Grief metaphors flying

In what’s probably a common response to grief, two scripts are running through my head constantly: “I wish I” and “At least I.” I’m so glad I interviewed my mother about her life for my writing; that I spent a lot of time with her in April, memorizing her the way you do when you care for a sick person in intimate ways; and that we made a fuss of her 80th birthday in February 2020. My siblings and I did two things that she loved. We bought her one of those motorized reclining chairs–lift off without moving a muscle!–and we treated her at a restaurant in Philadelphia where all the waiters sing opera. For a Mother’s Day gift in 1994, before I moved to Virginia, we had escorted her to a matinee at the Metropolitan Opera and then a fancy dinner out, but she wouldn’t have had the energy for that much travel anymore, so the restaurant was a sweet compromise. I’ll always remember her thrilled face upturned to the waitstaff during solos. “Let’s do that again next year,” she said. My head is also full of all the adventures she didn’t have, especially the travel she didn’t get to do to Bermuda, the Mediterranean islands, Australia and New Zealand, and a host of European capitols. In emigrating from England to the U.S. and then zipping around the country with my father when she was younger, she did travel more than many, but except for a trip to England that a bunch of people supported in various ways, she was both too anxious and too cash-strapped to fly in her later years (my father burnt through all their retirement savings, but that’s another story).

This week since her death has flit by strangely. I spent time with my kids, both based in Philadelphia, before driving home. I’ve written a little: a poem my hairdresser dictated the title for (he’s both a literary person and wise about grieving, and the title is “First in Line for Takeoff”); some notes of my memories of her last days; her obituary; responses to condolence notes and gifts; this blog post and the last. I’m thinking about other writing-related work: submitting mss for the virtual Breadloaf Environmental conference in June and the live Sewanee workshop in May; the Mother’s Day promotion I was going to do for Unbecoming; a short article on Eliot due at the end of May; whether it would be consoling or ridiculous to try working on my creative mss-in-progress again. The book of essays I will deliver to Tinderbox Editions before too long–Poetry’s Possible Worlds is scheduled for November publication–currently ends with my mother’s recovery from her first bout with lymphoma in 2015. Does my coda need a coda? I can hardly bear to think about it. And, of course, I’m spending a lot of time doing nothing. There’s so much to think about and avoid thinking about. I’m most comfortable perched at an intellectual distance from big feelings, noticing how the people around me process it, for instance, and my own preference for matter-of-fact conversations about her death. That’s part of what makes me a writer–metaphor itself involves displacement as well as insight–but it can also be maladaptive.

Oddly, I just published a poem about letting go this week. “The Red Door” (who knows where that image came from?) appears in the new issue of Nelle (not online but pictured below), along with a slightly longer poem called “Early Cretaceous Walks Up to the Bar,” inspired by an apparently phosphorescent gar in the Hillsborough River and very much about standing at a distance from feeling. A friend once pointed out there’s a lot of running water in my poems. O river of life, you can be a very tired metaphor, but maybe a big weird fish flying through redeems it.

My mother as live-in nurse, 1962

pat 1965
The photo’s from ’65, actually–best I could do

 

Numismatics, 1962

Strange to feel inferior, but that
was the job of live-in European servants:
to confer shine for a pittance. English nurses,
Scottish maids, Estonian women doing laundry,
German POWs pruning roses.

Out through glitter, back to the dock.

Mrs. Anthony motored around town
in a humble Ford wagon, but in her garage,
a Daimler banked its gleam. I had to study
eight degrees of grandeur for the table,
a bewilderment of china. Her daughter
Kitty curtsied to me once, a faux-pas.
Those manners were too silver for the help.

Economical strokes, green
folded neatly behind her.

Come summer, I decamped with the Anthonys
to Fishers Island. Another empire. Eight more
sets of china. Kitty and brothers buffed
by swimming, boating, tennis. Another domestic
and I liked to steal an early hour
on the courts, a pretty German girl
who volleyed dares: ask for a raise, learn
to drive. Sporty in hand-me-down whites.

I didn’t know who Susan was. Mr.
Anthony’s aunt, maybe. Unmarried. No fuss.
She swam every day, climbing down the ladder
from the quay. I wobbled over with tea.
Thought eighty, but I was too young to gauge.
Craggy-featured, slim, her metallic bob
tucked into a rubber bathing cap.
She urged me to paddle out, but I clung
to the ladder. Which one of us was the nurse?

Out and back, resisted and
supported by the water.
If the sea had corners.

She asked: You traveled to America
to remake your life. Why linger here?
Women’s roles are changing. Later I guessed
she was Susan B. Anthony, but the dates
were wrong. Her circulation, she hinted, had been
limited. She left me a tip: five Liberty dollars.

I left the job before my year was up.
Nicer to tend babies for less wealthy
Jewish families. Funny how they worshiped
Winston Churchill, the political failure. I
was welcome at their dinner tables while
their black maids went home for the night.

Somewhere it’s still happening—
four springer spaniels jingling into the car,
bound for the ferry in New London. Harvard
boys trade books for boat shoes. Servants
fly in from poorer countries to chip
gilt dessert plates in the stainless sink.
Another Susan, having withdrawn
from the exchange, launches herself seaward.
Her issue is impervious to salt.

*

That’s a poem I wrote about five years ago, submitted to magazines for a while without success, lost track of, and just searched through old files to find again. I brushed it up a bit for the occasion but I don’t really know how well it works as a poem. I just love the story–my working-class mother having her first real encounter with serious wealth and snobbery in the supposedly democratic U.S., and that independent elderly feminist with the suggestive name. I dedicate it here to my mother, my daughter, and daring women everywhere.

Onto the last week of classes here, followed by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, where I’ll read on Saturday morning at 10. Have a liberated week!

 

Oh, mother

Writing is a confidence game, and while generally I can play it with the necessary brio, occasionally I drop all the cards.

In many ways, I’m having a great spring. I love this new essay on Radioland by Athena Kildegaard in Bloom. I’m happily tinkering with fall syllabi, but I still have a few months before September hits, hallelujah.

I also have some cool events coming up. One is a long weekend with my spouse on Martha’s Vineyard (attending a wedding then just hanging out). Others are work, but the fun kind. With the usual ambivalence–feeling both that my work deserves attention and I am a total impostor–I applied last fall and winter to various series, and some applications resulted in invitations. See my Events page for details on May-June readings In D.C., Maryland, and CT. It reminds me that when you throw out lots of filaments, like Whitman’s spider, a few catch.

So with all that busy-ness ahead, plus a visit with my mother next week and picking up my daughter from her first year of college, I thought: I need to stay focused on the time-sensitive work, which mostly involves tying up the threads on big projects and getting them under consideration. I tried, with some success. I worked, got sick, recovered, worked some more. Then, last weekend, I froze.

I don’t know why I’m having trouble moving ahead, although I always find it harder to send stuff out than to write it in the first place. I know why I write and always will write–building a little world is joyful, healing work. Marketing a little world: less fun. Maybe I don’t want to finish these projects, at some level. Maybe I’m experiencing biochemical chaos, pollen allergies, unresolved anger. I’m worried about my mother, who face-planted in the radiologist’s office recently and knocked out her top front teeth. I was also disheartened by being laid up on the couch all weekend. I’d been so relieved by improved health in the last couple of weeks–I finally seemed to be on a path toward physical well-being, able to take walks again!–and then I twisted my heel and reactivated my plantar fasciitis. Painful for a couple of days, but trivial in the long run. What’s harder is being reminded that all my plans are basically imaginary and can be swept away in a moment.bookcase

At any rate, after that Saturday morning injury came several very low days. Honestly, I’ve gone into deeper holes, and for much longer. I know how to manage an unhappy brain, just like I know the regime of heat, ice, rest, and gentle stretches that helps my foot. I just slow down and do whatever work seems possible; trying to force progress on a project I’m discouraged about doesn’t get me anywhere, so better to clean out a closet or just read. (Although I’m not yet ready to face reorganizing my books–why did I once think all my contemporary poetry would fit in one bookcase?)

So this week I tinkered with writing that felt outward-focused, not self-aggrandizing. I know some people don’t see reviews as acts of generosity, but I receive them that way, and writing them feels like service to poetry. Having finished a couple of tardy reviews, I already feel better. A little.

One obstacle to feeling a lot better is, paradoxically, my basic sanity. A failure of confidence is actual a rational response to the literary market. Most people don’t want to read what any of us is putting out there. Yet, oh my god, am I grateful other writers persist. I need to immerse myself in their consoling fictions when my own imagination fails and I confront the stark truth of things.

Well, my lunatic desire to seek audiences has always resurged before. I just have to accept this latest highly symbolic health problem, that my feet don’t want me to move. Work on it gently, and wait it out. I hear I may be getting breakfast in bed this Sunday with some homemade blueberry muffins. My feet, honestly, ought to calm down–they have it pretty good.