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Woman astounds visitor with music and poetry she composes to deal with grief and loss


In the hasty-crazy of life, I have been stopping by Elaine Erickson's house for interviews that have turned into happy recitals. Sometimes she sits at her grand piano, covered with papers, music scores, letters and works-in-progress, and she plays for me.

"Do you want to hear a piece called 'David Plays For Saul?' " she asks. "I wrote it. It's about Saul, on his throne in great despair, and David soothing him with his harp."

"Sure," I say.

I sit in a comfortable chair with Flora, Elaine's cat, at my feet, and I'm astonished and delighted by what I hear. "David Plays For Saul" is a wonderful piece, hauntingly heavenly. There's a moment when Elaine's fingers suddenly leave the keyboard and she stands on her toes, reaches into the piano and strums on the strings, as if she, like David, is trying to pull someone from the darkness.

Another day, as we sit at the old picnic table on her patio, Elaine opens a manila folder thick with sheets of paper on which she has carefully typed poems, and dated each one.

"Do you want to hear a new poem?"

"What's this one about?"

"It's about Hosea again," she says, referring to the friend she loved deeply, but a man in such despair he did not find life worth living. "It sort of follows my other poem, 'Oyster Boats.' "

I know "Oyster Boats."

I have read it. I have heard Elaine read it. I have started to follow Elaine Erickson's career. This is my fifth trip to her house. Two months ago, we sat in her cluttered dining room where hangs the painting "Oyster Boats," the source of inspiration for Elaine's poem. Her beloved Hosea loved the painting, a pink-and-violet bayscape with work boats. Elaine's poem is an intensely personal but solemn meditation on it, ending with Hosea's ashes scattered to the wind and water.

The new poem draws again on the images of "Oyster Boats," but ends hopefully, with the promise of reunion with Hosea:

It's somewhere unknown where we'll meet

-- an actual place on the map

of our minds -- and a crimson sun

will emerge from the water

and the fishermen in their crude, ancient boats

will tell us it's morning.

"Yesterday," Elaine giggles when I ask when she wrote the poem, and she smiles brightly when I tell her I think it's another good one, though I can't deny being influenced by my environment -- a warm spring day full of hum and chatter, of squirrels and robins, and the scent of freshly cut grass and dogwood.

The new poem has none of the anger or bitterness of Elaine's earlier poems and music compositions. And yet, its source is the same -- Elaine's grief over the death of Hosea and, last summer, that of her father, Iver Erickson.

Her book of poems, "Solo Drive," is about Elaine's "descent into sorrow." And she dealt with Hosea's death in an opera she composed as a student at the Peabody Conservatory, one of three operas she has written. "Where Are You Now, Hosea?" performed at Peabody last December, was honored recently by the National League of American Pen Women, which awarded Elaine a $1,000 scholarship. Last month, the Maryland Foundation for Psychiatry awarded Elaine a $100 prize for her poem, "Mad Woman," dealing with mental illness.

When she's not writing poems, giving piano lessons or performing recitals for senior citizens, Elaine is working on a fourth opera, with the working title "After Autumn."

"Through my writing I was able to move through grief to a new kind of hope," Elaine wrote in the preface to "Solo Drive," published early this year by Chestnut Hills Press. "This book, I trust, will appeal not only to those who love poetry but also to those suffering from grief."

Her father, who had a milk-processing business in Des Moines, Iowa, is a major figure in Elaine's work. You sense him walking through the book, at dusk, along rows of trees in autumn, or sitting on a porch, or holding his daughter's hand, giving her hope, even after Alzheimer's ravaged him. This is her poem about Iver Erickson:

The plain wall next to your bed,

nurses trying to silence your thrashing fists

that strike out against this constant care --

it's so easy to lie back in your easy chair

on the back porch at home, the western sky

turning crimson, your newspaper dropping

with the cry of a black bird.

But you're here

in this nursing home. Sunlight

seeps under the closed door. Nurses

are strapping you to the bed, telling you

to sleep, to forget. How time can change

the taste under the tongue to despair.

But I see you in the soul

behind your eyes when I take your hand,

say my name.

"I've had people say my work is depressing," Elaine says. "My work is concerned with pathos, with making something beautiful out of the inescapable sadness of life, and the loneliness you feel after you have lost someone you love. You can't repress or evade grief after the loss of a loved one. It's within you. No one can escape the sadness, the ugliness of life.

"I loved Hosea. I loved my father. Creativity comes from love. Ultimately, it has to come from love."

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