Marge Piercy once wrote that poetry should “be of use,” and that profound sense of usefulness is one of the most inherent values of Necessary Turns, a second full-length poetry collection by Liz Abrams-Morley, useful especially to those of us in the “sandwich generation” who are taking care of our parents and our children (even if they’re young adults) at the same time. This largely free-verse book lets us see ourselves mirrored in situations similar to Abrams-Morley’s own life, while thematically exploring poetry as witness, mothering up and down the generations, the multi-layered nature of mothering as craft and occupation, and loss — both the loss of parents, and the loss of a child — and with that loss, the attendant guilt of survivors.
Abrams-Morley writes both looking up (at her parents’ inevitable decline and death) and looking down (at her own children), always with an eye to what’s happening around her, especially in the natural world. And she writes, because she has to, about the unnatural and the unspeakable: the loss of her sister’s son, her nephew, at twenty. And yet, this is not a work of unbearable sadness; it’s no accident that this quote by Linda Pastan opens the book: “If death is everywhere we look, / at least let’s marry it to beauty” (“Women on the Shore”). Abrams-Morley marries — or at least has a love affair with — beauty at every turn.
As a daughter, the poet’s primary role is that of witness, which finds her thinking about the loss of a parent before it comes: “When she kisses him, gulls circle, / squawk an orphan’s Kaddish, though / the cheek she kisses is still warm” (“Saying Goodnight”). Whether writing poems to keep away the dark or to make grief more bearable when the time comes, Abrams-Morley’s lines hum with resonance and power: “Outside his bedroom window, / forsythia blooms this year too. / A month late, delayed by cold hard rains, / spring returns on shallow breath / to eastern Pennsylvania” (“Forsythia Season”). In the same poem, the poet muses on her mother’s death: “In the park between my home and her / hospital room, forsythia bloomed, / a riot of buttery yellow stalks like those / she’d cut each March of my youth.” The bright, brassy image of the forsythia bush stands in direct contrast to the bleakness of death, and can’t help itself. It creates a note of hope even (or especially) in the face of great loss.
When loss comes, here’s what she does:
. . . We
opened the box that held all she had
become and flung her
among lush wetland reeds between
a blue ocean and a red-tide bay,
toward a bleeding sunset, into
a brazenly painted day’s end.
(“When Mother Was Dying”)
Abrams-Morley uses words like a painter, with strong and vibrant reds and blues, and like a musician too: “become/flung/among/lush,” the “ees” of “reeds/bleeding.” This is a writer who pays attention, with both her eyes and her ears.
In the poems she’s crafted as a mother, Abrams-Morley proves she’s always paying attention:
A child draws
of a body
. . . .
It is the mother who
fills in the texture
between the window’s
onions under her precise
(“Arts & Crafts”)
She goes on to contrast the mother standing at the sink, who can cut “by feel,” with the daughter who cuts “in jagged, dancing lines.” In many ways, Abrams-Morley reminds the reader of Eavan Boland, the Irish poet, describing her struggle to write and her desire to do so, when she was home in the suburbs with small children. Both Abrams-Morley and Boland write about “the almost invisible world that everyone knew of and no one referred to. Of suburbs and housing estates. Of children and women. Of fires lighted for the first winter chill; of food put on the table” (Eavan Boland, Object Lessons). In this essay, Boland discusses at length how “the suburb is an awkward and unlikely theatre for a poem. . . .a devalued subject matter.” Because of pioneering work like Boland’s, now younger women like Abrams-Morley are free to write unapologetically about the work of raising children, making dinner, and folding the family laundry, insisting these subjects are worthy of poems.
The most difficult poems in the book are those that deal with the death of Abrams-Morley’s nephew at twenty, a loss so untimely, so completely out of season, it’s nearly unspeakable.
This is wrong. This is wrong, my sister repeats as her
twenty-year-old son is lowered into earth. The thunk
of clods on polished wood, the shovel passed
from hand to manicured hand.
(“After Winter: Two Mallards,” ii)
Pesach: the angel of death has failed
to read out blood “not here” sign.
Two chairs sit empty at our Seder table.
Throw open the door for Elijah; inhale spring air.
(“After Winter: Two Mallards,” vi)
Besides the pure and simple pain of grief, there’s also the more complicated tangle of guilt:
When Lot’s wife looked back she
became immobile, pillar of salt,
of dried tears, evaporated seas.
Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve — useless
to live in the subjunctive, your mother told you,
but she’s long dead.
(“Living in the Subjunctive”)
And yet, in the midst of grieving, beauty appears: “The new green of ground cover speaks / prayer over what once was barren” (“After Winter: Two Mallards,” iv). “I watched a goldfinch pair swoop, / . . .land in a crab apple redolent of white; / the pasture roses pink and open” (“Grief Song: For Jeremy, Dead at Twenty”). The consolations of nature are still there, in spite of everything. And then there is the gorgeous language of “Kaddish” (the traditional Jewish prayer recited by mourners): “The goldfinch that split your view with an arrow of / bright buttery yellow.” “You know you need to praise the rain, the gray, / the flood, even one spider crawling up your leg / that may leave a red welt if it bites.” Abrams-Morley’s message is, that despite loss, despite pain, life is good, and must be embraced.
She ends the poem in this way: ” . . .Praise for the afterlife of fall, winter, / last summer: white fluted frills of fungus, vast and / lush on a rotted stump that was once / a tall oak reaching upwards.” Not only is this a wonderful metaphor for her parents, it is also a command for the life that goes on. It’s a fitting reminder, for those of us in the sandwich generation, that we need to pay attention, to kindle the hearth fires of memory to those who have been gone before while at the same time we’re cherishing the button mushrooms and thin green shoots of those we are nurturing and raising. Praise goes out to Liz Abrams-Morley for writing this moving book.