AJB: This collection most broadly follows a singular event, the passing of your mother, but what prompted the decision to have this book formatted into a single poem?
JM: Well, it wasn’t really a decision—it was more a development, as is so often the case: poems go their own ways, often surprising ways. In this case, the poem just kept pulling more into itself, a lot of it from journal entries. As you point out, there’s a central event, and that was the subject of the original three-section poem which then became five sections, then ten, etc, until it was clear that my world would be absorbed into the poem way beyond the initial subject matter—the illness and eventual death of my mother. The poem just wouldn’t come to a close—it was as though it wanted to create an entire world in which to exist, and the creation of that world became the driving force as I wrote the poem. I’ve written long poems before, but have never experienced this quite so dramatically.
AJB: There’s a very poignant cycle of death that’s emulated in the line “stone cabin by the vineyard”. It’s as if the speaker inherits death—what does that feel like? And, how do you find the words to express it?
JM: That’s such an interesting concept—to inherit death as part of a physical place. Yes. I think it does feel like that. My office is the room in which my father died, and just across the way is the little stone cabin which belonged to my father’s mother until her death, and in which my mother died, etc. Maybe that explains why, while I’ve known the place all my life, the last 13 years, when I’ve lived and worked on this property full time, have been years of relentless restlessness. I mean, how do you sit down with all those ghosts—when the chair you are going to sit on probably belonged to your grandmother, the bronze head that’s looking at the bird-rock is that of your father at 20, into the hollow cavity of which your sister placed some of his ashes, etc. … and the hills are full of dog graves, and the trunks full of photos, etc. Particularly during the first decade managing the ranch, I was infamous for moving the furniture around. I think I stopped doing that out of embarrassment more than anything else. One day I was carrying a bookshelf with one of the men who lives and works on the ranch, and noticed that there was a bullet hole in the back—so I had to acknowledge it, and pointed out that while I may move the furniture a lot, at least I don’t shoot it. But really it is not so much that one takes one’s measure by the memories of the dead, but that they hover. It’s hard to shake them off. That feels different at different times. Thank you for asking the question; it’s really interesting and I want to think about it more.
AJB: There are tender moments such as describing a mother’s laugh that coincides with blood stained nightgowns throughout. How does facing death make one both hopeful and simultaneously abandoned?
JM: There were a lot of feelings, some contradictory, that got all mixed up, as one might expect: for me it created a sort of surreal, unbalanced feeling, and too a feeling of being so overwhelmed by emotion that you give over to it—float on top like a little boat as you also try to stay on top of life and caretaking.
AJB: In a recent interview you mention that this book began with journal entries that became poetry. You also mentioned that there was some guilt in recording these private moments. How did you switch gears from writing journalistically to writing poems? Moreover, how did you overcome the guilt
JM: I think I just started messing with the pieces, and got pulled into writing the poem. Once my mother was gone, the guilt lessened, because it wasn’t writing about her per se that made me feel guilty, but writing about her when it felt like my full attention should be on caretaking. And the haunting sense of voyeurism when I wrote, even in my journals, passed after her death.
AJB: In terms of a life speaking to another life, as referred to in your poem, what do you hope the life within this collection speaks to those who are also experiencing loss?
JM: One thing I learned, in going through all this, that I wish I’d known beforehand is what a process death is—this kind of death anyway. The sick person is living in two worlds a lot of the time, and I started to imagine my mother walking across a huge desert-like plain, toward her death—and she had to be alone on that plain (plane). But then she’d come back and be with us again for a while. It is very confusing taking care of a parent—you become the parent, and simultaneously process your entire life with that parent, which puts you back in childhood. You are unmoored in the most basic way. If I’d read anything about this, I would have been more prepared. Perhaps the expression of that process in this poem will speak to others. And there are things I wish I had thought more about in clarity of everyday life, such as it is: what to do, for example, if a parent asks you to kill her. I was somehow not prepared for how this developed, and I wish that I had made it easier, earlier, for her to kill herself. But, it is complicated—as I say in the book, you don’t want to get that wrong.
Jane Mead’s latest title, World of Made and Unmade, is now available in the AJB Bookstore!