For the release of award-winning poet Sunni Brown Wilkinson’s chapbook The Ache and the Wing, Editorial Intern Nikki Lyssy sat with Wilkinson to discuss the relationship between hope and loss, the many different selves we live, and honoring grief through remembrance.
Nikki Lyssy: What was your conception of the title for this collection?
Sunni Brown Wilkinson: As I gathered the poems together to see if there was any kind of coherence, I noticed how many poems were about loss and how many included birds. I was actually surprised by both and thought maybe they go together somehow. I do think all life grieves in some way and all life experiences joy, and the title grew from that. And I realized this collection not only showcases this phase of my life (mother, wife, middle-aged, grounded but still a little lost) but it also mirrors general life experiences: loss, letting go, reflections on the self, curiosity about the world, wonder.
NL: How does the speaker conceive of the relationship between birds and body in the opening and closing poems?
SBW: In the opening poem (“Rodeo”), something in the speaker is broken. I don’t say what outright, but it becomes apparent in the poems directly following: we had just lost our youngest son. I did feel like my body was literally broken. I was recovering from my fourth C-section, I was 40, and the baby we had anxiously been awaiting was stillborn. I’d never known how physically crippling grief could be, and I barely had the strength to get through each day. And in that opening poem, there actually aren’t any birds, just a hummingbird hawk moth, which looks like the tiniest bird but is in fact an insect. So in that first poem, I would say there’s just heaviness and struggle, no wingspan, very little to lift the body toward lightness.
By the end of the book, in the final poem (“After Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe…”), there’s a clear admission that our bodies will continue to be broken in this life, but there’s also a reaching toward joy and, more specifically, immortality and a place of wholeness. The birds in that poem could represent that lightness and joy of the body, but the final image suggests that maybe the birds are also whatever breaks us down in this life, whatever tears through us to get to that inner being. Like the seed glimmering at the end of the poem, we are simplified and small. Our bodies are weak and “wingless,” but something in us is still bright and full of expectation. I guess this is also a full admission that I do believe in a life after this one. My first collection also leans heavily on that belief.
NL: How do the themes of the collection speak to each other in each poem?
SBW: I’m still teasing this out, and I’m still seeing the poems in different ways with each reading, but my hope is that each poem strikes a slightly different chord about loss and hope, the body, and even what it means to be a man or a woman in this world. Two poems in this collection are specifically about the experience of living in a man’s body. “The Difficult, Liquid Art” and “In the Voice of My Husband’s Grandfather” both celebrate the struggles of being a man, maybe even suggest the weight of patriarchy, the vulnerability and exquisite beauty of men. Even “Don’t Feed the Coyotes” includes a man on a Harley Davidson (the ultimate symbol of machismo, right?) who patently ignores the signs to not feed the coyotes and instead mercifully throws them raw hot dogs. Having grown up with three brothers (no sisters) and now having three sons (no daughters), I feel like I’ve observed men for a good part of my life, and I find them fascinating. The men I know and love are the most surprising, tender, generous people. And that’s just one thread in this collection. My hope is that, in each poem, the reader feels a deepened appreciation for both the struggles and joys of living. These poems were sheer catharsis for me. They propelled me back into a love of being alive.
NL: There are poems that read like mirror images: the structure of “Ghost” and “They Call it Weeping”, or “Rodeo” and “The Woman who Became a House.” In what ways are the structures in each poem in conversation with the themes you are presenting on the page?
SBW: “Ghost” surprised me because I don’t typically write prose poems, or, at least, poems that appear more like prose, but as I was writing it, I knew it had to be compact and read more like vignettes that are slowly braided together, as if someone were telling you a few bits of story and then by the end of the conversation you realize all of the pieces create one larger story. I love braided essays, and I try to do something similar in my poems. And in “They Call it Weeping,” I realized that there were several images that reflected weeping that, when brought together, also created a larger story about how the body processes and moves forward from grief. I’d never considered how, even if a woman loses her baby, her body still produces milk. Or just how much water is in a newborn’s body. It occurred to me that our bodies weep in ways we cannot control, and that weeping allows the body to let go. And the sections in those poems allow the reader (and the speaker) to slow down and inhabit each moment, maybe even to honor it, before moving on. That’s also what grief is, an honoring.
NL: In “The Woman Who Became a House”, the metaphor lingers below the surface in a very different way than in any other poem in the collection. How did this metaphor of grief and pain find its form for this book?
SBW: I was thinking one day of just how vast each of us are, all of the rooms we’ve lived in in our selves, the different people we’ve been in our lifetimes, and it occurred to me that it was as if we are each a great house and all of the rooms hold something different, with a different purpose. I also once described the feeling of my grief as “brick-heavy,” as if my whole body was made of bricks. The two kind of merged and I wrote this poem to describe what it felt like at that point in my life. And on top of all of that, I remembered a story my mother once told me of my grandmother hiding sometimes in the boiler room and crying because she was so overwhelmed with life. And I was thinking too of the way women are often seen as something to inhabit or own, certainly in ways men are not. All of those came together to meditate on how women are like these houses that are filled with fascinating things and are complex and crumbling and haunted with weeping and singing.
NL: Is there a dichotomy between the ache section and the wing section of the collection as a whole?
SBW: I think so. When I was originally organizing the book, I had the poem “When It Comes” as the final poem, as a kind of “what to do when the hard stuff comes” wrap-up to the book. But my very wise friend Natalie Taylor suggested I put that poem at the end of the poems directly related to grief and then allow all of the bird poems to kind of sing at the end of the book. She thought that would help the reader “journey” through grief and into hope more clearly. It felt right. And I remembered something Ada Limon said when she visited our university a few years ago. She said that when she read a poetry manuscript, she looked for a narrative arc. I’m still teasing out what that means exactly, but I think that it suggests some nod to the age-old, even biblical, story of a fall and redemption. The ache section dissects grief and the complexities of loss while the wing section moves toward a deeper reverence for life and a belief in its ultimate timelessness.
NL: How is the speaker at the beginning of the collection in conversation with the speaker at the end of the collection?
SBW: That’s a terrific question! The speaker in the opening poem is working towards saying that hard, awful truth: “Sometimes you hold your own hand./ That’s all there is to take.” That poem isn’t all sad—some of it is funny, I hope—but it admits right away that life is hard and that some days it feels like there isn’t much to cling to. By the end of the book, however, the speaker isn’t holding her own hand anymore. She’s holding what feels like a kind of wisdom, an acceptance of what is difficult but also family, memories, wonders in the natural world, and an appreciation for simply being alive. The final image of that last poem is of the speaker being a seed the birds of the morning have uncovered. It’s exposing and kind of scary, but it’s a hope for a deeper existence where even loss is transformed into joy.
Download your copy of The Ache and the Wing for free here!
Sunni Brown Wilkinson‘s poetry can be found in Western Humanities Review, Sugar House Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, SWWIM, Crab Orchard Review and other journals and anthologies. She is the author of The Marriage of the Moon and the Field (Black Lawrence Press 2019, finalist for the Hudson Prize) and The Ache and the Wing (winner of Sundress’s 2020 Chapbook Prize). She also won New Ohio Review’s NORward Poetry Prize and the 2020 Joy Harjo Prize from Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. She teaches at Weber State University and lives in northern Utah with her husband and three sons.
Nikki Lyssy (@blindnikkii) is an MFA candidate studying creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida. Her essays have appeared in Hobart, Sweet, and Essay Daily. When she is not working, she can be found in a coffee shop.