What a terrific title for a collection of poems. But does Laura Read’s Donald Hall Prize-winning collection live up to the promise of the title? The collection is dedicated to Read’s mother – who is still alive – and the three-part sequence is prefaced by a poem entitled “The Pearl,” which serves almost as an epigraph (there are two real epigraphs, by the way).
“The Pearl” is written for the memory of Bridie Halpin, an Irish female activist of the early 20th century, matriarch of her clan, and together with the dedication Read signals that this is a collection about the strength of women, how they endure. (The poem “Cefalu” from part one perhaps implicitly identifies both women: “When he married my mother/Irish girl fromLong Island…”) This is not unlike my own mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were strong females who died within the last year – and which was why I was drawn to this collection in the first place; the title resonates.
The three parts of Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral are in chronological sequence, from girlhood, when Read’s father dies – poems in this section are skillfully rendered from the naïve perspective of childhood – to the years and experience between adolescence and adulthood, and finally, in Part Three, to adulthood/motherhood, when the past washes over her with both nostalgic allure and anxious premonition.
These contradictory impulses that move throughout the poems are beautifully and poignantly captured in Read’s poem from Part III, “The Little Mermaid, the Long Version,” in which Read is telling her son the tale of the mermaid who becomes human. Her little boy is captivated by the happily-ever-after Disney story of true love overcoming all obstacles. She tells him this short version. But life is a fairy tale told by an idiot. In the long version,
somebody else and the little mermaid turns
into sea foam. Her body is the bright line
of green that keeps washing up in ribbons.
This is the long version. I can hear her
out there in the water, the sea-hum in her throat,
her fingernails scraping the sand
as she tries to hold on with every wave.
This is the sad wisdom the poet has always known, that nothing quite goes the way you want it to, a knowledge that deepens as she grows older: life is an accumulation of regrets. In poem after poem, it’s as if Read is scraping at the sands of her past, trying to hold onto it, keep the past from slipping away.
The poems in the first part recount with a child’s sense of confusion and dislocation the impressions that surround her father’s death, leaving the house in which he died, her mother’s re-marriage and their moving away. In “The Time We’ll Go to Kentucky Fried Chicken” we get the first ribbon of fear, the wave she grasps at lapping at the shore, as her brother speculates about their mother’s death. They are children. Her brother “…stood next to me and looked at our mother/not getting out of bed/after our father died…” Later in the poem the brother says, “If she dies too,/we’ll go to Kentucky Fried Chicken/not Wendy’s/where we went after the funeral [their father’s]…” Other poems from Part One also express the innocence of a child in the face of very serious realities. In “A Woman Was Raped Here,” she contemplates the graffiti painted on the sidewalk on her way to school (“…did they mean/it happened right there…”).
But while the narrator matures over the course of this sequence and her wisdom of the way life works deepens, the impulse to hold onto the past continues, even strengthens. In “Penny Poker” from Part One, the girl writes of her mother:
she wants to lean her body against
a jukebox and flip through the records,
sing the songs she used to know.
They could take her back, beyond
the tumbleweeds blowing onto the highway,
past the state line and theMidwest
and the 1970’s, before Dad died.
How like the impulse to preserve a fleeting experience – a la recherché du temps perdu – we later find in “Trying to Contact Neil Diamond,” from Part III (one of the collection’s two epigraphs is from Neil Diamond’s “Brooklyn Roads”):
We’ll pull the record from its sleeve
and lay it on the turntable,
lower the needle.
My parents will get down on their knees again
so they can dance with me and my brother.
Does the collection live up to its title? Certainly the dread of her mother’s death throbs throughout these poems. In “At the Chicago Art Institute, My Mother Tells Me to Write a Poem about Jeannette,” one of the last poems in the book, Read uses Henri Matisse’s series of five sculpted heads, in which Jeannette becomes increasingly deformed, to present her mother’s life, likewise in five parts starting with “…the first head of my mother/the one bent over her jacks/…but she won’t go inside/where her parents are drinking.” In Part III, “It is months after my father’s death/but she still watches the window/until night comes into the sky/like train smoke.” By the fifth part her mother is like walking death in explicit comparison with the Matisse’s Jeannette V sculpture:
Jeannette doesn’t need her hair
anymore, or that suitcase
of skull – just the brain
on its spike of nose and eyes,
one a flat circle.
Thus we all fear our parents’ loss of vitality, anticipate their death long before the actual fact comes to pass. (“She’s going to Independent/Living, the first euphemism,” Read writes in “The House on North Stevens”). Yet the title poem is enigmatic. Her mother tries to dissuade Read from going back to the scene of her Long Island childhood – it just won’t be the same – and Read remembers reading The World Book Encyclopedia there for an ornithology report for school. Her mother’s instructions for her funeral come by way of cautioning her daughter:
Don’t watch to see if they’ll lift
off the page – they want to open
their thin wings you made for them
with your pencils
and see how they do in the wind.
It’s kind of a comforting thought, isn’t it? Be strong, her mother is telling her. Endure.