A small segment of the psyche of Professor of English Monica Berlin ’95 has been encapsulated in 68 pages and made available for purchase in her poetry collection “Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live.”
Last Friday, Berlin performed a reading of her newly published work in Alumni Room of Old Main, organized by the Knox College Caxton Club. Through poetry, Berlin explores and finds solace in the obstacles that life entails.
“I think [poetry is] in part a way to reckon with our human predicaments. That we are vulnerable, that we will die, that people we love are vulnerable and will die, that this planet that we love is vulnerable and will die,” Berlin said. “The poem art is like a stay against our own obsolescence, our own disappearing.”
Berlin was drawn towards writing and thus poetry after confronting the role of human oblivion in her own life. While she can’t remember how she began to write, she realized what writing meant to her when, at 16, she suffered the loss of her father.
“I was in high school, and was studying history, and math and science, and was very, very lost in my own grief. A generous, warm and supportive history teacher pulled me aside and said ‘try to write it down’ and I did. I just kept writing it down,” Berlin said.
Loss remains a major theme in her work today. “Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live” in particular is an exploration of mistakes, the way we receive news and how to live in the world. The speaker also deals with the idea of handing a hurt, imperfect world to her child by trying to make peace with tragedies both global and personal. In the poem “This Afternoon the Sky’s Making the Kind of Promises It Can,” she writes:
“…He leans today / into my shoulder & I’m making the crossing // to other hemispheres only to find water rising, / buildings caving in, us // on our knees although we no longer remember / words, our breath holding // please. Our days shrinking, the kilogram, even / planets, everything // we think we know…”
Berlin also hopes for her son to find a sense of comfort in his hometown. While she wasn’t always smitten with Galesburg, her educational and occupational relationship to Knox College sparked her admiration for smaller places. Growing up in Chicago, Berlin formerly equated size and relevance of an area to its importance. She now feels strongly that every place is a place where people live, an appreciation which extends to every location she visits.
“Writing the poems in this book, over a period of years, taught me how to love Galesburg. How to see it more completely, and in its complexity. In part, I was trying to find a way to articulate for myself my own desire to ensure that my son, who was born here, would always want to return,” Berlin said.
“In that process, I taught myself to always want to return, to always be relieved when I pulled back into town after being away,” she said.
Knox College has been home for Berlin, who is the chair of the English department, ever since she was a student here herself. She deems herself the luckiest person in the world to work in a place where people acknowledge the value of her work.
Berlin sees writing as a habit, a ritual, something ordinary; work — but work that she loves. She schedules writing into her everyday agenda no matter how little time she has. As part of her job, she takes her role of contributing to the advancement of her field very seriously; she has most valuably learned to write in any circumstance.
“I think lots of people think to write you need a certain kind of pen, a certain kind of desk, a special notebook, six uninterrupted hours of the day. I think at certain points in my life I did think those things, and I didn’t write very well,” Berlin said. “I was too busy picking out the right pen … or making sure the light was just so.”
Since 2012, Berlin has written four books of her own, three of poetry and one of essays. After receiving the 2017 Crab Orchard Poetry Open Award, her “Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live” manuscript was sent for publishing to the Southern Illinois University Press which released her new book on Oct. 23. While poetry contests are a solid way for poets to break into the field, Berlin shared it was no easy road to take as she faced countless rejections before redemption for her most recent work.
“It was a finalist for 36 book contests … 36 times almost accepted, imagine how many rejections: hundreds,” Berlin said. “To be able to keep sending out the work after each rejection, it takes a particular kind of strength — because you believe in the work.”
“Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live” is available for purchase on Amazon or through Southern Illinois University Press.