When she was a little girl, Gretchen Cherington, the daughter of poet Richard Eberhart, spent every summer with her family at Undercliff, a Down East cottage in Brooksville, Maine. Her parents loved to host parties and these idyllic summers included a steady parade of visitors drawn from the glitterati of 20th-century American letters – Mary McCarthy, Cal Lowell, Phil Booth, E.B. White, Donald Hall, Walker Evans, Buckminster Fuller, Maxine Kumin.

“Poetry was the music of my childhood,” Cherington writes in her new memoir, “Poetic License,” but “there wasn’t much room for a kid” – either at Undercliff or in the family’s home in Hanover, New Hampshire, where there was usually company for dinner and the spotlight always shone on her father.

Adding to her sense of invisibility were several traumatizing childhood experiences, including her mother’s epilepsy. While her father called his wife’s seizures “spells” and simply waited for her to recover after a nap and cook dinner, Gretchen felt she had to assume the role of protector, creating elaborate plans about what to do, where to go, and whom to ask for help in case her mom had a seizure.

But the most traumatizing event of her youth occurred when the author was 17. One night, after meeting Anne Sexton at a party in the family’s Hanover home, Cherington went to bed early. While she was sleeping, her father came into her room and fondled her, as celebratory noise and laughter wafted up the stairs. Cherington was in her late 30s before she even allowed herself to remember this terrifying event, the first step on a path to healing that eventually led to write her memoir.

“Poetic License” gives us the details of Cherington’s successful adult life: a long first marriage and two children, a successful consulting business, true love with her second husband, strong personal and professional networks, a devoted yoga practice and intense bicycling. But it also recounts her years in therapy as she attempts to reconcile the contradictions of her father, “the generous, kindhearted friend,” but also the “narcissistic, self-serving man” who molested her.

Cherington drew on the vast trove of Eberhart’s journals, letters and notes from the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College. She certainly found more evidence there of her father’s complexities – his warm correspondence with Allen Ginsburg and supportive letters to poets Maxine Kumin, Anne Sexton and Cleopatra Mathis, for example, alongside a complete set of letters from Eberhart’s decade-long affair with a woman named Joy.

A turning point in Cherington’s journey of self-discovery came when she discovered an early journal Eberhart kept. At 18, as his father was in the process of losing his fortune, Eberhart was left to care for his mother, who died a painful death from lung cancer. Cherington remembers her father, even in his 90s, “easily overcome by tears at the mention of his mother’s early death.” She feels a kinship with him, left to care for his mother, just as she was her mother’s caretaker. Although she never gets close to her father, uncovering his trauma helps her, and the reader, feel more sympathy for him.

Despite occasionally weak dialogue and a few scenes that drag, “Poetic License” offers an emotionally satisfying story. The ending comes full circle, reintroducing “her family of poets,” first at a celebratory bash at Dartmouth for her father at 92, and even more significantly after his death, when the opportunity to tell the poets about her trauma gives her a way to confront her father.

The description of her friendship with Donald Hall, in particular, provides a sense of resolution for the reader. Between 1996 and 2010, Cherington visited Hall’s New Hampshire home many times. Hall was the fatherly presence for which she had yearned and helped her hold her double truths – love for Eberhart and at the same time anger at him. Hall advised her on her early drafts to “write more fiercely” and “don’t protect Dick.” “I love your father and I always will,” he told her, “but I love him less now.”

Jeri Theriault lives in South Portland. Her poems and reviews have appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, The Rumpus, The Texas Review and elsewhere. She is a 2019 Maine Literary Award winner and the editor of “Wait: Poems from the Pandemic” (2021). Find her at jeritheriault.com


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