Family Reunion:
Poems about Parenting
Grown Children

Sondra Zeidenstein, Editor
(Chicory Blue)
If you are planning to have any children in the next twenty-five years ... don't. Unless you are looking forward to fifty years (or more) in which you get to deal with alcoholism, anorexia, sullenness, blame (you!), sickness, lack of appreciation, inability to communicate, self-destructive behavior, late-night telephone calls, crying jags, grandchildren with life-threatening illnesses, and endless money-begs.

    She wants to hang herself from the rafters, she says
    to me at the top of the stairs...

Those are the opening lines of Joan Swift's poem "Ties," while Cortney Davis tells us about being in the airport café:

    How's work? I'll ask my son, trying to catch up.
    He'll concentrate on his plate. I'll pick up the bill.

Raymond Carver reports, "Oh, son, in those days I wanted you dead/a hundred --- no a thousand --- different times." And his daughter?

    You're a beautiful drunk, daughter.
    But you're a drunk. I can't say you're breaking
    my heart. I don't have a heart when it comes
    to this booze thing.

Pearl Garrett Crayton tells us to be very careful, "Please, please, please, please, please/don't step on my daughter's toes!" Why? She'll

    cut you down to size,
    scratch your eyes out,
    pull out your hair,
    go for your jugular vein,
    flay you skinless,
    trample you in the dust.

By comparison: "I've seen cancers cause less misery."

Penelope Scambly Schott tells of the telephone call, and "the spooked nickering of my grown daughter/across three thousand miles of dark,/that iron shoe in my heart," while Sheila Gardiner explains that her daughter's "What will I do with the rest of my life?" ("dissolving my heart") comes "from years of paralysis."

And just so we'll know that this stuff reaches across ages, Judith Arcana interviews Jocasta in hell, asks how come she gave up her son. She says Laius bullied her into doing it, but mostly she was "crying over my loose belly, still soaked in milk." Besides, "He was king." Besides, who was to know, who in god's name could ever know,

    When you look down at them in their baskets, wrapped in soft cloth, when they root for the nipple under your gown, pursing their tiny budlipped mouths toward the smell of you, their eyes still fogged, still changing.

"How could I have recognized him?" she wails, as every mother must wail when she looks into the eyes of her newborn and has no idea, no idea in god's great world that the babe in arms may someday rise up to smite the old man, strike him dead, then bury himself in the arms of the widow, the one who could not, not in a thousand thousand years, guess that this lovely young man, "my mysterious suitor, the supposed savior of my city" is, in truth the soon to be her blind --- blinded by his own hand --- son, that one-time "nuzzling, budlipped babe" of her own womb, now returned to her womb. In another direction, in another guise.

§     §     §

This volume has some sixty-five poems, and about half of them are superb. The losers, as you might guess, are the more loving, sentimental ones. There's one by Maxine Kumin which, like much of what she writes, rambles on about things to eat, in this case, at a "Family Reunion," one which makes everyone "Benign and dozy from our gluttonies," with even "thaw lungs and kidneys for the cat." "Dozy?" "Thaw lungs?" We've reviewed other writings by Ms. Kumin. This one fits in that mold. Or mould.

And Carolyn Kizer, trying hard, still cannot keep from slipping into the sentimental pit:

    ...keep warm
    your love, your bed
    and your wise heart and head
    my good daughter.
Family Reunion suggests that poetic reflections on our grown children must be forged of iron and steel, grief, anger, tears, and despair. No matter its focus, it is a stunning collection. We're here introduced to dozens of new poets, and only missed one that might have touched us equally, that of Sharon Olds [see below], in her lovely/awful poem about her parents, May of 1937, with its divine, hideous reversal, becoming a looking-glass Jocasta, reflecting in obverse the burgeoning nightmare of the soon-to-occur ruination of her mother and father, even before she came on the scene: "I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges," she tells us:

    I want to go up to them and say Stop,
    don't do it --- she's the wrong woman,
    he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
    you cannot imagine you would ever do,
    you are going to do bad things to children,
    you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
    you are going to want to die.

--- Rebecca Lord

Vintage Hughes
Langston Hughes
Several years ago we reviewed a Random House Audio disk which included over fifty poems of Langston Hughes, recorded by the author.

We were not too impressed by Hughes' renderings. They didn't show much pizzazz, or life. Also, we grumped about the music bridges, being lute music by Bach.

For a writer who saw himself as a part of the blues, gospel and jazz of the time, it seemed to us particularly inappropriate to drag someone from two hundred fifty years ago to background to the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. We wrote at the time,

    his inspiration comes from Black spirituals. If the publisher wanted musical breaks ... there are masses of recordings of Black music from the 30s and 40s that would be more appropriate.

And as we look through the 120 or so poems presented here, we feel again that lack of resonance with the printed page. Hughes poems were the songs of the poor country folk, of the fields, the backwoods of the south; and too, the ghettos --- with their musicians, vagrants, common folk and the pimps of the streets of Harlem:

    I woke up this mornin'
    'Bout half-past three.
    All the womens in town
    Was gathered round me.

    Sweet gals was a-moanin',
    "Sylvester's gonna die!"
    And a hundred pretty mamas
    Bowed their heads to cry.

It seems to us a pity that this newest collection did not contain a disk of appropriate music: the street musicians of New York, the gospel voices of the south, the words and songs of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Gary Davis, the Soul Stirrers, Reverend Kelsey and his Congregation, Blind Willie McTell, Rabbit Brown, Guitar Slim. For Hughes was in no way unaware of the music out of the juke joints of the south, the dives of New York. One of his most affecting, radiant pieces is "Daybreak in Alabama,"

    When I get to be a composer
    I'm gonna write me some music about
    Daybreak in Alabama
    And I'm gonna put the purtiest songs in it
    Rising out of the ground like a swamp dew.

Despite his kinship with the south, his heart was in Harlem, where he would

    take the Harlem night
    and wrap around you,
    Take the neon lights and make a crown,
    Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
    Taxis, subways,
    And for your love song tone their rumble down...

Long before they invented the concept of "Black Is Beautiful," Hughes was writing:

    The night is beautiful,
    so the faces of my people.

    The stars are beautiful,
    So the eyes of my people.

    Beautiful, also, is the sun.
    Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Hughes was the most vigorous in his poetry of protest --- protest against lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, the casual cruelness of the Southern white, and --- later --- the works of the various anti-subversive committees of Congress, "The committee's fat,/Smug, almost secure/Co-religionists/Shiver with delight/In warm manure..."

Still, the most powerful writing comes to us out of the heart of Harlem. In our previous comments on Hughes we added a poem, a fine one --- perhaps one of his finest --- inexplicably left out of that collection, and, yet again, out of this one: a poem that asks, no, demands to be read aloud, with a noisy, joyful chorus of trumpet, saxophone, trombone, and drum:

    Oh, silver tree!
    Oh, shining rivers of the soul.

    In a Harlem cabaret
    Six long-headed jazzers play.
    A dancing girl whose eyes are bold
    Lifts high a dress of silken gold.

    Oh, singing tree!
    Oh, shining rivers of the soul!

    Were Eve's eyes
    In the first garden
    Just a bit too bold?
    Was Cleopatra gorgeous
    In a gown of gold?
    Oh, shining tree!

    Oh, silver rivers of the soul!

    In a whirling cabaret
    Six long-headed jazzers play.

--- Washington Phillips

Go to a reading from this book.

The Mrs. Dalloway Reader
Virginia Woolf
Francine Prose, Editor

Virginia Woolf was enough of a self-conscious artist to pick and choose the names of her characters carefully. "Clarissa Dalloway" combines an element of the put-upon virginal character out of Samuel Richardson's 1748 seven-volume novel Clarissa along with a touch of "dally" and "dalliance" --- with maybe even a bit of "dabbler," "daffy" and "dolly."

This might lead us to the conclusion that Mrs. Dalloway is not too bright, but the ability to mix the busy-ness of setting up an evening soirée and meditations upon flowers and hats mixed with thoughts of death ("how it is certain we must die") makes her a bit more formidable.

Despite the critics telling us (as Woolf did herself) that she wanted to give importance to the everyday stuff of the lives of women, teas and things, one might be put off by partytime in London in 1924. "What a lark! What a plunge!" is the way Clarissa has it, along with key decisions as who is going to buy the flowers on the morning of a day "fresh as issued to children on a beach," mixed with her first memory of her first love who said to her, "Musing among the vegetables?" To which she replied tartly, "I prefer men to cauliflowers."

Amidst all this careful fun, Woolf cannot resist the fugue that comes us in the form of the mad Septimus, Septimus Warren Smith, a man who lived in the trenches of World War One, watched his best friend Evans die, and congratulated himself on feeling nothing (except "the panic was on him.")

Locked in his name there are hints of "September" and "septic" and "septicemis" (virulent microorganisms invading the bloodstream) ... along with the overtones of seven: the seven holy men, the seven fools, perhaps even, long before Bergman got there, the Seventh Seal of the Book of Revelations.

Mad Septimus says "people were talking behind the bedroom walls." He "had seen an old woman's head in the middle of a fern." On this lovely June day, he suddenly announces "Now we will kill ourselves." The two of them seem bound together --- the supposedly "normal" Mrs. Dalloway and the shell-shocked Septimus. The two of them weave and play throughout the book, along with the cause of his suicide, being the eminent mental doctor --- they called them "alienists" in those days --- Sir William Bradshaw.

Septimus' last thoughts are that he did not want to die. "Life was good. The sun hot." But Dr. Holmes --- sent by Bradshaw --- is at the door. "'I'll give it to you!' he cried, and flung himself out the window, vigorously, violently down on Mrs. Filmer's area railings." Our quiet and genteel and supposedly sane Clarissa at her carefully arranged party (the Prime Minister was there, he "had been good to come") hears the news of it, and at that point she says, "The party's splendour fell to the floor:"

    What business had the Bradshaw's to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party --- the Bradshaws, talked of death. He had killed himself --- but how?

And how did she know of it?

    Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt.

Woolf does not tell us of the fall, but the sane, the supposedly air-headed party-giver sees it exactly:

    He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.

Mrs. Dalloway "had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine." Not the Thames; not the Ouse (where, fifteen years later, Mrs. Dalloway's creator was to throw herself.) And she thought,

    Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

Mrs. Dalloway, the giver of parties, wants only to "push the chairs" and please with good food and fine surroundings and the unobtrusive servants, with pleasant and august company, to make people happy. But there was "this life, to be lived to the end ... so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, send roaring up that immeasurable delight, rubbing stick to stick, one thing with another."

That is the party, is it not? The rubbing together of things --- food and people and atmosphere and companionship. The suicide?

    Somehow it was her disaster --- her disgrace. It was her punishment to see sink and disappear here a man, there a woman, in this profound darkness, and she forced to stand here in her evening dress.

The young man may have killed himself, "but she did not pity him, with all this going on."

    She felt somehow very like him --- the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away ... He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.

§     §     §

This volume comes along with several portmanteaus. There is a previous dry run by Woolf, called Mrs. Dalloway's Party; some commentary by E. M Forester and a few lesser modern critics, on feminism and such. It takes up the first 150 or so pages of the book. You are well off to ignore the most of it --- except for two. Sigrid Nunez's "On Rereading Ms. Dalloway" is worth it because her pet rabbit Percival nibbled on her first paperback copy of the book. She poop-poos the poo-pooers and is so obviously in love with Woolf that she helps us to fall for her too, "She was a genius in art and a heroine in life. She was the Goddess of Literature. I was at her feet."

Then there is a short essay by Woolf herself, a curt piece designed for those authors who have the gall to write commentary on their own works long after they have been printed and sent out to the world.

Don't listen to what we say, she says. It's too late. It's gone. They (the manuscript, the book, the ideas) no longer belong to the author. They have flown the nest, are the province and property of the world, are no longer our own.

--- Lolita Lark
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