Sophie Cabot Black: Poetry book looks at life and death
Sophie Cabot Black, a Wilton resident and award-winning poet, will read from her newest work, The Exchange, at Silvermine Arts Center on Friday, May 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. The community is invited to this free event, sponsored by Elm Street Books.
A second book launch event will be held at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 31.
Both affairs are being thrown in celebration of her newest volume of poetry, which is published by Graywolf Press in Minneapolis. Her verse has been featured in such national publications as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, which praised her ability to use personal experience and imagery to explain concepts and problems on a larger level — especially the 2008 financial collapse.
The poetry in The Exchange draws heavily on Ms. Black’s experience watching a friend fight a terrible — and eventually fatal — illness. Though not explicitly narrative, the book follows a certain story, Ms. Black said in a recent interview at her farmhouse on Olmstead Hill Road.
Many of the works express a person’s ultimately impossible attempt to understand death — as both a fact and a process — and explore the way people return to their childhood in order to make sense of it. This juxtaposition, Ms. Black says, is borne out of her own childhood experiences on a farm in Wilton, and raising children of her own.
“The natural world is what helped me explain what couldn’t be explained, because I knew it so well,” she said. “I felt I had grown through and out of the natural world, and that was the only place I could go back to, to explain the world I didn’t know.”
With so many animals on the farm, she was confronted regularly with the cycle of life and death during her childhood, Ms. Black said.
“We buried so many animals here, it was heartbreaking. I may have left home with a better understanding of the cycles of life and death than most people, but no matter how many times it happens, it doesn’t get any easier,” she said.
“There is no possible way to return to the past. But we can bring our old landscapes into the new project of raising children,” she said.
One line from the poem “Biopsy” deconstructs the ceiling tiles above a hospital bed, and explores the human struggle for normalcy in the midst of tragedy:
“Except I am not him, concentrating on the manufactured / Tiles above us, which came from somewhere far / And were brought by truck or rail to this city / Where in time they were laid one by the other / To make a ceiling, sky below which we lay”
When confronted with death and hospitalization, Ms. Black said, people feel the need to “put the puzzle together, and look for comfort and familiarity.” In other words, when people lose the ability to define their own story, they begin to more closely examine the narratives of their surroundings.
Early interest in poetry
Ms. Black says she can trace her interest in poetry all the way back to the Wilton public school system.
In 1969, the New York Mets were fighting to capture their first World Series title, and the excitement in Wilton was tremendous, remembers Ms. Black. The interest in the series was so great that Wilton High School allowed its students to miss class and watch the World Series games. As one of only a few students not interested in watching the series, Ms. Black was sent to study with a substitute teacher named Mrs. Channel — a parent of one of her classmates.
Mrs. Channel had pasted Life magazine pictures all across the study hall room, Ms. Black recalled. Her assignment for her students was to write one sentence about each picture in the room. After scanning the room, Ms. Black fixated on a single picture and grew deeply interested in the power and weight of the words she had used to describe the scene.
From that day on she was a poet, though it took “years for me to show anyone my work,” Ms. Black said. “It doesn’t even take a great teacher [to create passion within a student],” she said, “it takes a great teaching moment.”
With three books of poetry now published — The Descent, The Misunderstanding of Nature, and The Exchange — Ms. Black’s body of work stands in support of Mrs. Channel’s great teaching moment.
A Wilton kid
Ms. Black admitted she didn’t experience the most ordinary childhood as she grew up in Wilton during the 1960s and 70s. She recalled the excitement of watching the Tony Awards with her family at their Olmstead Hill farmhouse built in 1826. They were rooting for her father, David Black, a well-known Broadway producer.
“He was pretty hot stuff at the time,” she said while sitting at a table in her kitchen. “That wasn’t a normal childhood experience,” Ms. Black added with a laugh.
Her mother was successful in her own right, she noted, producing opera theater in Boston and New York. Always devoted to service, Linda Cabot Black maintained a pseudo-legend status in town thanks to a wide range of community service initiatives, her daughter said.
Her service work included the organization of an annual St. Nicholas Day celebration for kindergarten children (complete with horse-drawn buggies, and big red bags), and two open-air Save the Whales benefit concerts held in 1976 and 1977, nicknamed Wilton Woodstock. The concerts drew crowds of 5,000 people and were put on as a graduation gift to a then teenage Sophie Cabot Black.
Though Ms. Black regularly traveled between New York City and Wilton as a child, she was certainly a “Wilton kid,” she said. Outside of 10 years spent living in Manhattan, she has spent most of her days at her family’s farmhouse, where she learned to love nature, farming, and animal husbandry.
Silvermine Arts Center is at 1037 Silvermine Road, New Canaan. Information: SilverMineArt.com.
Elm Street Books is a community bookseller at 35 Elm Street in New Canaan. Information: 203-966-4545 or elmstreetbooks.com.