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Review of What Does Not Return by Tami Haaland

Lost Horse Press, Paperback, 78 pages. $18.00.

Reviewed by Melissa Kwasny

Poetry has been described as the art of speaking the unspeakable. In some cases, the unspeakable is that which seems almost too horrific to put into words. Sometimes it is that the state of being is too nuanced, the feeling too fleeting, the insight too gossamer for most of us to register it. Sometimes the silence comes from whole ranges of experience previously unexplored or thought unfit. Women poets, for instance, in the 1970s and ‘80s, legitimized abortion, childbirth, and menstruation as worthwhile subjects for poetry. Upon reading Tami Haaland’s new book, What Does Not Return, it occurs to me that what has been rarely explored in poetry is the daily care and burden that (mostly) women assume for the ill and the dying. And that is why this quietly revolutionary book of poetry seems so essential.

Most of the poems in Haaland’s book reference her mother’s dementia and eventual death, and the years of care-giving the author devoted to her. How does one bear witness to the messiness of managing someone else’s care—the impatience and patience, the enormous weight one lifts physically, emotionally, and financially, the day by day demands on one’s resources, the admixture of love and grief: “[M]other has gone into her room / where I’ve turned down her blanket so she / doesn’t sleep on top and tonight I don’t / stand a chance of getting her / into pajamas.” What does caregiving feel like? What of the twin pulls of generosity and miserliness of spirit? “It was a year and a mile, a daily escape, / a treat, a burden, a weight,” Haaland writes of her mother’s decline. “What a place,” she exclaims about visiting her mother in the nursing home she has finally moved her into, meaning not only the room but where they both together find themselves. How to manage dementia “as if she could / still manage once time had disappeared”?

Haaland’s poems are affectingly simple in diction and style. It is an appropriate, impressive simplicity, sharpened as it is by emotional honesty and the courage to stare unflinchingly at the painful reality of loss. In “Two Eggs,” the mother smiles proudly at her feat of perfectly breaking the eggs into a bowl: “She has made two eggs as she did / when she knew what to do.” In this image, the daughter and mother, making a pudding, perhaps a cake, adding milk before it goes into the oven, I am reminded of how my own grandmother dying in the hospital made the motions of peeling potatoes with her beautifully ordinary hands. This is what the attendant knows: the body’s memories are the last to go.

The language here is painstakingly precise, as if clarity were essential to preserving dignity and privacy—and then the heart breaks as one clear line shatters us: “The dog is near. We think she might like / to see it once more.” Clearly, the dog that once was the mother’s lives apart from her now. Clearly that “once more” is more a given than a premonition. Clearly, bringing the dog to see the mother is the most anyone can do, and one is not sure it will suffice. However, these are not dark poems but poems suffused with light. They are poems that return poignancy and beauty to the perceived ugliness of dying, the perceived sacrifice of care-giving: “I vote we keep going, head west, wash her feet one last time in the tide. // She says no, she wants her dinner.” When the mother does die, the daughter stands in the dark and empty hospital room sketching her mother’s face, waving off the comfort and company from the nurses: “The hospice woman thought / she was helping, that her words / would be a comfort in a room full of death, / but I turned away to the weighted silence / the slow cooling and loss.”

“At Laguna, when someone dies, you don’t ‘get over it’ by forgetting; you ‘get over it’ by remembering, and by remembering you are aware that no person is ever truly lost or gone once they have been in our lives,” writes the novelist Leslie Marmon Silko in a letter to her friend James Wright. The starkness and emptiness of the Montana prairie, where Haaland grew up and where her mother spent her life, which the poet has always described well, are evident, but there is a new depth—and distance—seen through the lens of memory. In “Scandinavians on the High Plains,” the poet describes her mother’s reluctance to take a pleasure trip to a nearby lake, she who was always “ looking perpetually for more work,” though the children yearn for the joy it might bring: “We watched the pattern of waves / rise and fall behind us / until we were at ease.” She remembers her mother’s glass vases “filled / with ripe grasses / we found in a ditch,” so fragile, so ready to tip, “as if in this world to walk heavily / were not allowed.” The mother’s spare, workaday existence stands in direct contrast to the daughter, who will paint her house blue, and who “doesn’t care for tame.”

This brings me to one of the most surprising—and surprisingly successful—turns in the book’s trajectory. In the last section, entitled “No Reason to Stay Inside,” as well as in a scattering of poems that precede it, Haaland’s proximity to her mother’s death, rather than bringing about only grief, guilt, and sorrow, which is so often the case, also inexplicably opens a door to the magical, to wonder, even to the supernatural. In “Gift,” her mother leads her to a secret cabinet and a gift of glass slippers painted with galloping white horses. In “Blue Moon,” one of my favorite poems, the daughter walking at night encounters a deer: “So much velvet—to invite you seems / inevitable. // What is the chance a woman might walk / with a deer // on this border of pavement?” In “Night Journey,” the author is on a train, watching people in the dining car being served melon and drinks: “Far ahead rode my mother / and father. Though I hadn’t seen them, / I knew we were traveling /together, and I had the most ordinary / thought, that I would go to them.”

The contemporary Syrian poet Adonis, in differentiating poetry from other written or oral forms, writes that it is a language of love rather than a language of explanation: “The former loves things without necessarily understanding them, while the relationship of [the latter] to things and the universe is one of understanding, knowing and valuation rather than love. Love itself is not expressed but experienced.” I would like to venture that poetry allows us to experience the unspeakable—including the dead who can no longer speak—because the language of love is an interior language, one kept alive by memories and dreams. In Haaland’s dream poems, presented without explanation or interpretation, the dead enter as naturally and unremarkably as she might enter into her mother’s kitchen for supper. Because of the quotidian nature of the previous poems, their specificity and sense of place, we accept these experiences and are, as we sense she must be, healed by them.