Colleen J. McElroy (1935-2023)

WHAT MADNESS BROUGHT ME HERE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1968-1988Colleen J. McElroy. Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, 1990, 107 pages. Out of Print.

I had this mad idea that I would—instead of doing my usual blogfest of poetry book reviews in April (National Poetry Month)—review a book each week this year.

The problem being that there is no time this week to sit quietly reading a book of poems, save my own. (In-person launch Thursday, 4 January, Edmonds Bookshop, 6 p.m. For a review of my book, visit Debra Elisa’s blog:

Then it occurred to me that there is no better time to share a poem from my MFA advisor and mentor, Colleen J. McElroy, who died in December. I have almost all 16 of her books, most of them signed by her. I considered her a friend, as well, and am ashamed that I hadn’t seen her since before 2020.

A great soul with a voracious appetite for travel, music, and language, she touched innumerable lives, and I am lucky to count myself among them.

I won’t pretend this is a review, just an appreciation.

Looking into the Eyes

finally is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s feet
this falling in love with book jacked photos
how writers hide everything
in metaphors of frowns as if contemplating
the separation of sky and ground
details that go unnoticed on crowded streets
are embellished by profiles etched
in the ebony and ivory
of chiaroscuro mystery
the way the head tilts determines
whether you will buy the book

you check poems against the slant
of nose and curl of lip as if
symbols unravel there hollowed
in the corner of the left eye as if
the chapter will somehow gain meaning
once that small scar beside the right
ear is properly highlighted and put
into proper perspective

backgrounds are filled with allusions
like images drawn from a sixteen-year-
old’s dreams of how poets dream
look into the eyes
home is always some lonely country
or some lover’s promise to return soon
features converge into anthologies
of lines until finally it is no longer
the face but the luscious curve of ankle
the arched toe the little one turned
inward coyly hiding some sweet secret

—Colleen J. McElroy (this poem originally published in Lie and Say You Love Me, Circinatum Press, 1981)

To see more poems, visit Poetry Foundation. You can learn more about Professor McElroy at this article in The Seattle Times, or visit, Washington State’s on-line encyclopedia, to read my 2012 biography of her (now updated). 


Colleen McElroy, Blood Memory

BLOOD MEMORY, Colleen J. McElroy. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260, 2016, 112 pages, $15.95 paper,

I met Professor Colleen J. McElroy when I was a newly minted MFA student at the University of Washington in 1985. If I had to characterize her in one word, it would be “storyteller.” Yes, she taught us (a lot) about poetry and the making of poems, but part of the glamor of her classes, for me, was when she would lean back in her chair, half-close her eyes, and begin telling a story. She put all of us in a trance.

The stories were about her travels—which were many; about poets she’d met and read with all over the world; about her St. Louis childhood; about her family, particularly the women who taught her how to tell stories. Reading Blood Memory transports me back to her classrooms, and to her office where, as my faculty advisor, she met with me (and regaled me) weekly. I read these poems, and I hear her voice, its cadence, its rich timbre, her laughter. And, sometimes, I can see her, fixing me with a look that she must have learned at the feet of the indomitable women who peopled her childhood.

from “Paint Me Visible”:

in a family of beautiful intelligent and profoundly
crazy women     one danced in the dark
to soothe her nerves      another wove shawls
from her husband’s hair and discarded both
when the work was done      another read palms
tea leaves   cards   anything that left an imprint
on her inner eye    neighbors said she saw
things nobody else could describe

From hopscotch rhymes to blues, through birth, abortion, estrangement, exile, and return no one can describe this world the way McElroy can. Here is the book’s opening poem:

The Family Album

call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors

I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother’s oak table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when

I am the answer to the questions
my mother’s sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?

I know now that I am here to give
voice to tongues never silent
and doors closing too quickly

I am of the age where death comes
easily and visits often in those little
obit notes of passing reminding us

how we’ve neglected dear ones
now lived again through fading pictures
stuck to crumbling pages

I buy tickets to places I may never visit
spend hours trying to remember
if the image stuck in my head has origins

in a dream or some foggy night
slipping past almost unnoticed

I am the last female of a family
of women who wove the fabric
of stories into doilies and slip covers

I am the child with sparrow legs
sock heels stuck halfway in her shoes
drinking the last of the metaphors left
in teacups on the table unattended

—Colleen J. McElroy

From the back cover, these words of description and praise:

“She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Cloudy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn’t know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how.” —Nikki Finney

Exactly so.

To read more about Colleen J. McElroy, find her at The Poetry Foundation,, and I recommend this interview with Bill Kenower of author Here she talks about where she learned to tell stories. And (love this) she talks about poetry as not just any relationship, “but an affair.” Maybe that helps explain the clotted love that breaks to the surface in poem after poem in this book.

I first read Blood Memory when it was released in 2016. It was a delight to read it this morning and enter the trance again.

And, again, the link to her at

Writing Will Save Your Life

I’m in a mood today for dramatizing. Will writing save your life? All I know is that it saved mine and I’ve made it my business to try to understand how writing saved me, and how it can keep saving me. Louise DeSalvo has been one of my mentors–not that I know her, personally, but I’ve read her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, about 100 times. DeSalvo doesn’t flinch from the difficult, in fact, that’s exactly what she goes after:

Writing about traumatic or troubling life experiences initially unleashes difficult, conflicting emotions. In the long run, though, we feel better emotionally and are healthier and achieve a level of understanding of our lives that only writing can provide. Safe writing–writing what we already know or understand, writing that is superficial–won’t help us grow, either as people or as writers. For our writing to be healing, we must encounter something that puzzles, confuses, troubles, or pains us. (p. 93).

And that’s why you don’t get to go back to bed and sleep through the next six week news cycle.

I recently came across this KUOW story about poet Colleen J. McElroy and wanted to share it–she’s a walking, breathing example of writing’s power to sustain us. (Click on the link to go to the story/video.)

Hunkered down at 85

Colleen J. McElroy

DeSalvo continues:

An outgrowth of the kind of writing that digs deep, that takes risks, that arises from our desire to explore the unresolved emotional puzzles or ongoing pain in our lives is that we “gain greater psychological freedom” (as Albert M. Rothenberg, M.D., has observed) and greater range and depth in our artistic expression… (p.92)

I can’t imagine living any other way.

Happy Birthday, Colleen J. McElroy

Today is the birthday of the inimitable Colleen J. McElroy. In celebration I refer you to my History Link article about Colleen, and to her essay in English Matters (Spring 2011) about post-retirement travels. 

And here’s a poem from her latest book, Here I Throw Down My Heart (U of Pittsburgh Press, 2012):

Crossing the Rubicon at Seventy

we do not know the name
of the river that roils
beneath us until we arrive
at its shores — until we give
reason to pass along or stay
there where waters sound
like uncut jewels swirling
in a tide pool — until the little
boats we’ve made fold like kites
in a storm — until we’ve come
to that point where turning mid-
stream is outside reason and staying
lays sour on the tongue — know
you have shaped a raft before
floating with the current toward
another long day’s journey — know
you have yet another reason
to reinvent yourself before
you take the last route home

–Colleen J. McElroy