It’s getting to be ludicrous how lax I’ve been as a blogger, so I won’t even bother apologizing but will just skip right on by. Because the year is late and time is short but there’s always much to be thankful for:
Journals whose new issues include my poems, to my everlasting gratitude and delight:
Homemade mascarpone, for which I have no photo, but I promise you is rich lovely velvet and divine on pumpkin bread.
Big fat novels like In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (I’ve read, loved, & what’s more own every book he’s written) and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.
Late fall days, made for sinking into the couch with hot sweet and creamy tea and one of those good books. Distract the kids with a Can You See What I See? book and you’ll have some time to yourself for your own reading.
Poetry: Braiding the Storm by Laura Davis, Mother Desert by Jo Sarzotti, Afterworld by Christine Garren…
My mother’s old wooden rolling pin. This week alone I’ve used it for making apple pie and Christmas ornaments with the boys. A well-used and well-loved hand-me-down.
In the failing afternoon light we hunted up more candles — the nubs of old tapers and half-spent Christmas pillars. As I warmed up some canned soup on the stove I was reminded how my father would cook chestnuts and popcorn on its top. “Dad would have enjoyed this,” I said softly to the air as I stirred the pot, and I saw the pain of remembrance flicker across my mother’s face. I don’t know if silence or remembrance is best, but I was longing to press a hurt simply to remind myself it was there.
— from “Storm,” in Five Thousand Days Like This One, by Jane Brox
You, if you’re still here, and even if you’re not. Thanks for thinking of me every now and again.
There are some books, some poets, that I instinctively associate with winter — Leslie Harrison’s Displacement, Frost, all the Russians (accurate or not) — but who do you think of as a summer poet? Lyrical, fulsome, hot… give me some recommendations. I’m in a mood.
Life is bursting at the seams here. In addition to the day-to-day work of work and parenting, I’ve been a madwoman of creativity.
In the kitchen.
In the last week I’ve baked Portuguese sweet bread, chocolate drop cookies, cinnamon-swirled brioche loaves, and strawberry jam.
And I’ve written exactly one and a half lines of poetry.
Cooking fits well into the balancing act, especially baking — outside of the mixing, so much of it is passive, letting the oven do all the work while keeping an eye on the time — but the still center I need to write is harder to come by these days.
Yet, at last, the high tide of grief has begun to ebb. Has bowed and taken its place several steps behind the new ruler of the household. I felt so overwrought through most of my pregnancy, so bereft, I couldn’t imagine…
The boys resemble their dad — the brow line, their cute button noses — and so does Georgia, though her look is softer and clearly feminine.
But her long fingers, with their perfect little fingernails — her hands are an inheritance from my mother.
The poems will come, as will sleep, and normalcy (of a kind).
But this, this is fleeting. In the face of such spectacular vulnerability and need, this being that I created cell by cell, how can I feel anything but blessed.
I’m later than I intended, but I’m sure you understand. But here at last are the results of my contribution to Kelli Russell Agodon‘s Big Poetry Giveaway. I chose the winners using the Random Number Generator. Last year I posted pictures of each result, but I don’t have time for such fussiness this year, so I hope you’ll just trust me.
To recap, this year’s prizes include a chapbook and 4 journal subscriptions (1 year each). The winners are:
Tomorrow is April 1, the first day of National Poetry Month, which means it’s once again time for the Big Poetry Giveaway, a blog event created and organized by Kelli Russell Agodon where poets and poetry lovers giveaway two books of poems on their blog. Please visit her blog to get the full list of participants.
To play, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post. Usually, I then choose the winners, using the Random Number Generator, on May 1, but since I’ll be in hospital with the new baby then, I probably won’t have the chance to post the winners until around May 7.
This year’s prizes include a chapbook and 4 journal subscriptions (1 year each):
I forgot the “about me” segment… Since I began this blog 4 years ago, my life has gone through seismic changes. From running a wonderful indie bookstore to working for my favorite small press, babies (babies! Me!) (and still another to come!), and last year the loss of my mother, my grief over which has rather taken over the world since. I keep no hard and fast rules regarding what I write about here, except that I tend not to mention my husband too much because he’s not comfortable with that. I have a chapbook, but it’s not part of the giveaway because I don’t have any copies. I’ll amend that one of these days — I think my local indie down the road still has a couple. I’m selectively submitting my full-length manuscript to a few very particular presses and contests, so knock wood that I’ll hear good news on that front one fine day. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me, feel free to include that with your comment entry below!
Despite everything I knew and felt, two of my dearest friends died gasping for air. Another couldn’t stop her pain with morphine, so she disconnected her feeding tube. Still another has the same kind of cancer, and after a heartening remission it’s back with a vengeance. Two other friends are sitting with the niece and nephew, who have just had to pull the plug on their mother’s life support. All of them are sitting there at the mother’s bedside as I write, enduring the umpteenth day of death. It’s not a snap. My mother-in-law, while visiting us at our summer home last September, fell down the stairs at 2:00 am, alone, and died — she lay where we found her, five hours later, at the bottom of the stairs, in her moon-and-star pajamas. The idea of death is always a simile — old as the hills. It can’t hurt me. But the images have to be borne, and they are unbearable. In them, knowing and feeling fight for my soul, as if one or the other could win it. The evidences are as recalcitrant as they are unignorable. I suffer them as I will never suffer my own dying. In them, I feel the legacy of what befalls us — the Latin cadere, “to fall,” gives us all that “is the case” — casualty and cadaver too — and even grammatical case, as I was recently amazed to discover, comes not from the word meaning box but from the past participle of cadere, making nouns more fundamentally moving than we like to imagine.
…When feeling no longer evades, and thinking no longer avails, the two become woven together. You feel knowing can’t save you; you know feeling can’t save you. Their famous battles fall away, and in a flash or stretch, depending how things go with you, you do a lot at once: holding back while you hold forth, bearing down while you bear up.
–Heather McHugh, “Poise and Suspense,” from Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play, edited by Daniel Tobin & Pimone Triplett
I don’t want to let the year end without saying that, for all of 2011’s sorrows, I am deeply and heartfelt-fully grateful for my family — my boys, my husband, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, etc. — and all my loyal and loving friends — virtual and otherwise. You remind me of what’s true and dear in life, and hold my hand on days when I don’t need reminding but just need a hand. May the new year bring you all and mostly good things.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Beaufort Scale. It could be because the concept of measurement itself is intrinsically interesting, but how the Beaufort Scale grapples with wind is a sort of poetry. Its language is simple and elegant, metaphorical. And it’s served as a point of inspiration for:
and at least one poem (“Nocturne,” by Sarah Gridley, from Weather Eye Open), though I’m sure there are others.
As I was reading Weather Eye Open last night, a way of using the Beaufort Scale for a poem of my own occurred to me, though it’s not the Beaufort Scale itself I’d be using, but its structure, as a sort of model for organizing my thoughts about grief, from the still point at the eye of the hurricane. So to speak. “Projects” don’t really work for me as such, but I’m hoping that this might help give me some extra tools for handling such fraught material.
Also in the realm of good news, two poems were accepted by a journal I’d given up on hearing from, it’d been so long. Nice to break up those rejections here and there, yes?
But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!
I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.
Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.
One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.
Raina Wallens has a piece over at The Rumpus that wonders why 5 grief memoirs in a few years is considered so notable. For those of us in its grip, these memoirs of grief are vital:
Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?
Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.
The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.
I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.
I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.
They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.
And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.
As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?
Thanks so much again to Kelli Russell Agodon for putting this whole shebang together, and thanks to everyone who participated. National Poetry Month is one of my favorite times of the year, but this year I’ve been otherwise occupied. Thanks all of you for coming on by and helping me keep my head on straight.
And now, what you’ve been waiting for. Remember, if you don’t win, that lit journal subscriptions are the most affordable ways to sample a wide array of poetry. The winners, as chosen by the Random Number Generator (and you’ll note that the numbers run from 1 to 45 — while there are 47 comments, 2 are trackbacks):
When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.
But, oh hell, you keep trying.
— Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye
I’m back to stories again; they’re inescapable. The thing is, more than ways of making sense of your life, they can be companions, ones who’ve been there before you. Maybe they can’t show you the path through the dark woods — because there is no one true path, is there — but they can keep you company as you go. It’s an unspeakable help.
I was lucky enough to receive in today’s mail an advanced reader’s copy of The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke. I will write about it when I finish — I’m 40 pages in and find it painful and exquisite and necessary. Reading about her parents’ courtship reminded me of the story I learned from my mother just a few years ago —
At 21, my mother went on a double date with her best friend, Estelle, and her beau. This was in Georgia. Dad was a yankee, only there because he’d joined the Navy and was in training at Fort Benning. My dad was a mate of this beau, and he had a car. They chose my mom’s date, my dad, because he had a car.
They hit it off: engaged in 4 weeks, married in 6. Can you imagine?
How our lives can be hinged on the most random details.
One of my brothers tells me that they had a rough patch in the 1970s, but I don’t remember that. I remember him giving her a kiss every day before he left for work — actually, it was more like a series of kisses — their goodbyes were always long.
But his leaving was abrupt. A massive heart attack at 49. It never occurred to me that my mother would remarry. Some do. But I knew — he was her all. She’s never stopped missing him.
A critical illness brings you up short any number of ways. Points a finger at you and asks, What do you believe, anyway?
I was brought up Catholic, but aside from various ceremonies haven’t been in a church in a decade. I think of myself as agnostic/borderline atheist. I might allow that there might be creators up there, but if so they’re much too busy to bother with us and our insignificant lives.
And yet it appears somehow I’ve harbored the hazy half-formed belief that the universe owes me for taking my father so soon. As if the universe has ever been an entity that bargained. Or apologized.
My mother’s universe is shrinking to the size of two rooms.
She sleeps in a recliner, and has for months — stairs are simply insurmountable. Neuropathy in her hands and feet cause her hands to shake so much that she needs her meals cut for her, can only drink from cups with handles.
The bathroom is but a few feet from her chair, but it’s still too far these days. She has a walker, but her every movement takes an infinite amount of energy, leaves her depleted and exhausted.
She’s sleeping much more than she was just two weeks ago. She’s not as alert as she was, becomes confused easily. Her pain meds haven’t significantly changed. This isn’t morphine brain. This is cancer, on the march.
Among other things, she’s on oxygen, fentanyl patch, oxycodone, several steroids, and a diuretic — her feet have swollen to the point where the skin has cracked and become infected. No more chemo until it heals.
And she didn’t have chemo last week because her platelets were low. Chemo was interrupted earlier to try radiation on the metastasis in her spine. And during these necessary interims between chemo her cancer counts have sky-rocketed.
Her legs are weak. Tomorrow she’s having an MRI to see where else the cancer’s traveled.
But she still wants chemo. She may be dying, but she’s not ready to stop trying to live.
I may never be ready to live in a world without my mother, but it feels like some sort of grace that we’re being given this long goodbye.
(Who’s doing the giving? Don’t expect consistency from this quarter.)
And in the grand and small scheme of things, it’s not about me. Because with or without her, I’ll get to keep on living.