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Mary Buell Volk discovered poetry in a most unusual way, while flying over clouds in an airplane and thinking about her husband John. They met when Mary was attending Emmanuel College in Boston and John was a Yale grad working in the area. They dated, and Mary says, “He went off to find himself in Colorado, where he became a carpenter. It was 1969 and people did things like that.” They kept in touch through Christmas cards and saw each other occasionally, maintaining a friendship.
She married Patrick Sullivan at 24 and John even attended her wedding. She had two boys and divorced 10 years later staying in the Connecticut area. John stayed in touch and when Mary’s mom passed away in 1990, John was there for her, and their relationship was rekindled. Six months later they were engaged and nine months later they married. He was 45 and she was 41. Once her boys finished high school and were off to college, the couple decided to relocate to the south shore of Boston for a fresh start. They bought a home just five houses from the beach. Three months later John was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and after six months of intense chemotherapy he was in remission. They enjoyed one good year together before he was diagnosed with Leukemia. In 2001 she lost her best friend, just one month shy of their 10th anniversary.
Mary was left in their new town with no close friends or family and was devastated. She chose to stay there, continuing her work for the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “I just kind of put one foot in front of the other,” says Mary. “I thought that way every morning.” Her son kept encouraging her to move back to Connecticut. She stayed in Massachusetts another three years. “One morning I got up, I said, ‘I’m going to move back to Connecticut.’ It was time.” She thought about where she would move to, and considered the Connecticut shoreline.
With thoughts about getting a job, she decided to sell her house, and put it on the market. Doors began to open. Her house sold in 24 hours for twice what she paid for it. With a bit of a cushion, she didn’t need to worry about a job just yet. Familiar with the university setting, Mary applied on line to Yale, John’s alma mater. She decided on Old Saybrook for her new home and she moved there in 2004. A week later Yale University offered her a position that was part time and seasonal during the academic year, as senior administrative assistant in the Design Department at the Yale School of Drama. She is still there 11 years later. It was a perfect fit.
Poetry came into her life in 2006. She had been flying in a plane and saw clouds beneath her. “I thought now I’m above the clouds and sort of in Heaven territory. I was thinking to myself, ‘Well John, I still don’t see you. Where are you?’ I assumed everyone who lost their significant other has a particular mystery that gnaws at them. My mystery was that I couldn’t figure out how someone who could be so present, could be gone? I think this has to do with what you believe spiritually. I’ve never resolved where I am faith-wise. I pretty much lost faith when he died. That was my nagging question. I could never figure out where he was. How could his soul be completely gone? I still felt he was with me somehow.”
Her practical side and her creative side were at odds over this. Looking down at the clouds, she thought, “You are not here either.” When her flight landed, she felt a need to start writing the phrase, “looking down on clouds, you are not here either.” She started writing and a poem emerged. It was titled, Thoughts of John, Five Years Later. It was 2006 and she was still wondering where he was. Somehow that first poem opened something up within her and poems began to flow. She wrote a lot about grief at that time.
“Poetry became an avenue to express what I was feeling and I realize now I was working through my grief. It’s a funny combination of expressing yourself like you are with a counselor or therapist, but you are by yourself, so I think you can be more honest. Somehow those things deepest inside you can come out when you are by yourself.”
Her friend Carin Roaldset invited her to a poetry workshop being offered in Old Saybrook. “I loved it,” she says. It was held at an art gallery on Main Street and the instructor told them to choose a piece of art and write a poem about it. She suggested Mary consider sharing her poetry in Cadeceus, an annual publication, that at the time was affiliated with Yale but is no longer in print. Thoughts of John was published as well as others she wrote three years after. She read the work of other poets and continued to write realizing that her words and expressing what she was feeling could benefit others. She submitted to other poetry journals and her poetry has since won awards and recognition over the past five years.
She met Pat O’Brien who was a member of the Guilford Poet’s Guild. That group was closed to new members so they decided to start a group in Old Saybrook. Gray Jacobik who is a well- known poet in Connecticut became a part of the initial group of three. They called it the Connecticut River Poets, and the group blossomed within a few years, gathering once a month to write, share and critique their poetry. There are now 14 members. “The idea is to get the person to write the best poem they can write,” says Mary.
The group is involved in other projects as well including being the unofficial Poets in Residence for the Florence Griswold Museum. They have three different exhibits each year and the group goes in at the beginning of each exhibit and individually, they each select a work of art that moves them and they write a poem about it. The poems are showcased in a binder for the public to read as they view the art. Poetry readings are scheduled as well. They invite the Guilford Poets Guild to be a part of this.
Last year a new tradition began where for the winter exhibit, the group has invited the Creative Writing class of Old Saybrook High School to participate in this project, choosing a piece of art from the exhibit and writing about it. Susan Murphy is their teacher, and the group works with her, including helping develop the poetry in the classroom setting.
“This is exciting because we feel like we are passing on a legacy. There is a Greek term for writing poetry to art called ekphrastic poetry. And that’s what I did at that first poetry workshop I took,” says Mary. “You try to find a point of view into that work of art. It’s fun.”
Mary remarried three years ago to David Cohen after meeting him on eHarmony.com, a dating website. They emailed and fell in love, with David commuting every weekend from Windsor, CT for three years just to be with her. And it was after they met that a book of her poetry evolved.
“I tried to work through the initial grief and it was almost chronological,” says Mary. “It was very dark in the beginning and slowly comes to life a little bit.” The book is a collaborative effort between Mary and photographer Carin Roaldset. It is rich in metaphor and rich in local imagery from in and around Old Saybrook. The theme of ekphrastic poetry continues to stay with her and she can see that process taking place even in her book, where photography meets poetry and the two art forms compliment each other beautifully.
A poem titled Alaska, is Mary’s favorite and what she considers her best work. She had a graduation trip to Alaska scheduled with her 22 year old son Danny at a time when John was not doing well. Naturally she was reluctant to leave him and when she returned he was much worse. She struggled with the idea of having left him and missing that time together. Danny had been with her through it all and that trip strengthened their bond. The book is titled Here After. “Here I am after John’s death. From darkness to light. There is a lot about hope,” says Mary. She still hasn’t figured out where John is, but realizes he is not in a place, but has influenced her life in his passing.
“Somehow he is with me. This has strengthened me as a woman. The things I did after he died kind of amaze me now. Buying and selling a home, starting a new job and being successful at it. I learned I can be alone and be okay alone. And I realized that there are one of two ways you can go. You can slip down to staying in grief, or you have enough resiliency in you, that you can rise again. I had it inside me, a desire to live life fully again. I think you have to have that, and then I think you need to nourish it. A friend kept telling me, ‘It’s going to keep getting better. It won’t always be like this. It will keep getting better.’” And it has.
Thoughts of John, Five Years Later
By Mary Buell Volk
Looking down on clouds
It is not upwards
No ghost sightings
I still do not know where you are.
Were you the seagull on Martha’s Vineyard
The seal swimming so close to shore
Were you stretching across your ocean grave
I have seen you in Duke’s eyes.
Now I feel you are sometimes in sounds.
The hollow echoing of woodpecker racket
You are gliding quietly
You are with Jeannie, gardening
But perhaps you are here
You leave me alone.
You try my strength to be brave
You hide in hearts not always mindful
Certainly you are here as we open our arms
Our brand new being