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Cover Story: Because She Could Not Stop For Death

Local poet overcomes past turmoil and learns forgiveness

By John Stoehr · June 28th, 2001 · Cover Story
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  Carol Feiser Laque
Jymi Bolden

Carol Feiser Laque

To some people, poetry is just light entertainment they enjoy hearing on Garrison Keillor's daily radio broadcast, The Writer's Almanac. To others, it's as impenetrable as Stephen Hawking's explanation of black holes.

Some think poetry is the high art of phenomenal genius that must be fiercely protected. Opposing them are those who consider poetry nothing more than a cultural by-product, a merely pleasurable curiosity compared to the complexities of the society that produced it.

For local poet Carol Feiser Laque, poetry was a means to escape incredible adversity, psychological deterioration and the memories of an ugly childhood.

Born in 1944 in San Francisco, Laque lived in 19 different houses before the age of 21, including a stay in Cincinnati. (Her father, Leonard Feiser, labored as a Willy Loman-like traveling salesman.) The Midwestern experience appealed to her immensely.

Graduating from high school in northern New Jersey, she enrolled in Wittenberg College, an institution with a strong tradition of literary and musical arts. Earning her degree, she returned to Cincinnati, where she became department chair at Reading High School while she sought her M.A. in English at UC.

While there, the Vietnam War was escalating, and she met her husband, Glenn. She soon finished her M.A., started teaching full-time at Raymond Walters College and continued her doctoral studies at UC. She was on track to live a life of academic leisure, full of writing and teaching, but those plans ended abruptly.

In 1979, Laque had a mental breakdown, the cause of which she hardly understood at the time. The doctor's diagnosis was manic depression, a crushing brain disorder that causes extremely high and low (and uncontrollable) mood swings.

"The doctors told me if lithium didn't work ­ and it did not work, it didn't even begin to touch me at all ­ the drugs that would help are in the planning stages, and I would have to wait until the '90s to get help," she explains.

So that's what she did. She taught at UC as much as she could, and she published regularly with small nationally distributed literary magazines.

But, eventually, she couldn't even teach anymore. The debilitating effects of lithium, Thorazine and other drugs took their toll, knocking her down for weeks at a time.

"I really was too sick to teach," Laque says. "I was in and out of the psych wards of every hospital in the city. I could tell you which one was superior to which."

By the 1990s, improved psychiatric medicines became available, and doctors took mental disorders more seriously. For Laque, the result was a female physician who knew what she was doing.

"The men before had fallen asleep," she says. "But she got me back to where I was functional, and I was writing a volume a year."

From that point on, Laque immersed herself head-deep into writing. She retired from UC on medical disability and began writing full-time. Her output has been extraordinary. Since 1977, she's written and published 17 volumes of poetry. In 1976, she founded Circumference Press, a Cincinnati company she owns and operates. She has aggressively developed the Poetry Workshop for the Cincinnati Writers' Project. And she has returned to teaching as an adjunct professor of English at Xavier University.

Laque, now 57, says she was invited to be a full professor at Xavier, but she declined the offer to reserve time for writing. "I said that I write, but I would be delighted to be an adjunct. I'm enjoying teaching the kids for as long as it doesn't interrupt my writing career."

But all of this was after she escaped her past. The darkness of that time haunts her to this day.

"My father was an undiagnosed manic depressive, who was drinking, gambling and whoring to an excessive amount, beyond all belief," she says. "He fathered a child, which we did not know about until after he passed away, because he set it up so that the child would not have any claim to the estate, and fixed it up so we could never find our half-sibling."

And there's more Laque and her brother, Jeff, discovered after their parents' deaths. As they were sorting through legal papers and preparing to sell their parents' house, they found out their father had been expelled from Dartmouth University, that he had made illegal business deals in Cincinnati and New York City and that he had close connections with the New York Mafia.

As children, Laque and her brother knew their father was an extremely difficult man to deal with. But he also went to church four times a week. He helped found the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Cincinnati. He also spoke High German and had a penchant for Goethe and German philosophy. So they never realized the full truth of their father's common saying, "Everything is sunk without a trace." It became apparent to Laque there was more to that phrase than was ever anticipated.

Her first clue was when she turned 16. To celebrate her birthday, Leonard invited her to take a friend to the Luau 500, a Polynesian-themed restaurant in New York in the 1960s. He had made arrangements with his business associates to wine and dine his daughter. Laque and her friend felt uncomfortable while dining, and for good reason: Six weeks later, a mob hit man stormed the Luau 500 and sprayed the restaurant with AK-47 bullets.

The event made the front page of The New York Times. Soon after, Leonard and his wife, Elizabeth, packed up the kids and headed to Florida, where they resided at four different addresses simultaneously. According to Laque, everything in her family was top secret, so she can only guess what her father was doing. She only knew how cruel he could be and that ultimately he was a deeply troubled man.

Years after living a nomadic existence in Florida, doctors discovered Elizabeth had cancer. Laque quickly left her graduate studies in Cincinnati to nurse her mother. But Elizabeth wasn't the only sick parent: Leonard had turned into a ghost, a shell of the man he once was, because he couldn't bear to be without Elizabeth. Depression and malnutrition setting in, Leonard sneaked into the garage one day while Laque was in the kitchen preparing a meal. There, he turned on the car ignition, closed the garage doors and killed himself by inhaling carbon monoxide.

"I was doing around-the-clock nursing, so I was really tired," says Laque. "My father managed to get to the car in the garage and do himself in. And I couldn't stop him."

Six weeks later, Elizabeth died as well. They were both 53.

House of Rain is Laque's latest poetic offering. Inspired by Emily Dickinson, surreal in the vein of Baudelaire and deeply informed by a chaotic and painful past, it's a tribute to manic depressives everywhere and pays homage to Laque herself.

Despite the hardships Laque has endured, she harbors a deep love and respect for both her mother and father.

"I still have every bit of love for my parents," she says. "I loved them both desperately." ©

Carol Feiser Laque's

Fingers unlock my lips:
the scar sings of a silence
inside this storm of Flesh.
I never cry out loud
not from fear or anger.
I only live
in this House of Rain.
Every ocean lightens
me behind my face.
Keys gathered in a ring
lock and unlock
This House of Rain.
"You'll Catch Your Death ... "
Reaching through a fine suffer
Perfect thunder, Perfect Mind
I fall into the light.



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