Poetry in a place of suffering: In the Palms of Angels, by Terri Kirby Erickson

by Christian Bryant

The conference room in the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center at the Forsyth Regional Medical Center teems with people as the stringed instrument sounds of Lee and Susan Terry overlay the hum of amicable conversation. The triumvirate of food, friends and foliage transforms the normally bland conference room into a busy meeting place. There’s an intoxicating buzz to which poet Terri Kirby Erickson agitates.

Patricia Walters, a 70-year-old nurse at the medical center, makes her way through the crowd. She and her older sister, who lives in California, share a love for Erickson’s work.

“My sister is very sick,” Walters says, “but she’s a poet at heart…. I read [In the Palms of Angels] to her.”

Jack Hernon, a painter, posts up against the right wall, legs crossed and scanning the room. The paint splotches on his light blue jeans denote his commitment to creation. In a soft tone, he mentions the significance of Erickson’s poems.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Hernon says. “[They are] very poignant and personal…. I was surprised I was so moved by it.”

Mark Crotts, an 80-year-old mechanical engineer, stands with hands in pockets. After a brief conversation, he offers me a book, Morobullia, detailing 75 years of Winston-Salem Rotary and a glass-bottled Cheerwine just because. He tells me not to drink it while driving.

John Ehle, a notable NC literary great and husband to Rosemary Harris (who played Aunt May in the Spider-Man movies), takes a seat near the back of the room. Although he’s not fond of being interviewed by a stranger from YES! Weekly, he delivers a punch line about his hearing aid.

The folks present in this room mirror Erickson’s composite of colorful characters found between the pages of her book, In the Palms of Angels, to which the launching party debuts. A breakfast club of individuals came to this sanctum to admire her literary astuteness and Southern charm.

“Her readership goes beyond poets,” says publisher/editor of Press 53 Kevin Watson. “She finds people that don’t like poetry.”

These people came to hear about characters like Louise Hickman, a “closet atheist” who suffers from “unrequited love,” or the shrimp-boat captain “with a fishing rod carried over his beefy shoulders,” or the wayfarer “whose tender gaze will soon find home, that place more sacred than communion wafers nestled in the palms of angels.”

Erickson’s employs intense observations of sociology and human behavior with a strong emphasis on everlasting love. She engages the audience by presenting a story prefacing each poem that she reads aloud. While Erickson reads, a few women with newly bought books follow along line by line.

Today, Erickson is here to satisfy some fans and make fans out of strangers but she usually finds herself in the cancer center for a different reason.

A Winston-Salem native, Erickson began her undergraduate studies at Appalachian State University. Early in her tenure, she was stricken with a debilitating illness that kept her from going to class. Erickson relates that it was difficult for her to get out of bed on most days.

She soon discovered that she had Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory illness of the intestines that can cause vomiting, weight loss, skin rashes, arthritis and fatigue. Unable to continue, Erickson dropped out of school, though she earned her B.A. in 1991.

She now volunteers part time at the cancer center speaking to support groups about poetry and hosting workshops. Erickson remarks on the fun times in such an uncertain space and cites her struggle with illnesses as the reason she’s able to connect with patients.

“I can bring that kind of passion and empathy,” Erickson says.

When the reading concludes, Erickson’s guests rush toward her to steal a moment of her time and buy her book. Evelyn Gilbert Gottenstrater patiently waits in the wings with her husband by her side holding a black-and white-picture of two demure young women in a golden frame.

After reading one of Erickson’s many articles in a local magazine, Gottenstrater wondered if Erickson could be a long lost relative. She then contacted Erickson over the internet and confirmed that her mother and Erickson’s grandmother were first cousins. The two met for the first time at the book launching party.

They speak for a moment and Gottenstrater also buys a book. She walks from the table but not without mentioning how great it was that she and Erickson could meet in such an unlikely place.

“Now, it will be a whole new relationship,” says Gottenstrater. “I’m totally exhausted but I’m doing what I love,” Erickson says later, as the maintenance staff straightens rows of chairs.

She leans back in her chair a moment, looking for solace after a successful book-launching party. Erickson then alludes to how fateful it was for her and her relative to connect through her highly touted body of work.

“People just meet in these broken places,” she says with a smile.