Newman, Leslea, “I Carry My Mother”, Headmistress Press, 2015.
Leslea Newman has always been one of my guilty pleasures and I anxiously look forward to each new book she writes. I was just beginning to worry because I had not seen anything new from her when, sure enough, she wrote me to ask me to review her new collection of poetry that explores her journey through her mother’s illness and death. I can only imagine how painful it must have been for her to write these poems that pay homage to her mother and the result is a gorgeous collection. She writes about her mother from the time she was diagnosed with cancer through the mourning period, the yahrtzeit, and I was constantly reminded of my own mother who died while I was living in Israel. We all know and understand how painful losing a mother can be. I was lucky enough not to see my mother suffer—she was diagnosed with emphysema and died while I was away. It was not so easy for Leslea who was with her mother as she went through the process of dying.
From diagnosis through yahrtzeit (one-year anniversary of death), the poet shares with us what it is to lose a mother and she does so in a variety of poetic forms—- sonnet, pantoum, villanelle, sestina, terza rima, haiku, etc). Newman is a poet even when she writes in prose and we really see that here. Because the poems are so personal, they are emotional and they are beautifully written. For any of us who have lost someone that we loved, there is a poem here.
It is difficult to write about relationships between parents and adult children. Most of us are quick to criticize our parents for whatever reason and vow that “when we grow up”, we will do things differently. Often we find ourselves becoming the same kind of people as our parents were. On a recent trip to New Orleans to visit my sister, I was surprised to hear her say that she had become just like our mother and we see with this statement just how much influence our mothers have on our lives. Newman went through a lot with her mother’s health and we feel the love and the pain that exist side by side. We are all familiar with, “you don’t know what you have until you no longer have it”. The situations might be different but the feeling of loss and pain are the same. I immediately recognized why she chose to write poems in different poetic styles—-emotions change and when they do the ways of expressing them change as well. A poem about the way one feels after losing a parent certainly cannot be the same as a poem about being alone together. We become accustomed to caring for someone who is ill and when we lose them we do not lose what we did for them—it stays with us. It is similar to hearing a song with your mother and then after she is gone, you never forget that you heard that song with her.
It is important to remember that poems about someone who has died are not necessarily sad even if they evoke a feeling of sadness. What these poems do is cause us to remember and memories are not always sad. Yes I shed tears as I read and this is because I am human like everyone else. I barely remember my mother now but Newman’s poems reminded me of things I had forgotten. So often our memory plays tricks on us and as I read Leslea’s poems I was reminded of so much about my own mother and how I still regret to this day that I could not get back to the States for her funeral. The Jewish religion is quite strict about burial and mourning and funerals are to held within 24 hours of death. Living in Israel at the time did not permit me to get to New Orleans and even if I had left the moment I got the news, I would have missed the interment. The last time I saw my mother was 1975 when she came to visit me in Israel and somehow I knew that that was going to be the last time we would be together. Reading Leslea’s poems reminded me of so much I had forgotten and as I read them I felt my mother was right there beside me.
I also love that the poet brings her father into the picture by writing about what she sees when her mother and father were together. You sense the love they shared and you know that neither parent wanted their love to end this way. The most important thing I learned from these poems is that we never forget our mothers. They are always a part of us and it is because of them, in many cases, that we are who we are today. Yet not all of us have the tools or the emotions to write about our mothers. I feel very lucky that Leslea Newman could do that for me. Yes, she was specifically writing about her mother and had no idea she was writing my mother or yours. To me, that is a beautiful thought.
I cannot leave this review without giving a sample of the poems herein and it is so hard to choose so I just opened the book and where that was is this poem.
between the day
she took her final breath
and the day we laid her to rest
Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, Still Life with Buddy, Nobody’s Mother, and Signs of Love, and the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Ms. Newman has received many literary awards including poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and a Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association. Her poetry has been published in Spoon River Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Evergreen Chronicles, Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Lilith Magazine, Kalliope, The Sun, Bark Magazine, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Seventeen Magazine and others. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award Finalists. From 2008-2010 she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. Currently she is a faculty member of Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing program.