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Dunn's poem describes the choreography of married couples after an argument. The narrative voice considers how silence is imposed, then broken and how two people eventually come together after an unpleasant exchange of words. There are, according to the speaker, unspoken rules and rituals. First, a long silence permeates: after all, "whoever spoke first would lose something." In this household drama there is meaning to the clanging of dishes, sleeping arrangements, and accidental touching.
Eventually, one or the other is careless, spontaneously and shamelessly breaking the Yalta-like stalemate with an observation about something ordinary such as a "cardinal on the bird seeder." An accidental comment secures a truce, bringing the couple together in sex, a "knot untying itself."
Summary:The Book of Mercy is a novel in which each member of a family tries to deal, in individually idiosyncratic ways, with his or her abandonment, as a family and as individuals, by their wife/mother.
Thirteen-year-old Sarah's mother, a lively, successful lawyer, discovers she has metastatic cancer. The story covers the months between her diagnosis and death. Sarah's dad is a minor character; there is little portrayal of his relationship with the mother, or with Sarah, except when he's announcing bad news. Sarah finds herself reacting in unexpected ways--feeling hateful, angry, detached, paralyzed, inclined to deny the whole thing.
The supporting character is Sarah's friend, Robin, whose mother has agoraphobia, never goes anywhere, knows few people, and rarely allows Robin to invite Sarah over. Sarah comes to understand this problem for the first time when her own mother's illness opens channels of communication between the girls.
The moment of the mother's death is described briefly but vividly: "Mom suddenly lifted both hands, pressed them hard against her forehead. She looked at me once, her eyes huge, and for an instant, it was as if she were pleading with me." The mystery of what her mother might have wanted in that final moment haunts Sarah--a reminder that death leaves questions with no answers. As the story ends, Sarah rereads a note from her mother which concludes, "'Don't let anybody tell you differently. What we're going through stinks. It just plain stinks." The novel ends with this emotional truth, making little attempt to soften it by speculation about afterlife.
Summary:This poem is a very natural, very private mother-daughter moment that celebrates the female body. A light-spirited let's-name-body-parts moment has emerged on the bed as "My daughter spreads her legs / to find her vagina." What follows is part spontaneous, light-spirited comparison between the daughter's body and her mother's ("She demands / to see mine"), and a reminder that this "is what a stranger cannot touch / without her yelling."
Summary:Agnes Higgins envies her husband Harold's ability to have brilliant and captivating dreams, nightly exotic dreams which he can recount to her in vivid detail. Agnes's dreams, when she has them, are ugly and frightening. Harold begins to coach Agnes in techniques for achieving perfect dreams. Agnes practices. She becomes progressively preoccupied with learning how to dream, but is unable to achieve a satisfying result. She becomes depressed, insomniac, and finally takes a fatal dose of sleeping pills. Harold finds Agnes "with her tranquil features set in a slight, secret smile of triumph . . . ."
Summary:Sometimes I'd spend the whole night coughing up / what I'd been breathing all day at work. With this beginning to a 20-line poem, the author presents the plain, straightforward suffering of a laborer with lungs damaged as a result of his job in a cotton mill. The doctor he consults simply advises that he get a different job, at which the speaker scoffs: "as if / a man who had no land or education / could find himself another way to live." His foreman more humanely transfers him to an outside position loading boxcars. But the damage has been done: "I'd still wake / gasping for air at least one time a night. / When I dreamed I dreamed of bumper crops / of Carolina cotton in my chest."
Annie, daughter of an Episcopalian priest, inherits a wolfhound from a woman in the parish. While on a walk, she and her huge dog discover a homeless woman in an old abandoned shed. The woman is mentally unstable, having escaped from a mental institution. Originally suspicious and threatening, she finally calms to Annie's spunky attentions and tells her the problem: her condition can be controlled with a drug they administered in the mental hospital, but conditions in the hospital were so dehumanizing she's unwilling to go back even for medical relief.
Annie makes a project of helping the old woman, though her father objects, preferring the institutional solution. Annie finds an ally in her father's assistant, a more socially active priest. With his help Annie makes the parish and her father aware of problems in institutions that care for the mentally ill. Her father finally admits to the congregation that the parish ought to be more invested in local social services.
Thirteen-year-old Meg tells the story of the summer of her fifteen-year-old sister’s death. One night Molly awakens covered with blood, Meg calls their parents, and Molly goes to the hospital where she remains for weeks, undergoing tests. It takes Meg a long time to let herself realize how bad it is, even after the magnitude of the illness is visible on Molly’s ravaged body.
Much of the medical detail in the hospital scenes makes clear how advanced the disease is, but Meg masks her growing fear with disgust, projecting her fear onto doctors she decides must be using Molly for experiments and exaggerating the seriousness of her condition. Unable to open herself to an empathy that would require both an unusual act of imagination and courage to face grief, Meg focuses on the bizarre visible effects of Molly’s illness and on her own altered daily life. Her oddly "selfish" perspective, understood as a self-protective strategy, makes complete sense.
In the midst of the slow progress of Molly’s leukemia, Meg develops friendships with an old man and a young couple expecting a baby. Both contacts help normalize her world, provide her with "reality checks" and give her a quality of attention her parents can’t manage at the time. After the baby is born, Meg gains a new perspective on the precarious miracle of life and finds the courage to go to the hospital to see Molly, now in the final stages of the disease. Meg and her parents are emotionally reunited in their loss, and in the final chapter Meg reflects on the paradox of healing that doesn’t cover over loss, but allows life to be good again in different terms.
Summary:Written for young adults by a volunteer in a children's cancer ward, the novel features an adolescent twin girl whose bone cancer separates her definitively from the active life she knew, and from the twin with whom she has lived her whole life in deep empathy. In the hospital she goes through a predictable period of adjustment when restlessness, loneliness, rage, and homesickness dominate. Eventually, though these feelings do not disappear, they are modified by the discovery of new forms of companionship that arise among those who share her confinement, fear, and recognition that the terms of her life have irrevocably changed. The camaraderie she experiences in the hospital teaches her both a new kind of friendship and new ways of understanding family relationship. The ending may disappoint some readers; several patients arrange a sexual encounter for a friend down the hall so she won't die without having been through that passage.
Brad, son and grandson of Boston doctors, resists acknowledging what is happening as his beloved grandfather succumbs to Alzheimer's disease. The family's resignation to the loss simply fuels his denial. His father, a senior physician, has to confront both his own father's dementia and his son's denial.
The rest of the family conspire from various points of view to make Brad accept what is happening to his grandfather and how the family system has to change in response. The old man, they point out, gets mean as well as disoriented. The father urges Brad not to divert his energies from "normal" adolescent occupations to trying to rescue his grandfather from an inevitable fate. Brad's response is to insist that his grandfather might get better, and to resent ever more deeply a family he sees as abandoning the old man.
In a final scene the old man is almost hit in an accident. Brad races to call his father, returning in time for his exhausted and confused grandfather to collapse against him on the sidewalk. Brad's father refuses to resuscitate him, recalling the old man's prohibition against extraordinary measures. In that moment of decision Brad comes to understand his father's predicament, his professional responsibilities, and the complexity of his relationship to the man he has known as grandfather. Letting his grandfather go, he also lets go of an adolescent resistance to his father's point of view, and crosses a threshold into adulthood that is both sobering and liberating.