by Wendy Galgan
I CARRY MY MOTHER
BY LESLÉA NEWMAN
HEADMISTRESS PRESS, 2015
I WISH MY FATHER
BY LESLÉA NEWMAN
HEADMISTRESS PRESS, 2021
I CARRY MY MOTHER and I WISH MY FATHER
We are always our parents’ children. Even as we watch our parents grow older, we continue to see who they used to be while also coming to see who they have become. Lesléa Newman has captured this phenomena beautifully in two books of poetry: I Carry My Mother (for Florence Newman, who died in 2012) and I Wish My Father (for Edward Newman, who died in 2017).
Although these works were published 6 years apart, and each is a stand-alone collection, they benefit from being read together as a love story between a dashing ladies’ man and the movie-star-beautiful woman he married, as well as a chronicle of Florence and Edward Newman’s last years of life (and their ultimate deaths).
Newman does not give us a fairy-tale version of her parents, however. Her father devoted his life to his law practice at a cost to his family; her mother is a chain-smoker who is often angry about her husband’s behavior. Yet each is the other’s anchor, the other’s love. And Newman is the grown-up child who bears witness to their marriage and to the physical (and mental, in the case of her father) decline that comes with aging and illness.
[One note: While tradition holds that we use “the speaker” instead of “the poet” or the poet’s name when discussing works, in this review I will at times depart from this and directly connect Newman to the poems. Of course, I do not know how much of what is in each poem is “true” – as Anne Sexton famously said, poets lie to tell the truth – but the works feel true and personal to me as a reader.)
I Carry My Mother, published in 2015, begins with “Safe Passage” (in Prologue: Preparing to Depart). The poem opens with “My mother is preparing / to depart and will soon set sail / without me.” Newman’s father “steers / my mother by the elbow” as she boards the ship – a metaphor for death – that will take her away, then father and daughter stand on shore waving as the mother “leaves / us in her wake.” The speaker is “buoyed / by her love / which floats between us / like a lifeline,” but when the ship passes out of sight the speaker states, “I come unmoored / the waves knock me down.” With the mother’s death, Newman and her father are stranded on shore, alone except for each other, a condition the poet explores in depth in the 2021 collection I Wish My Father.
In I Carry My Mother, while her father appears at times, the focus is squarely on the speaker’s mother and her death from cancer. Part One: Stoic As a Stone contains one work titled “The Deal,” which comprises a series of fifteen triolets that begin with the doctor’s news that the mother will live another six months, perhaps a year. The body of this once-beautiful woman begins to betray her: “My mother once so elegant and slim / Lies bloated, belly swollen as the moon,” an image that not only presents us with the mother’s physical decline but also calls to mind a pregnant woman’s belly. In this instance, what the mother carries is not life but her own death.
As the cancer progresses, the image changes: “And now my mother’s started losing weight / She hasn’t been this small in thirty years / There was a time when she’d have thought this great.” Here, again, the illness produces a cruel parody of something that once was; in this instance, the trim figure her mother once had is back, but now it is the result of her terminal illness.
There are the smaller indignities as well, the leaking urine bag, the hair that is no longer “curled and dyed.” And there is the preparation for death, with the mother admonishing her daughter not to cry, and telling her “where she hides her jewels / The diamonds that she wore when just a bride.”
The mother’s decline, and the father’s helplessness, are poignantly observed in this series of triolets, as is the cruelty of illness. In the 13th triolet, the “father’s heart is full of hope” because the mother had “two good days in a row” while the speaker is “clueless how to cope / While deep inside, my mother’s tumors grow.” She knows that her mother is not going to get well, but her father sees these days not as a gift at the end of a long struggle but as an indication that his wife may still recover. This hope is dashed in the section’s penultimate poem, which begins with “At last it is my mother’s final hour. / No more second changes. No reprieve,” and fully erased with the first line of the final triolet: “She was just here and now she’s just gone.”
While the focus of Part One was on the end of Newman’s mother’s life, the poems in Part Two: Alive and Not Alive detail a complicated woman, difficult and loving and angry. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother” (after Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”), section V gives us a glimpse of the difficulties and complications of the mother/daughter relationship:
My mother declares in her hospital room
That my fate was decided deep down in her womb.
A son is a son until he takes a wife,
A daughter’s a daughter for all of her life.
The daughter’s heart aches, the daughter’s heart breaks
As she wakes and takes care of her mother.
Heavy with dread, she creeps to the bed,
Is she dead, or is she my mother?
Though hope is long past, the daughter clings fast
to what’s left of the last of her mother. (“Precious Mother”)
The indignities of infirmity are detailed throughout the collection, often through repetition of what is happening to the mother’s failing body (“Pills” and “When Things Fall Apart,” for example). Newman’s mother is in a liminal space, waiting between life and death, but she is not alone. Her daughter is there, too, with her existence balanced in the space between her mother being alive and her mother dying.
my mother is awake and not awake
my mother is asleep and not asleep
my mother is alive and not alive
I am beside her and beside myself
I am an orphan and I am not an orphan
I am a daughter and I am not a daughter
I am a child and I am not a child
her child. (“In the ICU”)
The final nine poems of Part Two, starting with “It’s Time,” take us through the end of Newman’s mother’s life. She has given her daughter her wedding ring, the oxygen has been discontinued, and now there is nothing for daughter and husband to do but wait by her side.
May she go easy
May she go swift
May she not tremble
As things start to shift
May she go light May her burdens release
May she grieve nothing
May she know peace
May she go soft
As a blanket of snow
May she go easy
May she let go. (“Vigil”)
Part Three: Quiet as a Grave gives us what happens after. In “Looking at Her” (after Muriel Rukeyser’s “Looking at Each Other”), the speaker has gone to help prepare her mother’s body for the service and burial.
Yes, I bent over her casket
Yes, I applied her pink lipstick
Yes, I brushed blush on her cheekbones
Yes, the farewell the departure
Yes, the silence the longing
Yes, I was with and without her
Yes, I was looking at her
For “How to Bury Your Mother” (after Michael Lassell’s “How to visit the grave of a friend”), Newman once again uses birth imagery (this time overtly) to connect the mother and daughter as the daughter reaches her mother’s graveside.
Slip out of the dark limo
into the bright light of day
the way you once slipped
out of your mother:
blinking, surprised, teary-eyed.
But that connection is not the same as it once was. The speaker’s mother is gone, and that loss means she needs to adjust the way she thinks about who she is, about what being a motherless daughter really means.
My aunt stands to leave.
“Call if you need anything.”
I need my mother. (“Sitting Shiva”)
The art of losing my mother is hard to master;
Like a little girl in the woods who can’t find her way,
I’m afraid I will never survive this disaster. (“Lost Art” after “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop)
In the pantoum “I Carry My Mother,” in Epilogue: Wherever I Go, the speaker describes how her physical resemblance to her mother means that her mother is always with her.
Her deep set brown eyes that at times appeared black
Her milky white skin she called this side of snow
I stare at the mirror, my mother stares back
I carry my mother wherever I go
There is a form of comfort here, tempered by the fact that the mother is present only in the daughter’s physical appearance, but perhaps this is the best a motherless daughter can hope for.
Just as the father is a presence in I Carry My Mother, the mother is a presence in I Wish My Father, but it is a more palpable presence because both father and daughter are grieving the mother’s death.
In the first poem of the collection, “When My Father Wakes Up,” Newman’s father wakes up during the night and turns on the air conditioner, then moves to cover his sleeping wife:
Who could blame him
for forgetting she had left
him and was now slumbering
on the other side of town
wrapped in a shroud beneath
the stony, stubborn ground?
Here, with “Who could blame him,” the speaker is attributing this moment of forgetfulness to her father being half-awake, and also perhaps to an understanding that someone grieving would want to forget that sadness for just a moment, but this forgetting serves as a harbinger of what will prove to be the father’s mental as well as a physical decline throughout the collection.
The speaker is now the one to take care of her father, to shepherd him to his many doctors’ appointments, to try to bring him back to the present when his failing memory takes him someplace else. This is not the way it was supposed to be, according to the father. In “There Are So Many Children,” the father tells his daughter, “‘Your mother / and I had a plan, you know,” which surprises the speaker. “‘What / was it?’ I ask, as this is news to me.” The father explains that he was the one who was “‘supposed to die // first … And then your mother // would have taken care of everything.’” There is poignancy in these lines, and the daughter agrees that God “really should / have left my mother down here” to help her with her father; instead, she alone helps him navigate through his world, reminding him where the doctor’s office is and which elevator button to push, and “help[ing] him hand / his driver’s license, not his Macy’s / charge card, to the receptionist.”
Here, then, in the fourth poem of the collection, we start to realize that the “little” memory lapses in the previous poems are not just what would be expected with an aging parent, but something more insidious, more dangerous. While in I Carry My Mother, death was presaged by medical decline, in I Wish My Father it is intellectual decline that we are witnessing through the poet’s eyes.
This is confirmed in the next poem in the collection, “My Father Is Slipping.” The opening image is that of him slipping “his glasses up his nose,” but by the poem’s end we realize that is it the man himself who is fading away. He is missing his wife, he is watching the Academy Awards on television, and the next day his daughter is waiting for a comment that never comes:
For the first time my father
fails to bestow the Best Breasts of the Evening Award
and that’s how I know the ladies’
man my mother loathed
and loved for all her life
has finally slipped away
This slippage becomes more apparent in “Who’s That?,” when the father first does not recognize a woman in a photograph in his wedding album, then “his voice full / of triumph,” declares that it is a photo of his daughter (who was born six years after the marriage).
The speaker is “…desperate / for him to be in his right mind,” and attempts to help him recall who the woman in the photo is. Finally, she asks if it is Cousin Irma, even though that is not the woman in the picture.
times call for desperate measures,
such as pulling a name—any name!—
out of a hat if it will make the worry
on her father’s worrisome face
disappear like magic
While distressing, this type of lapse could be understandable. Who among us hasn’t had trouble recognizing someone from our past? But in the next poem, “Heaven Can Rely On You,” we discover that the father’s mental decline is much worse. The father is hearing things, starting with “a chorus of strapping young / men” who sing the title song “in sweet, deep voices / that blend inside my father’s head.” Not only is he hearing things, but he is also seeing a “little boy / who appears at the foot of his bed // every night,” adding visual hallucinations to the aural ones, and he is speaking to his dead wife, who it appears he is not only hearing but also seeing sitting in her chair.
All of this would be difficult enough for any child to deal with, particularly when in “The First Time We Visit,” a new neurologist fails to determine the extent of her father’s dementia. But in this poem we also learn that the father is still practicing law. When he says this to the doctor, the speaker confirms it, “hoping to convey / that this is a real problem,” but “[t]he neurologist does not catch on.” When the doctor says that her father is fine, the speaker asks about the delusions, but the brusque, dismissive response is, “‘Old people have delusions,’” and the father and daughter are sent on their way.
We see the extent of the problem in “My Father Has His Day,” which recounts the saga of his journey to argue a case in a Brooklyn courthouse. First, he says that someone built a large building in the parking lot he always used (it’s more likely, the daughter believes, that he went down the wrong street). He drove to Manhattan to park, took the subway back, argued the case, took the subway to his car, then had a five-hour drive from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The reader is given a clear picture of the 89-year-old father, his cataracts making him “the original Mr. Magoo bumbling / from borough to borough // in his wrongly buttoned London Fog / trench coat, the unbuckled belt / dangling to the ground.” It is now clear to the reader that the father should not be driving (and based on the description of how he drove as a young man in “My Father Drove My Mother,” perhaps should never have been allowed behind the wheel of a car). He should not be riding the subway, and he definitely should not be practicing law any more. When the daughter tries to broach this with him, he dismisses her concerns.
…………I hang up and pray
that whoever was watching
over my hellbent father today
will continue to keep
the absentminded attorney
safe and sound until his trials are over.
When the speaker brings her father back to the neurologist, the doctor is able to get him to agree to both stop practicing law and stop driving. The father hands the car keys to his daughter as they leave the office.
The last time we sat side by side
like this was more than 40 years
ago when he taught me how
to drive, yanking the braid that fell
halfway down my back, yelling,
“Whoa Nellie!” when we got
to a red light, and crying, “Giddy-up!”
the second it turned green. (“The Second Time We Visit”)
This memory, in its silliness and its affection, is a gift in the midst of the trauma of watching your father’s life diminish before your eyes, but it is a short-lived respite.
Halfway through the collection, the turning point in Newman’s story of her father, is “It Was.”
not a stroke
it was not
The father lies “crumpled // at the foot / of the driveway” all morning before he is found, the final image of the poem.
The next image, in “My Handsome Elegant Father,” details a carefully dressed fashion plate, describing carefully and thoroughly the way the speaker’s father used to look as he left for work each morning for more than 50 years. This image then switches abruptly to:
my handsome elegant father
now dragging an IV pole
through the hospital hallway
hair like Albert Einstein
sweaty and stinky wearing a sky blue johnny
dotted with tiny tumbling teddy
bears, the back flapping open
every string untied
In addition to seeing this decline in her father, and the struggle of taking care of him, the speaker is faced with a medical system that, like the neurologist during the first appointment, is brusque and dismissive. Her father is still hallucinating, still seeing and speaking with the dead, but
“Without Warning My Father”
is sprung from the hospital early Friday
evening, seeming no better yet no worse
according to the doctor who dismisses
him with an indifferent wave of his hand
a little too eager to get on with his weekend
It has become clear to the speaker that her father needs to enter a care facility. This once-robust, vital man has gone
from husband to widower
attorney to retiree
tennis partner to spectator
driver to passenger
healthy to diabetic
hearing to practically deaf
seeing to practically blind. (“For As Long As I Can”)
He needs more help than his daughter can give him, and while neither he nor the speaker want him to move, he must.
Yet after all the loss her father has endured, there is more to come:
“My Father Is Moving Out”
of the house he shared with my mother
for more than 50 years and every damn
day I find a brand new way to break
his broken heart. …
The daughter needs to clean out her mother’s closet. Her father says he will do it, but when she follows him upstairs she finds him standing in front of the closet door, a door which no one has opened since the mother died four years earlier. When the speaker opens the closet,
My father staggers backwards, catching
himself in the doorjamb, and when I pull
out the first item—a polyester leopard
print number my mother wore when
she waltzed into the surprise party my father threw for her 65th birthday—
the look of shock on his face shatters
my shattered heart. It’s as if he is just
now realizing that she is gone
for good. …
At almost 90, living in the care facility, the father is mourning his losses, amassing notes from women inviting him to join them for a movie or a meal, and – at least at times – looking toward the inevitable end of his life.
“It Takes A Long Time”
to die,” says my father
who is sick and tired of everyone
telling him how great
he looks. …
He is also tired of “The People Next Door,” who are always fighting, even after the police arrive. He hears them yelling, he hears their physical fights, so the daughter promises to speak with the neighbors
because I am the daughter
who takes care of everything.
I am the daughter
who fixes everything.
I am the daughter who doesn’t
have the heart
to tell her disturbed and disturbing father there are no people next door.
In the final poem of the collection, the speaker envisions the reunion of her parents in the afterlife.
“My Mother Is At The Bridge”
table with Loretta, Gert
and Pearl, when my father
finds his way to Heaven.
His wife asks him to sit while she finishes the game, but he “is / too overcome.” He waits, staring at his wife, who has been restored to her former beauty, until she wins the game. In the final image of the collection, mother and father, wife and husband, are reunited at last:
………………….she stands to let
my father take her in his arms
and in their heavenly bodies
This final image, of the dapper gentleman and his lovely lady, unifies the two collections and brings the intertwined stories of Newman’s father and mother to a close. All the pain and grief, all the anger and confusion, drop away, as the husband and wife, father and mother, are seen one last time by their loving, grieving daughter.