A poet sees the light after the darkness of illness

Three and a half years ago, Judith Barrington went to the hospital for what she thought was a severe migraine. Instead, doctors discovered a subdural hematoma— a collection of blood outside her brain. Later they would tell her she had been about three hours away from death.

“It was very traumatic, when you experience something like this completely out of the blue. It was just so shocking and life altering.”

After surgery to release the pressure, Barrington remained hospitalized for another month of rehabilitation. After returning home, she began to write poems about the experience, including “The Wound.” She was inspired to write it after discovering a quote about light written by the 13th century poet, scholar and mystic Rumi.

“For awhile after this experience I saw things in a way I hadn’t before. I felt appreciative of light. One of my hospital rooms had a big window and I could see trees and mountains in the distance. I couldn’t do anything— read or listen to the radio — so I would just look out the window. And I really did notice things in a more observant way than I had before.”

Many of these poems became part of a collection called “The Conversation,” which was published last year. In addition to dealing with issues of mortality and her recent medical crisis, the poems look back to her childhood memories and to the tragic death of her parents who drowned on a cruise ship when she was 19 years old.

“When anything impacts me emotionally or spiritually or intellectually, my immediate response is to put it into words, to capture it — which of course no one can do. The written account is always a sad shadow of the real thing. But I’ve always tried to record these experiences, to keep track of my life in words.”

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“The Conversation” also includes poems about love and gay marriage. Barrington has been with her partner for 37 years, but until recently didn’t think much about gay marriage.

“We’re old feminists and we were kind of indoctrinated with the idea that the institution of marriage was bad for everybody. But a lot of people put a lot of work into fighting for this so we thought we should show some solidarity and get married ourselves.”

In addition to her poetry, Barrington has written a memoir and a textbook about writing memoirs. A collection of new and selected poems is scheduled to be published next year.


The wound is the place where the light enters you

A small man with curly hair and a French accent
sliced my skull on the right side, vertically, opened
a flap by which the irritating blood could leave my brain
and then closed it up again with screws and a line of staples
that I still have—forty two of them in a plastic bag.

Did the light enter me there?
Is my head full of light now
or has it spread all through my body,
white light filling me
all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes.

And what exactly is this new light that slipped in
through the open flap while the surgeon’s delicate fingers
held his instruments poised, pressed bone and skin into place
and closed up until inside that sudden opening
everything grew dark again?

The light of seeing how snow
and starched blue sky waited outside
my window until I really saw them;
behind the trees, darkness
forever touched by the kindness of light;
and the shine of time passing at the speed
it likes to pass, none of it wasted—
even when I couldn’t find the words.

Judith Barrington was born in Brighton, England, in 1944 and moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1976. She has published four collections of poetry which include “The Conversation”, “Horses and the Human Soul”, “History and Geography” and “Trying to be an Honest Woman.” She is the author of “Lifesaving: A Memoir”, which was the winner of the Lambda Book Award. She also wrote the textbook “Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art”, now in its 12th printing.

Barrington has taught creative writing at the University of Alaska and at many workshops including the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Haystack, Split Rock, Fishtrap and the Ashland Writing Conference.

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