Working unpoetically

This was probably my least poetic National Poetry Month ever–not that the label matters, really, but spring is usually a good writing season for me. I did read poetry but didn’t write or revise a blessed thing.

Instead of feeling poetic, I’ve just been really, really tired. Maybe it’s Covid aftermath, or seasonal allergies, or the intensity of my job–serving as Department Head has always worn me out physically as well as mentally. Another possibility struck me this week, though. April 30th is the second anniversary of my mother’s death, and although I haven’t been concentrating on it, some part of me is probably processing it. She became ill in March 2021 and there were six difficult weeks of struggling over diagnosis and treatment; we didn’t understand how fast she was leaving us until a few days before, which meant we sought more medical intervention than was good for a woman in such pain. The early-blooming trees I’ve been admiring now remind me of pointing them out to her from a car, as we drove to a specialist whose advice was beside the point, in the end. My mother loved spring flowers, but I don’t think she had the bandwidth to understand what I was talking about.

This winter, her estate was finally resolved, which feels like another bad point of closure. My youngest brother was the sole executor, and my sister and I had been trying hard to help him take the necessary steps for more than a year, thinking his inactivity was depression. We finally figured out after some legal consultation in January-February that although my mother’s will divided her assets–not large, but enough to pay attention to–evenly among her three children, my brother had had access to her accounts all along and at some point figured out that probate wasn’t even necessary, nor would we be likely to win a suit against him. Losing money sucks, but it was worse to know that he’d strung us along for so long and was willing to sell us out for a non-life-changing sum. In short: lots more to process, right?

I’m okay, financially and otherwise. I have a few keepsakes from my mother and, in her stories, riches. I know poetry always comes back. But I’m sad as well as tired, even as I wonder whether April will always bring some version of these feelings now.

The poems I’ve published recently about my mother are about her dying, but here’s a much earlier one, “Dressing Down, 1962” as it first appeared in Poetry (the poem was later collected in Heterotopia). It’s written in her voice and based on what she told me about the first big adventure of her life: how, as a provincial twenty-two-year-old from Liverpool, England, she boarded one of the first transatlantic jets and was gobsmacked by the cultural differences she encountered.

My mother called her first U.S. jobs “home nursing,” but her high school education ended at 16, followed only by something like a nursing internship. As far as I can tell, she was more of an au pair–an underpaid immigrant living with rich families in New York and taking care either of their children or elderly dependents or both. It was a giant leap from a Liverpool tenement to the Anthonys’ estate on Fishers Island, where even their summer house had eight sets of china… both liberating and, in other ways, shocking, because she had never expected her English accent becoming someone else’s status symbol. I tried to write a poem about my mother’s early work life once but it didn’t quite fly. Maybe I should try again? Her voice has never quite left my ear. In my latest dream about my mother, she told me, “Your brother is a turkey,” pronouncing “turkey” in that British way that always made us laugh.


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