A View from Bridge – Two Brain Injured Poets

viewfrom bridgeI have in my files a November 1988 newsletter, put together by staff and brain injury survivors. A View from BRIDGE. Acronym for brain injured daytime group extended – a group at Mt. Vernon Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia that my brain injured daughter Jen attended way back then. The program is still in existence, and still “bridges the gap between hospitalization and the multiple services and agencies available within the community.”

But it isn’t as it was almost 30 years ago. The staff we knew back then are either retired or died or moved on, and the same goes for the outpatient brain injured young people like Jen, and like John Hiller, a young man who died almost 24 years ago. I never met him and Jen only vaguely remembers him. But she does remember how the BRIDGE group praised his poetry.

Not long ago I googled John Hiller, and found this memorial to him in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

JOHN F. HILLER DIED Oct. 30, 1993, at his home in Springfield, Va. John showed an early talent for poetry and music … but on his first day of graduate school September 1986 [same year as my daughter’s accident], John suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. After he miraculously awoke from a four month coma, John began an arduous struggle against near total paralysis and the inability to speak. With the help of his devoted family and therapists, he made slow progress for seven years. He enjoyed outings and concerts, wrote poetry … and finally fulfilled his long held wish to get his power back when he took his own life.

We don’t know from John’s memorial what the stressors were in his life those last seven years, though perhaps the “slow” progress he made is one key; the other, “his long held wish to get his power back.” My daughter and I can empathize. Sometimes we both wish she could get her “power” back, though through faith we know this will happen … in the Lord’s due time.

She did once really try to shorten her time on earth. About four years ago she flew into rages almost daily, sometimes if I even sounded annoyed, threatening to make sure I wouldn’t have to take care of her anymore. She would squeeze her neck so hard I had a difficult time pulling her hands away. Sometimes I tried to tell her she would have to squeeze really, really, really hard to stop breathing. Sometimes she would stop and laugh at that, but more often she would just keep yelling and flailing about – a common “agitation fit” in brain injury.

Erratic and out of control she needed help. Five days in our hospital’s Behavioral Health Ward and some hormone medications leveled her enough to come home. Still, the struggles remain. Life wasn’t meant to be easy, I tell her. Try to stop obsessing. Try to focus on the moment. One step at a time. Look for the bright things in life.

Poetry Brightens My Day

John Hiller was an amazing poet. These two poems, printed in the newsletter A View from BRIDGE, are as excellent as any found in literary anthologies.

Branches

I stare hushed from the stone window,
looking out through layers of branches
which slowly press themselves into a matte
of tangled lines in the wilting light.
The crooked twigs leap out across space
fusing into a single plane
where they become a mass
of jumbled symbols, meaning without meaning.

Like a call in the darkness
a porchlight kindles
through the bark as if in answer
to the passing carolers,
monks chanting canticles
in a vaulted cloister
of twisted, snaking wood–
dead in cycle and sweep.
And I stare
hushed
from the stone window.

Knitting Wool with Needles

The Boston fern swings gingerly, embraced
by wicker, white and stiff
like starched linen. Fronds, petite
with frilled edges, brushed past the rim
and purl patiently in the breeze.

Below, a tiny old woman sits in her caned
rocker, a primrose surrounded
by greenery, and idly clicks her teeth
like the knitting needles crossed
in the lap of her lumpish smock.

She does not dream of her youth
as she rocks in the wind
or contemplate decrepitude
or even reflect on the harvest sun
prancing in feathered leaves.

Rather, a needle slides from her dress
and laughs as it strikes the ground–
slowly at first,
then faster,
softer.

A stranger in passing admires the fern,
its fronds like teeth in the open window,
and as he passes on he hears
faintly in the distance
the creaking of the wind
and the clicking of needles
knitting an afghan of air.

My daughter Jen wrote a few poems when she was in her late teens, about three years before her brain injury that damaged her analytical thinking. Poems by the Old Jen, as we would call her, that reveal the wit she hasn’t lost, some of her social concerns, and some of her feelings for the father who left us when she was fifteen.

whoIsMy FatherIn this first poem, “My Father?” (1983), she uses the poetic technique of repetition to heighten the underlying emotions:

 

 

 

Who is this man, My Father?
I know him not.
I see his face – his mask –
What is behind it?
I know not what.
What does he think?
What does he feel? (It is concealed)
I know him not.
I want to love him,
Yet I don’t know him.
Who is this man, My Father?
I know him not.

She has always been horrified by the Hitler-led atrocities of World War Two, and is proud of this verse:

“Accomplices” (4/13/83)

Why the Deaths?
Why did they follow one mad men?
Are we not one and the same?
Yet we are individual.
Each no better than anyone else,
Each a person.
How can you look at anyone and not see
That he is also?
Why the Deaths?
Why did they follow one mad man?
(He did not do it alone)
Why?

By the Witty Jen

It’s hunting season once more.
Hunters flood to the woods in score
To drop the biggest deer they can.
Whoops! One of them shot a man.
(In the canyons in Utah Valley where she grew up
hunting season is every Autumn)

PEACE to Jen and John

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3 thoughts on “A View from Bridge – Two Brain Injured Poets

  1. Hi Ann – fascinating to find the Newsletter in your ‘archives’ … and to see John’s poems – I’ll have to come back to read properly … but love Jen’s poems – tell her they’re really good … why indeed to anyone who suffers and has no control of what caused it, or what to do about it later on … as you say Peace to John in his eternal peace … and to you two – all the very best – cheers Hilary

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  2. So lovely to see your smiling face, Hilary. Jen is so glad you like her poems. She could have done literature/writing I think if life hadn’t pointed her in another direction, to let others serve her. This is her mission I remind her (and me) when she’s feeling down. You are one who always makes me and others feel up, and I will be over to see you.

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  3. Wow! This was a beautiful memory lane for many I’m sure. Beautiful souls that despite the challenges used their gifts. Your daughter quite the poet as well . I’m in hopes to hear more of the journey and your daughter- Jackie

    Liked by 1 person

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