I Carry My Mother by Lesléa Newman, Headmistress Press, 2015, 108 pp/, $10.00
Lesléa Newman’s latest book, I Carry My Mother takes as its subject the death of the author’s mother and the process of grieving this loss. In this unflinching, layered account, Newman opens a window on a human experience deeply her own and also universally relatable. These poems swing between the two poles of “my mother is alive and not alive” (“In the ICU”) and linger in a liminal zone where both are true. They address role reversals, from daughter to orphan, child to caregiver, and daughter to partner, as when the mother’s ring is now worn on a chain beside the daughter’s heart, “till death do us part,” in “Parting Gift.” Such reversals leave the speaker reeling in confusion, captured poignantly in the plaintive line, “Are you my mother?” from “Hospice Haiku.” The simplicity here is startling and true. Then there’s the refrain of “A daughter’s a daughter for all of her life” that runs through one poem, showing that despite shifting roles, some things are cemented in constancy.
The cover painting features a pair of gleaming red pumps shining with inner light against a turquoise background. The image is imbued with vibrancy, but the shoes are emptied of their human inhabitant. As heels, they illustrate the femininity of a certain era, and they also recall Dorothy’s slippers that she had to click in order to be transported home. Has a threshold been crossed, the shoes no longer needed for transport? Or are these shoes the daughter’s inheritance, the old idea of home now out of reach? The “Carry” in the title implies bearing a burden, but it can also be taken literally, as in an invalid who can no longer walk, or items such as the mother’s wedding band. Of course, Newman also speaks to the way all daughters carry their mothers in their mannerisms, customs, and faces. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother,” the poet cries out at “the sight of my mother / staring back at me / at three in the morning / from the unforgiving bathroom mirror.” She’s struck by not only her mother’s mortality, but mortality itself.
Like Jane Yolen’s Radiation Sonnets, in which Yolen composed a sonnet for every day of her husband’s cancer treatment, Newman employs form here as she wrestles with the many shades of death. Using form to grapple with what defies understanding imposes order on a situation over which one has little to no control. The poet’s gift, and Newman possesses it, is to capture the uncontainable and wrest it into a shape that adds to the meaning of the words. Through her use of rhyme, these poems sing their terrible truths. Underneath the music is the dissonance of real life and loss.
The first section is a series of fifteen triolets, eight-line poems with end rhymes and repeating lines. The effect matches the content; when a grim diagnosis is given, one often hears the words ringing in one’s ears, or needs to have them repeated so that their sense can begin to sink in. Interspersed between other forms such as an abecedarium, haiku, and sonnets reside three-and four-line wonders like “After the Funeral” and “Nap,” which squat on their pages, too tired and bewildered to go on longer than they do. “How to Watch Your Mother Die” is a primer in free verse, veering from one-word lines to expansive ones as it explores the contradictory emotions and inadequacies one feels in the face of death.
Several poems throughout the book are rooted in familiar verses; readers can witness Newman casting about and latching onto poetry for ballast. As we might turn to her book to help us to translate our sorrow, so too did she turn to other poets as she sought expression for her grief. Poems such as the aforementioned “Thirteen Ways,” “Stopping by Dreams on a Lonely Evening,” “My Mother Would Not Stop for Death,” and the poem “Lost Art,” which begins with the line, “The art of losing my mother is hard to master,” echo with associations. While these could be taken as derivative, instead the underlying message is that we need poetry at the darkest, most unintelligible times. These adaptations indicate the cyclical nature of life and death; the best poets wrote about these poles of existence because they constitute the fabric of our lives. In borrowing the skeletons of some of poetry’s most recognizable verses, Newman adds her own voice and locates it upon a continuum, paying tribute to her mother, as well as to the balm of poetry.
The word “precious” is almost anathema in poetry, yet here are poems saturated in sentiment, including “Precious Mother.” Such a poem reclaims what is precious to the realm of poetry, which is a kind of fearless undertaking in contemporary literature. Newman wears her heart on her sleeve, and in doing so, invites us to do the same. The collection is part homage, part autobiography, and part self-help guide. Comfort can be found in Newman’s words, more in the questions they pose than the answers they provide. I Carry My Mother is accessible, which is part of its charm; it will find a receptive audience in readers who already turn to poetry for solace and in those who are new to the genre.