NOSTALGIA FOR A WORLD WHERE WE CAN LIVE
The Monday I first hear the body count my father would have turned sixty-three. Rocking the baby to sleep, I wonder how I'd introduce them. This might be the year he's been my dead father as long as he was not. That I've lost track only occurs to me because my father loved that folksy Steve Goodman City of New Orleans train song. I can't call up his voice, but remember the needle skimming vinyl, my father laying hands against the speaker of that record player, more cabinet than turntable, to hear it.
Four years before this body count, numbers scroll the bottom of the T.V., the totaling dead change by the hour. My husband, working a murder trial, doesn't know I can't turn away. From our upstairs bathroom, late at night, I see a blur of bakers in a doughnut shop one block over. At this distance, the storefront lit up recalls a Hopper painting. But the Hoppers I love hold those women turning away, and a bed or a chair. Tugging the blinds I watch everything fill with tolls. Each body piling up belonged to a name or once longed or was held.
That's true, right? Everybody's head once cupped in the palm of another? My friend N lived across from the doughnut shop, his will power impressive. When I called him a holdover from another time, a throwback, I meant it as a compliment. I'm only thinking of this because N and his wife grew a vegetable garden shaped like a small boat. In the morning, when everyone's at work, I walk the baby by in his stroller and imagine climbing aboard, setting us adrift, though I still can't swim.
One of my mom's greatest disappointments might be her children always afraid to get their faces wet. Her watery grace stilted, standing shore-side, begging us to just touch our toes in the lake. My father made excuses, not wanting to leave his hearing aid on a towel. If my son ever asks after my great disappointment, how to ensure he never thinks I was? How to hand him this world? What I meant about N was, I hope to know him in other times. He remembers to hold the door open for others. He rises from his chair when his wife enters. He collects broken things and fixes them. He makes soup from bones.
IF ALL THE LOVE WE'LL KNOW IS THE KIND OF LOVE
that smalls our angles: your hand in someone’s mouth, your shoulder
in someone’s mouth, your elbow in someone’s whole mouth, your foot
up to the ankle bone between someone’s lips, maybe all love
is big-mouthed or remarkably jawed. That’s probably true. Maybe
all the love we’ll know is really a knowing about the remarkable ways
we open & close, hinge, unhinge. Here, where I live now, even
the water rattles. Not one door fits its frame. If we could forget the way
things are supposed to fold into each other—someone’s cupped palm,
someone’s legs & your legs, or the work of sash & sill, the work of stile &
knob & panel & goings &—. Or what’s remembered: ribs & sternum
& all the windows thrown open & someone’s fingers along your clavicle,
that sorrowed cage—threshold might also mean someday, mean again,
might remind that the architecture’s job is also one of proportion, of scale,
& in the hands of any love our bodies might & angle & set flush.
BECAUSE THE LINENS SOFTEN, NOW THREADBARE, JUST AS I'M WAKING, SMALL, IN THIS EARLY,
this unmade day where small, they say, is the new big, the new black, a
substitute for any modifier, made insignificant only by connotation. But we
know it as verb, this sometimes prayer. Small my hands. Small our hearts in
that emptying out. Small these lines, any lines. Small the boy I am trying to
learn to let go. Small the bones in our feet—three called Cuneiform—our
skeletal articulations. Small memory of other days. Small the fractures we
sustain, those sometimes unbearable breaks, these rents. Small our bodies
against wind, our bodies pressed against another, our bodies folding in. Small
that voice, my son’s near-whisper, when he talks about a birdfeeder he made to hang on a tree once planted small, now shading, for the baby born still before he even was. Small the “o” of my mouth when he tells it. Small this ache that remembers the call, the narrowest room smalling, all those years ago. Small the grief of each day. Small the hours without words.
Smaller the hours with words. Small the winter in this rearview. Small the river
so like a vein. Small the urgent pitch I feel to keep that water in sight. Small
the names I know to call it, to call anything. Small what goes unsaid for years,
in morning light, in any light, that muting.
-from Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, SIU Press, 2018), selected by Fall 2022 Guest Editor, Michael Walsh
Monica Berlin passed away on November 4, 2022. Monica was the author of two chapbooks, Your Small Towns of Adult Sorrow & Melancholy (essays) and Maybe to Region (poems). She published three volumes of poetry: Elsewhere, That Small (2020); Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live (2018), winner of the 2017 Crab Orchard Open Poetry Prize; and No Shape Bends the River So Long (2015), winner of the 2013 New Measure Poetry Prize and co-authored with her long-time collaborator and dearest friend, Beth Marzoni. At the time of her death, she had been writing a poem a day for nearly three years, and she was at work on a new manuscript.
“It is important to keep track,” Monica wrote in a recently published poem, “to not / lose what is real in what is impossible. Everything is impossible. Let each / of the lost once have been loved.” She was.
Monica was born on April 21, 1973 in Chicago, Illinois. She received her Bachelor of Arts from Knox College in 1995. She received a Master of Arts from Western Illinois University in 1998 and Master of Fine Arts from Vermont College in 2002. She was married for 14 years to Jeremy Karlin. They raised their daughter, Eliza, who attends Kalamazoo College. She is survived by her mother, Anne; her twin sister, Beth; and her much-loved partner, David Wright.
A member of the Knox College faculty since 1998, Berlin made an enormous and transformative impact through her courses in creative writing, poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, modern, contemporary, and 21st-century American literature. Berlin received a bachelor of arts degree in creative writing from Knox College in 1995, a master of arts in literature and composition from Western Illinois University in 1998, and a master of fine arts in poetry from Vermont College in 2002.
"Monica will be remembered for the unapologetic commitment and intensity she brought to her work with students, advisees, her colleagues, and writers of all types. The number of students she inspired fills us with awe." said Michael Schneider, provost and dean of the College.
Berlin was a highly regarded leader on campus and within the Galesburg community in a number of high-visibility roles. She served as chair for the English department, associate director of the creative writing program, and, locally, on the Galesburg Public Library board of trustees.
Many Knox creative writing students will remember Berlin’s role as director of the Space, a writing and literary center found in the heart of Galesburg. The Space held many literary events, including live readings of student portfolios to cap off their creative writing majors. Berlin’s role in directing the Space helped bring all corners of the Knox community together and enjoy the art of the written word.
“Monica's fierce love for the words, for poetry, her students, her colleagues, the college, and those she held close was mighty. She offered unflinching loyalty, razor-sharp insights, and boundless kindness. She gave the absolute best and inspired the absolute best in all of us, asking only that we hold ourselves honestly to account. And so we must,” said Elizabeth Carlin Metz, Smith V. Brand Distinguished Professor of Theatre and chair of arts administration.
Berlin’s list of professional honors is extensive. She was honored early in her teaching career, being awarded the Philip Green Wright-Lombard College Prize for Distinguished Teaching in 2003. She won the Knox College Young Alumni Achievement Award in 2007, the New Measure Poetry Prize in 2013, the Heartland Poetry Prize in 2015, and was named the winner of the 2018 Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open. Berlin was also named co-winner, with Beth Marzoni ’04, of the 2013 Ellipsis award and received a Finalist Award from the Illinois Arts Council in 2005.
Berlin’s poems and essays were published in a number of journals over the years, including Bennington Review, The Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Midwestern Gothic, and more. Berlin published three books, including her most recent release Elsewhere, That Small, a collection of poetry used to address the relentless nature of day-to-day experiences and ordinariness. Berlin also gave over a dozen different live literary presentations around the country.
“I am thinking of Monica’s steady gait, as we walked together with a group of students from Old Main, over the Third Street bridge, to the Sandburg birthplace. A dozen years. I think of her fixing my hood for commencement. Her holding my first-born baby. My holding her baby. Her recipe for almond cupcakes. Her delight in Sunshine’s pinwheel cookies. Her bad Spanish and French, which always cracked me up. Few people on earth were ever more present to me than Monica, on her porch, on the phone, in her poems. Neighbors in Old Main for so many years, cousins in a way, our lives spilled over into each other’s office. We were always testing out new signals to summon each other from behind the wall,” said Nick Regiacorte, associate professor of English and director of creative writing.
The College will offer opportunities in the future to further celebrate Monica’s life and her lasting impact on the Knox community.
To make a memorial gift in honor of Monica Berlin, please click here.