By the time my grandmother started handing out her lladros, her memory was already erratic at best. I gathered with my sister and cousins in their squat living room, prepared to accept the heirlooms dutifully as if sworn to protect a legacy encased within the tiny figures. While granted, I was a relatively emotional child, I remembered my solemnity being reflected in the faces of every member of my family – all except for one.
For my mother, a veteran nurse and nearly full-time caregiver to my grandma, the event carried no sentimentality. From the outside, her attitude may have seemed insensitive or callous, but I’d seen this behavior from her for months. In many ways, my mom felt that her mother had already passed, and what remained was simply a shell that she tried her best to care for. While many of us were moved to tears, she sat passively as she received her own lladro with resigned acceptance.
During preparation for this course this summer, I came across a Daisy Fried poem in the 2013 volume of BAP, which forcefully awoke the above memory from a hazy part of my mind. Fried’s “This Need Not Be a Comment on Death”, to me, reflected my mother’s own intentional detachment during my grandmother’s mental decline, despite the inner turmoil I know she faced. Fried, the author of She Didn’t Mean to Do It, My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again, and Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, the last of which is where this poem made its initial appearance, commented in her contributors notes that she wrote this poem “at different times and very sporadically over a few years.” The free verse poem addresses the connection between the speaker and her mother, and the speaker and her own child, yet claims to avoid comment on inevitable eventual severance of these bonds.
The poem begins with the speaker watching an old home-movie of her mother, though she does not say what brought on this nostalgic act. The speaker off-handedly mentions that her grandmother, who also appears in the film, is “dead of cancer 1949,” but reassures us that “this need not be a comment on death.” The speaker’s mind then wanders to the birth of her own child, and how her “mother puts her fingers through [her] hair” as she’s in labor. The two fight after the mother insults her, and the mother, who she refers to as a “plotline”, leaves the birthing suite. What follows is a series of question the speaker poses: “If she never said it? If I imagined it? If she was being kind?” These quotes evoke ideas of reflection and introspection, and also hint at anger and regret. Though the poem never mentions the mother’s death directly, the idea of it seems to lurk just outside in the speaker’s actions (watching the home-video) and tone (the self-questioning).
Apparently years later, the speaker attempts help her own daughter retrieve a wind-up toy from underneath their fridge. Our speaker refers to herself as “a plotline who gave birth to [her child]” as she wrangles unsuccessfully with the massive appliance. Just as her mother before her, our speaker has become a subplot in the story of her daughter’s life, a minor but inextricable thread in the tale. Still trapped beneath the fridge, the toy still begins to wind-down, causing the child to ask angrily “Why does everything die?” (NPR seems to have come up with a mathematical answer to this question). It’s in this moment that poem’s emotional undercurrent finally breaks through, and the latent resentment and anguish that the speaker seems to be harboring about her mother’s death is released. However, there’s still a degree of separation, as it is not her that yells out for her mother, but her daughter for her lost toy. Even in this moment, the speaker cannot acknowledge the painful fact of her mother’s passing.
Perhaps then, Fried’s poem indeed need not be a comment only on death, but more on the complex relationship between mother and daughter, parent and child, and how we struggle to process the loss of this tie.