Her Secret Song

Her Secret Song
Motes Books
ISBN 978-1-934894-04-0


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Her Secret Song captures the life of the author’s aunt who died of cancer. But this book also shows that even when close to death, it’s not too late to touch others. Aunt Ruth and her nephew Jim Minick didn’t know each other well since they lived far apart. But during her last six months, the poet visited often and even after she died, he came to know, admire, and love this woman. Her Secret Song tells her story of living with the “elephant man’s disease,” as well as the growing friendship between nephew and aunt. And through beautiful photographs, it also explores Ruth’s early childhood and the family that shaped her.

What others say

[Y]our book…is very moving. To tell the truth I find a lot of books of poems easy to ignore, but yours I read right through. It’s a most telling story.”

— Wendell Berry, in a letter to the author.

Reading Her Secret Song is like finding a locket on a city street–scuffed and silver and private. Imagine then the surprise of finding your own face there in miniature when you open it. It is that strange and lucky. Jim Minick fits a whole life story into this heart-shaped thing. Fine unforgettable poems.”

— Steve Scafidi, author of For Love of Common Words

Minick awakens all the senses, smelling and tasting and touching no less than listening and seeing, so that what in turn awakens in the reader is compassion. Minick does not try to fetch such responses; he merely conveys the human condition, literally warts and all, and the difference love and caring can make as seen in little things, like steadying hands on elbows of another. Much poetry today seeks to portray irony, a quality of intellect. Minick’s aim is in another direction, to illustrate by powerful metaphor through vehicles of the senses the “old verities.” Toward this end he renders delicately the sweet, sad song of his aunt, gives shape to the growing darkness around her, providing in memoriam a triumph for ties of love in life and death.”

— Jack Higgs, author of Appalachia Inside Out

It is too simple to call Her Secret Song an extended elegy, because these poems do not lament the death of a beloved yet inscrutable aunt. Instead, these poems discover through the intimacy of dying, a final honesty, a calm understanding of what one life has meant. Jim Minick looks back on that life mostly through the lens of small moments and realizes the meaning, hard and unbeautiful at times, goes on.”

— Maurice Manning, author of Bucolics

In Her Secret Song, Jim Minick goes to care for his Aunt Ruth, who is dying of cancer. We are led into this collection by old photos, which appear throughout. In poem by fine poem, he uncovers different aspects of an unsung heroine. Despite a disfiguring disease present since babyhood, she is funny, spunky, vivid and brave, having born ‘the heft/of seventy years,/the extra load of mirrors and stares/that tell only the/surface truth.’ Minick tells her story and to some extent that of her family with acute observation and immediacy. I have not read another poet with such unbelievable tenderness. This compelling collection touches your heart without being the least bit sentimental. I could not put it down.”

— Noel Smith, author of The Well String

In this collection that honors the living and dying of a beloved aunt, Jim Minick invites us to see the world as she sees it. With one eye covered by what the world would call deformity, Ruth’s vision turns inward and outward, looks straight at the end of life, and does not turn away. A beagle dog named Bonnie, Lindt chocolates, tumors that are benign—all blessings are gratefully accepted into her world, and in turn, passed on by the poet to bless our own. Like Ruth before him, Minick loves his way through the grief. He offers us an unflinching vision and a model of connection that promises, for Ruth and for us, an answer to that last, hard question: But who will sing for me?”

— Diane Gilliam, author of Kettle Bottom

Excerpts from Her Secret Song


“Oh we have to go to the Lindt store,”
Ruth plans with glee on my first visit.
“Lint?” I ask. “Like a place sells what lives
under my couch?” “Oh no!” she giggles.
“This is chocolate, Swiss-made, the best.”

I am surprised at her tickledness,
her energy, despite the cane and naps.
The doctors said the last round of chemo
“didn’t work” and “six months at best.”
Ruth rests on the edge of her towel-covered couch
beside Bonnie, her beagle, who takes up
most of the space. “We always nap like this,”
she cradles her dog and kisses its nose
and ears and head, dramatic smooches
Bonnie ignores and returns to snoring.

“Chocolate is an antioxidant,”
I add in the store. “Oh, I know, I know!”
she chimes. “We have to buy a bunch.”
And we do as Ruth points and points.
Most she buys for gifts for neighbors and friends.
The bright reds of milk, greens of mint,
crinkly paper and fancy tins, and of course,
free samples—“Did you try this?” she asks.
“Oh this is fabulous,” and I’m not sure if
she means the store or her last bite of extra dark.
When we leave, I am overwhelmed by smells
of sweetness and can hardly carry all her gifts.

That night as we watch the news, she leans to me
and whispers, “We need some truffles, don’t you think?
Get us two from the fridge.” She doesn’t hold it
on her tongue, no sucking soft the globe.
But always that twinkle and smile, slightly skewed,
with a dab of chocolate on the lip.

At the next commercial, she leans
again to say, “I think we need another,
don’t you?” In silence, we hold this
dark moment of bitter sweetness
before the swallowing, the letting go.

Cleaning Out and Finding

In the garage, tin cans full
of seed—marigold,
honesty and sunflower—

too many to take home.
Only Ruth knew
when last these living lights grew.

I save some of each
then bless
the garden with the rest,

cover the dying
with slender wings,

delicate needles,
of hope. I splinter

each dial of sun,
scatter seed
like here yesterday morn

on this same rich wash
of soil, I spread
the dust of her fertile ash.


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