As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Marilyn Chin in response to a video of her reading her poem “Hospital in Oregon” aloud. Marilyn Chin wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Marilyn Chin also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
During this pandemic we have lost many of our wise elders, who raised us, advised us, and paved the way toward our comfortable futures. Many of us were raised by our grandmothers. Even President Obama moved Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, into the White House so that she could help care for her granddaughters, Malia and Sasha. Grandparents are strong pillars of our society. They should be honored and praised.
I am deeply concerned that in this Covid crisis some people regard our elderly population as expendable. Covid exposed the ageism in American society. We live in a culture that yearns for perpetual youth, a culture in deep denial about aging and death. The white body bags coming out of nursing homes are heart-breaking. Our older citizens are more than a statistic. They helped to build the complex and beautiful world that we inhabit.
“Hospital in Oregon” is a very personal poem. I wrote the first draft while visiting my grandmother on “Pill Hill” in Portland, Oregon. Her organs were failing. The doctors gave her morphine to soothe her pain “for her last hours.” Many of you were intrigued by the deerfly. “Deer” refers to Deer Park, where Buddha gave a famous sermon. But the image of the deer leaps into the second stanza and transmogrifies into a deerfly delivering my grandmother back to “the ancient valley.” Some of you say that is a kind of “heaven,” and you are right. I conceived “the ancient valley” as a spiritual place that cannot be totally defined or desecrated. The Buddhist idea that we are a part of nature and the cycle of life and death is non-judgmental. “Dust to dust”: the journey is the same for a fly or for a human being. We shall all return to the earth that birthed us.
I want to share what a student poet from Milwaukee, Nicholas, wrote in his letter. He examined the deer image thoroughly:
I am curious about the simile [likening] her lifeless eyes to that of a deer. Deer in the western world often are shown to be symbols of holiness, vibrancy, and strength. The Legend of Saint Eustace tells the story of the Roman general who looked at the animal’s eyes, and the light of Christ shone out of them and the voice of God spoke to him through them. In Eastern cultures, deer are shown to symbolize longevity. In Buddhism, deer are often represented beside the Dharma wheel as Buddha was a golden deer that spoke to men. In Tibetan legends, deer are often shown with cranes protecting the “immortality pill.”
I was very moved by your personal and heart-rending stories about your grandparents and other loved ones. Poetry is the genre that is closest to our hearts. Thank you for sharing how you mourned and cherished those for whom you so greatly cared. I hope that we will emerge from this pandemic crisis a stronger and better nation.