Review by Sandra Kohler
THE STILL POSITION:
a verse memoir of my mother’s death
by Barbara Blatner
The New York Quarterly Foundation, Inc
P.O. Box 2015
Old Chelsea Station
New York, New York 10113
2010, 115 pp, $14.95
When a poet friend asked if I’d be interested in reading–and possibly reviewing–her acquaintance Barbara Blatner’s new book of poems, The Still Position, I was drawn to say yes by both this poet’s praise of the work and by its daunting subject: the last week of the life of the author’s mother. Two experiences from my life, and one from my work as poet, pulled me: my mother’s death, of cancer, when I was eleven, and my older brother’s death ten years ago, of liver disease. The earlier loss was one from which I had been partly shielded because of my age, so my understanding of it has been limited in ways; my brother’s death, about which I’ve written a number of poems, left me wondering what another poet would make of similar materials. In connection with both losses, I wanted to see what a poet could do with both the grim details of such a death observed and the complex emotional reactions which seem to me almost inevitable. This curiosity was satisfied by Barbara Blatner’s book; more importantly, The Still Position affords a rich poetic and emotional experience which readers will find well worth their attention whether or not they are drawn to the subject by personal experience.
The subtitle of the book, “a verse memoir of my mother’s death,” defines its substance, but not its structure. A clue to that came, for me, when I noted that Blatner is a playwright as well as poet and musician; her previous publications include a verse play. The Still Position can be seen as a play: “before” stands as prologue to the five acts of Monday through Friday; “after” as epilogue. Drama is not just a matter of form in these poems: the poet also has the task of creating suspense in a narrative whose outcome is known from the start. Despite what is known, the poems are full of tensions of various kinds. First, as observers of this death, we want to know just how it occurs, how the process of going from a living being to a dead body is enacted. This may seem a morbid or perverse desire, but I think it entirely natural: how can we not want to know in detail about such a primal event, one to which we are all subject? Reading the sequence, I admired Blatner’s grim honesty, the willingness to articulate and so doing embrace even what some might view as ugly or humiliating details of the body’s process of dying. (I’m reminded, in saying this, of a favorite line from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene: “entire affection hateth nicety”–that is, that unconditional love is not “turned off” by such details.)
In addition to the drama of the body’s death, the sequence is full of another basic element of drama: conflict. (Of course the process of dying can be seen as a battle between life and death in the body itself.) There are several conflicts in the sequence: from the mostly muted kind implied in the lines about the mother’s caretakers and her children: “we…/kinda like each other/and kinda don’t,” to the actual arguments that take place, like the one between Sadie, the caretaker, and Tom, the narrator’s brother, ended by the dying mother’s forceful return to full consciousness and pithy advice, “Don’t be an ass”; to the fight between the narrator and her sister that turns violent, dangerous as the narrator drives furiously into the night, almost willing her own death. But these external conflicts, important as they are, nevertheless weigh less than the ongoing more inward struggles. The first of these is the dying woman’s own attitude toward her death, involving simultaneously admission and denial. Like the narrator, we keep wondering: will she ever acknowledge that she is indeed dying? The other is the narrator’s conflict between love and fury, tenderness and resentment, delight and disgust with the mother who has inflicted suffering and withheld longed-for love. These struggles, especially that of the narrator, seem the skeleton, the basic bones on which the sequence is fleshed out. And because of their constant push-pull, the difficulty of reaching a fixed place, it seems a tremendous irony that the title poem is “The Still Position.”
Many of the poems of the sequence themselves seem skeletal, not in the sense of lacking flesh and blood, but in their spare unrolling of short lines, linear progression. Another image that comes to mind for them is that of a knife blade, honed and wielded to cut to the quick of the struggles they enact. Doing so, they can be moving, indeed almost astonishing, like the amazing poem “morphine,” the final poem of “Thursday,” in which the mother is seen as shepherd leading her children, imaged here as her sheep, up the terrible climb, the “invisible/stony path” of her death. This extraordinary moment seems resolution, if a momentary one, of both of the conflicts I’ve been discussing: the mother’s own “ownership” of her death and the narrator’s ambivalent relationship with the mother.
One comment on the narrator’s portrait of the mother, a qualification of sorts. After reading and re-reading the poems, it occurred to me that I still did not “see” the mother as a character in her own right. On further reflection, I decided that there is no way that the narrator could have achieved such a portrait, for to do so would have required presenting something to which the daughter/narrator has no real access: the inner life of the mother. That inner life is partially revealed, of course, by what we’re told of the mother’s past actions and what we see and hear of her in the present of the poems. But a more complete view of it would have been false to the reality of the narrator’s position as a character in this sequence, not author of a fiction in which the mother is fully revealed as character.
In the image from “morphine” of the stony path, we see one of the constants of the sequence: the presence of a natural world that is not merely background or setting but a vital counterpart to the human and psychological processes of the narrative. The images Blatner uses to create this world are wonderfully precise, wonderfully realized. Take, for instance, the description in “home,” the first poem of “before,” of the tree whose spring bloom the mother will not live to see: “…your two-hundred-year/ apple tree,/…branches bare/now, scored/twisted/and barren, /and…/to imagine/fresh taffeta/frothing/from its moist boles/in a May/you will not/see, infant/ blossoms/on ancient limbs.” This image could stand as emblem to the entire sequence: the mother’s death bringing forth a kind of birth (for the narrator perhaps) that she will not see but has nevertheless engendered. Like the shepherd/sheep image discussed above, this image, for all its precision and specificity, resonates with the entire sequence’s structure and meaning.
Later natural images–the mother’s garden with its daffodils and lilac, orchards, “green escarpment,” looming black mountain and the creatures like hawks and deer glimpsed in this landscape–complete this process of definition of the world of the sequence, becoming, like the alternate burial of the mother envisaged in the first poem of “after,” “the theatre of death,” a way of placing the action of this “play” in its full context of human meaning.
As a poet, I found myself deeply drawn to these poems in part because of their natural images; that sense of nature providing a kind of counterpart, a vital context for the most intense emotional experience is a central part of my own work. As the woman who was once a child barred from the room in which her mother was dying, I was drawn almost compulsively to the graphic scenes of a similar death, a loss whose meaning I am still plumbing sixty years later. As the adult who knows how tortuously complex the emotions involved in our family bonds and tensions are, I was drawn to this scrupulously honest account of their ambiguity, their rich and dynamic nature. As a reader, Blatner’s craft and skill afforded me delight in beauty as well as moments of breathtaking pain. The Still Position is a fine book, an achievement of both mind and heart.
Sandra Kohler’s third collection of poems, Improbable Music, is forthcoming in May, 2011 from Word Press. Her second collection, The Ceremonies of Longing, winner of the 2002 AWP Award Series in Poetry, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in November, 2003. An earlier volume, The Country of Women, was published in 1995 by Calyx Books. Her poems have appeared over the past thirty years in journals including Prairie Schooner, The New Republic, Beloit Poetry Journal, Natural Bridge, Flyway, The Missouri Review, Many Mountains Moving, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and The Colorado Review. She is a participant in the Handprint Identity Project, a collaboration between artists and poets, which had its opening exhibit at Elizabethtown College in November, 2008. After living in Pennsylvania for most of her adult life, she has recently moved to Boston, Massachusetts.