Featured Poet: Catherine O'Brian, North Sutton
Catherine O'Brian lives in North Sutton, NH and works full time as Arts Education Coordinator for the NH State Council on the Arts. She grew up in the Philippines. In 1995 she completed her MA in Writing at the University of New Hampshire, where she worked with poets, Mekeel McBride and Charles Simic. Her original manuscript of The White Nightgown was awarded the UNH Thomas Williams Graduate Poetry Award in 1995. Her poetry has been published in the Red Brick Review, Chariton Review, Green Mountains Review and other journals. In 2001 her chapbook Lucky to be Born in a House of Milk & Poems from The White Nightgown were published by Oyster River Press as part of their Walking to Windward Series. Her passions include jazz, poetry, her 4 grandchildren, and all the children and youth of NH plus all of the arts! She feels very fortunate, even honored to be working with so many fine artists and educators who bring the arts into the lives of NH's young people.
Of her featured poem, Catherine writes:
This poem was written during a time when I was obsessed with and possessed by one of my white nightgowns. I then started to explore the image of a white night gown - and wrote short poems on this subject for two years. The white night gown became a symbol for me of imagination. When I slipped into my white night gown, I was slipping into the world of my imagination and poetry. This poem was the first and opening poem in my manuscript. I thought the white nightgown should have a history. This history came out of a mix of my conscious and subconscious memories. This history includes my amah, who took care of me as a child, and the lavandera, who washed our clothes. At the time I wrote this poem, my sister lived in Zambia, and she would write to me, and tell me about the horrible flies which laid eggs under your skin, and how all clothes, even underwear had to be ironed to get rid of them. My sister also loved white nightgowns. Other images come from memories of growing up. In the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries I would frequently see women, often very old women, carrying high stacks of clothing, cloth, food and wares on their backs. The faces of old women in the market place of Manila, and Hong Kong were so strong, always vivid in my child's mind and imagination. I wondered about their lives…how hard their lives must have been. My father often traveled throughout Southeast Asia. He would bring us gifts from his travels, small treats that would fit in his luggage; little carved elephants made of ivory. My grandmother was a little afraid of my writing poetry…and my mother loved the arts, but never really made art herself. Our amahs and the women servants usually wore white uniforms. Growing up I had often watched our lavandera and other women washing clothes - beating the laundry with a stone. The Perfume River was famous during the Vietnam War - it was known as a river filled with blood of many thousands of Vietnamese and American soldiers.
Somewhere the worm is turning.
My amah irons the white nightgown.
This is the only way to kill the tsetse fly's eggs.
My sister plays strip poker in the white nightgown.
My father bought it for me in Hong Kong.
He bought it from a crone.
The crone was carved of mammoth bone.
She was carrying a hundred white nightgowns on her back.
My grandmother tried to drown it in the well.
My mother stole it from under my pillow.
My mother gave it to the lavandera.
Pasing, the lavandera scrubbed it with
Fels-Naptha soap and bleach.
She scrubbed it so hard with a stone
It disappeared into the muddy Perfume River.
First poem in The White Nightgown manuscript
Catherine O'Brian's links
Photo caption: Catherine, with her grandson, Jonah