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As you are now, so once was I; Prepare for death and follow me. The novel's advisory epigram prepares readers for the realities of aging and death which affect both narrator and reader. Following surgery, Caro Spencer is delivered to Twin Elms, a nursing home in a rural New England setting. While this intelligent woman requires only short-term care, she is deposited, permanently, in an understaffed, sub-standard care facility by relatives unwilling to add her minor but time-consuming difficulties to their own.
It is not a pretty setting. The staff is overworked and demeaning, especially to the new resident who is well-educated and accustomed to better circumstances. The nursing home routine is careless of individual differences and needs, and set up to strip away autonomy and dignity through petty and cruel indignations.
Caro is able to survive by keeping a secret diary for observations, reflections, and interpretations; ultimately, this alone sustains her. While the voice is that of an elderly woman (as we are now), the journal is for us, those still able to manage their lives, but unable to predict or control end-of-life events.
Summary:The Stone Diaries recount the life of Daisy Goodwill (1905-199? [sic]). "[W]ife, mother, citizen of our century," her son closes the benediction of her memorial service. Yet Daisy is also the orphaned daughter of an orphan--her dramatic birth a turning point for her father, the neighbours--and a social outcast. Daisy becomes a happy child, a lifelong friend, a college graduate, a consummate gardener, a cultivator of stories, a pragmatist, a romantic, a widow twice (once scandalously, once more ordinarily) . . . . In short, the diaries of "Day's Eye" bear witness to the extraordinary lives of seemingly ordinary "citizens."
In this long poem (47 quatrains), Annandale visits his doctor after years of absence and tells the doctor his story. When his wife Miriam died, he mourned her, "wept and said that all was done." Then he met Damaris, "who knows everything, / Knows how to find so much in me." Damaris, who became his second wife, comforts and accepts him. Even though sometimes "her complexities / Are restive" and she becomes angry, soon "She folds her paws and purrs again.
Annandale tells this story of late life happiness, then leaves the doctor's office. He never reaches home: "There was a sick crash in the street, / And after that there was no doubt, / Of what there was." In the last five quatrains, the doctor reflects on what he did for Annandale after the accident ("the one thing to do")--euthanasia.
The story begins with a philosophical discussion about how science (especially phrenology) understands human beings. It is the narrator's contention that science develops a priori. One first decides on the basic needs of humankind, then ascribes to certain organs the role of satisfying those needs. The narrator thinks this is backwards: "It would have been wiser, it would have been safer to classify . . . upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took for granted the Diety intended him to do."
One major trait scientists have overlooked is perversity. Men often do things for no better reason than that it will hurt themselves or others. The narrator then tells how he murdered a man and lived contentedly with the knowledge for many years until he was suddenly, perversely compelled to confess.
A young man is traveling through France with a companion. They pass near a well-known "Mad House" and decide to visit. His companion introduces him to the superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, then leaves. The superintendent informs the young man that the hospital has given up the system of management it was famous for. Previously, patients were allowed complete freedom. The practice had finally proved too dangerous and Maillard promises to show the young man the alternative system he installed after dinner. He escorts the young man to a banquet table crowded with guests and laden with food.
To the visitor, the dinner guests seem rather mad as they take turns describing and then demonstrating the delusions of patients. But Maillard assures him that the lunatics are locked up; the guests are keepers. Maillard says the new system was invented by Doctors Tarr and Fether. He describes the dangers of the former system used. In one instance, he says, patients rebelled and imprisoned their keepers while they themselves enjoyed the wines and beauty of the grounds.
Suddenly, there is a crash at the boarded-up windows. The visitor thinks it is the escaped madmen. It turns out, however, to be the keepers who were indeed imprisoned by the madmen, tarred and feathered and kept on a diet of bread and water. Maillard, the former superintendent, had gone mad himself and organized the rebellion.
A hapless country doctor describes with breathless urgency a night-time summons to attend a young patient. Events soon take on a surreal aspect as "unearthly horses" transport him instantaneously to the bedside. The doctor, preoccupied with personal distractions and grievances against those he is employed to care for, fails to find what is revealed to be a vile, fatal wound (symbolizing the Crucifixion?). He is humiliated by the villagers, who are "always expecting the impossible from the doctor," and doomed to an endless return trip, losing everything.
Elizabeth, a coal miner's wife, waits anxiously for her husband to return for dinner, concerned for his safety and at the same time angry at the trouble he has made for her by coming home late, and drunk, so often. She ponders their unsatisfactory relationship and tries to keep up appearances with her two young children.
Then word comes that there has been an accident and that her husband has been killed. His body is brought into the house and laid out (undamaged because he died of suffocation). Washing the body with her mother-in-law, she goes through a complex series of reactions, including curiosity, anger, sympathy, forgiveness, and cool appraisal. She sees that the two of them had long ago rejected something deep within the other, and that they had lived utterly separate lives. At the end she is “grateful to death, which restored the truth.”
Two radically different people find themselves together on a hospital roof garden, where they first come to terms with each other, then with their pasts, their illnesses, and death. Parmigian has a fruit and vegetable stand, a terminal cancer, and a bitter wit. Richard Landau is an investment adviser in fine art, fastidious, but haunted by his childhood escape from the Holocaust.
Only in for tests, Landau becomes forced to confront Parmigian's fatalistic view of the world. As Parmigian taunts and jokes, he draws Landau into his laughter and wild imaginings, as key weapons in the fight to stay alive.
Summary:Like Paul Muldoon's Sonogram (see this bibliography), this poem was occasioned by the poet's wife's ultrasound of their first child, Tobias. (See pgs. 258-259 of the anthology for a description of the poet and his comments on this poem.) "Sonogram" is alternately lyrical and bright ("through succulences of conducting gel") and dark (" . . . or sinuses of thought / like Siracusa's limestone quarries, where / an army of seven thousand starved to death.") The language is highly poetic (and successfully so) in conjoining the worlds of medical technology and poetry ("or alveolus in a narthex rose") and playful ("God's image lies couched safe in blood and matter" punning on "vouchsafed").
Laqueur writes about his experiences as a volunteer at the Home for Jewish Parents. The elderly he meets there have lived fantastically broad lives, many having fled from eastern Europe in front of the German armies of World Wars I and II. Laqueur explains how different their impressions of world events are from his.
He notes the variety of responses the residents have to their own aging process and that of others. Those who are still mobile and mentally alert avoid those who are not. Some residents cling to life and self-respect, others abandon it. Over all, Laqueur is reassured by his visits. If these people have made it this far through such a crazy century, certainly he, too, can go on.