If a stranger is a person with whom we share no past, then what does a loved-one become when she loses her memory? With her poetry collection Now Calls Me Daughter, Christine Jones portrays the unraveling of a mother/daughter relationship as the mother is transformed by Alzheimer’s disease. Permeated by a quiet grief, these poems contemplate how a relationship changes when its past loses shape. As their shared history collapses, the mother, rather than a stranger, becomes a kind of monument to her former self, and daughterly love takes on a different, perhaps more enduring, aspect as it must cross an ever-greater (rhetorical) distance to reach its object.
These poems are less concerned with memory than with the passage of time and how dementia throws it into disorder. As the past disintegrates, the daughter plants herself in the present, on the firm ground of observation. It is hardly a comfortable position, as she has a clear vantage on a future that holds unpleasant certainties; there is dread in the phrase, “This, Too, Shall Pass”, as she knows that the passage of time will lead to her mother’s demise. Yet from her place in the present moment, the daughter attempts to pin down the facts of her mother’s existence like butterflies determined to flutter away. “Time was never a bird,” the speaker of “Not a Bird” insists. Time seems instead to be a litany of the thousand other things we leave behind us as we live — perhaps like a breadcrumb trail that could be followed back to the beginning:
It’s the blue eggshell in the lawn,
the habitual piles you make
with your flowered gloves & merry
rake, the lemon gelato melting
on the nightstand, roses
in a jelly jar. And the olive oil
we sipped from a farm in Crete.
Are you back there, Mom, with the goats
bleating in the gorge? Are you raining
down the mountain trail through
the scrub pines, or coursing the Seine
to the floating piscine? (31)
Jones’ writing is patient and restrained, transmuting big emotion into compact and careful observation. Wrestling with the “ambiguous loss” (40) of a person gone but not yet dead, these poems often rely on the concrete, visible world as an anchor, like the comfort objects packed up in “The Hostess Packs for Assisted Living” and unpacked in “After the Move.” A bird lighting on a branch, a teacup on a saucer, the mother’s hand on a rake — these particulars are buoys that help the speakers of Jones’ poems to navigate loss.
Often language itself becomes such a navigation tool. The use of Now as the mother’s name is one example of Jones’ quiet and controlled approach to wordplay, a surprising choice that renders the mother at once oddly unfamiliar and urgently present. Now is that version of the mother who exists only in the present tense. In the title poem, Now “calls me in the middle of the night,” “sits habitually in her blue chair,” “sings, in French, a song I don’t know” (5). There is a tension to how her actions are observed rather than remembered, particularly when contrasted with the two poems entitled “Then,” where she is depicted through the lens of memory and comfortingly fixed in the past tense.
Elsewhere the poet focuses on a single word to show how meaning slips in the wake of memory’s failure. For example, the poem “Fine” opens with repetition — “We’re fine. / It’s fine. / From Old French fin.” (41) — to palpate the soft tissue between what kills us and what we survive. The word here is subjected to similar experimentation in poems such as “Ignoring the Mortals” and “Now,” here in its entirety:
and she’s right
In this hug.
She is, right?
in this hug? (6)
There is a childlike simplicity here —the repetition, the three stanzas almost like anagrams of one another, the movement from certainty toward uncertainty — and there is courage in such economy. It unflinchingly reveals how the mother’s dementia undermines the daughter’s sense of reality. Indeed, the moments that best capture the destabilizing impact of the mother’s illness are those where Jones plays mostly bravely with language, where meaning itself feels suddenly up-for-grabs.
“What I Want to Say Driving Home After My Mother’s Check-Up,” a longer and more freely inventive poem, starts from the mother’s middling performance on an audiology test and quickly zooms out to geological scope:
It’s okay. It’s what we become;
a sepia tone I’ve seen fall
across Utah’s red rock –
striations glowing, baring those layers
polished by grim and pitiless erosion. (8)
There is a balance of vulnerability and solidity in the image. There is comfort (“It’s okay”) in the fact that even the Earth is subject to the elements; aging erodes us, but might reveal our inner worlds in the process. The light of impending loss makes the mother visible as a former source of stability. The speaker compares her own “weightless thoughts” (9) to ellipses and her mother’s strength to periods. “Heavy mist forges my lines,” (10) Jones writes, which might account for the way this poem makes bigger leaps between images and associations than most.
Jones’ precision and restraint are admirable but at times tip toward circumspection. A poem that takes place in a bathroom gestures toward difficult intimacies, but ends up feeling too polite to say what it means. Likewise, poems that speak to the position of the father within this family drama feel understandably but disappointingly careful. Near the end of the collection Jones acknowledges the complexity of writing about family in “I Choose to Publish My Love for You,” in which she wonders about the relationship between privacy, intimacy, and truth, and certainly these are difficult questions. Yet with so many powerful glimpses here of what Jones is capable of as a poet, it is frustrating to feel that she is sometimes holding back.
And yet, this delicate touch, the way the poet seems to be watching her step, is also fitting for this collection and its themes. If these poems seek to understand the role of memory in the bond between parent and child, surely the child’s instinct for obedience and deference might be revealed as part of the same substrate. The passage of time changes some things, and other things, not at all. When do we stop being our parents’ children? When they no longer recognize us? When they are dead and gone? Or is that when they finally come to belong to us — when we ask whether the truth is as we remember it, and finally, there is no one there to answer?