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Cara Dees is the author of the debut collection, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland (Barrow Street, October 2019), selected by Ada Limón for the 2018 Barrow Street Book Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as The Adroit Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Journal, Poetry Daily, and The Southeast Review. An Editorial Assistant at Cincinnati Review, she has also served as a founding editor and former Managing Editor of The Arkansas International, as well as Poetry and Comics Editor of Nashville Review.

Visit Barrow Street or Amazon to order her collection Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland (Barrow Street, October 2019).


Cara Dees’s “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence” appears in issue 37.1 of The Southeast Review. Shortly before the poem’s publication in the journal, Cara Dees and I spoke first over the phone about the poem and then conducted the following interview via email. “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence” is an eight-part sequence and elegy for the poet’s mother, and this interview speaks to the poem’s engagement of elegy, grief, silence, gender, and what Cara Dees calls “the work of remembrance.”

An excerpt of the poem follows the interview.

-Jayme Ringleb


Jayme Ringleb: First things first: congratulations on having your debut collection, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, selected by Ada Limón for the 2018 Barrow Street Book Prize! Would you tell us a little about that collection?

Cara Dees: Thanks so much, Jayme! Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland is coming out October 2019, and I have been so thrilled and grateful to have been chosen by Ada Limón, whom I deeply admire and who writes with such brilliance and luminosity. Her poems lift from the page.

In a nutshell, this collection is concerned with the body and trauma, with motherhood and daughterhood, with growing up in and surviving the rural midwest, with illness and death and how we define and gender it, try to keep it strictly in bounds and contained. Death, illness, the body, and trauma are, in a sense, unwritable—they can’t be fully contained by language, and so silence became a theme of the book, as well. It is that silence and silencing I came to write against and interrogate throughout the collection.

It opens with my experience caring for my mother when she was in hospice, moving into examinations of complicated grief (a term for grief that persists long after the loved one has died), which keeps the speaker and her family in a sort of positive feedback loop of grief and grieving. In its last two sections, the collection zooms out, speaking to my experiences working in agriculture and looking more closely at trauma from sexual violence, as well as at legislation aimed at containing women’s bodies, limiting their healthcare, and delineating what women are “allowed” to do or not do with their own bodies.

JR: One of the poems of Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence,” appears in issue 37.1 of The Southeast Review. The poem is an eight-part sequence and elegy for a mother, and it seems to thematize a lot of what you’re speaking to—complicated grief, gender and gendered suffering, trauma, sexual violence, rurality, and especially this idea of silence and silencing. I’d like to talk about these themes. Would you care to speak about silence and its role in “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence”?

CD: At times, I think of silence as a representation of suffering that can go deeper than our attempts to express it—language transforms what it touches, and writing about trauma is particularly slippery. Silence offered a harbor when language felt restricting or unsafe. And yet, I hungered to break silence, to give words to heartbreak.

When I sat down to write “Resurrected,” I was thinking about how much I ached to have a conversation with my mother, even a single word, but I could never really know what she would or would not have said back. To convey her as silent struck me as more truthful than any words I could use. The dead can’t talk back, so any elegy you write becomes an endless discussion with yourself or, if you believe in souls, with your soul. At the same time, humans have this incredible and irrational urge to transform silence and render it concrete in words, and the dead get caught up in that net, the same as anything else. So the resurrected mother becomes a “version” of herself, something other than my actual mother. She speaks in the poem, but her speech is an imitation of my memory of her, and it can’t last.

This poem also references silence after assault, and I believe it’s important to combat the idea that survivors of violence must be silent, as well as its flipside, that surv