Sometimes, a book comes along at just the right time. My mother was diagnosed with lung, bone and brain cancer Dec. 23, just days after I received a copy of Lesléa Newman’s new book of poetry about her own journey through her mother’s illness and death from cancer. Newman, best known for her classic children’s book “Heather Has Two Mommies,” takes us from diagnosis to yahrzeit — the Jewish memorial a year after death — with an unflinching yet compassionate eye.
Newman’s poems are a raw reminder of the sometimes-complicated bonds between parents and their grown children. They are poems of transition and pain, but also of the love that both makes those moments painful and that helps us through them. I lost my father to cancer three years ago, and I will soon lose my mother. Even though my specific experiences differ from Newman’s, there seems much of the universal in her words.
Many know only Newman’s children’s books, but she is also an accomplished poet, with works appearing in numerous poetry reviews and magazines. She has received poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and from 2008-10 served as the poet laureate of Northampton, Mass. Her most recent previous book of poems was “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard,” which explored the 1998 murder of the gay college student from a variety of perspectives.
Like “October Mourning,” “I Carry My Mother” uses a number of different poetic forms, from sonnet and haiku to many lesser-known structures. She models some of her poems explicitly on those of other poets, including Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and even Dr. Seuss. Newman explained to me in an e-mail interview, “Because this was such a tough book to write emotionally, pouring my feelings into rigid ‘containers,’ by which I mean structured poems that are very familiar to me, offered me great comfort. And my mom loved poetry and this seemed like a very fitting way to honor her memory.”
It seems natural to me that for a poet experiencing a parent’s illness and death, familiar poems would resonate with new words. As I have made my own journey in this landscape, familiar actions have become imbued with echoes of the disease. I make dinner, take a shower, walk to the bathroom — simple tasks my mom can no longer do for herself, and I can no longer do without thinking of her.
Our acquaintance with Newman’s poetic models may even give her versions more impact. In “Pills,” for example, she riffs on Dr. Seuss’ lighthearted “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish”: “One pill/two pills/red pills/blue pills.” It’s amusing in a macabre way — but then she hits us in the gut at the end: “pills that make her stomach churn/pills that make her insides burn/pills that make her ask me why/she has no pill to help her die.”
She gives us the hard realities of cancer — bodily fluids, ventilators, weight loss and swollen limbs — as well as the range of emotions that comes from having the disease and seeing a loved one endure it. She carries us back through her mother’s life and shows us the bond between mother and daughter, the things conveyed intentionally and unintentionally from one generation to the next, the habits and traits we value and those with which we struggle.
Some of the most poignant poems are about her father dealing with his wife’s illness: “My father strokes my mother’s swollen hand/This ending is so far from what they’d planned,” she writes in one.
The poems about the time after her mother’s death are full of longing and memory. “The art of losing my mother is hard to master,” she writes, and shows us, through her poems, how she has tried to do so.
In both this book and the one on Matthew Shepard, she said, “The writing helped me process tremendous losses.” The Shepard murder was “a tragedy that affected the entire world. It took me a decade to wrap my mind around the profound impact this hate crime had on a personal, national and international level.” She never met Shepard, but coincidentally arrived to be the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming, where he was a student, on the day he died. “I felt a tremendous obligation to honor his memory by working for social justice,” she said.
Writing about her mother, she said, “was different in that my mom’s death was not a tragedy. She lived to be 84 and had a full life. However, it was a much more personal loss.” While penning this work, she said, “I felt my mom very close beside me, which was a great comfort. And when I finished the book, it felt, in a way, like losing her all over again. I’m looking forward to giving readings from the book as a way to keep my mom’s memory alive.”
This is not an emotionally easy book to read. For any of us who have lost or are losing a parent, however, it may help us through our grief, not least by reminding us that others have been through the same.
Newman is donating $1 for each book ordered before Jan. 25 (her mom’s birthday) to the Cancer Connection (cancer-connection.org), which she says “offers wonderful services, including a caregiver’s support group that helped me so much when my mom was ill.” Find the book (and more of her works) at lesleanewman.com/newbks.htm.