In memoir-tinged poems about dementia and autistic children, we encounter the world outside ourselves
Tell Them It Was Mozart
123 pages, softcover
58 pages, softcover
107 pages, softcover
If all poems are about either love or death, poetry that deals in grief may really pack a wallop, for, should it truly rise to the occasion, it will cover love and death simultaneously—full force, head on. Three recent collections from Brick Books claim this territory, albeit in distinct ways, with a fierceness that is moving, occasionally claustrophobic and often joyfully expansive, even transformative.
Tell Them It Was Mozart, Angeline Schellenberg’s first collection, inspires compulsive page turning in a way that poems seldom do. It features a narrator raising two children on the autism spectrum, and reads like a memoir-in-verse, one littered with vomit, wordplay, stuck zippers, competing diagnoses, moments of grace and wonder, and a buffet of terrors large and small. If this is indeed a form of memoir, why poems and not prose? It is possible, Schellenberg shows us, to isolate key moments in a plot (or a life) in ways that allow concerns and emotions to heighten and recede, to cycle and recycle. Metaphors emerge, grounded by a musical baseline by turns melodic and jarring, wondrous and deeply sad.
In “The Test,” the author shimmies inside the emotional side effects of medical testing: “Become the black hole / on a Fragile X researcher’s diagram, / the red question mark on your family tree.” An ache for what passes as normalcy is delicately drawn in “Waving,” through the poignantly ironic comfort taken from monarch butterflies “on windwhipped willow boughs” and “flapping silk knits,” finally to the dog wagging its tail: “mirroring the arms of other people’s children.” Schellenberg’s form of fragmentary telling neatly matches her subject: the panic, frustration and sorrow fused with love that characterizes all parenthood, but that runs at breakneck speed and volume for parents of children with special needs. Schellenberg distorts diagnostic language to powerful effect, and mercilessly animates the failures of the system. Her monotone, barely held calm in crisis mode is flawless: “I block the door with both arms, scan / for pens, scissors, free-standing shelves, anything / glass, I breathe, / I begin to speak slowly, softly, everything I know / about hovercrafts…”
The stakes are high in this narrator’s world, as is the intensity of an insidious grief that must be outrun and repeatedly wrestled into submission. Some pieces in this book read more like cathartic confession or defiant disclosure than poems: the author is documenting her reality so intently the possibility of metaphor has been forgotten. I am supposed to disapprove—too much poet, not enough poem—but I find it difficult to quibble with Schellenberg. She has put on record, in vivid clarity, an experience that is too easily ignored by those outside its sphere, and she has done so in a way that makes it impossible for a reader not to inhabit that sphere: to meet its wholeness and its variegated parts, the wider reality it holds.
Selah, by Nora Gould—a single, long poem in fragments—is an utterly different form of immersion into a similarly wrenching reality. In an interview on open-book.ca, Gould describes how she writes: in tractors, out on the ranch, specifically “the John Deere 7810 while I pick up grain from the combine and the 4230 and 4440 when hauling bales … I grab my cloth bag—pad of lined yellow paper, pens, and water bottle—and emerge into fall air colder than the sunshine suggests. In that space, the interruption of driving and climbing out and back into another tractor cab, … phrases and words jostle around, re-arrange, and change.”
Gould’s method sounds vastly more chaotic than the resulting poetry feels, but I would propose that the physical movement allows her mind to work away at imagery, language, impressions. Jane Hirshfield writes of the attentiveness required in poem making in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry: “By concentration I mean a particular state of awareness penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” This is the quality of concentration that permeates Gould’s writing, through which she embeds the confusion, uncertainty, pain and deep loss that accompany the circumstance under scrutiny in Selah: living with a husband who has dementia.
As with Schellenberg’s collection, the flavour of memoir permeates this long poem, but it is more contemplative, while paradoxically more raw. To engage with the writing, you need not know that selah, a Biblical term, may mean a musical notation, or to praise, lift up, weigh in the balance or pause. But Gould engages with all these possibilities, giving her long poem, so deeply grounded in landscape and metaphor, a satisfying breadth and tonal range. Her elastic title serves as a macro metaphor for the activity under way in this poem, the work of working through, how what is required for survival—praise, pause, assessment—can change from moment to moment. It is also breathy, open, a word that admits neither closure nor clarity. For what can be clear in the vicinity of dementia? Here’s a “weigh in the balance” moment:
Not a foreign language.
His lost words, delays to decipher, not speaking,
and the odd surprise—Don’t attach conditions.
Tell me what to do and I will do it. Don’t
make me figure things out.
I had said, If you are warm enough, please
turn down the heat.
We were in the car, looking ahead.
Surrounding this moment, life at the ranch goes on. Nine fox kits are rescued (praise). Cedar waxwings “devour” the petals of a blooming crab apple (lift up). The spring melt floods “old buffalo wallows” and “the bee man moved his hives to higher ground” (musical notation, perhaps, abiding by the water’s rising song). At heart here is a piercing sorrow over loss of intimacy, one mirrored and amplified by the narrator’s intimacy with her surroundings, and with her daily activities—her belief in their inherent meaning. Early on, the compilation of swatches of fabric into a quilt shows how beauty lords over uncertainty: “Dusky blues, greens, shot with pearly light, yellows, / rosy pinks—twilight or dawn, nothing is decided.” The reader is cued that all is in flux, the narrator stricken, determined to piece the pattern together while already blaming herself for its failure to cohere. “And that one goat, running—did I place both hands / on her head, turn her out into the wilderness?”
At times, the pathos evoked is intense. Gould begins a section with, “He had misplaced my mouth / that night he wanted me. / Even I couldn’t discern this…” Some lines later she closes with, “I set that night aside, / next to the candles / above the pegs where we hang our jeans.” The reader is in the room, experiencing these excruciating misconnections. We see the moment shelved, to be drawn out and re-examined later, when a kind of understanding begins to coalesce. That “shelving” is later echoed in a key episode, a turning point. “I asked him about those pails, the shelf. He said, / I was in a hurry. I found no words. Perhaps // my eyebrows. He knew I knew, I could see / he knew and he knew that too and we didn’t speak of it / all winter, Charl and I, on the farm.” Gould’s rhythms are hypnotic—as powerful as the need to set evidence aside, to carry on, for the couple to remain, for as long as possible, “Charl and I, on the farm.”
Genevieve Lehr’s Stomata is the most ambitious and reaching of these books. We are still in grief’s territory, but this book engages with a symphony of sorrows, ranging from personal losses to those borne more universally—or those, such as the legacy of Canada’s residential school system, that ought to be. Encountering work like Lehr’s presents a reviewer with a dilemma and a challenge: how to parse such verse, how to isolate and highlight its moving parts, without dismantling its effect, undoing the grace in its function?
A stoma is a pore or an opening: one of the minute pores that allow gases to permeate a plant; an opening created in a human body by a surgeon, leading to an organ such as the gut or trachea; or a mouth-like opening in one of the “lower animals.” As Gould does with her own title, Lehr puts each meaning to work. What emerges is the sense of a being or a self literally perforated by grief, but also, by some wrenching (and possibly miraculous) process, drawing sustenance through those very openings. By grief, Lehr proves, poem by poem, we come into direct contact with the world outside ourselves. We are pierced with the essence of existence.
Lehr’s dominant tone is elegiac, and elemental, and so it fits that sky and wind infiltrate the whole. From the first section of “The latter half of the third quarter of the waning moon,” the long opening poem—“The dog in the cloud growls, lowers itself to / the ground, turns. Goodbye, goodbye, I said…”—Lehr trusts nouns and verbs with a courage more writers ought to muster. Her command of rhythm and internal rhyme is exquisite. The first word in this book is “metamorphosis,” and everything that follows acts its meaning out. Lehr reports: “rosehips lean across the path, early frost / dusting their tufted chins. Be still, they whisper, listen: / the wind is telling how the seed / journeyed from the desert in a fold of skin.” She asks: “Could it be that we have two souls, / one pulling its shoes on at sunset, the other with the corpse of a bird in its craw?” She understands: “the horse / who fell in the pond will deliquesce over winter / into coltsfoot, spring’s handful of green.”
Lehr’s territory is border-free. She guides her reader over the “salt plains of Tibet”; huddles “in the darkness like Brueghel’s crows”; and, with deep tenderness, re-enacts a Mi’kmaq boy’s tragic experience in residential school (Lehr is not indigenous, but learned this true story from Mi’kmaq friends). The book closes with the brilliant sequence “On your birthday,” which kicks off with the drowning of 10,000 caribou, a horrific event caused by the James Bay Hydro Project in 1984. A poet of Lehr’s caliber takes our grief, our utter bewilderment at the state of reality, and grinds it through the machinations of language, sound, metaphor, to create a new sensation of wholeness.
Say that on your birthday, as Lehr proposes, “a small brown goat / bound for the slaughterhouse / escaped onto New Jersey’s most dangerous / highway, looked up, saw the universe expanding.” Lehr wraps tidily in these lines a gift for the occasion: the convergence of stillness and motion, and, in a reversal of the stomata of grief, a quick, surgical cut of reprieve.
Anita Lahey is the author of The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture (Palimpsest Press, 2013) and of two Véhicule Press poetry collections: Out to Dry in Cape Breton (2006) and Spinning Side Kick (2011). The former was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Ottawa Book Award.