Death by Addiction – A Searing Poetic Memoir by Sheryl St. Germain

American poet Sheryl St. Germain. Photo credit: ©teake zuidema, 2107.

Loving An Addict

Yesterday the skies were troubled
gusts almost knocked us down

today the sun, the kiss of a breeze

it was always fights or lies

Maybe at the end 

         I preferred the lies

Sheryl St. Germain from The Small Door of Your Death, Autumn House Press, 2018

The absolute helplessness of of someone close to a person in the thrall of addiction. The huge bravery of Sheryl St. Germain to write about it. And the crushing metaphor inside the title of her collection of poems: The small door of your death. Small door = needle prick. Equals overdose. Equals death. Equals the death of St. Germain’s son Gray (1984-2014) almost five years ago. Equals the title of her passage through her own addiction and Gray’s and his death.

This is an astonishingly out-there book. Harrowing and life giving. Yes the contradictions poetry can hold. This book epitomizes what poetry should and could be. The huge no of addiction and a son’s addiction and death. The huge yes of recovery and moving from unspeakable grief to the release of speaking and writing about it. I can’t say enough good things about this book. And about St. Germain’s never-give-up heart.

Here, a poem that turns into poetry and metaphor the helplessness of a family plagued by generations of addiction. Even her punctuation adds to the rush and tumult of this poem with the first sentence eighteen lines long.

Great Midwest Flood, 1993

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become
unmanageable. The Big Book

Nothing I did could have topped
the heavy snowfall the winter before,
or the deep rains of spring and summer, 
nothing could have stopped the the swelling
of the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Des Moines,
Illinois, Iowa, Skunk or Racoon. Not

my fault the way the flood knocked
our house from its moorings,
the way the water got so high
you couldn't tell a town had been there,
nothing I could do about the water supply
getting contaminated, or all bridges
that were knocked out, the river traffic
halted, I couldn't stop

the houses and bodies from floating down the river,
or the levees from breaking, or the waters
from crashing into towns, not my fault,
the state declared a disaster area.

I try to remember how powerless I was
then, as the drunks in my family line up now,
the rivers rising, so many bodies
it seems all I can do is sit on the bank and watch,
the floodwaters lapping sweetly at my feet,
my father and brothers calling out

jump in, the water's fine.

Sheryl St. Germain, ibid

Believe it or not I feel this book could be a life-raft for anyone impacted by addiction. Or a bridge connecting healing to the craziness of addiction and living with it. The tragedy of  St. Germain’s son last and final relapse. The miracle of her recovery. Putting into words what should never have to be written. But the gift of this. Poetry as fierce healing. And the power of the image of a flood to describe the powerless of a family riddled with addiction.

A few days ago I featured poems by a young Canadian woman who died of an overdose.  One of 3,286 Canadians who lost their lives in the first nine  months of 2018 to apparent opioid-related deaths according to the Public Health Agency of Canada and one of 10,300 from the beginning of 2016 to the end of September 2018. Her’s, one voice, from inside the belly of the beast. Not just a statistic. And my deep sadness that her voice is no more.

Now, the voice of St. Germain again. Her journey through that belly and back out. Her son’s journey with no return. The reality of his descent spoken by her:


Four months before you die,
you show up at my door
skittish, sober, not yourself,
whatever the self is,
like a dog lost too long in the woods

         all you once hoped to be
         still lights your face, though:
         it is almost a holy light

you are trying to be a good man
you are trying to live in this world
that you hate

         I love that you still care enough
         to pretend to be
         the one I named,
         hoped to birth.

Sheryl St. Germain, ibid 

The journey this book takes me on. Up and down and sideways. But the last poem is such an unexpected farewell to her boy, her son. A wish for utter and final transformation. A celebration of a new freedom. Cuts to the quick and consoles at the same time. Here are some excerpts:

from Prayer for a Son

May your soul now be with the creek,
may it swell and flood in Spring, brimming
with excitement and wildness
as you sometimes were in this other life,

                         ebbing and emptying in winter
                         to reveal what had been hidden
                         in those spring floods-
                         the wounds and bones of your heart.

May the small fish that live here
nibble at your ashes, finding them
sweet and filling,
and may the dusts of your body fall

                          like pollen on the spring wildflowers,
                          deepening the pinks, yellows,
                          and lavenders of their petals
                          until their colours are like wells
                          that lead to another way of knowing...

And these, the last two stanzas:

and when you are root and wing, seed
and flower, when you are bone and breath,
then may be be blessed to hear you

                           in song of bird and cricket, may we see
                           you again in the mad blinking
                           of the fireflies, and in the silence after
                           the poem's last word.

Sheryl St. Germain, ibid

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