A good friend and I sometimes exchange writing prompts. Last summer, as she began a sabbatical to begin a prose memoir, she asked for some prompts and I sent her a small envelope of words, fragments of poems, dictionary definitions and etymologies, quotations. Earlier this month, as she prepared to take a look at my prompts, she reread my letter and fashioned a passel of prompts for me. I received the small envelope this week. Today I offer a few jottings based on those prompts, each drawn at random, one at a time. (The prompts are in italics.)
It is strange and so human to be waiting for someone’s dying. I have written for years about my mother. In my younger poems she was not the overt subject but now that she’s gone I can see her there, in those old phrases, or the shape of her, in the words. That was my work, exhausting as it was, writing for years toward her without quite realizing it. And then she got sick. Dementia conveyed a barbed gift—disinhibition is the clinical term—restoring her to me for a time. It is strange (and so human?) to express gratitude for an illness that caused her such suffering and killed her so swiftly. We talked in those few years as we never had before, some painful facts about our shared past, and about her years that preceded me.
Dementia seemed to absolve her of bitterness and revealed her, like an eye freed of its cataract. About nine months before she died in 2005 I asked her on the phone how she felt about her illness. “I am so lucky,” she said. By that time she had lost the ability to write, though she could still read. She could no longer paint but sometimes took up a brush and dabbed some shaky color onto her old work. She was about a month away from the wheelchair; she’d been incontinent of bowel and bladder, both in bed and in public; she suffered from intractable psychosis. And yet when I asked how she felt about being ill? Fortunate. I hadn’t known I was waiting for her to get degeneratively sick. I couldn’t have wished it on her. But when she died I saw what luck we’d had, good and bad. I’m sorry, not sorry. Both are true.
The sameness of trees beside each driveway. Most of my adult life I’ve lived urban or rural, brownstone or goat path, but not landed in the comforts of the suburbs. The last house I lived in with my parents, in New Hampshire, was a split-level in a row of four across from a school. Dad put up a low cedar fence and trimmed the maple in the front yard. They labored every summer in the vegetable and flower gardens I had no interest in: perennials, annuals, pounds and pounds of tomatoes. I am at work on a series of poems I’m calling “The Granite State.” New Hampshire, my native state, was named after a hard amalgam of stones, feldspar and quartz and others. It is hard to sing of granite, my hard hard home. Relentlessly, a mockingbird is making his case. Sing, he persuades, sing in he manner of others; the voice is the thing and if used right it never gets exhausted. To write about mother seems a simple thing, not aggressive and loud like the mockingbird, but specific, a trickle of mountain runoff. But have I avoided my story in hers? I’m not sure they’re separable. The mockingbird says to sing her song as my own. Is that a form of hiding or way of being true to instinct? She sang in letters (I have a couple hundred, a fraction of her output), in paintings (I have two, my sister four, my father two; perhaps that is all that survives), as well as in sketchbooks and books and journals. If the song of her life survives, in me, I have a daily choice as though my consciousness were split-level. Walk in the front door and decide, will I go downstairs, where we keep so many of the old things, the useless and the cherished, the forgotten, the frightening? Or will I go up, open the drapes, flood the place with light and make a sandwich, listen to a record or two, have an afternoon nap? Relentlessly, the mockingbird is making his case for the basement.
Can you imagine all my redeemable bottles … without you touching those unseen doors? What can’t be touched or seen can still be redeemed, I believe, in poems. Grab the work of a lyric poet—Dickinson, Hopkins, Hugo, Sze, Kutchins, Doty are all close at hand to me today—and you might find that, as Richard Hugo wrote, “when you look back / no one is waving. They kept no record / of your suffering.” What a relief! Relieved of the burden of record-keeping I can drain the old bottles of their untellable contents, turn them in for a nickel apiece, buy a new pencil, scratch out a daughter’s quatrain. But what can be seen, I think, must be touched, in prose. As my mother lay dying I asked her for the courage, as though somehow her death could give me that, to do her life justice in my writing. It’s been eight years. I stare in her direction and see no doors. But there’s hope. I have enrolled in a memoir-writing class to be taught by a lyric poet.