Friday, May 10, 2013



MERIDIAN by Kathleen Jesme
(Tupelo Press, North Adams, MA, 2012)

She.  Actually, let’s be specific.  My mother.  Let’s say:

My mother is dead.

Let’s say:

My mother is dying.

There is a profound difference between those two statements.  One of the differences—one of the very many differences—is pain. Specifically, one’s ability to withstand pain in a matter where observation and meditation, if they are to be conducted deeply, are to self-inflict pain. In my experience so far, which may change in the future as it’s only been six months since my mother died, the latter statement—My mother is dying—is more agonizing.  My mother died last November after a prolonged illness.  It was painful (to understate the matter) to witness her dying—a pain that, so far in my experience, is more immense than when confronted simply with the fact of her death.

When one is dying, that person is who she has been all of her life, but also not.  That person is someone who is in the midst of a “becoming”—as in, from Kathleen Jesme’s MERIDIAN, “She was becoming a dead person, but she hadn’t yet arrived.”  What results is she for whom the following words may be a metaphor:

White dog in winter:
his bark is all that’s

The dog is still the dog, but also something/someone becoming less “visible.”

It doesn’t surprise me that MERIDIAN, Jesme’s meditation on her mother’s death, must talk it slant when addressing the dying process.  Attention is paid to what is happening in the environment surrounding the mother (the weather, the snowing, the birds, the owls….) and not just the mother’s physical deterioration.  If one is pained by a mother’s dying—a mother’s departure—it might be harder to look at it straight-on and one might rely on looking sideways to help dilute the effect.  It can be more challenging to directly face the dying as the dying actually unfolds.

In my experience (so far) anyway, one can face—bear—the fact of death if only because there is no choice.  But to look at someone dying is to feel desire’s failure.  To feel what could have been until time’s relentless passage made what will be unchangeable. To feel regret.  To feel helplessness.  Or, to feel a wish for the impossible.  Among. Other. Things.  An example: until almost the very end, my mother did not want to die and thought she might still survive Stage 4, metastisized cancer—I sense some of this desire, this relentless hoping, in some passages in MERIDIAN:

Anyone deaf, who couldn’t
see what was going on
                        was her mother
who had outlived
                                    her life and still
kept living.  Anyone
            deaf, anyone blind
who couldn’t even then
                                                who didn’t even then.

Or, in another passage:

She is not interested in bringing home
shells or the island made
from shells
shells piled on the beach
making more sand.
They are all dead. She cares
instead about the silvery
fish leaping in the bays
and shallows

long shiny fish leaping
because fish
want to fly.

Until almost the end, Mom was still asking about a desired trip to Washington, D.C. whose season of cherry blossoms had been on her "bucket list"...

I also totally understand—empathize—with the narrator’s divulgement in MERIDIAN that she “didn’t go back to the tiny apartment, although [she] knew that [her mother] would die that night.”  I did the same thing with my mother—deliberately stayed away when I knew she would die.  I did return to my mother after her death and, as Jesme’s MERIDIAN, aptly captures, “The body—already not my mother….She was already not. It felt sudden.”

I took comfort in that sudden-ness.  I belabor here how much I preferred (though “preferred” is not, of course, the apt word for the experience) death to the slow process of dying.  Perhaps it’s because, while my mother was alive, I still had to engage with her as who she is supposed to be (my mother) instead of acknowledging that she, in addition to being my mother, was not my mother because of her “becoming.”

Okay.  Actually, my mother remained my mother.  But as my mother, she was supposed to be what she’d been all her life with me: alive.  Not, in the process of becoming dead … even as I know that we ALL are in the process of becoming dead.  Geezus: my head spins from writing this review…

Anyway, here’s a confession: I don’t normally assign myself poetry books to review.  I just try to read as widely as I can and then whatever moves me to review them end up being the books I will have reviewed.  I made an exception for Kathleen Jesme’s MERIDIAN because I learned it was about a poet’s meditation on the death of her mother.  So I asked for a review copy—to review it, yes, but also to learn about another’s experience because, in the aftermath of my mother's death, I at times felt myself thinking, What or how am I supposed to be feeling...? (I acknowledge, of course, that someone else’s experience would not necessarily be the same as mine).  What I was looking for was partly some certainty of feeling—a certainty that I thought would have to exist if it was to be pinned down on paper by language.

MERIDIAN, however, ends with

and the words
when they fail

For one of life’s most intense experiences, the conclusion is that words fail? 

Yet if this ending was meant as a conclusion, I find it authentic. It is authentic, insofar as my experience anyway.  And that’s what makes MERIDIAN a successful poetry collection.  There are no words for “dusk” and “twilight”—what they are and signify.  Yet some  wordsmith did come up with the words, “dusk” and “twilight” which are successful not just for their definitions but for the impending darkness they evoke.  Words may fail to capture the experience of watching one’s mother die—but from such failure, Jesme created successful poetry. Poetry can succeed where words fail.  As in this gorgeous excerpt:

Fetal horses 
gallop in the womb

I am swimming toward you

the past
which clings to me
and holds me
and up.

What provides a scaffolding—prevents a buckling from grief—is the “past” which mother and daughter shared, and which (I read as a daughter and for the narrator in the book) “clings to me/ and holds me/ back/ and up.”  In the book, this passage is flushed right as I present above, which also visually facilitates the sense of movement delineated as "gallop" and "swimming toward you."  With this treatment--as is the case throughout the book--there is a caring and careful eye at work.

I don’t wish to quote the book’s ending couplet out of context.  Let me share more of its ending words:

The next spring, I brought saplings to the gap in my small woods. It will take twenty years to replace the nearly mature trees that were taken. Twenty years to erase the view that this hole created at the property line. Will the new soil hold its place? Perhaps it will erode and form pockets and dips and small blank places that I will need to come back and fill in later.


Field of kin
whit of kin

because of the whole of it
because of the songs

and the words
when they fail

It may be too soon to know fully what a poet can write from the experience of witnessing a mother’s unfolding death. It may take “[t]wenty years to erase the view….Perhaps it will erode and form pockets and dips and small blank places that I will need to come back and fill in later.”  Perhaps the words “fail” because it is too soon to apply words. 

But what MERIDIAN shows is that it’s not too soon for poetry.  And I?  I who came to this book searching for how another daughter might deal with the death of a mother—specifically, the witnessing of the dying of a mother?  I was comforted, which surely is esteem from possibly the most potentially critical of critics: one who is expert in the topic the author addresses. 

Thank you, Kathleen Jesme, for never losing the courage to see clearly even through sight slanted sideways.  It takes courage to write—to admit about one’s mother:

… There isn’t much here but a spoon
and a hand with an arm to lift it.
A mouth. Soup. Salt.

Reverse evaporation
would net potable water
with no salt in it. There
are some things we
can’t. Reverse. But.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. An exception is made for the relational elations of ORPHANED ALGEBRA as that was co-written with another author, j/j hastain--and it is reviewed by T.C. Marshall in this GR #20 issue.  She is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books.  Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Tom Beckett at L'Amour Fou; by Amazon Hall of Famer Reviewer Grady Harp on Amazon and elsewhere; by Joey Madia at Literary Aficionado; by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field; by Zvi Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; and by jim mccrary and his cat Iris at Babaylan Poetics. Her 2007 book, SILENCES: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LOSS, was also recently reviewed by Nicholas T. Spatafora in Litter Magazine.

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