When I’m paddling, I scream at blue herons perched lakeside. I love the way these wild things in their frayed blue suits scream amongst themselves. I want to talk to them. But these silent sentinels just watch me stonily as I glide by, swooping off if I get too close, only then screaming back at me. One day, they’ll linger and we’ll talk.
I am not crazy. I know this because Terri Kirby Erickson of Pfafftown has essentially confirmed that in her fine new poetry collection, “Becoming the Blue Heron” (Press 53). In the collection’s namesake poem, she writes of a “woman who shed her skin and stepped into a heron’s blue body.”
Cool. Our torn-asunder nation needs books like this. In poem after poem in this slim but powerful volume, Erickson, a critically acclaimed poet, celebrates the wonder of human and animal life by doing what the best poets do: encouraging us to look at things differently. The best writers in general do this, but good poets do it in a much shorter and therefore challenging form, finding fresh images that wing our souls up to confrontations with our common humanity.
Given that, it’s fitting that Erickson will launch her new collection this coming Monday night with a fundraiser for the Centers for Exceptional Children, the Winston-Salem nonprofit that works with children with developmental delays, orthopedic disabilities and/or other long-term chronic health impairments. Those of us, like me, with special children in our families know that these children have a magic all their own, one that teaches us new things about love and looking at the world anew.
The late Mike Britt, who was the center’s longtime executive director, was Erickson’s middle-school math teacher before going to the center. They became friends, ones who shared a deep sense of empathy for people in need. Erickson, who has often written and spoken publicly about the Crohn’s Disease she has had since 15, gives back to her community. Her service has included volunteering at the Forsyth Cancer Center.
That service and much else obviously informs her poetry. Her art is compassionate but never sappy as it courageously concentrates, without blinking, on many aspects of life. Reading it is a communion of sorts, bringing us together in fields that might surprise us. As she writes in the lusty but loving “Caballero,” “There is nothing for you to do here, but cup your hands and drink.”
She writes of dreams lost and found, of love lost and found, of siblings and innocence lost and of parents growing older, at the beach and back here at home, of good country folk and good city ones and ones not so good, and of the wild things. She writes of vultures with “their heads like a chain mail hood, bodies fitted with the darkest of suits” and of seagulls trapped on one of our inland parking lots, wheeling and crying out “as if the sound still echoes over water, and any minute a fish will leap from the blistering, trash-strewn blacktop and cars will rise and fall like shrimp boats riding the tar-tinted waters.”
She celebrates the great French painter Toulouse-Lautrec and how a prostitute he painted saw him, “this funny little artiste with his stubby limbs and paint-flecked spectacles.” And years later, how she would remember him as the artist who “found, beneath her yellow wig and rice-powdered skin, the flicker of life left in her world-weary soul, and painted it.”
And best of all, in the poem “Angel,” she writes of the special people amongst us, telling us that “I used to see” a father and his grown son walking, the father holding his son’s hand and whispering “whatever it was the boy needed to know, in tones so soft and low it might have been the sound of wings pressing together again and again. Maybe it was that sound, since the father had the look of an angel about him, or what we imagine angels should be — a bit solemn-faced, with eyes that view the world through a lens of kindness — who see every man’s son as beautiful and whole.”
Maybe we really can fly together, with blue herons and all else.
Monday, Terri Kirby Erickson will read from her new collection, joining other luminaries (including Cameron Kent, jazz artists Cathy Watson and Karen Kendrick and painter Stephen White) in a fundraiser for the Centers for Exceptional Children sponsored by Readings on Roslyn. The free event will be held at 7 p.m. at The Barn at Reynolda Village, 106 Reynolda Village in Winston-Salem. Erickson will donate 10 percent of every copy of “Becoming the Blue Heron” sold that night to The Centers for Exceptional Children.