Words as wings  (2007)

Published: 8/19/2016 7:31:45 PM

Words as Wings (Sept. 27, 2007)

My first role at the Recorder was as its west county reporter, and the hilltowns were my favorite.The spectacular open landscape was in such dramatic contrast with Carol Purington, the tiny but expansive Colrain poet paralyzed with polio since 1955 but able to reach out to the world, first with a mouth stuck and later with voice-recognition software. I felt it a gift to be able to interview her.


"A pond made by beavers

Fished now in the magic of twilight

By a tall heron It is time to go indoors

But I'm not living in time."


For 1,300 years, the Japanese poetic form of tanka has described images and the emotional world of the writer.

"Tanka, unlike haiku, is emotional," writes Jane Reichhold, editor of several haiku and tanka journals and creator of the annual Tanka Splendor awards. "Instead of denying one's feelings or hiding them behind concrete images, tanka is openly the form for expressing emotional states. Yet it is most often based on natural world phenomenon. writers preserve tanka for writing of special moments of insight or inspiration or an overwhelming sense of rapture or mystery."

In 31 syllables or less, tanka are concise, musical verses that date back centuries further than haiku, each line often capturing a single image or idea, the five lines creating a single thought.

"No pears on the tree

Too few apples for cider

-- only autumn leaves

Will my heart one day agree

That color is enough?"

Colrain writer Carol Purington's eighth book of tanka, "Gathering Peace," is the culmination of more than 15 years of specializing in the gentle Japanese form, although she is flexible with the count and placement of syllables.

"Over the past 15 years I have been finding words to fit my days into this ancient pattern," Purington writes in the preface of the book, which is on sale at Greenfield's World Eye Bookshop, in Shelburne Falls at Boswell's Books, Salmon Falls Showroom and Sawyer Newsroom and at Colrain's Griswold Memorial Library. "My hope is that these poems will be like stepping stones from my world to yours."

'Some things I couldn't do'

The cover photo of "Gathering Peace" conveys the spaciousness of the landscape at Woodslawn Farm, her family's two-century-old Colrain dairy farm, with verdant fields just across the dirt road from the classic white 1826 farmhouse. The scene, with hills off in the distance, approximates the eastward view a bedroom window has afforded Purington, who has been bedridden for most of her nearly 58 years.

Purington has been paralyzed with polio since 1955, when on her first day of first grade, she put her head down on her desk and complained of severe headache symptoms.

It was the year that a new vaccine began to bring the disease under control.

Greenfield Recorder readers followed the young girl's progress, month by month, as she was hospitalized in Greenfield and then, in 1956, at Children's Medical Center in Boston, followed in 1957 by a rehabilitation center in Wellesley.

"Left by my parents

in a hospital room

in isolation

the dark of their going

the dark of my staying"

"Attendance at the hospital school one hour each day has enabled Carol to keep up with her classmates so that she has completed the equivalent of second grade," reported a 1957 Recorder article, which was accompanied by a photo of 7-year-old Purington lying with her doll. "An avid reader, she loves mystery, pioneer and adventure stories."

Purington continued her schooling with the help of a dedicated telephone line to her classrooms at Colrain's elementary, Mohawk Trail Regional High School and, eventually, Greenfield Community College.

There have been important technological improvements over the years -- fiberglass breathing aids in place of the iron lung, computer and voice-recognition software to greatly expand the constricted world of someone with severe disabilities.

Yet time passes slowly in Purington's overstuffed room. Its creep is marked by the rhythmic wooshing of a pale-green "turtle shell" ventilator that rises and falls on her chest and allows her to breathe despite her paralysis. It's been more than 10 years since Purington has been able to spend part of her days sitting up, yet she is characteristically upbeat, buoyed by her Christian faith.

With only some difficulty, she demonstrates how she turns the pages of a magazine suspended from an overhead rack using a foot-long "mouth stick." It has a rubber eraser at one end and a plastic base molded to fit in her teeth. Many years ago, she had a rack that could hold heavier books.

"When I was hospitalized in Boston, there were half a dozen children who were fairly severely disabled with polio. We were taught to turn pages and to write with mouth sticks."

It was her aunt Evelyn Sellers, another polio victim with whom she lived in the center of Colrain for a couple of years, who first suggested that young Purington could become a writer.

"I loved to read, and there were some things I couldn't do," she recalled, in a cheery voice, making eye contact with a visitor with the help of a small mirror attached to the head of her bed. "That seemed to her to be a good prospect for me. It took me a while to get there."

She discovered tanka around 1990, about a decade after she began writing more compact haiku. One of the haiku magazines she was receiving at the time ran a tanka contest, which she entered.

"I fell in love with the tanka form," she recalls. "I read some Japanese tanka in translation and some English language tanka. I really enjoyed the spaciousness of the form after dealing with 17 or fewer syllables; to have 31 or fewer syllables felt great."

After she "fell under the enchantment of putting words together," Purington introduced tanka to her neighbor, Larry Kimmel, who helped her work on her first and subsequent books and has co-authored "A Spill of Apples" with her. "We've been gentle but honest editors of each other's work."

Her poems have been published in The Christian Science Monitor and have won the Tanka Splendor Award and numerous international contests sponsored by a variety of poetry-writing associations.

Typing with a stick

At first, Purington printed with the help of her mouth stick. ("I never mastered the curlicues in cursive," she volunteers.) She began using an electric typewriter without an automatic carriage return, requiring one of her 10 siblings or her mother to advance to the next line. At first, she could type with limited use of her fingers, then with the aid of her mouth stick until her neck muscles began weakening from post-polio syndrome.

About that time, one of her brothers convinced her to consider voice-recognition software for computer and, she recalls, "The demonstration was immediately convincing that this is what I needed then and not later."

She began using it in 1993 or so along with a computer whose microphone and screen can be swung into place by her mother. Using the fingers she's able to move on her left hand, Purington can maneuver her computer mouse -- or answer the phone, summon help from her mom, or control the room light, stereo or tape player.

A stack of a half-dozen "talking books" attests to her continuing love of reading, even though weakened neck muscles have made it too cumbersome to maneuver a mouth stick to turn the pages of books suspended overhead.

"Words have always been important to me, as a reader first." Purington says. "I've always had more time to read than most people, so I've read more than most people."

Among the recent titles have been "Translation Nation," about the growing Spanish-speaking population in the United States, and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

"Most days, my life doesn't feel limiting," she says. "I work at keeping my mind occupied and challenged. I read some books for entertainment, but I try to balance that with books that keep me thinking, because the days go better that way."

Her travel is restricted to moving back and forth between the "turtle shell" of her day bed and the fiberglass "Porta-Lung" iron lung at the foot of her bed that provides enough ventilation for nighttime sleeping. (It takes two people to help move her small body into the transparent-chamber, which she jokingly refers to as looking like a "Sleeping Beauty vault.")

Language is a freeing medium that has let her travel far beyond the limits of her fragile body.

"In this world, I never will walk a trail up a mountainside," she writes, "but I can sail with the clouds that visit the highest peaks. Words are wings. Words are gifts, for singing and giving away."

In two of her books of verse -- "The Trees Bleed Sweetness" and "A Pattern for This Place" -- Purington has imagined the lives of an American Indian woman and a woman settler from Boston, respectively -- living as she has on Wilson Hill. " I've taken on the voices, vocabulary and lives of hundreds of people," she said.


Poetry has allowed her to go where prose never could have. Her writing was once inspired by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson or John Donne, says Purington. But she adds, "I always felt (traditional poetry) was too wordy for what I've wanted to say. I think I'm a person who's drawn to concision of speech and Yankee understatement."

The form of tanka allows her to put an entire book of poems on three or four sheets of paper, if it's organized in columns. "That's wonderful, because it's difficult for me to look at more than two pieces of paper at a time."

Purington, who awakens at 7 or 8 in her cocoon-like Porta-Lung, spends her early time praying or sometimes working over poems in her head before her mother, Barbara, joins her for breakfast, to move her to the bed, help her with her exercises and for Bible or magazine reading.

She checks e-mail and writes letters on the computer, followed by lunch and sometimes a little more computer work before listening to music or recorded books.

"I'm not writing many original tanka right now," admits the poet, whose recent collection is broken up by decades and written over 15 years "in scattershot fashion, not in any organized way."

Purington gradually realized that she had a body of work "that represented my life. (I) began to realize there had been a progression through the decades, learning acceptance of aspects of my life, limitations. This had been a process I'd lived through without consciously knowing it."

The 119 short poems review recalling the death of her eldest sister, her "first romance," her 16th birthday and, in her 40s, "having to count the costs of living with a seriously disabled body and acknowledge to myself that I wasn't going to outgrow them, that they had limited my life in ways that would affect me until I died." 

The days I did not sing

The nights I did not dance

their joy

spiraling out of the throat

of a hermit thrush

The balance between the physical limitation she feels in her bones and the freedom in her soul "shifts from day to day," she says. "I don't think I feel trapped by my body because my mind and my voice are free Joy and beauty are wings for me."

She's grateful, she says, for a family that's been "wonderfully helpful in practical ways" through the decades, that's given her companionship and -- with one brother now living back at home with his wife and two daughters -- that has given her a chance to be around young children.

A framed photo on the wall shows about 40 family members -- parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews -- packed into her bedroom.

"Obviously, I would have liked to have a husband and children, and knowing this was impossible didn't immediately lessen the sense of loss," she says when asked about forced celibacy. "I choose to accept what God has given me, rather than cling to regrets. My life is rich with strong family ties and friendships, with artistic creativity and day-by-day life in a beautiful and peaceful place."

Looking back on her life on the farm, she adds, "I'm fortunate I grew up with parents who paid attention to the details of nature. They taught us to know the birds and flowers, and to value them."

Not only did that provide a wonderful background for writing poetry, she said, but also "a wonderful attitude toward living a life with not a lot of variety to it."

That attitude lays the groundwork for short, direct poems that are hopeful yet honest to the bone.

"By my nature, I'm a person who focuses on the positive," she said. "There are days when you have to pay attention to the dark features, but I try not to get stuck in those days. One of the things that doing this book has shown me is that the balance has to be there. In the long run, if you're not honest with yourself, the dark side's going to get stronger."



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