SLO County woman with terminal cancer writes poetry book

I envy poets, the way I’m jealous of sculptors.

Both know how to whittle down to the bare essentials, “taking away everything that’s not an elephant,” as the old quote goes.

Maybe that’s why so many books of poetry are defined as being slender. Their authors don’t need all those extra words … unlike me. I have to describe every gray wrinkle, the trunk, the tusks, those soulful eyes!

That said, some poets are especially skillful at trimming away the excess verbiage.

Lisa “Annie” Harpel of Cambria, 57, is one of those writers.

Her new book, “The Blue Hour,” is dedicated to and mostly about a beloved, intuitive brother with progressive physical and developmental disabilities (Charlie) who lived to be 51 years young. He was nonverbal from birth but able to speak with his eyes from him, beset with increasingly severe and dangerous seizures caused by cerebral palsy, and confined to a wheelchair for decades.

And it comes when the author who’s navigated much family loss is now staring down her own mortality.

The book is available on Amazon for $9.99, with all funds going to a charity selected by the British publisher. It’s also available at Coalesce in Morro Bay and Volumes of Pleasure in Los Osos, or to check out at the Cambria Public Library.

‘The Blue Hour’

The atmospheric blue hour is defined on as “the darker stages of morning and evening twilight, when the sun is quite far below the horizon, coloring the sky deep blue. Like the golden hour, it is a favorite with painters and photographers.”

And now a poet.

Annie’s 108 entries in “The Blue Hour” book include “poems written during twilights, transitions and crossroads upon the horizon,” as she wrote on the book’s title page.

Those transitions include birth, death, passages from health to illness and back again, and the emotionally fraught times when death is inevitable very soon, but hasn’t yet arrived.

That is the very spot the poet finds herself in now, after receiving a Stage 4 diagnosis last year for terminal neuroendocrine cancer and having a prognosis that’s almost impossible to estimate.

But the book is not mere self-reflection on one’s state in life. Its poetic side trips from her also echo off memories of her father’s dementia, her mother’s battle with cancer, familial and friend relationships, and three significant family deaths within eight years.

With all that heavy material, you might think “The Blue Hour” would be depressing.

Think again.

What I found was a loving ode to an unusual, devoted family, all gone now, each of whom were part of a strong, supportive, amazing whole.

Mostly, though, the book is about Charlie and Annie’s special bond through life, and, she’s convinced with her faith, after death as well.

As Annie wrote, even as she’s facing her own likely passing soon, “today I embrace hope, wonder and faith.”

Lisa “Annie” Harpel of Cambria wrote a book of poems titled “The Blue Hour.”

What gets her through the day and her life

She says her poetry, her sister and their cousins, and Annie’s special friends—whether they’re fellow writers or not—have sustained her through all that and so much more.

My long nighttime interview March 22 with her was astonishingly revealing and optimistic, about her life history, Charlie, their parents, death, Charlie, loss, hope, God, Charlie, her own grim diagnosis, darkness and Charlie. But always with an overlay of humor and life experiences, some of which we shared.

Her own tenuous grip on health makes her wary of being around people, even those of us who are also masked, vaxxed and boosted. But her cheerful attitude and her lively, frequent laugh made me want to rush right over there and give her a big hug. Even though I know I cannot.

As many of you know, I’ve learned a few things about loss recently. Y’all have been incredibly patient with me as I leaned on you and virtually cried on your shoulder while writing about dealing with the death of my husband of 44 years.

Some of you have even thanked me for writing about what you’re feeling (or dreading), but didn’t have the words to express.

I’m the one who should be thanking you for caring and letting me know that you do.

You could get that same sense of “me, too” from Annie’s lyrical book, with her tributes to so many of the people who have affected her and helped her.

As today’s vernacular goes, the “feels” I got from the book seemed so familiar, and her words were surprisingly energizing and rejuvenating, a tonic for battered emotions. Her poetry by Ella made me stop and think, which after all, is a goal for all who write.

Could I have done it as Annie did, in a few intense words that captured so much with so little?


Some samples of her poetry

As it turns out, poetry is just one of her talents. She’s also an essayist, fine-art photographer and artist who has worked at the Vault Gallery and facilitated workshops in her chosen genre.

Those poetic skills are evident in her use of different styles, which she thoughtfully defines in the back of the book. They range from a single line “monostitch” to a “haibun,” a longer prose poem that includes a haiku.

“Time chronicles” is one of the latter, about being surrounded by memories of Charlie. A rocking chair, a green-and-gold painted ceramic turtle, “Christmas on Sesame Street.” Tangible memories of a beloved soul who’s no longer here.

Other entries stand out in Annie’s poetic parade. “Common Threads,” is about and for Kathleen McKinnon, her devoted Cambria friend. The poem begins, “You and I are sisters / not by blood / but by brokenness / vulnerability, survival.”

More poems honor the support, influence and caring from other friends, many of them from her treasured Cambria Writers Workshop, of which she’s been a member since 2013.

Annie’s work alternates between hope and reality, imagery and memories, self-knowledge and dreaming… as she does in life facing her relatively certain future.

She wrote odes to paperwhites, stars, a tiny owl, the forest. And always Charlie, who is mentioned seldom by name but throughout the book by reference, reverence and shared experiences.

Lisa “Annie” Harpel of Cambria wrote a book of poems titled “The Blue Hour.” The first poem in the book is about her late brother, Charlie.

The first poem’s title is simply his name. “A thousand voices / of every person / I’ve ever met / and the one I wanted / to hear most / unable to speak / communicated / without saying a word.”

Annie ended the page with “I am the luckiest girl in the world to have had him in my life for 51 years.”

The book also has sly, brief flashes of wryness, to which Annie is most certainly entitled.

One monostitch reads, “why do I write so many poems about being broken? Because so many people want to fix me.”

And “making peace with suffering is like trying not to smell burnt toast.”

And at “the end”?

She wrote, “when there is nothing left / I want to hold hands / with my favorite poems / on the walk toward home.”

This story was originally published March 29, 2022 5:00 AM.

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Kathe Tanner has been writing about the people and places of SLO County’s North Coast since 1981, first as a columnist and then also as a reporter. Ella’s career has included stints as a bakery owner, public relations director, radio host, trail guide and jewelry designer. She has been a resident of Cambria for more than four decades, and if it’s happening in town, Ella Kathe knows about it.


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