“Don’t say mourning. It’s too analytical. I’m suffering.”
—Roland Barthes, from a journal kept after his mother’s death
When my mother died it was October. She died in the morning. I don’t remember a lot about that day. I called a friend over to help me break the news to my son. I let him stay home from school. I called the midwife to see if I was too pregnant to fly. I booked my ticket to Chicago.
What I remember is that night. That night I stayed up and, like the good student I once was, got to work looking for the right text. I landed quickly on Allen Ginsberg, mourning his own mother. Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village. The corsets were all wrong: unlike Allen’s mother, mine wasn’t an immigrant, she wasn’t a communist and she hadn’t gone mad. She was just another nice Jewish girl from the midwest who wasn’t quite in time for feminism. But like a lot of overgrown children who were once good students, I was determined to stick with the assigned text, and Allen at least would always be good company.
My flight was the next morning so even if the shock hadn’t kept me up, fear of missing the flight would have. clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph. It would be another few days before I would say Kaddish, so I might as well stay up with Kaddish. Around three in the morning I started to wonder if Allen had really stayed up all night. I always doubted people who said that, that they read or wrote or talked all night. They were showing off their industry or madness. Then again, this was Allen we were talking about it. I’d seen him once, a few years before he died, at a bookstore in Paris, reading a funny poem in the form of a personal ad. All I remembered about it was the line may also like women & girls, no problem, which made me laugh. I took a picture of the back of his head.
As it turned out, I’d started looking for the right text even before my mother died, although I didn’t know it at the time. During the hours that she was admitted to the hospital, treated, took her turn for the worse, during the hours the antibiotics were falling behind the pneumonia that she must have been carrying, unknowing, for weeks, I was teaching two sections of Introduction to Literature. I had chosen the life cycle and rites of passage as my themes. In keeping with the foolish ambition of the academic calendar, I planned to kick things off with coming of age on Labor Day and make it to to mourning by winter.
That afternoon in October I was teaching Margaret Edson’s play W;t, about Vivian, an English professor who uses her knowledge of Donne’s divine sonnets to mark her own impending death from ovarian cancer. Early on,Vivian says, “At best I have two hours left”—evoking this shortness by conflating the time of life with the time of a play. Life is short, but not as short as a play, we think, and smile or laugh at the line. An actor preparing for the role might reflect on how you cram your awareness of your morality into a night’s work and then do it again the next day.
By the time I’d finished teaching that day, my mom had about twelve hours left and by the time I got the first call she was in the hospital she had eight.
It was a Thursday. That day in class, I, too, had a sense we were “tight on time,” but in the mundane way: behind, as always, the way professors are always talking about being “behind”—behind our deadlines, our syllabi, behind the scale of accomplishments of the people we admire and envy.
That Thursday in class I was letting the students them talk broadly without referring to the play that much. I do this sometimes and I usually get good discussions, even though it often feels too easy, a kind of cheating, like showing the movie, which I also sometimes do. They think they’re getting away with not reading; I think I’m getting away with not making them read. But that day, the discussion of narratives of illness and dying went so well I didn’t mind. I expected them to talk about taboo and the horrible abstractions of medical language, but instead they talked about their faith and family superstitions and rituals. I left the room with a sense of accomplishment: death might still have its dominion but at least it had been good and well discussed.
On the train home, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a quotation from the poet Carolyn Kizer: “Poets are mostly interested in death and commas.” W;t has a section where Vivian’s mentor lecturers her about the importance of Donne’s punctuation, so I marveled at how perfect a match it was, and made note to include it in the next week’s writing prompt, an illustration of how poetry is the limit case of what all writing tries to do: to cover chaos with the order of the line.
Not long after I landed in Chicago they asked me if I wanted to speak at her service. I’m afraid of many things but I’ve never been afraid of public speaking. For a while I was a go-to speaker at union rallies and reader of meaningful texts at weddings. My aunt said she understood it would be too hard to write something, so maybe just read a poem? It was my profession, after all, or sort of. But I couldn’t find my text. Weddings were hard enough—you can’t go to sexual or too dark, which cuts out a most of what we call love poetry, but you always have Whitman and Neruda. Dead mothers are, apparently, something else.
My aunt gently suggested any poems that had spoken to me. I stared at her blankly. She mentioned Marge Piercy. Another sensible midwestern Jewish girl. I once spent months reading Piercy. I’d taken a “job” writing a bunch of entries for a literary encyclopedia for a hundred dollars total and was naive enough to think I should read at least a good chunk of her very prolific output before writing it. I remembered that she had a poem about having such a sensible name. Marge. Who wouldn’t be comforted by poetry written by someone named Marge?
There was in fact a perfect Piercy text—her own elegy to her mother, My Mother’s Body. It was full of moments like going through her drawers, and finding unworn scarves she’d bought her for birthday after birthday—ones for which “no day in her life was never good enough.” I also had given my mother many things she never wore, fancy jars of jam she never opened. I never figured out what she wanted and I don’t think she had either. But even this banal truth about mothers and their self-denial was too dark for public airing.
Preparing for her service, the rabbi asked the same question as my aunt. Perhaps your mother had a favorite poem?
She didn’t. I hope this doesn’t sound critical of her. Most people don’t, after all, however much I try to tell students, with just the right amount of lightheartedness, that memorizing a poem will help them impress people.
The truth was that despite her sometimes fanatical attachment to education, my mother was not much of a reader, especially in the later years. She mostly she read the newspapers and sent emails. I suspect now it is that her anxiety was such she lacked the concentration for most books, especially by the end of her life. Or maybe she hadn’t found the right text either. Like the scarves and the jams, the books I and others bought her each her at the holidays piled up on the dresser—they didn’t even make it to the bookshelves to sit unread. Among many other things this saddens me especially—if she were not happy with much of her outward life, at least she could have enjoyed the private one—the only one life I truly enjoyed for so many of the years I was a young girl in her house. No, I told the rabbi. No favorite poem.
There was one passage I actually thought about reading, but I didn’t mention it to the rabbi or anyone. It was a brief little passage at the end of Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, a memoir notable for evoking tears despite a near total absence of the pathology or tragedy we associate with that genre:
“Is it Mother coming for me, to carry me home? Could it be my own young, my own glorious Mother, coming across the grass for me, the morning light on her skin, to get me and bring me back? Back to where I last knew all I needed, the way to her two strong arms?”
I put Dillard in my suitcase but didn’t take it out the whole time I was there.
On the way home from the last night of shiva, my father and I listened to music in the car. Ah, I thought, at last: he is showing me his texts. We listen to Loudon Wainwright sing “School Days” with his rough pride. In the Spring I had great hunger/I was Keats I was Blake. It was fall outside the car and it was no long the spring of Loudon’s life, even though he insisted on still performing the song. After Loudon we listened to his ex-wife Kate McGarrigle, who had also died too young a few years ago, sing “Talk to me of Mendicino” and then it was “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” one of those countless old hobo-on-a-train songs I remember listening to when I was a kid, looking out the backseat window and wondering when real life would start. And then to my surprise, there were a few I’d never heard before. “Listen to this!” he cried, like a kid in the dorm room. He told me how he’d heard one of these singers in a room with just ten people, how unjust it was she didn’t have a bigger audience. “But nice for you!” I said. If she were more popular you wouldn’t have gotten to hear her like that!” I watch his face, trying to decide if he will give in and agree.
A few weeks later, after saying Kaddish, after shiva, after flying back, I stood in front of a room and told my students what had happened. I hadn’t planned to, but I was pregnant and they were worried about the baby. I had to reassure them, and I’m bad at cover stories. On the plane back I’d debated whether to drop W;t. If we continued, would they think me morbid, callous, or “in denial”—the very charge that, in their essays, they would make against Vivian because of her humor and pride?
I decided to go ahead with it. Mostly I had no other plan. I even used the Kizer quote about death and commas I’d picked out, even though I was sure it made me look like a madwoman, going on about commas when my mother was dead.
The students told me I was brave, looking pointedly at my belly. They asked how I was and said fine and they said, “You aren’t fine. You’re pretending to be strong, like Vivian.” I am enough like Vivian that my first reaction was to be happy they’d made a connection to the text.
Vivian’s wit and verbal powers leave her as she approaches death. There’s a reading of the play that’s about how wit and poetry don’t matter in the face of pain, that all that matters is the kindness of the nurse who shares a popsicle with her. Standing in front of those students, trying to defend why I was there, I wanted to push back against that reading. And I can, and I do, because, however much we might think otherwise, grieving is not dying. It is almost as far from it as being alive is from being dead, though not quite.
Mothers, when they are guests at dinner, eat well, like children, but seem absent. It is often the case that they cannot follow what we are doing or saying. It is often the case, also, that they enter the conversation only when it turns on our youth; or they accommodate where accommodation is not wanted; smile and are misunderstood. And yet mothers are always seen, always talked to, even if only on holidays. They have suffered for our sakes, and most often in a place where we could not see them.”
—Lydia Davis, “Mothers”
Nothing I am saying is really about my mother. Nor is it about what it is to die suddenly; it’s only about what it is when someone else dies suddenly. The speech I failed to give and the text I failed to find would be have only been about that. The hardest thing to do would not be to admit my faults and failures when it came to her, or confess my guilt. The hardest would be to describe her. (I can’t say “as she was” even as a hope). To even try to describe and where and who and what she was, in that place where I could not see her. (That foolish assignment I have given so often, usually early in the semester: “Don’t worry about ideas yet. Just describe! So simple!”). If we so often fault our mothers for failing to see us for who we are, the best of them can at least gesture towards this, whereas we children of mothers most often have not seen them at all, or seen them less than we see enemies or strangers.
There are the outlines. I try to think like an outsider. I think of her place and time. The weekend she died she was to have attended a reunion for U-High, the University-affiliated high school she loved so much. She’d done almost all the organizing for it. I think of that school at that time and of my mother, the daughter of a faculty wife who had cocktail shakers in her house she knew she’d never use. Who said she wouldn’t polish silver and didn’t learn to knit, but but still seemed of that older world, more of her mother’s generation than her own sister’s. She was made of that time, the time just before the earthquake that led so many to turn on liberal patriarchs like her own father, the pipe-smoking professor of pediatrics. Later in her life, I saw that she had a great unspoken anger at many men of his generation. When they were lauded for their accomplishments she would always point to the wife at home. But she never spoke in anger about him. Instead she praised the way he mentored his graduate students despite the fact that he made her his secretary when she was easily as smart and scientifically-inclined as any of his grad students. The only word against him I remember her speaking was that he smoked his pipe in front of her and when she complained he said she was being too sensitive.
Ginsberg’s Kaddish is not a prayer. This seems true to me despite how holy the old man had seemed in Paris, and however much I sometimes delighted in making students stand and chant the footnote to Howl. Holy my mother in the insane asylum! Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas!
I wanted my students to think about how writing could mark the moments in their lives, how they could pull something out for a party to impress someone or remember it when they were missing someone they’d once impressed. But I had to tread lightly around prayer and sacred texts: the one thing that, along with music, actually did that for most people. In Mary Gordon’s memoir, she remembers visiting her old-world Catholic mother as she undergoes a painful medical procedure. She takes her mother’s hand as she recites the Lord’s Prayer. I make my living from words, have devoted my life to words, she thinks, but there are no words that could give me as much comfort as those words give my mother.
I think most of us are like that, are like Mary Gordon. There is music, of course. Every desperate introduction to literature teacher reaches for that at some point. Of course you have some poetry memorized. It’s the songs! That’s where poetry started! That thing that could make my father feel like Loudon feeling like Keats and Blake! I remember something a friend said decades ago about boys with guitars: we young girls just wanted to feel something, we wanted to think they felt something, and the guitars make you think they do. Even if it’s all bullshit.
A few months later I came across a third Kaddish: not a poem or a prayer but a podcast. One of the guests was a poet named Elliott bat Tzedek who spoke about poetry as ritual, about what it meant to write a poem you can pray. More than anything, you have to really mean it. What would that mean, I wondered, writing something not so you could read it somewhere and someone could tell you it was really good, but that your whole community could mean it?
what I have left out
O mother what I have forgotten”
—Allen Ginsberg, “Kaddish”
At the start of my poetry unit, I had students brainstorm what made a poem. Start with what it looks like on the page. The answers start hesitatingly: rhyme, of course, which gets them rhythm. “No grammar” which gets them to line breaks. Eventually they get to repetition. We talk about repetition in music, and how it facilitates memorization. Half joking, someone said, repetition makes you think that they mean it.
Repetition makes poetry; repetition makes ritual. Mostly we are what we repeatedly do, but sometimes we are what we repeatedly say.
Repetition also makes children’s books. Read enough of them to a kid and you’re struck by how well some of them work and how so many of them don’t work at all, when they repeat too much or not enough with too much or not enough variation. At the end of W;t, Vivian turns from Donne to The Runaway Bunny. Her old mentor rocks her and reads her those words. I don’t think it means she didn’t mean the Donne she’d spent her life reciting, or that we all become children in the end. I think she just needed a new text, something that would feel both new and familiar, the way a children’s book you half-remember sounds when you read it to your own child for the first time.
A year after my mother died, I returned to Chicago for the dedication ceremony and I read the passage from Dillard, the one about my mother coming down the hill, about it being the last time I knew everything I needed to. I said those words again to myself on the plane back and quietly to myself after I’d put my own kids to bed that night. I wondered if I meant them and then I read them again.
Laura Tanenbaum is a writer and teacher who lives Brooklyn with her husband and two children. She has published essays and book reviews in publications including Jacobin, The New Republic, Dissent and the New York Times Book Review. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Aji, juked, Cleaver Magazine, and Catamaran, among other publications. She is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.