Denise Calvetti Michaels


Years ago, my father wrote me a dear daughter on onionskin, one of only two, this time during my parent’s road trip to crisscross the United States.  Not a postcard, he wanted the space to reflect on what mattered; Boy’s Town to Wounded Knee, a basin of geography between us. 

I do not keep it in a small wood box at the back of the desk drawer so I won’t lose it within the clutter of bank statements and children’s immunization records, W2’s to file.  The taffeta-like texture helps me to locate my father’s letter by touch, and the sound of the translucent pages reminds me of the rustling of a girl’s crinoline slip worn for Sunday School like a child’s voice beckoning before it speaks. 

It was not midnight, but late.  Perhaps 2 AM, when the message would not sting, an appeal to memory with the reverence of sensorial remembering, and here I turn to pages of a Pablo Neruda love sonnet #4:  You will remember those gifts from the earth:/indelible scents, gold clay/weeds in the thicket and crazy roots/and magical thorns like swords.  And, maybe, better yet, I should turn to something ordinary—Neruda’s Ode to Onions, abundance a gift, outright.

Perhaps, my father’s letter wasn’t because of the recollections of his daughter Catherine, born to his first wife, the sister I never met.  But, maybe, he did ask himself if he’d done all he could on this trip not to sight-see, it turns out, rather to mull relationships. 

He composed a lyric about family to tell me that family mattered.   

Tactile as blue ink on stationary he underlined family and famiglia trying to emphasize, elongate, make a lyric of his lines, this rare effort at cursive writing, writing to me an ode to family. 

And this is what I felt last Sunday, March 31st , at St. Thomas Episcopal when I was invited to the little church school in Medina, Washington to attend the fundraiser concert for victims of the Paradise, California fire.   On a late afternoon, I sat inside with a handful of strangers listening to Requiem Op. 48 by Gabriel Faure.   The panes of colored glass projected against ceiling crosstrees, advancing slowly toward the eastside wall.   I remembered Ray and Doris, family from childhood, during the cello solo. 

The cellist plays for Seattle Symphony and we encountered one another after the performance.  She thanked me for coming.  I was that close, sitting in the second row with no one near and she recognized me as the woman who was quietly weeping.

I know this because of the way she spoke gently as though walking through grief with me.  Ray and Doris—they bought a module in Paradise to afford retirement but made time to drive back to the Bay Area to visit Dad when he was ill, bringing him a matching set of Eddie Bauer gloves, knit hat and scarf.

What more could a person say not spoken by this letter?  And what more could the decision to select this paper contribute to meaning?  For this is a love letter to crisscross the basin of the page.

I intentionally chose paper that in another realm is the organic outer layer of the globes I learned how to pull up from the earth and gather into gunny sacks to sort and give away.

What are my associations?  Dad’s letter and typing early stories.  I once bought a box of 500 sheets at the local stationary store in downtown Redwood City.  I worked secretarial jobs, wrote airmail letters to Italy, ….and the love letters, erotic expressions, tactile, perfumed.  What might I say on onionskin—I’m burning, I cried, again.

What might I not.  I wrote from the telephone booth, collect.  I lost your address.  The phone was finally disconnected.  Three hours difference between me and you.  Or was it the war, you on a river raft trying to come home?

And what else might I not say?  I would not repeat what the counselor told each client, victims of trauma.  That we were peeling onions each week during therapy to access the pain.  I did not write what I learned because of the intimate nature of the setting.  I do not mean taboo but someone else was always naming what it was we experienced.  We knew not to speak of it.  Maybe that’s why soldier’s heart morphed to the term PTSD.  Nobody asks.  Elizabeth Samit teaches literature at West Point and named her book Soldier’s Heart.

But this is also to set connections straight; the wall is not a page.   And the cruelest wall has a crown of thorns.  Even birds know to spare the skin of the onion and I know this because of the farm, my task in the summer to carry the kitchen scraps to the chicken coop.  Nearsighted, I observed their beaks peck the crisp bits of leftovers, leaving the skins aside.

The word family tactile as ink on stationary, his lyric an ode to family, families on the southern border between Mexico and United States.  This is a love letter and I’m wondering what I’d write to my daughters if I were crisscrossing the prairie? 

And I wonder about the f-word, when and how I use it, and why as a writer I might, and in my library at night I search my bookshelves for the writers I remember as both loving and angry; Rant by Diane Di Prima, had no f-word yet she told of a cosmology, yes, that is what I was remembering, a poetics about why she wrote how she wrote with the f-word not mentioned because there was none.  And Jimmy Santiago Baca in his memoir, A Place to Stand—didn’t he fill his chapters with the f-word this and that?  But I found nothing, and now I’m thinking about Martin Espada’s Poetry like Bread and The Concrete River by Luis J. Rodriguez—and for all their reasons to be angry I couldn’t find the f-word.  Rodriquez dedicated his poems to Nelson Peery, Who taught me the poetry of the fight, and the fight in the poetry.

I would dedicate my poems to my dear daughter, tell her she is an artist and therefore will never adjust to a border wall.


Denise Calvetti Michaels completed her MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from University of Washington Bothell.  Recent poetry includes The Colors of Reeds, Clamor, 2021, and Love Letter #2, Paterson Literary Review, 2020.  Her creative writing based on her MFA thesis, The Things Downriver, was published by Cave Moon Press in 2020 and pays homage to the Salinas farm of her paternal grandparents.  Rustling Wrens, Michaels’ first poetry collection was published by Cave Moon in 2012 and awarded a King County 4Culture artist grant.  Michaels’ newer work, Lamentations on the Technologies of Transformation and Loss, published by Clamor in 2020, interrogates her mother’s hearing aid as site of emotion and memory.