“Fugue: Red Bird Taking Wing” by Lynne Knight

Lynne Knight


after Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s La Femme qui fuit, a novel based on the life of her grandmother, the poet and artist Suzanne Meloche Barbeau (1926–2009)

I. With Abandon

I had to leave. I couldn’t breathe. It had nothing to do
with love for my beautiful babies, Mousse & François.
Nothing at all. It had to do with a disappeared bird,
a red bird I’d painted, a bird taking wing, about to soar.

One day I came home to all but the last of one red wing,
disappeared under my husband’s work.
My bird taking wing, about to soar: painted over by Marcel.
I couldn’t breathe. I had so many words they flew

in my throat like birds trapped in a room. They stayed there for years
until I could no longer breathe. So I had to leave.
I loved my babies, their small feet & hands, their sweet skin,
the way their eyes looked into mine like a mirror,

like a road with no end. But I had to leave.
My red bird was so beautiful, just taking flight,
about to soar, how could anyone do what he did,
what I did, leaving them—not the right questions.

Not the right questions, at all. When people can’t breathe
they do what they must do for air. They undo all the ropes
wrapped around their hearts: they tug & pull until they begin
to gasp. The ropes loosen: they can breathe. So they breathe.


II. My Mother’s Piano and the Manifesto

Night after night she dusted the keys, but otherwise
my mother left the piano untouched. She could play beautifully,
but child after child after child after—what use was music
to her exhausted body except a means to exhaust it more.

Would she have abandoned me and my siblings
if she’d followed her desire? She could have been a concert—
No. No. Useless to think that way. I could have been
a famous poet, a famous painter, but I kept needing

to leave. I was part of the group against all forms
of established order, even the order of words.
But they omitted my work from our manifesto,
the Refus global, so I insisted they remove my name:

no work, no name. I held fast although it meant reprinting
400 copies of the last pages. I held fast years
before when leaving my mother’s house: I stood at her piano,
playing a scale: here’s how you breathe, Mama.


III. Red Nowhere Bird

The woman who fled, my granddaughter called me
yet I wasn’t fleeing: I was seeking. Like the others
in the group, I believed the old words in the old order
needed to be broken. We fractured lines, syntax,

we twisted diction, made words out of new combinations
of letters. We painted against strictures.
Like the others, I lived for art. I wrote poems, I painted,
but I couldn’t breathe: no choice but to leave.

I wasn’t fleeing. I was feeling. Strange, how
close those two words are in English. You see
what happens: I’m in one place, one tongue,
& I seek another. Afraid of roots, of being rooted.


IV. In My End Is My Beginning

There’s no explaining it no matter what order you use
for the words: a mother leaves
her children: rupture: wrench: heartache: cleaving:

& the story is almost lost until her daughter, Mousse,
seeks her mother, & years later Anaïs,
Mousse’s daughter, tells her grandmother’s story: my story:

I, Suzanne Meloche Barbeau, who all her life kept fleeing:
no: seeking, seeking: while the heart
beats on with its story of love and death, its terrible need:

from Rattle #63, Spring 2019
Tribute to Persona Poems


Lynne Knight: “Since reading Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s La Femme qui fuit, I’ve been engrossed in the life of her grandmother, Suzanne Meloche Barbeau, who’s the subject of the novel and who abandoned her babies when they were three and one to pursue her life as a poet and artist. The novel is as closely based on the actual as seems possible, but I finished it wanting more, and after reading more about Meloche Barbeau’s life and watching a film made by her daughter, I started to write in her voice. I write a lot of persona poems, but they don’t always seem like persona poems—people just assume I’m the ‘I’ when the poem is actually based on things women I know have said or done, re-imagined into one voice. The same thing happens with them as happened here with the voice of an actual person: I love the release from the tyranny of the self.” (web)

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