Monday, December 10, 2012

"A Late Blessing" by Marcia Slatkin

I wake her
with touch, rubbing
her shoulders, telling
the time.

My hug fills
the curve of her chest,
arms circling warmth
through her length.

When she cleans dishes,
I reach to fill the kettle
by nudging her cheek
with my forehead,
then snuggling, and hearing
her squeal.

Despite grease
on her face at sleeptime,
I kiss her, wish her
good dreams.

This is the mother I battled
when young; the mother
who beat my defiance;
the one I hit back.

While we walk now,
she gives me her hand,
its back veined and grizzled—
but its wondrous palm
soft as persimmon,
warm and trusting
as a child.

Reprinted by permission of Marcia Slatkin.

Interview With Marcia Slatkin

How did you come to write this poem?

My childhood was full of intense drama. My ill father was angry. My anxiety ridden mother was intrusive and harshly critical in her desperation for her children to succeed. As I was rebellious, there were constant fights which, often physical, left everyone haggard.

It was thus not easy to realize, forty years later, my father long dead, that my mother, now paranoid and delusional as well as lacking memory, could no longer live alone. Perhaps this is a fearsome occasion for crisis in many families. How do grown children deal with aging and infirm parents, especially if the children bear the scars of early battle? But I was the oldest of four siblings. My children were grown, and I had a free bedroom. I was the only child who used vitamins religiously, so I knew I could keep her healthy longer than any institution could. And I had done "Re-evaluation Co-Counseling" every week for 25 years! It is a psycho-therapeutic modality where by you train, then trade counseling services with peers so that you help one another peel away layers of pain, thus freeing you to... see reality more clearly. I knew that it was fear that had caused my parents to act so harshly toward me, even thought my residual anger remained.

So I decided to give it a try, at least until the family could figure out another option. I gave my mother two Benadryl, told her we were going for a drive, and took her 70 miles east to my hi-ranch on the north shore of Long Island. Several lucky breaks made the decision a good one. I found a wonderful day care program for dementia patients nearby. Our M.D. prescribed two off-label psych meds for her, which cut down the anxiety and stopped the hallucinations/delusions. But it was the realization that I could write about our days together that induced me to keep her. It was like direct contact with the Muse of Poetry! We'd interact, I'd hear lines, write them down, and hear more. The simmering creative jolt that care-giving gave, sustained me through the 3 1/2 years of our journey together. And my own psychological transformation came within and during that "care-giving / creating" context.

How did writing this poem affect your recovery?

"A Late Blessing" was written relatively early in the experience—perhaps six months after my mother began to live with me. But things had gotten easier between us already. I found a zany, adventuresome woman beneath all that paranoia and anxiety. Sometimes, psych meds are miraculous. She responded beautifully to my silliness, and loved physical touching and hugging. I found myself amazed that I could be part of a happy relationship with this woman I'd warred with for so long. I didn't realize it until I reread what I had written, months later, but this poem marks the beginning of the melting of the block of scar that had encased my heart for years.

Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?

Most of my poems are narrative. I would be struck by a detail of our lives together, and would write focusing on the emotional center of the story, the most intense moment, only later working to enhance language, whether with imagery or sound systems. Often I actually heard/thought of lines at the start -- which made me understand that our connection was an essential catalyst for my writing. Something that induced me to write this poem, but which I have perhaps not completely captured within it—I was struck when touching / looking at my mothers "guileless palm,/ soft as a persimmon, / trusting as a child," that it was the symbol of her current vulnerability. She was dependent on me and trusting that I would not harm her, even though I still harbored enough residual anger so that I was aware that I could hurt her as payback for past pain. She of course never knew such thoughts occurred to me. And I decided that I would never be vengeful, but rather kind and loving. Still, at that moment, there I was, knife in hand, bending over her naked exposed neck, and deciding to sheathe the blade. Perhaps the poem expresses my wonder at this decision. It would be a real writing assignment to try to get all of that into the poem!

Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?

I was early attracted to the 17th century devotional poets -- George Herbert, John Donne. I love the muscular sound of their work, I love the often-complex "metaphysical imagery," which I find intellectually nourishing, and I love the yearning outward reach, the belief in and longing for a spiritual dimension beyond, even as the beauty of this life is appreciated, praised. I loved the lyrics of A.E. Houseman much as I love the piano music of Schumannn—simple unpretentious direct utterance, lilting and lovely. I loved Blake above all other writers for a long time, because of his fierce philosophical stance, his love of the pure and good, his hatred of pretense and hypocrisy. "Exuberance is Beauty," I'd write on my wall. "Prudence is an Ugly Old Maid Courted by Incapacity." I loved the lyrics of the early Joni Mitchell for perhaps the same reasons. And my reaction to Sharon Olds was so intense that for a long time I couldn't read her work without crying. That relentless moving deeper and deeper toward the center of experience is mesmerizing for me. She has a courage I wish I had. She goes farther toward the "whatness" of experience than any poet I know. I also love the poetry of Linda Pastan and Stephen Dunn—both of them accessible, beautifully evocative, wise.

What are you working on now?

I think humans now are suffering a very dangerous denial of climate change that perhaps stems from extreme fear and feelings of impotence. I've been writing poems about this issue for about four years, and want to begin to publish some of them as I work toward the completion of a volume I'll call "OP ED: EARTH!" Many of the pieces react to articles I've read about the issue, many are dramatic monologues (i.e. from the point of view of a glacier, or of a CO2 molecule.). The most important task for me, therefore, is to figure out in whose voice I'll tell my tale, then to imagine that entity and try to inhabit it as I write the poem. Compelling.

Former teacher, farmer, care-giver, Marcia Slatkin now plays cello, works for climate change mitigation, makes photo collages, and writes: poems, plays, fiction. Three of her one-acts will be read at Bard's Lifetime Learning Institute's inter-session workshops, January 16th, 1:30 - 3:30 P.M., free of charge. Her collages/photographs can be seen at the Tivoli Artist's Co-Op and at RHCAN, Red Hook. Her two daughters grown, she lives and cultivates many gardens with her long-time partner, Dan. See for sample poems, photos.

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