Bringing Frida with Me and Leaving Diego Behind

When I moved to Nebraska, I didn’t know what I was in for.

On the first really cold day of my first winter here, my not-yet-husband brought spicy Thai food and leis to my little apartment, announcing, “Happy first ridiculously cold winter day in Nebraska! Have a Lei! Eat some heat.” I remember thinking, What a sweet gesture, but I can handle a little cold, a little snow.

After eight long winters, I understood why my husband worked so hard (such trickery) to make the cold a reason for celebration. Remember 2009? How many of us gazed out of our windows, day after day after day, unable to see where the snow ended and the sky began?

I wrote “Friday Finally Leaves Diego…” in the dead of winter. I didn’t want to endure another winter all alone, so I brought Frida here. I changed her fate & wrote her away from Diego. The poem, written in Frida’s voice, was also triggered by the painting she created that shows her cradling Diego like a child, an image I find both beautiful and disturbing.

She wanted so badly to be enough for him; she wanted so badly to be his only source of nourishment and comfort.

“Midnight, Diego Remembers” came when I remembered a friend’s poem about seeing his wife’s dress on the floor–one of the most wonderfully understated, sexually charged images I’ve ever come across. Also, in writing the Diego poem, I relished in leaving him alone and in pain. He wasn’t good to her. I’m not sorry.


Frida Finally Leaves Diego and Moves to Nebraska

I get up from the kitchen table
and walk into the blizzard
of my canvas.

By dawn, I’ve painted my little red brick house
with its single lit window. If you look closely, you can see
me, brush in hand, painting Diego

into my womb, the one place where he cannot possibly be
hungry. I listen to the second hand tap its pen against
the silence. The hourglass is empty.
My heart is a little girl banging on a grand piano
composed of black keys.


Midnight, Diego Remembers

her hair falling,
her dress in a heap on the floor.

When Love was the wood
and the wound to be dressed, not the axe

licked clean and smiling.

*Something Green Always Finds Its Way

Winning the Nebraska Book Award for poetry provided me with a 2-week residency at The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.

I spent the first four days of my residency staring out the window in my studio space, paralyzed by the pressure I'd placed on myself to create something worthwhile.

The gift of space and time, though wonderful, took on a terrible weight. Having to just be and write meant that I had to sit in that studio and hash it out with my demons disguised as “what ifs”. What if I left the residency having written nothing? Worse, what if I left with a handful of mediocre poems that would never see the light of day?

What if someone walked in the door and said, “We made a mistake. We meant to give this residency to the other Sarah McKinstry-Brown.”

On day five of my residency, I sat down at my desk, looked out the window, and suddenly envisioned a clutch of Honeysuckle climbing up a crumbling wall. The image filled me with an intense longing, as it made me think of a dear friend who, every time we drove past an abandoned farmhouse or dilapidated structure as we travelled along New Mexico’s open roads, would point and say, “That was someone’s dream.”

But I didn’t just see a crumbling wall, I saw Honeysuckle climbing that wall, and in that moment I felt, in a very deep and raw sense, how insistent life is; no matter the circumstances, something green always finds its way.

Milan Kundera wrote that “A single metaphor can give birth to love.” 

So began my work on This Bright Darkness (Black Lawerence Press, 2019), which explores the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship by retelling the myth of the Rape of Persephone. Though the book is rooted in a well-known myth, it moves back and forth between modern and ancient times, using many voices (Demeter, Persephone, Newscasters, Searchers, Grandmothers) to explore that myth and ask the question: How does a woman stay alive (spiritually, emotionally, physically) in a world where the fact of her body makes her vulnerable to acts of violence?

These poems are shaped by my experiences as a mother of young girls.

Watching my two small daughters slowly become young women informed the writing of these poems, as did my husband’s work for a video crew that covers national news in the Midwest. His work gave me insight into cases of abduction, rape, and murder; his close-proximity to these horrors coupled with my own experiences as a mother of girls, continually pushed me to consider all the ways our girls collectively disappear or are taken from us, literally and figuratively. 

I’m mindful of the fact that working on this book allowed me to, like Persephone, experience a kind of death, and in that death, I experienced a wondrous rebirth. These poems look like nothing I’ve ever written, and having found a home for this collection with Black Lawrence Press, I am so grateful to burntdistrict, Sugar House Review, Briar Cliff Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Green Mountains Review, for housing some of these poems as I worked to get them into the world.

Persephone Tries to Grasp Autumn

My mother’s grief. It was impossible

to imagine. The leaves turning, falling
underfoot. All that sky caught between branches. Where
will the birds nest? I asked. He said I should be glad

that I was not so small. That my fate
wasn’t tied to a single drop of rain. As if

I were not tongued to his heart, tied
to my sex. I find myself wishing, not on petals,

but on glistening maggots, what eases the rot,
frees the bones to sing.

- This poem first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 Issue of Sugar House Review


Persephone, Watching the Spring Storm Roll in

Teeth on skin, the sky darkens
and everything,

even the tree that branches low to the ground-its bright fruit-

takes me back to him.
Split and cleaned of stem and pit,

at the root of every tongue lies a heart,

so I gave it to him. Seasoned by those starless nights
and the heat of limbs, while Mother sat

on her crumbling throne, how easily I turned to kindling,
the whole world trembling above me.

- This poem first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 Issue of Sugar House Review


Persephone Resists Her Myth

I’m a sliver of light under a locked door,
a scythe, a parable whispered at bedtime,

my sex, the cure and the curse
that cinches me into this dress fashioned

from shadows, weds me to the moment
I was taken. Stop holding vigil.

Forget me. Let the grass green.
I am not a warning, the siren you sound

when your daughters, under guise of picking flowers,
wander out of earshot, whispering
He loves me. He loves me not.

– This poem first appeared in burntdistrict, volume 3, Issue 1

*This blog post has been edited and updated to reflect current information about my forthcoming book.