Sifting Hope From the Ashes of Childhood

A Conversation with Featured Poet Tara Mesalik MacMahon

by Malisa Garlieb, Mud Season Review Poetry Editor

“This poem needed five years to find its enlightened middle.”

Tara Mesalik MacMahon

1.  Your poems in Mud Season Review flicker with memories of childhood, a brother, and parental relationships. What brought about the writing of these poems? What do you hope a reader finds within them?

First, thank you Malisa Garlieb for publishing my sweep of poems in Mud Season Review. 

I’m so grateful. These poems, especially the triptych pieces are particularly meaningful to me 

as I had set out to write several praise poems for my brother. He was my best-friend and playmate growing up, sometimes my protector. Our home of origin was not always an easy place. The fantasy worlds my brother and I concocted helped get us through.

I hope these poems speak to my readers on their own terms—that they take from the poems 

what they need/want to take. I’d be pleased though, if in addition to the gravitas, my readers 

find some delight in our childhood escapades and inventions—the brother’s spaceship dumpster, observatories from upside-down cereal bowls, Ten, nine, eight … we have liftoff, sucka!, 

duels over that one heirloom fork, swirl, swirl, swirl.

2.  I found “Ashes I Can Trust” to be a hopeful poem, despite its themes of pain and death. The perseverance of color and flavor (“a peach, two persimmons,” “a kumquat, two kiwis”) plays against the ashes. You also speak of the “limitation of limitations.”  For you, how does the writing/reading of poems work against despair?

I’m gratified you found “Ashes I Can Trust” a hopeful poem. The other three poems 

in this series were written over this past year and almost wrote themselves. “Ashes” took five years to complete with its complexities and contraries, as you point out. The stark and cold of 

the ashes juxtaposed with the succulence of fruit. Food, so comforting, finds its way 

into many of my poems. But this poem needed more time to find its enlightened middle, the brushes and quiet paint, and its hopeful ending.   

Reading poetry is the most important thing I do in my poetic world. Li-Young Lee, Ilya Kaminsky, Victoria Chang, Ian Boyden, Tiana Clark among many other favorite poets 

of mine—all write on difficult subject matter but with gorgeous storytelling. I am swept into 

the beauty of their poems’ music, the healing it offers. Perhaps my poem, “I Can’t Eat the Animal…” speaks best for me here, (of the speaker and her brother): It was beauty we sought—flower-star, aurora, late summer squall in our hand. / Even babies know what they need, know what they lack …

3. “Regarding Cairns” is a poem rich with natural images. You write “love is good, not all/good is love.” I enjoyed the line there, but think it also relates to your triptych poem “My Younger Self Learned to Navigate by the Stars, Sometimes by Chocolate or Chicken.”  Can you please say more about these two lines, especially in relation to your other pieces?

I frequently employ ‘ideas’ in my poems, often in juxtaposition—our world thick in ambiguity. 

So, thank you for honing-in on this ‘idea’ from “Regarding Cairns.” love is good, not all / 

good is love—an idea that I believe is clearly relevant to nature. And I agree, this idea travels over to the interpersonal relationships in the triptych pieces. The father in “Wings and Danger Bones,” with his shutuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup fists! is the very same father in “The Dartboard Set and the Tonsillectomy” who offers, Choose anything, darling. Rarely is something all one way or another, all good / all love and its combinations. 

4.  Your triptych piece deftly builds layered astronomical imagery while illustrating a childhood. I felt myself alongside the “girl draped in a baby blue snowflake suit.” When did you begin writing? Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote for self-expression?

I’m smiling at this question because I still feel, so often, like that little girl draped in a snowsuitinsecure, scared. Perhaps the issues of safety and abandonment the speaker suffered in childhood never go away completely, disappear. 

I began writing poems at nine or ten years old. It was rhyming verse, usually about a public tragedy that hit me hard—the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the shootings at Kent State come to mind. But talking or writing about the problems in my childhood home was not okay back then, not safe for me. I didn’t resume writing poems until I took a poetry course in college at Pomona. My professor ushered me aside, and with some enthusiasm, she encouraged me to keep writing. Now, forty-plus years later, I am finally doing just that.

5.  Please let us know what you’re working on these days.

I’m busy on the early stages of my first full-length collection of poems, Wings and Danger Bones, the title taken from one of the pieces in the triptych poem here, “My Younger Self Learned to Navigate by Stars, Sometimes by Chocolate or Chicken.” 

Also, together with my brother, we’re writing a children’s chapter book, Closet of Dreams

based on our own childhood closet of dreams in our home. As the epigraph says: 

…Closet of Dreams / you forget / where it hurts. 

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