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This slim chapbook contains eleven poems that tell the story of a mother and her alcoholic son--how she suspects and then discovers his addiction, how she vacillates between fear and denial, despair and hope. The place in between these extremes of emotion is the Hurricane Zone, and these poems--written by "Anonymous" to protect the son's identity--are hard-edged, starkly moving, and ultimately redeeming.
In "Birthday," the narrator looks back thirty-eight years to her son's arrival, "his mashed, chinless face / dented forehead /breaking its way out of me." The next several poems ("Foreshadowing," "Denial," "Shikker," "Postcard") address denial, how a parent can suspect their child is slipping into the abyss of alcohol or drugs and still wish to create a different story from the available details.
Finding help in Alanon, the narrator begins to work her program. In "Late Lilies" and "Detachment," she finds where a mother and son's boundaries begin and end: "he isn't me, / he isn't mine." In "Give Us This Day" (referring to the group's recitation of The Lord's Prayer at meeting's end) the mother, "lone Jew, lone atheist," learns detachment, that "cloud shadows of startling darkness / moving over the water are not the water."
"Ferryboat" and "Hope" reveal the narrator's painful longing to protect her son as well as her own obsession: a series of affairs early in her marriage when this son was a teenager. That memory, one both cherished and regretted, offers a thin moment of hope: "Anyone who wants to can change." But even when the son is good--able to work on a second novel--there is uncertainty and near-miss communication.
In "Hurricane Zone," the final poem, there is no easy resolution. The victory comes in addressing the topic of alcoholism straight on and making these poems available for others who may be struggling along the same journey.
Banishing Verona concerns a 22-year-old house painter living in London. One soon realizes that Zeke Cafarelli is not normal. He has had a nervous breakdown a few years earlier; collects clocks--he has nine at the beginning of the novel and adds two more by novel's end--which he takes apart and restores; he has basic questions about interpersonal relations that, were it not for his illness, mentioned once, briefly and vaguely (24), one would describe as childlike naiveté.
For example, he wonders why people lie. Or, why is it so easy to identify vegetables (his parents are greengrocers) but not people each time one encounters them in even slightly different settings? Several times the author describes Zeke's mother or father (whom Zeke calls Gwen and Don, respectively) while their son is trying to confirm their identity as his parents.
Quite early in the narrative, like a dea ex machina, Verona MacIntyre enters Zeke's life. Or perhaps Venus on the half shell would be a more specific identification of the dea, since Verona is pregnant, and soon becomes as naked as Venus in the famous painting by Botticelli, to whose paintings Zeke is likened with his angelic appearance and lustrous hair. The two become oceanic--if not star-crossed--lovers-at-first-sight since Verona has to traipse off to Boston to help bail her sociopathic brother out of yet another financial and amorous mess of his own making. Despite the appearances of Jigger (Verona and Henry's grandfather in the persona of a long letter to Verona), and Toby (a mutual lover-friend of Verona and Henry), and Maurice (Gwen's lover), the plot does not seem unwieldy.
Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy living in France with his stay at home mother and Air France pilot father. Such an apparently normal family description is the merest tissue of appearances. The father is probably an alcoholic and unfaithful; the son is "accident-prone" (a nearly fatal episode of SIDS at two weeks of age, a near fatal electrocution at age 6 after falling on the tracks of the métro in Lyon; salmonella, tetanus, botulism, meningitis, etc. [or, as Louis is fond of saying, "blah, blah, blah."]) and the mother has issues that only emerge as one becomes more deeply involved in what is a mystery story.
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Janet Lewis’s superb The Trial of Søren Qvist, one knows the ending early on (page 16 in Louis Drax), but not the details. The why and the how are the stuff of the novelist’s art in all three books.
With premonition of more danger, Louis goes on a family picnic (see below for the author’s biographical basis for this tale) and winds up at the bottom of a ravine, dead. Drowned and dead. A few hours later, in the morgue, he is found to be alive. Comatose and in a persistent vegetative state but alive. He is therefore transferred to the care of a neurologist specializing in comatose patients at the Clinique de l’Horizon (formerly l’Hôpital des Incurables).
It is here that the mystery unfolds. The questions are: How did Louis end up at the bottom of the ravine? Did his father, now missing, push him as his distraught mother alleges? What role does the clearly neurotic mother play in this tragedy? And who exactly is Louis Drax? Lastly, how do the mysterious letters allegedly from him, written while still in a coma, come to be?
This chapbook of 26 poems traces the author's interactions with her mother, a woman lost in the morass of Alzheimer's disease. In the first poem, "The Loss" (1), the author takes us into her mother's home--a disorganized mess of stained thrift shop clothes folded and refolded into piles. The daughter tricks her mother into moving in with her "for a trial" which becomes permanent.
In the last poem, "At Least This" (26), the poet stoops "to pull the diaper / up around my mother's / waist, my temple / near her breasts." As the daughter leans into this task, the mother caresses her hair, embraces her. This hug, beautifully and simply portrayed, is the poet's fragile reward for all the struggles, mercies and difficult moments examined in the poems between.
These poems are both beautiful and unfailingly honest, addressing with humor and charity the difficulties of caring for a parent with this disease. In one poem, "The Battle" (5), the mother slathers herself with Vaseline. In another poem, "The Bath" (7), the mother lies in the bathtub, her flaccid skin smoothed by water's illusion, her body suddenly as lovely as Bonnard's painting of a woman bathing. "This is the mother I battled / when young: the mother / who beat my defiance; / the one I hit back," the poet writes in "A Late Blessing" (6), and in another poem, "Intellectual Opiate" (10), she speaks of her mother's love for words she no longer understands.
But these poems are more than poignant narratives about a daughter's relationship with a once-difficult, now dependent mother. They address the "seeds of her disease" (11), exposing the flaws of this relationship without dishonor or blame. In these poems, Slatkin's mother appears vibrant and whole, not ravaged by disease. Rarely have the difficulties and possibilities of Alzheimer's disease been presented in poetry with such insight and respect.
In 1997, the author’s 14-year-old son, Ike, began a puzzling, progressive degenerative illness. Slowly, this undiagnosed disease claimed Ike’s ability to walk, to study, to participate in normal adolescent activities and, finally, to reason. Going from physician to physician, seeking if not a cure than at least a working diagnosis, the author became a self-taught expert in all things neurological.
As her son’s condition worsened, she also became an expert in grief and despair. In Blue Peninsula, her first book, McKeithen relates how she became, as well, a poetry addict--reading, devouring, tearing poems out of journals, buying volumes that she could carry to office or hospital, hiding poems in her purse or pocket. Using poems or pieces of poems--sometimes she could not bear to read a final stanza, one that perhaps ended in death or unrelenting despair--she cobbled together a survival plan.
Indeed, in this small book of short, to-the-point chapters (with titles such as "Crying in the Car," Open to It," Acquiring Losses," Sifting Questions," "Naming," "Shipwreck," and "Shelving Selves"), she reveals how she used poems to grieve, to question, to celebrate, to maintain, to curse, and to endure. The story of Ike’s illness, treatment and slow decline are interwoven with these poems and the author’s often surprising commentary on how she mined the poet’s metaphors. If a poem could put suffering into words, the author suggests, she needed that poem to survive.
The author’s choice of poems and poets is far-reaching, and her interpretations of what they mean and how they helped her along the path of her son’s illness are intimate, gritty and insightful. A brief listing of poets includes Emily Dickinson (whose poem "Blue Peninsula" supplied the book’s title), Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Ackerman, Zbiginew Herbert, The Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Molly Peacock, David Whyte and many others, known and lesser known.
Baiev’s chronicle of medical life in wartime is full of incident—tragic, touching, and repeatedly traumatic: his own life was threatened repeatedly by Russians who suspected him and Chechens who resented him for treating Russians. Members of his extended family were killed and his father’s home was destroyed. He straddled other boundaries: trained in Russia, he fully appreciated how modern medicine may bring relief not available even in the hands of the most respected traditional healers, but he mentions traditional ways with the reverence of a good son of devout Muslims. His perspective is both thoughtfully nationalistic and international.
Finally coming to the States where he couldn’t at first practice the medicine he had honed to exceptional versatility under fire, he lives with a mix of gratitude for the privilege of safety and a longing for the people he served, whose suffering was his daily work for years that might for most of us have seemed nearly unlivable. Before writing the book, he struggled with his own post-traumatic stress, and continues to testify to the futility of force as a way of settling disputes. Medicine is his diplomacy as well as his gift to his own people, and the Hippocratic Oath a commitment that sustained him in the midst of ethical complexities unlike any one would be likely to face in peacetime practice.
Not quite the familiar home-for-the-holidays genre of a dysfunctional family, this one has a twist. April is a late-teen "problem" daughter who has run away to New York City where she lives with her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke). April, played by a grungy, pigtailed, and probably tattooed Katie Holmes, has invited her parents, siblings, and grandmother to Thanksgiving dinner. This reunion, we gather, is the first since April left home. The family is coming to her lower East Side tenement, a situation that bristles with possibilities.
Moving back and forth from April's low rent apartment to tension in the crowded car as it moves from a scenic suburb to cityscape, viewers are able to watch both April's unskilled efforts as she struggles with the slippery turkey, a can of cranberry sauce, crepe paper decorations, a broken oven, etc. and an inexplicable drama slowly unfolding in the crowded car. In spite of crisis situations in both settings, the separate family members do get together for a dinner that neither could have planned.
At fourteen, after marginally consensual sex with a boyfriend, Jane has a baby. She managed to keep her pregnancy a well-camouflaged secret until late in the process; both family and friends are still reeling from her late-breaking news. Her mother has died; her grandmother has moved from the tribal reservation to live with Jane, her father (a white Canadian), and Jane's two brothers. Though the school she attends has daycare for students' babies, Jane finds little emotional support, even among former friends, until a new girl, Dawna, takes an active, unpretentious interest in both Jane and the baby.
With Dawna's and her grandmother's help Jane decides to make the rather complicated arrangements required to allow her to audition for the school play and pursue a longstanding dream of singing and dancing on stage. She meets with fierce and aggressive competition from a much more privileged girl who does her best to discredit Jane's efforts on account of her unfitness as both a Native American who doesn't look the part, and as an unwed mother who, as one faculty member puts it, shouldn't "parade herself" in public. Nevertheless, Jane's skill and determination and soul-searching pay off; despite the steep learning curve required to care for a baby and the psychological cost of teen motherhood, she succeeds in making the accommodations and compromises necessary to retrieve old dreams on new terms.
Summary:Until their father abandoned the family and moved to California, Toby Malone, his older brother, Jake, and his younger brother Eli have a close, easy relationship with each other and their parents. After his departure, and their move into a small condo, Jake begins to associate with drug users and dealers. He becomes secretive, his behavior becomes erratic, and Toby, from whose point of view the story is told, is torn between loyalty to Jake and guilt at keeping secrets from his mother, who, coping with her own losses, is preoccupied and somewhat depressed.
The idea for this anthology of poetry and prose about Alzheimer's disease patients and their caregivers arose from the editor's own experience writing about her mother. Encouraged by Tess Gallagher, Edward Hirsch, and others, Holly Hughes invited writers to contribute poems and short prose pieces that witnessed to the human experience of Alzheimer's disease. The resulting anthology includes about 120 pieces chosen from over 500 submitted. The editor has arranged these in a series of thematic sections, one of which, "Missing Pieces," contains the nine prose contributions to this primarily-poetry anthology. At the end of each work, the author has provided the reader with a brief (two or three sentence) comment on the circumstances that led he or she to write it. Tess Gallagher's Foreword describes her experience living with, and caring for, her mother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, two "widows together" (p. xv), during the months and years after Raymond Carver's death (Gallagher was married to Carver).
The works address an array of closely related themes in a wonderful variety of voices. A major focus is the Alzheimer's patient's slipping away, withdrawing, changing, whether it be toward dissolution, or into a different country. Sometimes the change reveals "your true life: / the bright unruffled water, / a sudden lift of wings," as in Linda Alexander's "Your True Life" (p. 23). Sometimes life has fled elsewhere, as in "No Destination" by Penny Harter (p. 67), or gradually dissolved ("Verbal Charms" by Melanie Martin, p. 41). Other poems evoke the unexpected and sometimes humorous antics of the demented. Witness, for example, Len Roberts' "My Uncle Chauncey Drove My Aunt Eleanor" (p. 36) and "Early Alzheimer's" by Sheryl L. Neims (p. 55). Another theme is the loving commitment of spouses who are taking care of a demented partner so many years after saying "I do" "This is what you signed on for / in such bodily earnest before the distractible / justice of the peace 64 runaway years ago" (E. A. Axelberg, p. 79). Parent-child relationships also take on new meaning, as in the touching poems "Bath" by Holly Hughes (p. 119) and "Pacific Sunset" by Arthur Ginsberg (p. 127). Finally, the inevitable themes of death and mourning pervade the anthology's last section entitled, appropriately, "Still Life."