Mary 1st, 2008
Review by Matthew Thorburn
by Chase Twichell
Copper Canyon Press
P.O. Box 271
Port Townsend, WA 98368
111 pp., $16.00
We know how to mourn the dead, but how do we mourn the dying, those half-here, half-gone? In Dog Language, Chase Twichell writes of her father's decline into dementia and eventual death. She also pulls off the rare feat of writing movingly about the impending or recent deaths of her beloved cats and dogs. Her first collection since 1998's The Snow Watcher, Dog Language picks up the threads of that book--particularly Twichell's study of Zen Buddhism--but twines them into more intimate, personal narratives of family memories and solitary grief, poems of holding on and letting go.
"No one dead will ever / read these words," Twichell writes in the opening lines of Skeleton, the first poem in the book, "and those alive will sweep them from the streets." Throughout these poems, Twichell is concerned with impermanence--not only that of words and memories, but of her loved ones. There is a constant pull here between tending to them and stepping away in order to write these poems. Two Greeds begins:
I'm greedy for my intelligent
little cat, old Miami,
who's taught me to speak
a bit of her tongue.
As the poem unfolds, we learn that the cat relies on her sense of smell because she has gone blind: "I think she hunts the memory / of what it was like to see." But soon Twichell feels that second greed, the urge to write: "I chafe to begin building / her cage, this poem." "Poetry," she admits, is "a temple for one."
Sunday Noon, the book's first section, gathers together poems of childhood--memories of growing up in the shadows of "the scotch-colored / hills of Connecticut"--that establish a backstory for the later poems of her father's illness and death. The section takes its title from "Grandfather's famous cocktail," a citrusy gin drink served in "big cold-clouded pitchers, glasses with sugar on the rim," described in the poem Watertown. There's something of Elizabeth Bishop in this poem's backward-looking focus on beloved objects, its lingering on the particulars. Just as a poem can be a "cage" to hold a cat that will one day die, so too can a poem recall to life something that is already only a memory:
Grandma had a hundred-year-old
jade tree on the piano.
I'm possessed by a need
to have one exactly like it--
coins of green water,
bark like elephant hide.
Hers had a glazed pot,
a stone turtle.
I want that turtle.
Twichell is a philosopher who gets her hands dirty. Sorry begins:
I'm to press the pad of my thumb
against the trout's upper jaw,
its teeth surprisingly sharp,
more like berry cane than teeth,
its eyes already beginning to look back
from the afterlife. ...
This, she tells us, is the way to clean a fish, which involves forcing the jaw back "until the spine / breaks slowly, like a green stick." Twichell spends 18 lines describing the process, so that one is sideswiped by the poem's conclusion, in which it becomes clear that this is an elegy for her father. He's the one teaching her how to clean what she caught. When they gut the fish and can tell its sex, "If it's female / Dad clicks sorry with his tongue." This approach reflects how hard it is to terms with a parent's death, how this kind of loss is at first too difficult to approach directly.
Twichell also writes vividly of the gradual death a dementia patient suffers as the mind grows cloudy. In Cinderblock, Twichell takes her wheelchair-bound father for a walk around the nursing home:
I steer him along the asphalt paths
of the grounds: bark mulch,
first green shoots,
puddle of coffee by a car.
I loop around so he can discover
the pile of construction materials twice,
the word cinderblock coming to him
more quickly the second time.
Twichell asks the old questions--What does it mean to love people and animals you know will die, or are dead already? What are the words for that love?--in a twenty-first century world. Mah-jongg describes hunting down a set of the tiles, just like her grandmother once had, on eBay. Another poem revolves around a call to a tech support hotline. In Verizon, Twichell's confused father fixes on the telephone company's name, which he sees as a kind of verdant horizon, "a golf course / on which he looks forward to playing." In Thinning Shadow of Miami, her description of her aging cat is interrupted by her own emotions: "I was typing, and now I'm weeping / tears so pure and streaming / I don't recognize them as my own." She knows that her cat is slowly dying; she knows that we all are: "Soon I'll feel only a draft in her place, / but that's true of everything I love." Such plain-spoken directness is not for everyone. It can, though, be quietly moving, especially as you come to realize that Twichell loves these animals as if they were her children.
But love is complicated; it has its dark side. With dementia, there is frustration for the caregiver as well as the patient: along with fond memories, a parent loses his recollection of painful past events his child may still need to deal with. This imbalance between the sick forgetter and the healthy rememberer comes into focus in the needle-sharp ten-liner Let's Talk:
Let's talk about his death,
right now in progress,
and about the BBs
the angry child put in his milk,
her silence as he swallowed them.
Now she remembers it
and he has no memory,
so it's her possession now.
She can give it away or use it all up.
She has not finished using it.
Dog Language is a hefty volume by poetry standards, weighing in at more than 100 pages. Given its intense focus on these themes of loss and grief, repetition is inevitable, and there are places where two poems cover such similar ground that the weaker of the two might wisely have been cut. The striking Thinning Shadow of Miami quoted above, for instance, would be even more striking if it weren't followed by the lesser Dress Rehearsal, which voices a similar tribute to a deceased pet.
On the other hand, the virtue of such an expansive collection is the feeling of having been admitted into a life: we have spent significant time with, and gotten to know, Twichell's family and pets, in these 80-odd poems. The experience is like reading a novel, that same feeling of not wanting it to end. I feel a neighborly affection for her; I want to know what happens next. In Thought Satellite, the book's closer, she writes, "I think of poems as a series / of small harsh rebirths," and concedes that now, at last, "It's quitting time." "So good-bye; I'm dying out / of this communion now, / into the next rebirth." But while she has said her goodbyes, I find that I am reluctant to say mine. The familiarity and directness offered in these poems is a gift--one that is not always easy to accept, though it is richly rewarding--and Twichell treats us as familiars when the poem and the book end: "Well, that's it. See you."
is the author of Subject to Change
(New Issues, 2004) and was selected by Charles Simic for a 2008 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. He writes about writing at www.matthewthorburn.blogspot.com