Review: I Wish My Father by Lesléa Newman

I Wish My Father
by Lesléa Newman,
Headmistress Press,
2021,
92 pp/$15.00

 

Lesléa Newman’s poetry collection, I Wish My Father (January 2021), is a charming and revealing elegiac collection of narrative poems, all in tercets, about her relationship to her aging father from ages 83 to 90 who is never addressed or mentioned by name. This collection stands by itself as a masterful work and is also a companion collection to Newman’s 2015 book, I Carry My Mother, which was reviewed by Rebecca Hart Olander for Solstice Literary Magazine. What connects these books is Newman’s deep, steadfast, and well-adjusted love for both of her parents, her discernment about them as people, and her commitment to giving them care and attention until they pass on. She successfully captures the essence of both her mother and father as a writer, choosing for each book a distinct style which aligns with the kind of love and relationship she had with each parent. As Olander describes, the poems in the first book on Newman’s mother take various formal designs, some in triolets, abecedariums, and haikus, and some in sonnets. She also uses the skeletal structure of some famous poems by Frost, Plath, Dickinson, and even Dr. Seuss to convey the deep empathy and sorrow she felt during her mother’s demise and eventual death. While this is an intimate portrait of grief, it is one that has universal overtones.

It is said that moms tend to bring more sensitivity and emotion to parenting than fathers who often take on the role of authority figures and are children’s connection to the outside world. We often feel a very primal connection to our mothers who breastfeed us and nurture us from the time that we’re babies. This is probably why Newman’s book on her mother is so heart-wrenchingly raw at times and so candid about her mother’s state of being as she is dying, for its tremendous impact on her daughter. Her father’s story is told in narrative form, in situations and episodes, almost like a comic’s routine where she is often the straight guy, in back-and-forth dialogue, often with funny endings including the jokes and irony of her father’s situation and his own commentary on it. There is something at once more light-hearted and less formal about these poems. Perhaps because her father had his career as an attorney to shield and define him, an identity that is ultimately compromised by his mental acuity, as is his ability to drive. To the end he stays her “handsome elegant father.”

Newman would certainly disagree with Freud’s theory of the Electra complex, as there is no trace of that in her book about her mother. Instead, her relationship to her mom is sacred and rich, a mirror and a marking of her own impulses and appearance. Both she and her father cherish her mother and there is no competition for her love between them. In fact, in I Wish My Father, a title that seems to hinge on Newman’s often humorous frustrations with her father’s “hellbent” determination to carry on as if he were still young or as if he weren’t any number of frustrating things that she ultimately finds endearing, she divulges in one poem that her father had another plan for the reality he faces: a life without his beloved wife in his advanced years. He insists that he was the one who was supposed to go first. In the title poem “I Wish My Father” he remarks on his 90th birthday, “How did I get to be so unlucky? / I was supposed to drop dead / at my desk when I was 75 / maybe 80 and leave your mother / a million bucks…” At the poem’s end he carefully measures the time alive without her: “for 4 years / 8 months / 3 weeks / 6 days…” / he looks at his watch, / “19 hours, / 27 minutes, / and 32 seconds, / but hey,” he shrugs, “who’s counting?”

In the first several poems in the book, Newman’s mother is still a presence in their lives, haunting them in their routines. In the very first poem, “When My Father Wakes Up,” her father finds himself in the chilled air-conditioning and, out of habit, covers up his wife’s cold shoulder, even when she is no longer there. In “Do You Think Your Father,” an old admirer of her father dares to suggest he take her to the theatre on the morning after his wife’s funeral. In “Yes We Have No,” father and daughter are grocery shopping, and his famous dislike of bananas comes up. The mother makes an appearance when they remember a time eating at a diner in Vermont and the mother leapt over the counter to assist the cashier. “Ah your mother,” he says, “She could have done it / She could have done anything.” And at the end of the poem, he admits that he’d eat “every banana in the world / just to see her one more time.”

It is quite a feat to pen a whole poetry collection in three-line stanzas and Newman, in 82 pages, never veers from this formal scheme. These read like heart-wrenching yet amusing short stories. Her father is never at a loss for a strategy to cope with his aging symptoms, whether it be his failing hearing, his bad sense of direction, or his fatigue on a high holy day when he winds up napping under an old kaftan his wife has knit. This is a man who has been conditioned for years to get up early, dress formally, and do his job. He is not easily torn asunder by the obstacles he finds in his path. Although the poem “Pain in the Ass”—his favorite phrase to use against things that go wrong or don’t work—after a litany of such things including the Xerox machines at his office, ends with the fed up and bedraggled lines, “What can I say kid? / Your old man is falling apart.” And even this is said, we understand, in an off hand, joking way.

Newman’s father is resilient, debonair, funny, smart, and kind. On their first visit to the neurologist, the doc gives them “exactly 7 minutes of his time.” Her father completely disarms the doctor by his math wizardry, which Newman recalls in a memory of driving with her Dad, who always drove the car with her mother beside him for 63 years, and Lesléa asking him “What’s a million trillion plus a million trillion?” “A ba zi ll llion,” he answers, “shaking his head so fast / his cheeks turned to rubber,” cracking up his daughter. The neurologist is similarly impressed by his ability to digitate with his mind and dismisses his patient as fine. However, on the second visit, the poem titled “The Second Time We Visit,” his daughter is desperate to have the doctor convince him to both give up his law practice and to stop driving. Both threaten his well-being. She distracts her father with the pretty receptionists up front—him being a ladies’ man is a recurring theme—and Newman confides in the doctor that she needs him to tell her father to quit both. The doctor starts with the ruse that he is thinking of giving up his neurology practice for the law, which engages Newman’s father and ushers in a description of how hard he has worked all these years, even on weekends. Soon, the doctor gets around to asking him how his work is going now? And her father answers, “Meh,” and “I’m not as young as I used to be.” And this leaves the door open for the neurologist to say simply, “Maybe it’s time for you to give it up.” “I suppose you’re right,” he collapses / back against his seat and drops / his head into his hands, his face / so full of defeat I have to turn / away. “And how’s the driving?” / asks the neurologist who has no / qualms about punching a man when / he’s down.” This exchange leads to the father admitting that he should give up driving too. “Okay dokey,” her father concurs. And the poem ends with Lesléa driving him home, remembering a time when she really wanted something and her mother saying, “‘the second saddest thing / in the world is not getting / what you want,’ I thought / about that and asked her / ‘what’s the saddest thing.’ She looked at me with pity ‘Getting what you want,’ she replied. / I never knew what she meant / by that, but now at last I do.” This an apt observation of the ambivalence an adult child feels at having to take away adult privileges from an aging parent.

Humor and poignancy suffuse these poems about her father’s aging, replete with several full portraits of him as a working and married man devoted to his wife and to his own work ethic and role of provider. One comes to love him in these moving snapshots almost as much as the author. In “My Handsome Elegant Father” Newman describes him “in his freshly pressed grey wool suit / starched white shirt (easy on the collar) / and cranberry juice-colored tie // wearing the cufflinks shaped like subway / tokens I bought for his birthday / and spit shiny black Italian leather shoes” contrasted by him “now dragging an IV pole / through the hospital hallway / barefoot, grizzly chinned // hair like Albert Einstein / sweaty and stinky / wearing a sky blue johnny.” These small personal details summarize the change he undergoes—her vision of him keen throughout.

The book ends with a poem called “My Mother Is at The Bridge” with her mother playing bridge with her three card game mates in an imaginary situation where her father is watching them. “She looks like the star / of an old black-and-white movie / who would never give him / the time of day but somehow / spent 63 years by his side.” She is restored to her younger self and in the final stanza “my father takes her in his arms / and in their heavenly bodies / they dance.” It is a lovely and fitting image to end the book, the two of them reunited in a heavenly embrace.

 

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