The Goddess of Goodbye by James R. Whitley
(Wordpress, Cincinnati, OH, 2009)
Ignoble Truths by Gail White
(Scienter Press, Louisville, KY, 2006)
I’m typing this essay three days before the third anniversary of my mother’s death from cancer. Our relationship was troubled and troublesome through the end of her days, and beyond: given the similarity of our personalities (particularly visible in the form of congenital stubbornness) and the disparity between our priorities, the unhappiness and distress we inflicted on each other was both considerable and inevitable.
I am Asian American, and I am frequently asked about my parents by individuals patently curious about my ancestry. I get skittish when these individuals pursue answers beyond where my father and mother were born and when they arrived in the States. I'm young enough that the interrogator seldom expects to be informed that both parents are now deceased, and I'm cranky enough to resist (and sometimes resent) assumptions of any stripe regarding my feelings about the matter: I don't automatically sympathize with everyone at odds with their parents, and I'm ill at ease when it's seized on as a bonding point. That reaction is all too easy to understand, however, when I consider how often I grit my own teeth at marketing campaigns for Mother's Day and other manifestations of the all-families-are-tightly-knit paradigm. It can be an effort to remain polite when someone presumes to tell me how my parents and I must have felt or feel about each other. It's well-intentioned small talk, but it's about as welcome as gravel in my boots or bugs in my rice.
I requested review copies of James Whitley’s full-length collection and Gail White’s chapbook last summer primarily because I was intrigued by the titles. I did not know that they contained poems about the dying of difficult mothers. It is not a genre I actively seek out, but it is bracing to encounter the bluntness of White's "Last Encounter," which opens with
When I went home to watch my mother die --
solely because grown children do such things . . .
White's experience was not identical to mine -- among other things, I took pleasure in my mother's rejection of efforts to convert her to Christianity, whereas White writes of wanting hers "to tell me she believed / in an afterlife" and how "she wanted the same from me." I am grimly familiar, however, with White's impulse to "let pity talk like love, / the way a cheating husband talks who just / wants tears to stop and things to settle down." Whitley's mother was quite different from mine -- he's descended "from a long line of women who excelled / at telling men what to do," including "no more" to her treatment-focused oncologist ("The Goddess of the Hustle") -- but I am reminded of lovingly prepared cashew shrimp and mooncakes when, in "The Goddess of Salt and Sugar," Whitley displays a rueful appreciation of his mother's cooking skills:
Despite her well-deserved reputation for cruelty
in the other rooms of our sad apartment,
my mother was a saint in the kitchen --
her glorious coconut cake and sweet potato pie,
a prayer answered in every numinous slice.
White's chapbook is a limited edition (100 copies) of fifteen formal poems. The opening sonnet, "Would-Be Pastoral Elegy," delivers on the promise of the chapbook's title -- of uncomfortable, unromantic observations on offer. This is not the realm of pretty lambs and silver dishes celebrated by Marlowe and his kind:
Spring's back again, riding a surge of death.
My cats, the heralds of the holocaust,
leave lizards underfoot, and birds whose breath
their claws have stopped lie wrapped in Spanish moss
outside the door . . .
White's sensibility is closer to that of Villon, to whom she nods as she unrolls her "Ballade of the Common Lot," its envoi posed as "The Obvious":
No matter how the bills were paid
In spring, we'll be in debt by fall,
Either by getting drunk or laid,
Women and whiskey drain it all.
She writes about survivors: herself, as she fantasizes about her funeral ("there'll be no eulogy to sketch / my virtues for the friends who won't be there / since I'm intending to outlive them all"), widows ("Post Diagnosis"), widowers ("Life Went On without Her"), teachers ("For A Senior Killed On Prom Night"), and strangers ("The Psychic" working with police investigators to locate the bodies of murder victims). She writes about accumulation and layers: the widow-to-be secretly anticipates having sole control over joint possessions; a daughter celebrates the "dunes of mess" her neatnik mother would have never tolerated; death smothers a Pompeiian nursemaid and child in "the soft gray snow that falls in hell."
There are patches where White's choices don't quite work for me -- where the structural demands of the quatrain or couplet in question force the poet to opt for a phrasing or inflection that struck me as less than ideal. For instance, in "My Funeral," she suggests,
let's forget the incense and the hymns;
inter me in a crypt in a crumbling wall,
or better yet, before my memory dims,
just toss the ashes into Bayou Teche.
This is my carnival, and farewell, flesh.
"My memory dims" is too much an effort to match "hymns" by compressing what should read something like "memories of me are dimmed"; "flesh" is a terrific word with which to end a sonnet about death, but the sentence containing it seems to me disjointed -- its parts don't add up to a proper conclusion. (Are "carnival" and "farewell" adjectives or nouns -- or, is "farewell" here an imperative, and perhaps even a pun?) If sonnets weren't traditionally constructed with fourteen lines, would this sentence come across as necessary? (I'd be tempted to end the poem right at "Teche." )
Some of White's other endings, however, do possess the right cadence and snap. For example, "Virginia Woolf Reflects on a Visit from Her Sister" answers "What happens when we marry?" with "Nuns may know best: Keep your ambitions low / and live alone, or else with other women," and "Dialogue At A Wedding" concludes with a bald statement of "essential fact: / A heart in freezing weather, like a cat, / Will make a nest of anything it finds."
Whitley spells out this same truth in "The Bump and Grind of Life," as he revisits his friend Carla's confession about a drunken one night stand:
What I should have told her is that it is,
regrettably perhaps, normal to seek outside
sources of warmth, that sometimes we take
refuge in whatever embrace will have us
for a time and that doesn't make us weak or
immoral or hollow or whorish, just human.
Whitley speaks of craving such warmth himself, both in the next stanza and in "My Mother's Son," where comfort is to be found not from other people at all, but in the texture of chenille sofas and flannel sheets and "between the lush lines of a Robert Hayden poem, / in the sweet dark center of a rum-soaked raisin." His poems are populated with characters whose lives reside outside the confines of Sunday school lessons: one woman regularly sneaks into weddings to enjoy the sight of falling rice ("Long or short grain, basmati or wild -- / the particular type doesn't matter" ("Rice"); another warns fellow shoppers about the devil "through a mouthful / of stolen grapes" ("Overheard"); a minister molests the babysitter by moving "his righteous hand up her skirt / to feel how moist her faith is" ("Almost Sunday"); a parishioner calls "the rule books… inexcusably vague" and demands to know:
Seriously, how long were we expected
to tolerate innocence with that forked
tongue licking our naïve ears so sweetly,
with such emptiness growling in us and
so much ripe fruit dangling within reach? ("Hello Halo")
The narrator's rejection of traditional visions of heaven is even more explicit in "The Goddess of the Everlasting Otherness," where he pictures the souls of the departed
partying on some archipelago
of boundless rapture --
an impossibly large disco ball
where the sun used to be,
a never-ending supply of
the most scrumptious
hors d'oeuvres falling
into every joyous mouth,
cream sherry and creamier
milkshakes flowing… ("The Goddess of the Everlasting Otherness")
The book's dedication reads, "To Bettye Jean Whitley, in memoriam," and its three parts are titled "Mother," "Son," and "Ghost." Some of the poems dwell specifically on the life and death of the mother, whom the son describes at one point as "many / contradictory things at once -- / mother, antagonist, going, gone" ("The Goddess of Failed Indigo"). A long-cherished memory of watching the mother happily dancing to Chaka Khan is inseparable from recollections of her temper, the household's poverty, and "the man who later moved in with us / and beat her almost monthly" ("Covet Not the Flame Her Bright Feathers"). In "The Goddess of the Righteous Upper Cut," the poet recounts how his mother saved him from a molester by attacking the man with a meat cleaver; in "Chère Malaise," the poet reflects to that same mother how she treated him as an "unworthy punching bag," and how
truth be told,
I miss you less than I do the thing
that was growing between us, struggling
to break through the unforgiving
shell of our egos, the thing we surely
would have christened "Respect."
In the world of Whitley's poems, family is what he's had to save himself from: the chenille sofa celebrated in "My Mother's Son" also shows up in "In My Glass House," as the narrator's "plush foxhole" to which he retreats after a verbal attack from his brother. At the same time, the knowledge that there is escape from neither past pain, present grief, nor future loss permeates Whitley's work, whether he's invoking Greek mythology (e.g., the Trojan horse in "All Pardons"; Athena, in "At the Darkened Temple"; "Medusa Ghazal," presented in the voice of the gorgon), alluding to Christian cosmography (purgatory, in "Ikebana"; the world of the Great Flood "bloated with retribution," in "Pleurisy (Or How to Drown in A Dry Room)"), or asking readers to recalibrate their awareness of contemporary icons such as "Dahl's most deplorable hellion" ("The Truth About Veruca Salt") and Nina Simone ("Nostalgic").
The front cover of the collection shows the figure of a person standing waist deep in a large body of water: the person's shadow on the water is indistinct from the dark outline of his or her body; the sun appears to be bright in the sky and on the sea, and yet, at least as reproduced in the image, the sky is the dark brownish gray of burnt toast. The territory covered by the book's contents is considerably more colorful -- it includes roses and grapes, snow peas and violets, "red streets, white gods and blue blood" ("Political") and lost dreams compared to red pistachio shells -- but the sense of darkness hovering over the edges is seldom absent. The strength and ungovernability of water are also recurring tropes: in the opening poem, cancer is "an oil spill / in the once-pristine waters" of the mother's body ("Memento Mori"); in subsequent pieces, floods engulf sinners and fluids menace tired lungs, and eventually, in "It's Not Unlike the Sea," Whitley says straight out that
I'm not talking about water here,
but love -- the murky bottom of it,
the inviting waves seen by those not yet
immersed, how even the most buoyant can
drown in it, the surface then calming again,
healing, leaving no telltale scars behind.
Peg Duthie has been known to quote, sing, and sometimes letter out Songs 8:7. She works in Nashville as a copyeditor and indexer, and periodically shares stray thoughts on Twitter @zirconium. Click here for her "Reviewers and Contributors" listing.