The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness and Mercy by Rosemary Daniell

By Ujjvala Bagal Rahn
Poets have been stated to be more prone to mental illness than the average population, and certainly work by famous poets have covered their own troubles ― Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Anne Sexton’s Live or Die come to mind. However, in the twenty-first century a contrasting perspective has appeared in collections by poets whose family members suffer mental illness.  A Grand Winner of the 2020 William-Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition for Creative Writing, The Murderous Sky: Poems of Madness and Mercy (Lavender Ink) expresses a mother’s anguish over her children’s terrible fates. Of her three children, Rosemary Daniell’s youngest daughter had bipolar disorder and addiction, and her son, the oldest child, had paranoid schizophrenia. Although neither offspring committed suicide, The Murderous Sky completes a triad of award-winning poetry collections about life after the deaths of loved ones with mental illness: Black Aperture  by Matt Rasmussen (his brother’s suicide by gunshot) and In the Next Galaxy by Ruth Stone (her husband’s death by hanging).
Daniell is famous for her writings against Southern restrictions on women in Fatal Flowers, her history of the contrasting lives of her suicidal mother and herself.  In the ensuing decades as the founder of Zona Rosa©, she has become known as a writing teacher who coaxes deep honesty out of students who sometimes came just to learn how to write a children’s story or a thriller. Her writing guides The Woman Who Spilled Words on Herself and Secrets of the Zona Rosa complement her groups and advocate writing as a medium of healing.
Daniell’s early publications were in poetry, the art form which she first encountered in the early 1960s at Emory University in Atlanta. In the process she was both mentored and involved with James Dickey. The burgeoning second wave feminist movement pulled Daniell away from his orbit to create her own intense, minimally sublimated style, culminating in the collections A Sexual Tour of the Deep South (1975) and Fort Bragg and Other Points South (1988).
Her latest work returns her to poetry, but the staking out of independence is replaced by a mother’s fight to rescue her doomed children.  Just as her first collections arrived at the height of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, The Murderous Sky speaks for families wracked by addiction in the twenty-first century. These are the words of a working mother who is torn between her own soaring life and vigorous mental health, and the wreckage of her adult children whose illnesses are the result of unlucky genetics. These poems were written over the years as Daniell raced to save them as they tumbled down an endless slope of chaos and self-harm.  Both died in middle age of poor health, the son at fifty-five in 2009 and the daughter at sixty-one in 2020. Daniell dedicates the collection to her grandmother who also had a schizophrenic son and bipolar daughter (Daniell’s mother).
The first section is about her daughter, and the second section is about her son. The third section is about how life beats up those who already struggle. There are poems in these sections about other sufferers, such as Betty Shabazz in “How Dumb Can You Be,”  Keith the rancher in “Out West, Where I Took My Grief,”  and an armless boy in “Values, or the Christ of the White Shag Carpet.”
Few of these poems are angry or bitter. Most are radiant with both grief and love, as well as survivor’s guilt. In “Things Falling, or Why the Beautiful Die Young,” Daniell laments imagining she could save them
“….by the strength of my wrist
the twist of it   even near breaking…..
Instead    I feel my own frailty —
the stick held out over quicksand
or the mother’s arm gone numb
in the cattle car in those movies
we all saw as kids
& I know I must let you drop
that I will be left holding nothing
but the frail rag of my love….”
The poetry is direct, what is currently referred to as accessible, but with the gravitas generated by rich language, storytelling, and imagery that is at times grotesque
In the collection, the long poem “Sacred Things” had won first prize in the single poem division of 2009 Wisdom-Faulkner competition, and its ambitious scope is both epic and intimate.  A wealthy family’s list of valuable objects are presented: Chinese tapestry, the heavy gold snake necklace the daughter repeatedly pawns for drugs, the credit card she often stole, and more.  None of these are sacred – those objects are the daughter’s precocious art, the photos of her as eager child, lithe model, and finally the sacrificing mother saving her own child:
“the photo of you    taken five years
ago    your long hair a radiant
shawl to you heart-shaped face
your deep-lashed eyes   shining
with stars (or is it tears?)
in the eyes of your newborn—
Raphael, angel    you called
him. And scrawled on the back
…..the names of Janie
and Bob   the happy couple   who
the next day   in lawyer’s
staid office   will take him from
our arms forever….
In contrast, the poem “Endangered Species” creates a terrifying yet beautiful picture of paranoid schizophrenia, comparing the psychotically wary son to a wild cat:
Some cats        the more beautiful
& dangerous ones — the jaguar
the leopard      the tiger — because
of the construction of their throats
cannot purr. Could it       my son
that you are merely one of those?
However, the poem that would resonate with most mothers is “The Other You,” in which Daniell imagines her daughter’s beautiful alternate life as a successful artist, making up for the restricted lives of three generations of Southern women.:
 “….The Other You
who is the meaning of the art books
the private schools      the airline tickets
who lived out a freedom I only dreamed.”
The cover of The Murderous Sky is Magritte’s painting. Presumably the collection’s name was decided first and the art was added to complement it. However, the upside-down bloodied birds in a ravine – and that the sky that should have been their freedom had murdered them – is an apt image of how life can destroy some innocents. The birds appear to be beyond saving, but who would not want to try?
If you are a parent or sibling of a person with an addiction or a mental illness, you will find a kindred soul full of empathy but also wisdom. If you’re a friend of the family, you’ll gain insight into just how hard it is to love and try to rescue someone in the throes of mental illness.
The Murderous Sky is available from Lavender Ink at
Ujjvala Bagal Rahn’s Red Silk Sari (Red Silk Press, 2013) is her first collection of poems. Her work is  forthcoming or most recently appeared in The Threepenny Review, Illuminations Literary MagazineAnti-Heroin Chic and Möbius: The Journal of Social Change.. She is the owner of Red Silk Press, a micropress of science fiction, science, poetry, and memoir.

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