Erin Rodoni was 16 and driving herself and a friend to high school on a wet morning when she almost spun out of control. “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins played through the stereo as she passed the Borello Ranch; her tires lost traction, and she began to slide off Highway 1. She would have tumbled over a cliff if it hadn’t been for her driver’s instincts, which landed her unscathed in a nearby ditch.
Years later, these same reflexes reappeared. In her poem “Giant Slalom,” a highlight from her upcoming debut collection “Body, In Good Light,” Ms. Rodoni relates the sensation of a car crash with that of a mother’s swift intuition:
The race is won or lost in shavings of second. Now: the space
between starting block and gunshot, between locked
knees pounding chest like a stranger’s fists
screaming breathe goddammit breathe. Now,
when I was sixteen I killed myself and my best friend.
Hydroplane: another word for that moment when the story
jumps the tracks. Truth: my body yanked us out of skid
the way a hand recoils from a pan before it feels the burn….
Once, I dropped my weeks-old daughter in the dark,
caught her between heartbeats. Maternal instinct.
Many of the poems in “Body, In Good Light” sway between Ms. Rodoni’s past and her present life as a mother of two. Scheduled for release on April 2, the book is the product of Ms. Rodoni’s pilgrimage into poetry. It also juggles the ultimate dichotomy: that of life and death. Alongside her stories of motherhood are those of the death of a loved one from cancer.
Sitting outside Toby’s Feed Barn on a recent sunlit afternoon, Ms. Rodoni looked around town and said every place holds a memory. She recalled sneaking out of the house as a teenager to run around Main Street with friends and swimming in Paper Mill Creek.
“I always got caught because everyone knows my family,” she said. “They’d tell my parents, ‘I saw your daughter jump off the Green Bridge!’”
She first shared her poetry with others in a high school creative writing class, and later studied English at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with a degree in mass communications. While studying in England during her junior year, she met her future husband, Yatindra Pandya, and she returned to be with him following her graduation.
The couple spent nine years traveling between their two home countries and Southeast Asia. At one point, living in Auckland, New Zealand, she worked as a massage therapist while he was a bike messenger.
Just before her 30th birthday, still working in massage therapy, Ms. Rodoni realized something was missing in her life. “I felt I wanted to make a change. I started to feel that I wasn’t using a part of me. I had all these poems in my head but I didn’t have time to write them down,” she said.
In 2010, she began pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at San Diego State University. During the three-year program, two events shaped her writing indefinitely: the birth of her first daughter, Kavya, and the news that her sister-in-law, Maggie, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. “’Body, In Good Light’ came out of these two experiences,” she said.
She started writing what she calls the “poetry of motherhood.” Three consecutive poems in her book—“Fourteen Weeks,” “Twenty-One Weeks” and “Thirty-Eight Weeks”—describe her pregnancy process and observations. Other pivotal moments, such as being wheeled out of the labor and delivery room and holding a newborn on the first night home, are replayed with sharp detail.
The poetry collection is also anchored in grief. Her family’s heartbreak over Maggie’s diagnosis with Stage IV breast cancer is revisited in poems “Little Brother” and “Chemotherapy: There is a Green Reclining Chair,” both credited to Maggie and using language plucked from her blog.
When Ms. Rodoni completed her M.F.A. in 2013, the book was ready to be shopped around to publishers. She submitted the manuscript to Sixteen River Press, a nonprofit poetry collective that holds an annual competition in which five manuscripts are selected for
Lynne Knight, a colleague and a Berkeley poet whose book “Again” was also published by Sixteen Rivers Press, said Ms. Rodoni explores the topics of life and death with a universal approach.
“Basically every writer writes about life and death, but Erin’s passion for her life and the places she’s been come through so clearly in this book,” she said. “The way she can move from the particular to the universal is something that poets strive for; I think she does it many times in the book.”
In 2014, Ms. Rodoni and her family returned to Point Reyes Station. Her husband is finishing law school in San Francisco and she’s focused on Kavya and her six-month-old daughter, Leela, and is interested in teaching creative writing. She also has a second manuscript—it recently won an award from a national poetry federation—inspired by a three-month trip to Vietnam. It will be published in June.
And if “Danger Zone” ever comes on when she’s at the wheel, her reaction is quick.
“If that ever comes on the radio, I change the station or turn it down,” she said, smiling. “I get riled up and drive too aggressively.”
Erin Rodoni will read from “Body, In Good Light” at Point Reyes Books on Friday, April 14 at 7 p.m.