By Sebastian Matthews
Early in the process of writing Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision, I began to see the book as “a memoir in poems.” A hybrid collection, Beginner’s Guide consists of short lyric poems, prose poems, and short prose pieces in the personal essay vein. Intertwining these three forms, I tell the story of the head-on collision that nearly killed my family, then the aftershocks of recovery we were by necessity engaged in for the next few years.
I started writing the first poems while still in the ICU. I had to do something to combat the fear, worry and fatigue that had overcome me. A month or so later, still in a wheelchair, learning to walk again, I found myself unable to write directly about the traumatic experience. I started penning these strange “Dear Virgo” poems, which were all self-loathing, sarcastic faux horoscopes narrated by an angel/devil figure floating above me and providing unwanted commentary. Later, a few months into the recovery, I began to write about the event moment to moment, trying to capture the scene as it played out. Eventually, it felt easier–and more powerful–to write about the experience in the essay form. Then I returned to a set of prose poems exploring themes of depression, trauma and PTSD.
The book is structured as a set of concentric circles. Imagine a stone thrown into a pond–the accident itself–and then imagine the circles expanding out to fill the body of water. I tried to organize the collection in such a way that the reader would experience the event and its aftermath in different ways—moment to moment, day by day, month by month, then year by year. The book ends with my family beginning to move fully into a normal, post-accident life.
My wife, Ali, and my son, Avery, are characters in this story, and within it they move through their own stages of growth. Avery was 8-years-old when the accident occurred; he walked from the car unharmed. But his parents came out two weeks later both in wheelchairs. His dad no longer could shoot hoops; his mom no longer had the energy to help with homework at night. Over time, Avery discovered a way to bring me back into his childhood world. Using our trampoline as an arena, Avery began to “train” me by playing a game we later dubbed “Butterfingers.” By throwing a ball back and forth over the trampoline’s net, father and son re-ignited an old routine of play. Within a few months, out of the wheelchair, wobbly on my feet, I was moving my aching feet, shifting my stiff body left then right, forward and back. Later, I took this training to the basketball gym and to the weight room.
I hope in writing Beginner’s Guide to a Head-On Collision that I can share with readers the ways that one can grow and learn from such a catastrophe. When one faces such crisis, when one gets challenged at so many levels at once, something new and dynamic arises. You shed old selves and step into new ones.
The book is dedicated to all our friends, family and neighbors who helped us through the ordeal. It’s fitting, for their encompassing communities allowed us, by encouraging us, to heal.
Sebastian Matthews and his new book, Beginner’s Guide to a Head-On Collision published by Red Hen Press, will be featured at the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte’s 8th Annual “BIBLIOFEAST” Book & Author Dinner on Monday, Oct. 16. Sebastian lives in Asheville and teaches writing at Warren Wilson College. Tickets are available at http://wnba-charlotte.org/wnba/calendar/bibliofeast-tickets/ (credit card) or at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road, 704-525-9239 (cash or check).