Within this melody
It fill you up, it fill you up, it fill you up now
There’s more than you can see
It fill you up, it fill you up, it fill you up now
There’s another realm
There’s another world
……..~ Van Morrison, “It Fills You Up” from A Period of Transition (1977)
My Dad died, after a seven years war with lung cancer, in March 2011. He loved the spring best. My Mom was his primary caretaker for his last year. Afterwards, she was often driftless. She suffered TIAs and falls. She could no longer keep time and had trouble finding words. She blamed the lighting or the print when she couldn’t read something, but she was having trouble understanding signals her eyes were sending: seeing she could not see. We couldn’t leave her alone, until she fell again, and resigned her to assisted living. When we’d visit the “home,” she often seemed as if passing through a low hum of hours, and evening sedatives. She told us she was a prisoner, and wanted to die. Hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die. We watched the tree die slowly. The blight was set; she was withering within. There were luminous moments, but no true hope of recovery. It’s the way with dementia. Mom crossed out of this world last October. Fall was her season.
It’s a wide, wide river to cross. There’s been a sorrow in the wind. And yet, losing a beloved through dementia makes you in a way more thankful for the memories that remain in you when you see these disappearing from your beloved’s world, when you see your beloved’s world disappearing. If you watch a soul die, it relumes in you, through acts of living remembrance. It’s a real heavy connection. It fills you up. There’s another realm. There’s another world.
This sequence of poems draws on rock lyrics as a screen to confront, confound even, the pain of my mother’s crossing to dementia and death, and elsewhere. These are nonce sonnets, and the form may help to contain the emotion, to settle the moment. I hope the form also helps to produce and stress the rhythms of the words across and between lines. I suppose I wrote these—and dozens of others—as preparatory meditations to deaden oncoming grief, psychic dress rehearsals. With a chronic illness, however, you grieve all along. It is Margaret you mourn for. We always mourn ourselves when we lose a beloved. But I hope these works move beyond the self and become meaningful or helpful to others.
Each poem is inspired mainly by a particular artist or song, as elaborated below. I see these poems as collaborations, of a sort, by proxy. Lennon-McCartney(-Turner). Jagger-Richards(-Turner). OK, il miglior fabbro. Clearly, I’ve shoehorned myself among esteemed songwriting company. Rock artists of course have music to carry their lyrics, to play with and against the meanings and affects of their words. Some say this makes it easier. Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I think of rhythm as poetry’s music. In any case, I do hope—to pick up the root of inspired—that each poem below draws on the power of the spirit of these brilliant rock artists and songs, that their lines, musical and lyrical, breathe through and animate mine. I hope you hear echoes of their words and music resounding in these poems, as I do. Their songs’ rhythms add more than you can see to my poems’ rhythms, their lyrics help, I hope, my words cross into another realm. I hope you hear the other voices and rhythms their lyrics and music suffuse into these poems. These aural resonances might also evoke memories of your own, from when you may have listened to these songs yourself, a further world within these melodies. In this way, they may offer a way back to a past, or a way to build back a past, a stay against confusion—important, I think, in poems confronting, confounding losses wrought by dementia. A way of saying thanks for the memories.
My Mom listened to Polish pianist/politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski, lighthearted Texan country singer-songwriter Roger Miller, and The Beatles. She also owned an LP that caught my ear. It was by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons and called, accurately enough, The 4 Seasons Sing Big Hits By Burt Bacharach…Hal David…Bob Dylan. Differently, let’s say. As if belonging on a David Lynch soundtrack. The second half of the album was all Dylan covers. I nearly wore out the vinyl, pressing the needle to the black plastic skin again and again. Mom also owned an LP that caught my eye. It was by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and called Whipped Cream & Other Delights. The cover, emerald-glistening among a stack of placid 33s, featured a Natalie Wood-esque model ensconced in a great swath of her own nakedness and whipped cream, with eyes beyond lovely, piercing. Whatever “other delights” were promised, the music didn’t seem to be one of them. Mom also listened to and played sacred songs on the piano. Beautifully. Though she would almost never finish a song. Perfectionist. She’d never sing when she played, but she’d hum, right in tune, right in time.
In the sequence of poems below, “Rubber Soul” alludes heavily to lyrics by The Beatles, so much so that it’s something of a double-voiced poem, with their songs heard re-echoing throughout the lines. Mom loved The Beatles, the early Beatles. “Yesterday” was one of her favorites. “Rubber Soul” honors this memory. And honors memory, I hope. The album Rubber Soul (1965) is often seen as the crossing point for The Beatles, where they began transitioning from early to later Beatles, from clever yet still innocent, mop-topped lads in matching suits to wild-haired, experimental, countercultural, conscience- and consciousness-altering band. The phrase, “Rubber Soul,” puns on the hope that the soul is malleable, that consciousness can bounce back. And sometimes Mom would come back lucid, spring back full of light and life. Mom was very much bound up in the past; she believed in yesterday. So it was especially difficult to see the narrative cord of memory fray, unravel. If, under the wearying weight of dementia, we lose track of yesterdays and memories lose narrative order and meaning—a terrifying state…I saw Mom’s terror, and my own at hers—then the right thing to do perhaps is to embrace the gift of an eternal present, to live lucidly in the moment: to follow the sun, now.
A little history: Mom was born, June 1934, in Bruin, Pennsylvania, population circa 500, in the shadow of the Allegheny mountains. Her mother served as Presbyterian missionary to Egypt and her father was a foreman in an oil refinery in nearby Oil City; her ancestors included a Presbyterian minister and a stonecutter: if you died, one would say words over you, the other would plant a stone. Mom taught school in Pennsylvania, and later on a military base in England, when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first hit big. She returned to America, and moved to upstate South Carolina, where she worked for the Department of Public Welfare. There, she met my Dad, a labor lawyer. They married in 1966, and remained wed for forty-five years until Dad died. Together, they raised three children: a daughter and two sons. Mom made sure her children had what they needed.
Mom was not a fan of them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones. They took it right to the edge, right to the end. Too gritty, per Mom, among other things. For one other thing, The Stones were too other. When she heard “You Gotta Move” blaring fuzzily from my gray metallic jambox, which bounced when the rhythm was right—it had MegaBass—Mom knocked loudly on my locked oak door to quiet the sound within. She asked, “Is he Black?” Meaning the singer, Mick Jagger. Later to be anointed Sir Mick by Her Royal Majesty, Queen of England. Mom didn’t say it nicely. Bruin’s population of circa 500 was circa 98% white. Also, not many Jews or Catholics. (Reader, I married one. Reader, I am one, of a kind.) Mom was correct, though. Jagger takes up a southern Black voice on “You Gotta Move,” a song with long roots in the African American spiritual and blues traditions, as he does on so many other Stones cuts. One of the things I loved most about The Stones—their openness to and integration of other musical traditions and forms—was precisely what my Mom didn’t care for, or didn’t understand, or didn’t care to understand. It was a world she had difficulty crossing. Think of all that was missed. As my musical interests continued to diversify and my cassette/CD collection expanded to include more and more Black artists, and mostly southern Black artists (Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Redding, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, etc.)—many of whom I came to know from listening to The Stones—it seemed a sign of our growing apart. One of the only Black artists I remember Mom complimenting was Louis Armstrong. And Tom Waits, misidentified as Black; I didn’t correct her. Meanwhile, my big brother was bunkered in the essentially soundproofed basement room, listening to all manner of hardcore rap and early hip-hop (Public Enemy, N.W.A., Ice-T, etc.) plus heavy metal (Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Ostborne, Iron Maiden, etc.). He was ahead of time; I was always behind time. Brought up in racially mixed parts of Georgia and Virginia and South Carolina, my Dad made a good balance. Dad was a democrat, in most real senses of the word—willing to listen, open to others, not set in set ways for no reason, always moving.
“Childhood Living” references primarily a famous country ballad by The Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses.” This was the only Stones song I recall Mom liking; she once called the music “pretty.” It was one of three Stones songs Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wishes he would have written himself. Keith Richards wrote it in part for his young son Marlon, as reflected in the opening lines: “Childhood living is easy to do / The things you wanted, I bought them for you.” The song is from Sticky Fingers (1971), generally considered, per one side, The Greatest Of All Stones Albums, unless it is Exile on Main Street (1972), per another side. I’ve crossed to the Exile side. At the time of co-writing “Wild Horses,” Richards was struggling heavily with addiction to cocaine and heroin and alcohol, and was often apart from his young child. The song tells of longing and estrangement, but also blood-deep commitment. I took and reassembled words and images from the song, but it was that feeling of blood kinship, come no matter what—which I associate, right or wrong, with my Mom’s Scots-Irish Appalachian roots—that connected most. Of course, the common trope of dementia as entering a “second childhood” is also in play, in the hope that this will make things in some ways easier. The poem further mixes in references to Jesus’s advice in the Gospel of Thomas to Come into being as you pass away. This holds hope that, as you die to the self, you are not diminished, but repent (that is, literally “change your mind”) and connect to something beyond (just) you, to others, to another realm, to God. There’s also the hope that a spirited fire still blazes within my mother—she always had a fiery spirit—even if outwardly this is not anymore apparent. She deserves better. All do. She deserves freedom, if not much time, to do some living as the outward self dies.
“Gone for Something” takes its title and two interspersed lines from vatic Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s “Slim Slow Slider,” the astonishing closing song on the astonishing album, Astral Weeks (1968). Mom liked some of Morrison’s songs, especially the gospel-based numbers, when she heard these wafting from my jambox. The knowing rejoinder to the title line, “You’re gone for something,” is: “And I know you won’t be back.” At this time, we know Mom is gone elsewhere; she won’t be back. The letting go is for me and my siblings as well as for her. The hospice staff, bless them, told us to let Mom know it was OK to let go. She held on for five days in hospice after her final stroke. She had a strong heart. Morrison recalls for me my Mom’s Celtic lineage as well. She possessed a dynamic intellect, and true to her Scots roots, a feisty streak when she felt right needed to be done. She could be temperamental. And she shared a feeling for another realm, for crossing into the mystic. There’s wonderful, grainy concert footage from Winterland 1974 where Morrison seems to unveil a stereotypical Ulster Scots brooding moodiness with knife-flash temper, quicksilvering between irascible and mystical in the space of a few seconds. Distracted by audience requests for favorite songs, he growls, “If ya shut yer mo’, ya mi’ git wach ya want. But ya borin’ me to deef an’ prolly e’ryone els’.” Then launches summarily into a smooth, soaring rendition of “Into the Mystic.” You can hear a similar crossing over between the earthy and the sublime, I think, in the music/vocals and lyrics of “It Fills You Up.” The material and the mystical commingle, like the airy words of a Scots Presbyterian minister cascading around the cold heft of the tombstone, the stonecutter’s work—both happening at the same time.
“Just like a Ballerina” is, like “Rubber Soul,” another double-voiced poem. The sonnet is heavily based on a lovely love poem-song also on Astral Weeks, “Ballerina,” though its loveliest form may appear in the October 9, 1970 live show at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, released on Just Like Way Back in the Days of Old (2012). In the poem, love and death interchange freely, crossing between realms. Which I believe is latent in Sir Van’s song, too, written for a young dancer. At the end, Mom stopped eating. Her weight dropped under 90 pounds. She wore tiny slippers for warmth. Her shoulder bones seemed to poke through her skin, as wings. We could see the writing on the wall. She just couldn’t go on. She was at once like a ballerina, like a child, like an angel. This is a goodbye, for this world. The end of something, not everything, not for nothing. A period of transition. There’s another realm.
“Chances Are” draws on Bob Marley’s song, “Chances Are,” originally recorded circa 1968-1972, but not officially released until after Marley’s death on the compilation album Chances Are (1981). The track is, I think, most beautiful—most pure in its technical impurities. I consider Marley, like Van Morrison, as another great Christian singer-songwriter, in the largest sense. The song is mournful, yes. A song of taking leave. But also of resistance, of glorious yes-but-under-protest spirit. Of togetherness in transition, of not looking back, and finally of great peace. I hope again that the song, its lyrics and music, resounds in the poem’s lines, and that the poem does the song justice. The vocal interplay is sublime, with a small, but completely sufficient gospel choir ringing their voices together. These are loosely draped—a stand of sugar maples nodding feathered heads together on the hillside in time with the fall winds—across simple descending guitar lines that sound as if backcast from the 1950s. The singer takes up the poet’s Orphic task to call the beloved out of oblivion, to not forget, but this time the beloved makes it back out with the singer, to share a bright tomorrow. If not a happy ending, a happy present. What else can we hope?
So. We’re only halfway home. We’ve got to journey on, to find the thing that we lost. We’ve got a wide, wide river to cross. Yet. They say if you go far enough away, you’ll be on your way back home. So, welcome home, wherever you find yourself. Right where all things lost are made good again.
There are places you’ll remember all your life.
Yet these places lose their meaning.
The fruit has been picked; the winds shrill
inside your chinked shack. Do you still recall
all you loved? Some are dead, and some are living.
One day, you look to see they’re gone.
Clouds purl, pale hovering on the sundown.
Yesterday, love was easy. Now we need a place
to hide you away. There’s a shadow hanging
over you—forever, not for better, all your life.
Yesterday came suddenly, and is unleaving,
and yesterday is all, all you believe in.
There’s no taking the easy way out now.
But tomorrow may rain; we’ll follow the sun.
Childhood living was easy enough. We had enough
of things we wanted, thanks to you. If one lagged astray,
felt neglect, it was only felt. Enough was enough.
Everything in abundance; nothing in abeyance.
We dreamed you then, good-enough, a close rein
on the day-to-day, with pick-your-switch discipline,
and regret—ghost-beams slide through broken rain.
How could we watch you suffer such dull aching pain,
who wanted to be known, loved by one who lords it
over you? So you decided to show us the same.
If God has cast a fire inside you, who guards it
until it blazes? Come into being as you pass away.
We dream you a sweeping exit, not dragged away—
you have your freedom, no lie, if not much time.
Live as a child. Live it up after you die.
Gone for Something
We take blue highways upcountry to see you,
past opening fields—cotton, bean, tobacco—
soil rolling staccato from furrow to furrow.
I tell my son what it means for a field to go fallow:
When you don’t tend it anymore, when you let it go…
I know you’re dying. And I know you know it, too.
You barely sip from the plastic cup, blue-ridged,
your knuckle bones contour with blue ridges—
the shade-blue mountains you called home. We listen
barely to Gunsmoke reruns in this home that isn’t.
The tomato soup April and Noel brought you,
you didn’t touch. The flowers I didn’t bring, you
had them on your blouse—sunken garden low
on your frail frame. Eyes cloud, illucid blue.
Let the field go fallow. Let it go. Let go.
Every time I see you, I just don’t know what to do.
Just like a Ballerina
You’ve slipped into yourself, so light, rail thin,
like a ballerina. Tiny slippers to keep you warm.
Your shoulder bones nearly point through the skin.
Here, they take care, see you’ve got clean clothes.
Just ring a bell, they’ll step right up, no harm.
Well, it’s getting late, and I wanted to get close
a last time, if you feel like you can’t go on—
something in my heart tells me I’ve been wrong,
and I’m sitting here mumbling at the side of your bed,
and the lamplight is on the left side of your head.
It’s getting very late, and the show must go on.
As you slip into your slumber, the bell rings long,
and sets you free, to carry lightly, just like a child.
Spread your wings. Come on, fly a while, angel child.
“You’re my chances”
Bob Marley, “Chances Are”
Our days are filled with sorrow—
fallen leaves on a long trail,
tin stars, brittle endpoints bent up,
pressed underfoot, understory thin.
The moon’s slow trawl, dragging
diamond-point netting long behind,
to harvest the blue-black hollows,
dark matters, rot and ruin.
Some might not hold out—
Our twofold grief, our split heart.
We saw it buried; we saw it dug up.
What are the chances? Isn’t will
another word for want, for heart?
We say it, a bright tomorrow.