Processing pain through poetry 

click to enlarge Andrew Cloninger's debut book of poetry, "C6-C7," is out October 3. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Andrew Cloninger's debut book of poetry, "C6-C7," is out October 3.
Canandaigua musician Andrew Cloninger seemed to have life sorted out. He and his wife, Mary, had a six-year-old son, Noah, and Cloninger was making a living doing industrial work in warehouses and factories. He had occasional shoulder pain, but he brushed it off.

In 2018, he was chopping wood on his uncle’s property in Michigan when he suffered a debilitating spinal injury that changed his life forever. An MRI indicated he had sustained a bulging disk and nerve damage.

Five years later, Cloninger has processed the trauma through haiku. His debut book of poems and illustrations, “C6-C7,” is out October 3 via Atmosphere Press, a small publisher based in Austin, TX.

Physical and occupational therapy have helped to improve Cloninger’s quality of life, but things aren’t the same. He has to rest frequently during the day, and can only lift up to 20 pounds at a time.

“I couldn't even play guitar when the accident happened, and that was absolutely devastating, because it’s your therapy as a musician,” said Cloninger, who now plays a monthly residency at Red White & Brew of Rochester with cellist Melissa Davies in the ambient post-rock duo Wren Cove. “This is something that you've been working your whole life to perfect in your own way, and it's identity in some ways, too. And that's something that I had to face: ‘Who are you without this thing in your life?’”
click to enlarge Wren Cove performs at Red White & Brew. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Wren Cove performs at Red White & Brew.
Cloninger’s wife, Mary, says there was a mourning period of sorts, as if someone had died. She recalls that Andrew’s pain was so severe, he slept in his chair downstairs for two years and wouldn’t take part in activities outside the house.

“It was kind of like letting go of all your hopes and dreams with this person,” Mary explained. “What is life going to look like now? And will life look like this forever, or will he slowly improve? I thought he was going to die in his chair at one point.”

But something clicked for Cloninger in summer 2020, when he spent a weekend on Lake Ontario with his family and began to write the poetry that would become “C6-C7.”

The second poem in the collection, titled “A Day in the Life,” captures the cataclysmic moment:

The dust lifts as the ax swings
A flash in my head
Questions as my neck gives way

Mary has noticed the poetry’s benefit. “It has been huge for him, being able to process from start to finish the different emotions and the different stages of the injury and recovery,” she said.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
Rather than write in the conventional haiku form, Cloninger uses a modified 7-5-7 syllable structure, with the middle line providing the connective tissue between two more complicated ideas. He has found catharsis in the writing process, and hopes the book can help others dealing with their own traumas.

“I believe you can deal with trauma and you can deal with hard things in your life in short increments,” he said. “And I feel like haiku does that in a way that’s so efficient and so poignant, because it’s almost like ripping the Band-Aid off.”

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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