The second daughter of Stanford Searl was born severely disabled. Tiny, helpless, with little muscle tone, Diana would be with her family for only seven short years. This is a child, whose voice no one would ever hear, who would never be able to return a hug or even a touch, yet her presence in their lives certainly was profound and meaningful as the family found the beauty and joy her existence could bring to them and those around them. The Searls had, upon the advice of doctors and others, placed Diana in a state asylum for severely disabled children, but these places were something of a horror show with staff who are either unable to unwilling to give these children the care and kindness they deserve. The family, after heartbreaking visits, brought her home and began the process of finding the best way for her care. The Quaker faith of this family and of the community of Quakers that surrounded them is of great importance to all of them for support and for assistance in setting up the best care facility for Diana and other children with similar disabilities.
This story is told through a series of thirty-one poems, almost all of which are written in free verse. Searl brings in images of nature and alludes to Greek mythology and other great literature while trying to tell the story of making sense out of something that makes no sense in the world in which most of us live. “Diana became like Hephaestus/ thrown down from Olympus into an undersea grotto/ populated by sea nymphs./ That god had lost his will,/ the fall extinguished/ all creative fire.” There is a quiet current of comfort through most of the poems that will surprise readers, although Searl occasionally allows the stages of grief bubble up into the poems, sometimes set off by things that may seem trivial but, of course, are not, and that is part of the process. “Blasted by Lake Erie’s winds, anger swelled in a flood/ rising up like enormous waves churning through the blood.” Many of these poems are straightforward and conversational, some are lyrical and sweet, but all are weighty and poignant. One of the most powerful poems in the collection is one of the few structured poems, //Singing at the Institution//. It will simply break your heart. This is a book one could read in an hour or two but it deserves much more time and savoring of the language. It is written with a love of both subject and language that isn’t an everyday occurrence.
San Francisco Book Review
– Reviewed by Rosi Hollinbeck
Stanford Searl’s Songs for Diana is a powerful book of poems. It lays bare the hope and tenacity of a parent longing for a better life for his child, with all the attendant grief of a birth that would challenge any parent. This child is loved; of that we are sure. She is ultimately institutionalized, given severe physical and mental limitations, and medical advice that seems to sacrifice her comfort for the benefit of the larger family. Her emotional being is steadfastly preserved in these poems; some of the most touching moments are watching her splash in water at the beach, and sitting in her father’s lap as he plays the piano at church. Those moments provide a poignant backdrop for moments that tear at us, as when we join this father in his frantic calls to find out what has happened to his daughter, and finally learn, after wrenching bureaucratic delay, that she has died. How does a parent endure such scenes? Searl adapts the fierce Buffalo weather to help convey the raging emotional surges of the heart. Weeks after reading these poems, I am still haunted by the beauty of song, of applesauce, of ospreys in the backyard, wondering how on earth I would have borne such a gift, had this child been delivered unto me. This is a meditation for every parent to contemplate, every spiritual seeker to ponder. The wind comes, it mounts its terrible roar, it subsides. No one can resume living, without acknowledging the profound disturbances here, ushered with the breath of one whose love is indeed fierce.
– Carol Barrett