POWER OF POETRY #47: CHELSEA DINGMAN

There is a word, and inside the word, a prayer. As grey or imperfect as a child, I only imagined having. Some mornings, I read or write so I can feel alive inside the words. So I can live. Some mornings, I am alive in the silence between the words.

Let me explain.

When I was nine, my father died in an accident. I have spent my whole life writing that moment into being as if conjuring a stranger. As if being able to rewrite history will give me power that I don’t have in my life. I wrote my first book of poems for and about my father. About aftermath. About how little my life resembles his. In some ways, poetry allowed him to live again, for me, for the time that I was writing. But it also allowed me to stand years in the future, in wonder. To write fiction. To change the details in service of the poems. To praise and accuse and storm and story those pages with all that my imagination could conjure. With all of the stories that I’ve been told over the years. With all of the love that I fear is wasted. With all of the hope that can only exist inside the poem.

Months later, I stood at my MFA thesis reading and read a poem, titled “Late Night Cartography”, which was an apology and an appeal to the speaker’s father, all at once. I read this poem at this ceremony, having completed my Master’s Degree because my father had only finished seventh grade. His parents had emigrated from Ukraine and, though he was born in Canada, they believed that boys were supposed to help support their families. So, he went to work doing construction. He died at 36 on a job site near Vancouver. He had been away working for a few months after being out of work for almost a year. It was not an easy life. He could read, but he could not write. There were few other jobs that he was qualified for. He had three kids and a wife. We lived in rural British Columbia. He did what he had to do.

I read that poem because I felt guilty that I had so many opportunities when he’d had few. I read that poem because poetry gave me those opportunities. I read that poem because I wanted him to see that I’d done what he wanted for me, which was to go to school, above all else. I read that poem because he deserved a better life. I read that poem because, after he died, poetry was a sanctuary. Not that I’ve published for very long, but I have written poems since elementary school. There are few other things that can take me out of my body and allow me to write what I don’t know so that I’m not afraid of it.

I’m trying to say that the power of poetry is in transformation. Events. People. Experiences. Language. Power. My brain constantly reaches for connections between unlikely things. Metaphor, if you will. The poem allows my mind to function this way when I write. The connections between life and death, past and future, family and strangers, accident and determination, the known and unknown, all have a place in the tension of a poem. For that, I am grateful.

More recently, my second book got picked up. It is a manuscript of poems essentially about a missing child (insert: miscarriage, stillbirth, early childhood deaths). I wrote of the experiences of my grandmothers. My mother. Myself. Women in the news. I overwrote it by a hundred poems. It is a collection that is much less accident and much more determined than the first. A week after the announcement, I got life-changing news that had nothing to do with poetry. It truly made me pause as though the act of writing poems could invoke changes in the very condition of my life. Of our lives. I’ve read so many collections that I have felt this way about. But I had not felt this sort of wonder with my first collection. It is an elegy. My father will not come back to life by invoking him in a poem. There are certain limitations to our hopes and dreams.

Today, writing this in a parking lot while my son gets ready for a hockey game, I have the word “miracle” stuck in my throat. But, poetry is not the miracle. Life is. And poetry has allowed me to embrace that. To feel it. To crawl inside that feeling. To say there have been times where I haven’t felt worthy, or thought that my life was meaningful, but poetry left me transformed. I am thankful for poets every day. For the sanctuary of the poem. The lines of Robin Beth Schaer’s poem, “Holdfast” have been reverberating in my mind all week:  

“We should hold each other more

while we are still alive, even if it hurts.”

The power of poetry is in more than just sentiment. It is in the way it holds fast to experience. The way that it holds each of us fast and won’t fail.


Chelsea Dingman’s first book, Thaw, was chosen by Allison Joseph to win the National Poetry Series (University of Georgia Press, 2017). Her second poetry collection, Through a Small Ghost, won The Georgia Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press (February, 2020). She is also the author of the chapbook, What Bodies Have I Moved (Madhouse Press, 2018). Her work is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and Triquarterly, among others. Visit her website: chelseadingman.com.