Having recently lost my mother at the age of 93, I was drawn to L.D. Brodsky’s collection about his parents’ deaths, Saul and Charlotte, with a keen interest and all-consuming curiosity. For the record, his father, Saul Brodsky, died at the age of 93 in 2002, and his mother, Charlotte, at 96 in 2011. As the title suggests, these poems can be read as a love story, or, as the subtitle suggests, Poems Commemorating a Father and Mother, as the nostalgic recollections of the couple’s offspring. In fact, they are both, but mainly, to me, this collection is an anguished, detailed chronicling of the dwindling capabilities of two elderly people to whom the poet is devoted.
Divided into two sections (“Heavenward” and “Homeward”), Saul and Charlotte records the gradual demise of first the father and then the mother. Poem after poem begins with a line that places the verses in a point in time. From “Heavenward,” the section that deals with Saul, the poems begin this way: “Mandate” – “This dark December morning…”; “Brilliance” – “Since last Monday morning…”; “Cocoon” – “Seven days ago we put our father in the hospital…”; “Peaceful Passing” – “Fifteen minutes or so before two, this morning/Our beloved father’s spirit/Slipped silently into serenity’s sweet sleep…”; “Where to Begin” – “Where to Begin?/Today at about three in the afternoon,/We buried our father…”; “Christmas Eve Yahrzeit” – “Dad, you left us a year ago yesterday….” Brodsky’s verse is usually so mellifluous and enjoyable in the mouth, whereas most of these poems begin with that blunt, prosaic fact, the day, the time, before his lyrical bent kicks in.
The poems in “Homeward” are the same. The time span of the Charlotte section is much, much longer than the Saul section, where we essentially focus on the last seven days of his life, with poems, to be sure, before and after the drama of his hospitalization and death. But the chronicle of Charlotte’s journey to the grave begins after Saul is put to rest and continues for almost another nine years. These poems, too, usually start with the stark statement of time, as we watch her dwindle: “Seven Lines” – “Though it was an exquisite Saturday…”; “Two Toasts” – “This relaxed afternoon…”; “An Ethical Dilemma” – “After three extremely protracted days…”; “Commandments” – “On this weary Friday evening,/The third night of her hospital stay…”; “”The Realization” – “By late Saturday afternoon”….
And what a chronicle it is, as the poet watches the inevitable, heartbreaking decline of first his father (cancer) and then his mother (“old age”: complete breakdown). And how I recognized the same inescapable, irreversible enfeeblement of a parent, whom I remembered as vigorous, youthful, vivacious, and now must see with shock and sorrow as so vulnerable and fragile. How I remember my mother, in the last days before she died, summoning all her remaining strength to feebly croak, “I want to die! Please kill me! I want to die!” This is echoed in the poem about Charlotte, “Another Sunday Drive,” when she confides to her son:
“I used to hate the thought of death; lately, it seems OK.”
But even more poignant are the signs of her diminishment, as seen in the concluding lines of “The Reds”:
Suddenly, I know my mother for who she’s become:
A ninety-five year old baby girl, fascinated by the blurs of her world.
For it is the mental diminution that is even more alarming than the physical, as he watches her struggle with memory and reasoning and self-control.
But there is also an elegiac quality to the poems, celebrating the six-decade marriage of Saul and Charlotte as the father built a successful clothing business in mid-century Saint Louis, and the two raised and nurtured a family. There are also fond memories, trips to New York with his father and to Sportsman’s Park to see the Cardinals, playing piano with his mother, to whom Brodsky attributes his love of poetry, his need to write, to
Cause me forever , to hear the world in rhyming vowel-chimes,
See my life as one continuously unscrolling poem.
Note how these lines contrast with the more prosaic chronicle openings to so many of these poems in Saul and Charlotte. “Piano” concludes:
Rhymes and lines and stanzas sung in the key of my mother.
There is also a potent mystical element to the poems in this collection, as Brodsky seems more than just to imagine his parents in the afterlife but almost to behold them so, like a Biblical Hebrew prophet. Despite the anguish of losing his parents, he does see continuity.
As her vault-sealed walnut casket is delivered unto the earth
And silence subsumes her once-indomitable spirit,
And her children, grandchildren, and friends will leave the cemetery,
Anticipating the next time that time will completely, simply cease:
The moment when Charlotte and Saul reunite,
Their lives together never again to be sundered.
Wow, even the language has biblical echoes. And speaking of language, in a review earlier this year of Dine Rite: Breakfast Poems, I noted that Brodsky is a noted Faulkner scholar and, like Faulkner, delights in sounds and rich, vivid imagery. I’d like to end this review by (re-)citing some lines from one of the concluding poems in this collection, “Dispositions,” because they are so quintessentially Faulknerian to my ear:
And then the disposition ceased, simply quit:
A stasis embraced the house,
Cast it in a comfortable shadow she could peacefully live with,
As if time had finally healed the open-endedness of his going,
Blessed her lonely spirit
With the promise of their future reunion, in a someday not far away.
Similar Reads: Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass; Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish.