“Extended Release,” now in Guernica, is one of those poems that came to me in a rush, the kind that writers sometimes refer to as a gift, in that it arrives in near-final shape. I jotted in a dim living room during my mother’s last weeks, when she was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes as we sought a diagnosis and, we hoped, a cure. I had been taking care of her in the house she shared with my brother when she suddenly couldn’t hold a spoon steady. I called the home nursing service; they said to call an ambulance. My mother’s reproach when she saw the EMTs–“Oh, Les, what have you done”–will haunt me forever, I’m sure, as well as the difficulty of negotiating treatment for her pain. I think she trusted me to be ruthlessly kind, if you know what I mean, and she was disappointed that I didn’t catch on that she could have slipped away without fuss that night. Days later, I would be the person who discovered her death, and I have a gut feeling she waited to let go until I was on watch because she thought I could take it. She always told me women were stronger than men and seemed to think I could endure anything the world would throw at me. I guess I have, so far–not that I’ve had the hardest life by a long shot, but I’ve kept plowing along. Maybe that’s just what I need to believe, that she thought I was strong.
The balancing force to my regret was our exchange about what comes after pain. My mother was spiritually all over the map, sometimes describing her many reincarnations and other times saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” But she really did talk, as I recount in the poem, about what people wear in heaven. We compared notes on what heaven might be like, for us, if it existed. That was one of the best conversations we had during those last difficult weeks. She seemed peaceful and curious. It was a gift to be there and mull over possibilities with her. People’s kind responses to this poem have been gifts, too. So many people have been through this with loved ones. I wonder if it’s any better when someone dies suddenly, without that month of pain and uncertainty. I suspect not.
Gifts are also on my mind because I was just talking to a local book club about the weird process of writing Unbecoming. Much of my novel was made; some of it was given. It’s interesting, sometimes a little painful, to contemplate the afterlife of a book. Some women in the book club said they were haunted and touched by the novel. They generally agreed that they hated the cover (yeah, I know, that’s been a theme in the responses). But I’m glad to have been in conversation with them about the process of writing it and what the book means to me now. Books follow you around like spirits, too.
I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks about the NEXT book, but in the meantime, I’m busy making hard judgments about other people’s poems. Shenandoah received over 800 poetry batches in the recent submission period (Submittable caps us at 800/ month but a few extras tend to sneak through somehow). I’m down to about 280, which feels like progress, but they get harder and harder to cull, of course. It’s a bummer to turn down strong poems, often moving ones in which language and structure aren’t quite tight enough yet, sometimes beautifully crafted pieces that haven’t quite articulated their stakes. But I still feel lucky, most days, to do this work. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s a reminder that even when you don’t see your work accepted, it may still be reaching one person who appreciates it.
In the meantime, a watching recommendation: Get Back. Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary should be insufferable. It’s LONG, sometimes baggy, and full of infighting. I’m not even one of those Beatles fans who knows every album, etc., and gathers up every crumb about their career. I turned it on, frankly, in part just for the accents; my mother’s from Liverpool, same era, and Scouse sounds like home. Yet I’m finding it utterly riveting. The characters are fascinating and not what I expected, but more crucially, it’s amazing to watch talented people in the process of making top-notch art. The documentary covers a hyper-compressed period in which the Beatles came together to write a whole new suite of songs, practice them, and figure how to get along enough to put on a show. In the first episode, there’s a moment when people are arguing about the set, and in the background, Paul is tinkering on the piano (composing “Let It Be,” you gradually realize). When they play together, even after bitter disagreement, you can see the telepathy sparking, as well as their delight in each other’s talent. It’s wonderful that some of their process lives on, as well as the music itself.