Grief & Poetry in Progress

****"Untitled (Head of a Baby)" **** by Ron Mueck

Seventeen weeks since my mother died.

If my grief were a baby, it wouldn’t be eating solid food yet.

If my grief were a grapevine, the fruit would only now be ripening.

But my grief will not grow, or rot on the vine.

If anything has changed, it’s my understanding of how to approach it: carefully. At an angle. Not for nothing did ED say, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Summoning the memory of my mother’s last moments helps make her loss real, but I can only muster a glance from the corners of my eyes. To face this memory head-on is as devastating now as it was in March.

Approaching new writing can work like that, too. The glare of the blank page can be daunting if you don’t have an idea in your head, just the itch to get going already.

Ted Hughes draft

Yesterday I read a poem I really liked, but felt was marred by its final line. I sent the link to a friend, and he sent me back a line by line critique, and his own suggested edits. Which I disagreed with. So then I tinkered with it myself, and sent him my revision.

The most interesting part of this exercise was how similar it felt to revising my own poems, probably because this poem is stylistically and aesthetically kin to mine. I think so, anyway.

Point being, working on revisions of someone else’s poem can be a really useful warm-up to writing a draft of your own. Approaching a new poem from a roundabout.

I’m not going to post these poems here, because that would be awkward and weird, and I’d feel awkward and weird if the poet discovered them. (How rude!) Possibly I’m overly self-conscious about this.

But if you’re curious, feel free to drop me a line and I’ll send them to you, as long as you promise to keep it to yourself. Seriously. (How rude!)

And maybe then you could take a crack at it, too: an infinity of (secret!) parallel poems.

~~~

Update: No sooner did I post this than I came across this!: Breaking the Rules: A Poetry Workshop. I’m not such a revolutionary after all.

“Every lament is a love-song.”*

Many summer Sundays growing up, my family would get up at dawn, skip church, and instead head out to the beach at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA. Not just my immediate family, but a huge swath of aunts, uncles, and cousins — Mum was a Georgia girl, but Dad was born & bred in Stoughton, MA, the youngest of 8 — that side of the family is massive.

The beach opened at 8am, so we’d get there around 7:30 — which meant we’d have to leave home around 6:30 — and park on the side of the road in the long line that had already formed. Then we’d wander up & down the length of cars, looking for our cousins to play with while we waited. As 8 approached, we’d all scurry back to our cars, willing our folks to hurry up and park. Whichever family cohorts parked first would commandeer a bunch of picnic tables to put together.

We came equipped with table cloths, paper plates, mugs, & plasticware; ropes to tie to the pines and hang our wet towels on; gas stoves for making tea & coffee and cooking bacon & eggs; my cousin Dianne always brought Dunkin’ Donuts; and of course hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. There were two big boxes of provisions at the house that were never unpacked, only added to.

First in, last out. The sun would be setting, we’d have changed out of our bathing suits into long pants and sweatshirts, and still not want to leave, climbing the empty  life guard chairs to avoid the clouds of black flies. But the beach closed at 8pm, so eventually we’d have to go.

But it wasn’t time to separate from the larger family, not yet. First, we drove to  Erickson’s, a roadside ice cream stand in Carver, not too far from the beach. My childhood tasted like banana ice cream — was there ever a sweeter end to a summer day?

It’s been eleven weeks since Mum died. The more days that pass without her, the emptier they feel. My southern mother loved the summer, loved the heat, the beach, even though she never learned to swim. She’d wade out to about mid-thigh, and then sit in the water for a while. That was enough for her.

The raw anguish and outrage has burned out to a dull and ragged ache. Things happen, good things, and I’m happy. I can be happy. But I feel the lack of her only more every day. If a happy thing falls** in the forest but I have no mother to tell it to, does it really happen?

The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to pretend she’s not — we’d have spoken, seen each other, so many times by now. I can accept the awful wrongness of it all, say, Yes, my mother is dead. But still my heart protests: it is awful, it is wrong. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.*

* from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

** from “Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Emperor of All Maladies hastens The Long Goodbye

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.

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?

Mum with her oncologist at the cancer center's St. Patrick's Day party, 6 days before she died.

Despite it all…

…I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I was born to a great mother, that I loved her and told her so all the time. That I was able to be there for her and that she let me care for her was a real blessing. A critical illness has a way of burning away all the inessentials. The pain I’m in now is because I love her so much — my grief is the best tribute I can offer.

I’m lucky that I have so many sweet and thoughtful friends who thought of me and how difficult Sunday would be for me, and reached out with comfort. I know there will be many such hard days ahead, but I confess I didn’t handle this one very well.

And I’m lucky I have these boys, and their patient father, all of whom look stricken every time I go out “for poetry,” but let me go nonetheless. The poetry is returning — a new poem last week, another brewing — but nothing could happen if they didn’t give me a little space to maneuver.

And I like to think they’re discovering the exhilaration of creating for themselves…