Poem for Mother’s Day, in Defiance of Alzheimer’s

Mother holding me in 1952

She Knew the Names of Things

She knew the names of things, knew them by heart.
Not just the farmwife flowers of the yard,
But the wild ones in the hidden woods.
And in the woods, she knew the names of trees.
She knew quaint sayings about country ways.
“That’s no sign of a duck’s nest,” she would say,
Defying explanation even then.

She knew the names of birds, common and rare:
The Red Wing, Meadow Lark and Mourning Dove,
Brown Thrush and Gold Finch and sad Whippoorwill.
She knew them by their call as well as sight.

She knew the names of lonely widowed aunts,
And she knew dates and anniversaries,
And surely, she recalled that doleful day
When the son who called her “Mother” was fished
By divers out of San Diego Bay.
For grief, she never spoke of it again.

And though she’d barely gone to school, she
Had sense enough to hang a dishrag up,
She knew her Whitman and her Bible well.
And when the door-yard Lilacs bloomed she paused
Amidst the sweet perfume, breathed, and recalled
The poem and soft fragrance that she loved,
Sweet messenger of spring—but not too sweet,
Not like the syrupy Petunias
That she also loved, but differently.
She always favored the modest flowers
That had a tinge of tragedy and loss
Like Lilacs and Lillies of the Valley,
Named for the suffering Savior of mankind.
She knew the things she loved, and she could name them.

But winter of the mind came drifting in
And names of things were slowly covered up,
As when the snow erases hue and shape
And leaves the garden white, formless and blank.

The soaring Hollyhocks were overcome,
Begonias, Honeysuckle, Marigolds,
The Morning Glories high atop the gate
Were covered, as was Aunt Minerva, too,
(Whom she loved like the mother she had lost),
And cousin Gene undone at Normandy,
And buried there amidst a cross-white field.

Peonies bowed their heavy heads beneath
The heavy snow and disappeared away.
So too, the old folks’ graves that she adorned
With their bouquets each Decoration Day.

Wild Lady Slipper too did not escape,
Entombed beneath its own soft shroud of white
With Buttercup, Catalpa, Trumpet Vine,
With Thistle, Jimsonweed and Columbine.
And covered too were Maples, Elms and Oaks,
The Willow tree we started from a branch,
The stately Cottonwood that soared above
The old farm woods, completely covered up.

And covered too were barefoot childhood days
On Clear Creek growing up carefree, before
Her still-young mother died of Spanish Flu,
And left five other kids for her to raise.
Those days she loved them, and she knew their names:
Hayward, Walden (though others called him Joe)
Jesse, Vivian, and the youngest Bill.
All these names buried and forgotten now.

Gone was her motto written out longhand
Held by a magnet to the old icebox
With wise and frugal counsel: “Use it up
Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

Old photographs stuck in a musty book
Assembled even as the blizzard blew,
A vain attempt to thwart the mounting snow,
The names obliterated anyway
By endless pitiless nameless white.

I walk now through the fiery leaves of fall
And ponder piles of faded photographs,
Repeating names I learned so long ago,
Recalling things and places I have loved

In hopes this recitation will forestall
My own impending blanketing of snow.
Perhaps my winter will be mild—or not.
Perhaps I will become snowbound as well.

But I shall say the names of things ’til then
And recall her who taught them first to me.
Remembering, turn my face to winter’s blast,
Defying it to dare to land a blow.
For I shall sing the names of things until
I lie here frozen stiff beneath the snow.


(2019)

NOTES: The poems I learned at my mother’s knee employed meter and rhyme. So it’s only natural that I’m most comfortable with forms like ballads and sonnets. They speak my heart language. I’ve long agreed with Robert Frost that writing in free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. It may do wonders for the self esteem, but it’s hardly sporting.

But lately, I’ve had the itch to write something longer than a sonnet, or something more ambitious than eight lines of rhyming couplets. After digging around, I settled on blank verse, which sticks with meter, but dispenses with the need for thyme. Sort of like playing tennis with the net lowered a couple of feet. I suppose if it was good enough for Marlowe and Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.

My mother died several years ago after a protracted siege of some type of dementia. It may have been Alzheimer’s Disease, but it was likely some other variant because it dragged out longer than usual for that particular form of dementia. We never had a formal diagnosis.

I hope the poem speaks for itself and provides a fitting tribute for Mother’s Day.

P.S. Extra note for poetry nerds: The last 14 lines came the easiest for me. Only when they were completed did I realize that they were almost a sonnet. However, the lines were not rhyming, except for one rhyme at the end. I guess old habits are hard to break.

 

Advertisements

The Ukrainian Candidate’s Face

Ukranian President Viktor Yuschenko
In 2004, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was believed to have been poisoned in the midst of a reelection campaign.
Things have not gone smoothly for the Ukrainians since they gained independence from the Soviet Union.

The recent troubles involving Russian separatists is just one chapter.

Over a decade ago, I remember being riveted by the news report of the strange illness that hit charismatic Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during a campaign for reelection. One of the leading theories at the time implicated the Russians. The more things change …

It was one of the few times I’ve been tempted to play tennis with the net down.

THE UKRAINIAN CANDIDATE’S FACE

“Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Poisoned.” – September 10, 2004

The day the Ukrainian candidate’s face
Erupted with boils and turned ash-grey,
Nowhere to hide with the whole world watching,
His cosmopolitan good looks marred
Beyond the power of greasepaint and powder,
Did his young wife then love him any less,
As the life mate who made her heart beat fast
Transmogrified before her very eyes,
Some curse spoiling his original face?

She knew (wives know) that something was amiss
The night before, when giving him a kiss,
She tasted something strange upon his lips.
Did she curse his drinking and say harsh words?
Perhaps suspect him of unfaithfulness?
(There are diseases you can catch, you know,
From Russian whores, that will pock your skin, and
Ruin your health like Chernobyl ruined the land.)
Who’d blame her for a thought or two like that?

His already fallen foe cleverly
With toxins the potato soup did lace,
Beguiled the unsuspecting innocent
To taste the apple-of-the-earth puree.

What would we think if we could only see
Before-and-after pictures of ourselves?
What wormwood dioxin pox concoction
Would we say has over-swept our race
More like a glacier than the mushroom patch
That blossomed in Yushchenko’s garden face?

Playing tennis with the net down

Playing tennis with the net down
We don’t need no stinking nets!

Robert Frost once famously said “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Although this has been the dominant form of poetry for — um — like a hundred years now, I’ve always been more inclined to playing with the net up.

Not trying to restart long-settled fights or open old wounds. I’m just saying I was introduced from a young age to poetry with meter and rhyme, so that’s what I’ve gravitated towards over the years.

So shoot me.

But I must say, Mary Karr may make a convert of me.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr plays tennis with the net down

Mary Karr is best know for her memoirs, Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit. These are wonderful, funny and profound books.  They are credited with — or depending on your point of view — blamed for sparking the current trend of confessional memoirs.

But she would consider herself a poet first, and she has a good point.

Full disclosure:  I went to school with Mary back in the 70s.  And by “going to school with” I mean I was at the same college at the same time for a year or so.

She actually dated — or hung out with .. or whatever we called it back then — one of my roommates back at an off-campus house near Macalester College in St. Paul.

It was a pretty arty scene.  We had musicians and songwriters and artists and aspirants all living in close quarters and striving to find their voices.

This roommate of mine was a freeloading squatter who lived in our attic.  But he was a talented musician, so we gave him a free pass.  He appears on the early pages of Lit, the “Missouri cowboy,” who never seemed to lack female attention.

My primary impression of Mary back in those days:  “This girl is trouble.”

I was most certainly right.  And she would probably agree.

Later she would date David Foster Wallace, and reportedly inspire him to write Infinite Jest.  Or at least, make it good.

But enough with the name dropping.

Mary is one heck of a poet.  Exhibit A:  a poem called “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.”  Pretty universally regarded as being about Wallace after he killed himself.

It’s almost enough to make me consider taking down the net.