I began performing on the piano at age three and have never been without music since, although it has taken many different forms. For sixteen years I taught private piano for college-bound music students and then, in 1976, began performing almost exclusively on the harpsichord until moving to Wisconsin in 1989. There among the woods and water of Saylesville Pond where I continue to reside with my husband, Frank, the world turned 90 sharp degrees.*

My grandson, Sam, died from mitochondrial disease at age seven and, two years later, his brother Zachary, who was fifteen, died from the disease as well. The music of the keyboard no longer sustained me. I couldn't play, could not transcend the grief of losing those two boys. With help from my daughter, Maribeth Fischer, a writer herself and a good friend, I began a new life with words, taking poetry workshops and venturing into the music of poetry.

Poetry gave me the vehicle to share my grandsons' lives with others and, maybe more importantly, to continue Sam's legacy of pure joy—living each day to its fullest—and Zachary's legacy of equanimity. Those boys remain alive in my writing, alive in the spirit I carry within.

In 2008, with the help of Robert Ward, editor of Bellowing Ark, I published my first book, Joy in the Morning. Two months after the publication of the book, I was diagnosed with throat cancer. I continued to write, continued to play the piano until in January 2009, I had a cellular breakdown from the radiation and spent the next nine weeks in the ICU. Not only could I not write, I permanently lost my hearing, so music was lost as well.

Little by little, the words began to come back. Currently, with the help of family and friends, I am writing again—celebrating, despairing, working through difficulties I could never have imagined. Like every life, mine is uneven, but I think of the question so often posed: Does poetry matter?

For me, the answer is simple: poetry saved my life. I am here because of poetry. It continues to sustain me even when the writing itself becomes impossible. Poetry provides the tools to confront struggle, to fight when life gets tough and, always, in the end, poetry shows me what my grandson Sam always knew: joy in the moment.

Yes, poetry matters.

*Paraphrased from part of a line in Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "Sleeping Standing Up."



Mary Jo Balistreri