Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Talking miracle blues with Janet Shore

As with "In the Cafe" by Louise Gluck , "Last Words" by Janet Shore reads more like prose instead of what many prefer their poems to be. Fair enough, I'd add, although I rather like the notion of a poet using whatever device , tone or at their avail in order to get their ideas across in the most inspired form. "Inspired" is the operative word,seen in Gluck's monotonish drift. The theme, a description of a male friend of hers who ,from her recollections , has in various ways attempted to complete his inner life through a series of intense relationships with women, lacked rhythm, bounce or lyric turn .It read as though she lost interest.

"Last Words", though, works quite a bit better and makes me think of the shaggy dog story, a device . Shore disguises her direction , distracts us, intends to leave us in a bit of a pause after the poem is finished as we consider what we've heard. The sense of leading to one package of generic expectations continues from the reading Shore gives the poem in the audio provided by Slate; she reads it with the knowing pauses, the lingering over poignant details, recited at a pace where it's intended that we absorb the finely rendered details. I especially liked this part:

... I asked them
to please turn off the TV's live feed
to the empty hospital chapel, lens
focused on the altar and crucifix-
it seemed like the wrong God watching
over her, up there, near the ceiling.

On the visceral level this gets across the disconnection between an institution's attempt to comfort the suffering and the bereaved. Tellingly she provides an image where the narrator's alienation is magnified, the image of altar and crucifix, suggesting an intimate relationship with a comforting God, made more distant through an in-house video hook up, an alienation made more acute that the hospital broadcast the wrong Deity. There is room to assert, in a more rational moment, that God is God and that one ought not quibble over the iconography , but this isn't a particular sane moment for the narrator. It's not far afield to generalize that a number of us who've spent time visiting dying family and friends in hospitals recognize the atmosphere; everything seems strange, time is out of joint, nothing seems real. Nothing is a good fit for the moment you find yourself in , everything seems wrong. I particularly liked the way Shore condenses a cliche about God , as He is demoted from being a Lord in the Sky to a lowly spirit on a camera perch under unattractive ceiling tile.

Reading the poem shows another twist to this narrative, a tone that's matter of fact, succinct, with the images seeming more of a verbal short hand than a perfected distillation. It's someone telling you a tale of something that's already happened, a rapid, picturesque run through of a sequence of awful events. It takes on the swerve that makes you think of someone who starts pouring out their heart ot the first friend they find ; the lessening one's burden when they manage to make someone else ill at ease. We have a character trapped by her penchant to talk and talk some more, even in the attempt to give comfort.

And because hearing is the last
sense to go, the nice doctor spoke
to me in a separate room. He said
it's time to say good-bye.Next day,
he returned her to her nursing home
to die. Her nurses said just talk
to her; let her hear a familiar voice.
I jabbered to the body in the bed.
I kept repeating myself, as I'd done
on visits before, as if mirroring
her dementia. I rubbed her hand,
black as charcoal from the needles.
I talked the way a coach spurs on
a losing team.

She is approaching the end of her timeline, the clock is running out, and there is nothing to do but commit oneself to a monologue directed to the stricken woman, a constant chatter and prate that finds one revealing those things, trivial and dark, light and severe, to fill the air with words, to filibuster against the inevitable darkness. The speech is offered as if the patient could hear, could understand what was being said, appreciate the intimate details and habits of phrase from the woman who is sitting with her. The narrator's expectation, was that this was her chance to dump some of the excess baggage she'd been carrying around, compartmentalized as psychic wounds she'd allowed to scar over, knowing that the woman to whom she was confessing to, in a manner of speaking, would soon enough pass on, taking what was revealed with her. The end game was simple; she wanted to give the dying woman as sense that she wasn't alone in her dying moments

Suddenly she opened
her eyes, smiled her famous smile,
she knew me, and for the first time
in a year of babbling, she spoke
my name, then, in her clearest voice
said, "I love you. You look beautiful.
This is wonderful." I urged her
to sip water through a straw. Then
two cold cans of cranberry juice,
she was that thirsty. Her fingertips
pinked up like a newborn's.
I wanted the nurses to acknowledge
my miracle, to witness my devotion
although I'd been absent all spring.
They reset the clock, resumed her oxygen.
I was like God, I'd revived her. Now
I'd have to keep talking to keep her alive.

The Twilight Zone moment here, the irony that reminds you to be careful what you pray for , even if you don't really mean it, as we have the patient actually aware of what was being said to her over those days, with something crucial ignited within her spirit to raise from her coma , to open her eyes and declare her love for her bedside companion. She is thirsty, she drinks water, to cans of cranberry juice, she was that thirsty, she wants to live on with her new sense of animation. And the visitor, the comforter, the life-sustaining monologist, how does she feel? A little bit like God, perhaps, but as being all powerful; she rather suggests the Almighty's resentment . This would be a God who, as a bringer of miracles to this world , a Deity taken for granted for the forces he puts into motion for the benefit of human kind,comes to view his miracles as drudgery.

Maintaining the natural order is a thankless task. I think there's an undercurrent of resentment in the narrator's rushing cadences, the sort of thing that someone who feels their life hasn't turned out the way they dreamed waiting for the passing of a significant other so that a change of fortune might take place. One would busy themselves with doing the right things in a time of need--visiting the stricken, for example--say the the appropriately commemorative last words at a memorial service, and then walking into a vague new freedom.

Putting the period at the end of that sentence, though, is much delayed, as Shore's narrator finds herself feeling even more committed when the patient recovers and, apparently, thrives in revival. It echos a Beckett-scenario where there is much chatter and cold silence centered upon an immobility of spirit. There are never any last words, there is always something more to say, there is something else to pause in one's path to listen to, there is always an obligation one takes on less from need than from a larger dread of breaking with one's familiar ruts and routines.

Shore appreciates a nuance in miracles; they're not momentary divine interventions in our lives that do one blessed thing and then are finished, but rather a change in the direction of our lives that necessitates a change in our behavior. The found an interesting way to show us how even miracles can be another reason to complain. Some of us just can't live otherwise.

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