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I Carry My Mother
by Lesléa Newman
Review by Judith Prest, LCSW
In I Carry My Mother, Lesléa Newman illuminates what it was like to lose her mother--taking us along on the journey from diagnosis, through decline, last moments and into the aftermath. The book is a record, written through the lens of grief and memory of how she met the challenge of losing her mother, how her mother met the challenge of illness and dying.
Poems in I Carry My Mother speak eloquently to the nuances of the mother-daughter connection. In this work, she captures the rip in a daughter's universe that accompanies her mother's death. And she bears witness to her own and her mother's courage and strength throughout the time her mother was dying.
Newman sets the stage early on—in Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother, the artful juxtaposition of the woman her mother has been with the woman engaged in a losing battle with cancer make clear what the world is about to lose. In The Deal, we see a woman who once was elegant and slim, who colored her hair and painted her toenails "candy apple red', who "always loved her tiny feet"; the feet that now are "two swollen loaves of yeasty unbaked bread." A snapshot of her mother's character also comes through loud and clear in The Deal:
My mother points a finger.
Don't you cry
My life has been terrific until now
In Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother, it is clear how mothers' and daughters' lives are entwined--"I know how to make matzo balls/big as fists/and how to love on nothing/but cottage cheese, cigarettes, and air/but I know, too/that my mother is involved/in everything I know" And further along in the collection—My Mother Has My Heart:
my mother has my heart and I have hers
We traded on the day that she gave birth
rings true with this daughter who has also lost a mother.
As I read the poems in I Carry My Mother, there were many points where a line, an image, a turn of phrase in one of the poems took me right back into my own journey with my dying mother 13 years ago:
From Safe Passage:
My mother is preparing
to depart and will soon set sail
without me. Standing at sea
I keep a close watch.
and from In the ICU:
my mother is awake and not awake
my mother is asleep and not asleep
my mother is alive and not alive...
the clock is moving and not moving...
I am beside her and beside myself...
and the last lines of My Mother Has My Heart:
A treasure I keep deep within my chest
From this day forth whatever else occurs
My mother has my heart and I have hers.
And, yes, I do believe we all carry our mothers with us, inside, after they have left the planet. I Carry My Mother captures this truth. The way Lesléa Newman's poems show the particularity of her bond with her mother exemplifies the universal connection of mothers and daughters.
The poems themselves are in a variety of styles--some rhyme, some do not, and in wide-variety of other poetic forms. Quite a few of them are modeled forms from works by other poets--we hear echoes of Wallace Stevens, Muriel Rukeyser, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti and as far back as the 1500s to Sir Phillip Sidney! She uses his poem as a model for My Mother Has My Heart.
This variety of form and style serve her purpose--it shows that every death, like every birth and every individual human is unique and particular, but each resonates with our shared humanity.
I Carry My Mother would be a valuable addition to the library of anyone wrestling with the loss of a mother. The poems in this book would be helpful to people who work in the field of death and dying or who are working with clients who have grief work to do. The clear language and the striking images speak eloquently of loss and grief and recovery, and because of this, Newman's poems could be a catalyst for others who need to express their own experiences of loss.
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