it was because he gave the problems to the ones, he knew could handle them. I guess the Lord gave me red hair to help me through, also.

    Sorry to babble on, but maybe between what you went through, and my problems, we will show others that there are ways to get to the other side and succeed.

  14. Oh, Judy…your blog and some of the responses revived many memories I thought had been buried…I wish some of them wold remain that way.

  15. Thank you for sharing and caring enough. Yes, I have read the book and lived the life. I also had a second chance and life is good today.

    I also have enjoyed all of your other books..

  16. Thank you for sharing. Enjoyed hearing the poems again … some not brought to mind for many years. Playing the piano and specific compositions do the same cathartic cleansing for me. In fact I learned a new one recently and am going to refresh another challenging one for my October gig at the church keyboard.
    I have misplaced Janie’s address. Would you please resend or her phone number? I feel an urge to share piano talk with her.
    Delighted to say our daughter Cheryl and hubby have made their move to Tucson.

  17. I went to ALANON for a couple years, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as it saved my sanity. I learned the most freeing information there, “I am only responsible for the choices I make and only my behavior.”

  18. Met you in Hudson, Ohio a few years ago, brought the book I had previously purchased & you kindly signed it. Bought the book for friends that were also married to alcoholics – I actually married 2 of them??? Have the book right here, read & cherish it even tho it makes me cry. Both of my alcoholic husbands are dead but I am still here. Thank you & God Bless You for writing such excellent books – yes, have read most of them, even reread the first ones as I loved the characters.

  19. “Nothing left but ash-”
    A perfect description of how it felt to me when, after years of flying from NYC to Florida to care for my widowed Mother, a few days before her death she basically told me how worthless I was in her eyes- She added that she was telling me this “Out of love and concern-”
    At that moment my illusion of being close to her simply “dropped dead-”
    It was not easy to recover from that- However, as I read in a book about daughters of such mothers, we are “Wounded, Not Ruined-“

    • Oh, Robin, how awful. I can’t imagine a mother telling a child that. My Mom was a calm and collected lady who liked everyone. She always looked on the bright side of things.

      I hope you’ve been able to put this behind you and are as happy as possible.

  20. I have enjoyed your book many times. I was lucky and have had 2 great husbands but the first one died of diabetes at age 42. Also lost a son a year and a half later so life takes its tole in many ways. Thank you for so many books and so many characters. I just read an earlier Ali book and you brought to life your little Bella. I was at Apache Junction Library when you brought her with you. She was such a joy and although I know she is gone, I still enjoy recalling that special day when she was with you. Thank you again!

  21. Judy,
    Your poem, After The Fire, describes perfectly the relationship of my first marriage. Your words could easily be my words. Thank you for putting my experience into a form that I can read and re-read to remind myself of what I went through, and now, many years later am able to see clearly.
    Janice Molina

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