It cannot be easy to lose a mother, and it especially cannot be easy to watch a mother die over an extended period of time. Susan Paddon’s collection, Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths, honestly and adeptly takes us through her experience of watching her mother die from a pulmonary illness – “the wings inside her / changing like a peppered moth” at the same time it reaches to compare this death with Anton Chekov’s.
The book has many strengths. The poems, especially those written in the narrator’s own voice, are simply structured at the levels of sentence and stanza, which belies their cutting beauty and complexity. Consider “Chirrup Chirrup,” which manages to take us — without confusion — through the steppe of a lake, to Chekhov’s dog chasing a finch in magnolias, to telling time “by the neighbouring school bell. / An electric zap, like a lab rat running,” and finally back to the step where the boy Chekhov “walks / coat open — in the rain.” Also beautiful are the water images, her mother floating in the pool in the afternoons (her skin, so close to death, getting tanned is a gorgeous detail) and corn silk dancing in the pool “like reeds in the shallows of a small ocean.”
Paddon doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the situation or from the human flaws that reveal themselves unexpectedly even in — especially in —times of great familial need and interdependence. The narrator and her mother are, sometimes, petulant with each other, and the narrator also grows irritated when her service goes unheralded. There is also unresolved tension in her relationship with her sister. All of these tensions hum with non-melodramatic regret. As Paddon writes, “the tenant of regret is never the one we expect.”
There are also some very fine poems in the Chekhov sequences — those written in Chekhov’s voice, or his sister Maria’s, even in Paddon’s addressing Maria. As a reader, it’s possible to follow the intellectual leap from Chekhov’s illness and Maria’s caregiving to the poet’s caregiving and her mother’s death. Yet the fundamental link, the binding element between the two tragedies remains somewhat remote, something I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it is that the narrator’s obsession with the Russian writer is really an echo of an old lover’s Chekhov obsession — and so seems once removed. Perhaps it is because the overall book does not hold an absurdist tone, or even a particularly humorous one. Perhaps the narrator’s connection to Maria isn’t as strong as it could be, not enough groundwork has been laid to believe Paddon is really hearing Maria move in the night. Yet, all these quibbles aside, Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths is a fine book, a book I devoured in a night, a book that is raw and real.
Brenda Leifso’s next book of poetry is coming out with Pedlar Press in Spring 2015.