The Chronogram Poets: Barbara Blatner

(Reviewing Barbara Blatner’s The Still Position in the November Chronogram roundup, Lee Gould writes that “Blatner addresses her dying mother in a verse memoir of unflinching physicality: In these vivid imagistic poems, we see the weakening mother become a swamped skiff, ‘little fish,’ ‘birdbody.’…Her last words to her squabbling adult offspring? ‘Don’t be an ass!’ Good advice, redemptive poetry.” Blatner will read with other poets from the issue on Sunday, November 27th at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock at 4 pm. Here she describes her book.)

fact is

I stare
out your kitchen window
at green-black
mountain swelling
above back yard
fields and orchards.
near the summit’s
stony escarpment
before the vertical scar
cut through trees
for telephone wire,
a hawk
is flying.
and I’m thinking:
it doesn’t matter
that you neglected us
got drunk at us
charmed us
divided us
against each other.
we love you terribly,
the eye of love’s
ever sharper
now that you lie
in bed in your room
at the end of the hall
we’re bound to you
like that hawk
to her hunger,
we hunt
your love
we circle
we shadow

My mother died in 1995 in upstate New York a little south of Albany. Behind her house rose a Helderberg mountain – the Helderbergs are foothills of the Catskills – a rocky escarpment. Below the escarpment are fields, orchards and forest where we often saw hawks and deer and rabbits and other animals.

My mother was deeply attached to animals; I learned that attachment from her. I’m very often brought to Whitman’s line, “I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals…” – This tenderness for other species, their energetic presence, physical and emotional, informs many poems in The Still Position, my verse memoir about my mother’s last five days, in which the above poem lives.

On the particular day “fact is” was written, my very weak but very conscious mother lay in bed in her room at the back of her small house. It was the Monday before her Friday morning death – we all knew it was the beginning of her countdown hours – and in the middle of the afternoon, I stood at the other end of her house washing dishes in the kitchen sink, my hands in soapy water. I turned around, looked out the window at the escarpment, a vista which always tuned my mind to quiet, saw a lone hawk floating above the toothy line rocks near the crest.

My mother was a fascinating, endearing person, and an immature, unwilling mother. She was a mean drunk, shy as hell (her inability to demonstrate her love for her three children was hellish), withholding and demanding. Yet the three of us, her children, loved and love her “terribly,” as the poem says. I am not sure what kind of love this was and is – I know we three compulsively took care of her in our separate ways, likely as a failed gambit to rehabilitate her to motherhood – but our love was and is anything simple or mechanistic.

But that hawk circling purposefully in the sky, probably waiting for the right second to swoop toward its prey – pinched my heart. Each species is bound to its unique hunger. And in the journal I kept of my mother’s last five, intensely alive days prefacing her death, that hawk’s hunger became the image and emblem for our tireless hunt for mother love.

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