© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After Loss of Grandsons, Wisconsin Musician Turns to Poetry

Mary Jo Balistreri

Wisconsin writer Mary Jo Balistreri’s poetry collection, Gathering the Harvest, is as much about contradictions as it is about allusions to nature and the cycles of life.Likewise, the poems in 2012 collection, published by Bellowing Ark Press, are as much about life as they are about loss, a feast for the senses from someone who has lost one of her own, and about love at the height of despair.

Balistreri spent her life in music as a classical concert pianist and harpsichordist. It wasn’t until the death of her grandson Sam from mitochondrial disease that she turned, in her grief, to another art - writing poetry - like this Puschart Prize-nominated poem celebrating his youthful joy.


My grandson plays cars
in the living room
crashing his police car into mine
with hardy delight.

He is six, and not yet crushed
by the cells collapsing inside him.

Following the loss of her second grandson, Zachary, and her own cancer diagnosis and loss of her hearing, Balistreri was brought back from the brink by some patient friends and the power of words. In one poem, she describes the cold winter day her eldest grandson died.

Credit Mary Jo Balistreri
Balistreri's 2012 collection

For Zachary

December days fall white
Nights skitter and slide

Grown children come home
Hang up lives like winter coats

Wind muffles your voice
Scatters it on drifting plains

Word lose color
Poinsettias huddle in corners

Questions blot out the sky
Answers skid      slippery as black ice

A mother      a second son
Emptiness thickens around her

Two geese fly low      just two
They honk      Something shifts

Balistreri says she channeled her losses into her poetry, which allowed her to process her grief and celebrate the lives of her grandsons. She celebrates the power of poetry in an appropriately titled piece.


In the indigo cloth of night, small lanterns
blink heated signals for possible mates.
Tumbling from the green-stained shade
of willows, sparks stitch the air
in zigzag extravagance.

Stars burn above with nuclear fire, pulse
across unfathomable miles to touch us
with another silent presence. Reflections
shine from our eyes, shower the lake in gold.

In our netted tent, we lie under the bright canopy
of constellations, and though we can’t find
the Big Dipper in our southern view, the red eye
of Antarus beams and The Swan flies, wings
outstretched, long neck like an arrow.

Content, we close our eyes and listen
to the unseen sounds—skitter
of small creatures, soughing pines,
shushhh of katydids. A wolf’s wail
echoes from the hills.

I reach over for your outstretched hand, notice
your hair—silvered, as if the moon had run
her fingers through it. The fireflies bed down.
We, too, zip up our tent as the soft fall of rain
recites evening’s last poem.

Balistreri's other publications include Best Brothers (2013) and Joy in the Morning (2008).

(This interview was originally conducted January 4, 2013.)