Norita Dittberner-Jax’s new collection of poetry, Now I Live Among Old Trees (Nodin Press), is deeply rooted in love—love for her late husband, Eugene, and for Saint Paul with its oak trees on Goodrich Avenue and maple trees on Lombard Avenue.

In this, her sixth poetry collection, Dittberner-Jax reflects on the last year of her husband’s fight with ALS and her own diagnosis with cancer while she was caring for him. Beyond that, she reflects upon her new life without him in the city that still invigorates her.

Her previous work, Crossing the Waters, which won a 2018 Midwest Book Award for poetry, recounts the waves of disbelief, devastation, acceptance and ultimate determination she experienced with her husband’s fatal illness. As with that collection, Dittberner-Jax said she hopes readers will benefit from her new book.

“I’m finding that the book has hit a nerve for many people who are either caregiving parents or spouses, or have dealt with sickness and loss themselves,” she said. “I hope the book shows the arc of grief gradually moves to acceptance and even joy. I didn’t set out to do anything didactic. I just wrote the poems as they came.”

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Norita Dittberner-Jax has returned to her native Saint Paul and has come out with a new collection of poetry, "Now I Live Among Old Trees." Photo by Brad Stauffer

And the poems for Now I Live Among Old Trees came quite naturally. “The Eugene Letters” in the collection came afterward, but also quite naturally, Dittberner-Jax said, referring to the series of letters she penned to and for her husband.

“It was so terrible for me to have the cancer diagnosis in the middle of his ALS,” she said. “I said to the doctors, ‘You have to take care of this fast because I have to see this guy out.’ Those poems came while I was going through it, but I put them aside at the time. I just packed them away with my wig. And when I saw that this was a book, I brought them out. I’m pleased at how it worked out. I think they needed to be there.”

After her husband’s diagnosis, the couple moved from their beloved Goodrich Avenue home. “Actually, we were going to move to a condo on Goodrich, but Gene needed a living situation that was adaptable to his illness and we found that in Lilydale,” she said.

“I hope the book shows the arc of grief gradually moves to acceptance and even joy. I didn’t set out to do anything didactic. I just wrote the poems as they came.”

Today Dittberner-Jax is back in Saint Paul, in Highland Park, with a cottonwood visible from her windows. That tree she has named Prosper. Nearby at Lexington Parkway and Montreal Avenue, she found the tree that is pictured on the cover of Now I Live Among Old Trees.

“My daughter, Jessica Johnston, is a photographer,” she said. “She and I went out over the summer looking at trees. I thought we had the right photo and I sent it to my publisher and he said those trees aren’t old, so we went back out and found some truly old trees.”

In the poem “Now I Live Among Old Trees,” Dittberner-Jax recalls her days at what was then the College of Saint Catherine:

The college could have been
another country, unfamiliar streets,
so many beautiful trees, old
trees, trees allowed to widen into sky
bluer in that part of town.

Dittberner-Jax grew up in Frogtown and attended Saint Agnes High School before going to Saint Catherine’s to study literature and education. Following college, she got married and had three children while beginning her teaching and writing careers.

“I taught in a variety of capacities,” she said. “I taught preschool Montessori. I was a writer-on-loan to the Saint Paul Public Schools and later worked briefly at Highland Senior High. I taught with the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools Program. I was at the Perpich Center for the Arts. And I taught creative writing for elders at the Saint Paul Jewish Community Center. I taught right through the life cycle.”

When her youngest child was about 3, she said there was a great burgeoning of writing in the Twin Cities. “I came into that at a very good time,” she said. “There was a lot of literary activity. I started to write and get some poems published. But it wasn’t easy. I think it took at least 10 years to get my first book published.”

Dittberner-Jax said one thing that really made a difference when she came to writing poetry was that there were mainly male poets before. “That had changed very much by the time I came into it,” she said.

From the beginning, Dittberner-Jax said, she always kept a journal. “I wrote so many times that ‘It’s hard to write when you have three children,’” she said. “I would start a new journal and would put that at the top.

“What I found was that teaching and writing kept me resilient,” she said. “When my teaching wasn’t going well, I concentrated on my writing and when my writing wasn’t going well, I concentrated on my teaching.”

Now, during the pandemic, Dittberner-Jax said, is a financially challenging time for writers, publishers and bookstores.

“There are no in-person readings and I miss that,” she said. “You could go to a reading, see friends, buy a book, hear a poet or author and be in bed by 10 p.m. Now I go to Zoom readings. While that’s good, it was better going to a bookstore. Still, we have opportunities.”

Most immediately, that includes a virtual reading with other authors at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 10, hosted by Next Chapter Booksellers. For the Zoom link, visit nextchapterbooksellers.com/event/2020-12.

— Anne Murphy

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