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.