A Review of Barbara Blatner's The Still Position
The Still Position; A verse memoir of my mother's death by Barbara Blatner
NYQ Books, 2010 (120 pages)
NYQ Books, 2010 (120 pages)
There are times when life makes art seem wrong-headed. Love may be the bread and butter of literature, but the transformation of one's own love into a poem or story requires one to step outside of that love and treat both the love itself and the person one loves as objects. Even that most humble of art forms, the cell phone snapshot, has a pronounced tendency to quash the very spontaneity it is trying to "immortalize."
Perhaps no aspect of life seems more profoundly violated by art than tragedy. After Auschwitz, as Theodore Adorno famously put it, there could be no poetry.
Many American writers and artists felt similarly incapable of responding to the events of September 11th, not merely because it would have been immoral to exploit these events for the advancement of one's career, or to grant them even minimal beauty by rendering them in precise, well-observed sentences or brush strokes, but also because the true horror of atrocity is always, to some extent, beyond the power of art to comprehend or convey.
But the very notion that any aspect of human existence might be off limits seems a violation of art's raison d'Ítre. Isn't one of art's highest duties to help us make sense of the horrific and the incomprehensible? And isn't the absolute freedom of the human imagination essential for the production of art? For these reasons and others, artists have never been able to stay away very long from any significant topic or experience, even those that, by virtue of their very importance (their sacredness, even), can make art seem vain, trivial and immoral. The question for artists has never really been whether to treat such subjects, but how.
In her new collection of poetry, The Still Position, Barbara Blatner recounts the final five days of her mother's life in spare, honest and vividly detailed verse. At the same time, she provides an object lesson in how art might best treat two of life's most sacred and incomprehensible aspects: death and love.
The first duty of any artist is to see. And the second duty is to tell the truth about what one has seen. As one proceeds through this verse memoir, based on journals that Blatner kept in March 1995, one is struck again and again by the extraordinary clarity with which she renders the physical world. In "Table," for example, she turns away from the bed where her mother lies dying to look at the,
vanity table where I primped
at thirteen, opening
drawers to a private
chaos of eyeshadows
lavender teal sky-blue,
swarms of hair pins
pony tail fasteners,
stashes of powders,
colonies of tiny
blue-gold sky, fresh cloud,
emerald-black mountain, trees
on rocky ledges,
on the summit, the tiny pin
of a telephone tower-all
in shadow and out.
and on and through
the sun shines
without reservation (p. 97)
But the clarity with which she renders the hideous transformation of her mother is no less exact. In "Mom Agonistes," she shows us her mother in the throes of a seemingly endless attack of diarrhea:
rim of the sink
you claw your
way to stand
and cling there,
and still the hot
out of you. (p. 27)
Indeed, it is by constantly reminding us that the hideous indignity of death coexists with natural beauty (to the point that she renders the former by means of the latter: her defecating mother on "heron legs") that Blatner not only makes her account of her mother's final days feel vividly authentic, but puts each of these two aspects of life in its place. Death is just as incapable of undoing beauty, she tells us, as beauty is incapable of halting death.
Every one of these poems is addressed to Blatner's mother, and every one of them is steeped in love. But there is nothing the least bit saccharine or even sweet about this love. On the contrary, what Blatner shows us is the desperation of a grown child who never felt truly loved by her mother.
...you've moved closer to death it's clear, you turn to
us from the mountain, you're beautiful surrendered, the old
hardness, the no to love the schoolgirl shyness has broken
inside you, a mild trusting radiance lights your eyes your
and when I go to hug you, you reach for me you let me have
you you're a smiling child (p. 18)
There is, of course, a certain sad fulfillment in Blatner's finally having her mother-now herself a child-and also in Blatner's adult understanding of her mother's "no to love" and "schoolgirl shyness," but this fulfillment is nothing like sentimentality, and does not prevent her from proclaiming in "Revenge Fantasy":
I could simply
kill you now,
get it over with,
know the difference?
I could easily
kick you in, stove you
under, for all those times,
mean on gin,
you rammed words
into my belly. (p. 52)
What makes this passage so moving and real is not only its justified fury but its secret tenderness. At this late stage of her decline, Blatner's mother is, in fact, already long gone, a shriveled husk of herself, with nothing to look forward to but continued misery, indignity and fear. And so a swift death would not be merely the "revenge" indicated by the poem's title, but an act of mercy. But Blatner is too honest and wise to resolve these opposites. Just as she allows death and natural beauty to coexist, without one ever undoing the other, so the revenge she imagines is never undone by its secret mercy, nor is the mercy diminished by the revenge.
In "Verification," the very last poem in Blatner's account of her mother's final day, a nurse listens for the dead woman's heartbeat, and then draws the covers back up over her face. Here is what follows:
she heard it
and the beast
hiding (p. 103)
Here again are opposites co-existing. The two final words of this poem make a sort of Mobius strip, its opposing sides endlessly merging one into the other. Blatner's mother's life is not "hiding" because it has utterly ceased to exist (and so is "nowhere"), and yet, because nonexistence is so difficult to conceive of, especially in regard to those we love, Blatner can't help but think of her mother's life as "hiding" in a "nowhere" imagined-irrationally, pathetically-as a sort of netherworld. By rendering death via a pair of irresolvable opposites Blatner manages to convey something of its essence without ever depriving it of its incomprehensibility. Her art is never dishonest, never over-simplified and never wrong-headed. She gives us the world as it is and yet also allows it something of its sacredness.
Stephen O'Connor is the author of three books: Rescue (Harmony, 1989), Will My Name Be Shouted Out? (Simon & Schuster, 1997), and Orphan Trains (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). He teaches in the M.F.A. programs of Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence.