The Small Door of Your Death
by Sheryl St. Germain
Autumn House, 2018; 96 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
The statistical charts on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website about overdoses show a swooping uphill curve, to a high of over 72,000 deaths in 2017. And in The Small Door of Your Death, Sheryl St. Germain faces one of them, her son’s.
In five sections, this collection of poems personalizes the abstract “opioid crisis” so that it has a face, Gray’s face, one lit by “almost a holy light” in the anguish of hope before his death and the anguish after it. The book begins in the egg-shell tension of optimism amid addictive destruction, moves through rehab to his overdose, and the long aftermath, from viewing the body to making sense over time of his death and life. Such particular lyric moments trace a much fuller narrative but they have far-reaching social implications.
Had I read St. Germain’s two memoirs, perhaps I could know how autobiographical these poems are, but the poetic disclosures, in tone and image, create an authenticity that is beyond fact; I trust them as I trust any story.
Every life is situated in a net of influences, beginning with family, and those who become addicted are not different. The story presented here is not her son’s biography but the struggle to mother him. The first poem “Loving an Addict” says, “It was always fights or lies. // Maybe at the end // I preferred the lies.” One struggle is the responsibility, which is further complicated by her own “fragile sobriety” and the legacy of addiction in the family. She writes in “King of Swords,” one of several poems that use Tarot cards for titles, “You aren’t like your grandfather and uncle, / you say, long dead of it.” In a poem that compares her son’s difficulties to Odysseus and the lotus-eaters, she admits, “I remember only too well the taste of that sweetness.” She is not only referring to the drug and its oblivion, but the exile of it. She says to her son, “you lived so long in that foreign land / it must have felt more home than home.”
Of course, as Gray’s mother, she wanted him to be “safe, anchored / in normalcy,” but the exile begins inside one’s own skin. In a Facebook post the poet composed into a poem, Gray confesses that “I honestly don’t have / a natural social mode” and mostly “I feel / super awkward.” It’s important to emphasize that drugs and alcohol can temporarily take away that discomfort with oneself; even when contemplating his overdose, St. Germain asks, “did you feel it, in those last seconds / that sudden rush / of sun, warmth”? However, drugs also never stop taking. The image St. Germain uses is the fisherman depicted on the “Seven of Swords” Tarot card whose “creel is filled with fish” but “he will take / everything he can get.” He ended up calling himself a “trash-can addict” because “if it was called dope / you had done it.”
The book catalogs the awful consequences of Gray’s addiction—car accidents, desire for death, nightmares of throwing up blood (his mother’s blood), actually vomiting blood, how even the lights in the rehab facility cause pain, and his ultimate death. But the book goes on to catalog St. Germain’s emotion-wrestle in the aftermath, which, like his name, Gray, is a “world of nuance.”
Of course, there’s regret. She says, “we were always too late,” and her image for her regret comes while doing needlework. As she remembered her son’s “sadness and wildness,” she felt “with each row a wish I could have stitched your wounds as confidently as I do this blanket.” In the end—of the book, anyway—St. Germain reaches some acceptance. It is hard-won and surprising, even to her, because “It’s night everywhere in me / so it should feel like home.” The final section of poems includes many epistles to Gray, a sign of the closeness his overdose brings, but even this is fraught. She writes, “I’m terrified of this intimacy / death has brought us.”
A potent, straightforward collection of poems that makes vivid the gritty truth of addiction, grief, and survival.