Witnessing the decline and eventual death of a parent is the surest way to send any of us into the deepest well of depression and morbid reflection. Few of us handles it with quite the grace we might have hoped for. Shock, relentless grief, guilt, recrimination are only some aspects the lot of us go through when our parents are suddenly, rudely absent in our lives. We try to make sense of it all, of the choices we’ve made and the things we’ve done. There is, it seems, no meaning to find behind it all other than the acceptance of the fact that the clan is smaller now and that our lives go on.
Lizzie Wann, a very fine California poet with a sharp sense of the telling detail and lean cadence that conveys underlying emotion and tone, has an engrossing new collection of poems in which we witness her going through the death of her father. The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations. A sequence of poems of how she cared for her dying father up to the inevitable final day, Wann fearlessly records the days , the incidents, many small and painstaking matters as the days wore on, through surgeries, meals, bits and pieces of final conversation, there is a palpable tension in these lines. There’s no need for the Big Language. Wann is too good a poet for gaudy special effects. She lays bare her ambivalence about her father’s decline. These poems are not the grand slam and over-decorated summation of what one has discovered about themselves at the end of the trial; Wann’s triumph is in her spare, uncluttered impressions. Throughout the suite that comprises this volume’s title sequence, Wann writes with the concision of Hemingway and the chiseled elegance of a Lorrie Moore. Lizzie navigates these narrative fragments with a sure foot even as the ground beneath abruptly shifts.
There is a strong sense of someone who’s on a new emotional territory, having her wits and resources challenged and tested. Each poem yielding some small piece of hard-won insight. It is the ultimate irony. Her father helped her come into the world, and now she is helping him leave it. The poet doesn’t rely on the convenience of easy irony. As splendidly recollected in the piece “Winter Solstice 2017,” what she finds isn’t just making his passage comfortable, but she is also finding out how deep her love for him has deepened: the love of a daughter for a father. While in hospice, her father tells her of a decision he’s made.
Winter Solstice 2017
on the longest night of the year
my father said he was ready to die
his decision was both shocking and
we had talked on the phone earlier
he was desperately tired
it was different than other times
sitting beside him in his hospital room …
my mom on the other side, he said,
“I’ve made a decision.”
I took his hand, his skin soft and thin,
“I want to go home, be done with this”…
he gestured with his other hand to indicate
hospital, machines, gowns, fluorescence
“I want you to talk to them tomorrow.”
This could seem a cold observation of Wann’s way of writing through these momentous events, but I think it’s worth mentioning this writer’s efficiency. No casual word-slinger throwing words at a page to see what sticks to the wall, she avoids the easy allure of wallowing in her misery. Blessedly, Lizzie Wann also doesn’t offer unrefined introspection more appropriate for private journals rather than a poetry volume. Like a fine musician who has learned the art of note choice, she chooses her words wisely. Knowingly or not, she is composing with Ezra Pound’s notion of writing to the rhythm of the musical phrase and not the metronome. This makes her poems powerful and lyrical, poetic in ways a reader doesn’t expect. Pound’s fellow poet William Carlos Williams worked for a verbal quality to his poems, as close to Spoken Language as the imagination would allow. Wann has that in her poems—a rhythm and flexible emphasis that conveys a mind’s hesitation, the rush of sensation, a sudden flash of sorrow or swift and brief elation. What I’ve always admired about Lizzie Wann’s poems is the sense of something bristling under the surface of the written lines, a confession, a fleeting insight, a secret struggling to emerge.
In “Winter Solstice 2017” she accounts for speaking with the family, the doctors, intimate and private conversations with her father. She returns home, finally, still processing the profundity of her father’s request. At end of the day, she slips into needed sleep. Wann is at her best, deeply, lyrically moving, beautiful in her elegantly unadorned honesty:
…that night, I slept in his bed,
but not before I examined his room,
opened closet doors
took a picture of his shirts
tried to sleep but could only see
a family vacation to Yellowstone
where he threw my child body into the air
so I could see higher, how I was surprised
then delighted by his spontaneity
the thrill of the toss, how he caught me
did it again, laughing, my daddy laughing
I ought to emphasize that the 25 poems that make up the title suite of The Hospice Bubble and Other Devastating Affirmations aren’t relentlessly dour or respectively bittersweet in tone. The sequence is not necessarily in order and has the quality of a mosaic, poems composed as different memories that sparked different ideas and moods. Meals, chats, frustrations small and big, the irritations minor and major that stress the limits of one’s willingness to go on, are highlighted in the selected poems. There is a subtle wit that underscores the pilgrimage, suggested by the phrase “devastating affirmations.” This passage is both a curse and blessing, a tragedy that transforms a life with a blunt inevitability, but an event that provides the opportunity for every woman and man to become the adults in their expanded household. Samuel Beckett, poet laureate of perennial stasis, moaned famously, to paraphrase, “… I can’t go on… I’ll go on,” a phrase mimicking the collective grunt of a common man getting out of bed, feeling the crushing burden of life on its own terms, the daily grind, which is insurmountable and unending: they can’t take it anymore. And yet the man showers, shaves, has coffee and leaves the house to do battle again, finding, for a moment, the will to engage again. I believe Wann has a more interesting journey; through her efforts to aid her father with his pain and eventual death, she becomes who she is.
Other affirmations, not quite so devastating, are also dealt with in his potent book, those being deaths, depression, writing, love, matters she writes her way through. I sense a writer who picks up the pen to find out what she thinks about the people, places, and things that continue to make days and nights something less than serene glide. Wann writes about many small things in a big way, a writer fascinated with being alive in the world.
To end this piece concerning this frequently brilliant volume, let’s consider a short poem, the last piece in the book:
a strand of hair
my pinkie toe
ever so slowly
it seems I may just find
my way out