Blaine Marchand has produced a loving elegiac memorial to his mother who lived for over a century (1913-2016). Kathleen Dorothy, a childhood victim of diphtheria (“the strangling angel”), claimed to have had “a long and lucky” life, though she and a younger brother, Robert, were placed in an Ottawa orphanage after her parents separated and their mother had fled to Montreal. “Adopted” by the Irishes (who had seven children of their own), she learned etiquette, enunciation, and deportment before she graduated in 1931 from Rideau Street Convent, eventually marrying and starting her own large brood. This three-part story is one of perseverance and love: the first (covering 29 years) being Kathleen’s point of view as projected through the poet; the second (spanning the next 12 years) being the poet’s lyrical remembrances; and the third (the mother’s final three years, darkened by old age and the spectre of death) serving as a moving document of last days, where time and memory also reach a point of exhaustion with the dying mother.
Unabashedly sentimental and without altering conceptions of the lyric, Becoming History rehearses how memory connects moment to moment: there are no postmodern tricks with language or technique. Instead, Marchand uses familiar lyric and narrative strategies, creating prose sequences (in the first section) and poems that demonstrate how time and memory can be storage and album. Family photos, postcards, letters, and torn fragments are his reservoir, as he appropriates his mother’s voice at times (especially some of her phrases and platitudes), but mainly offers his own retrospective points of view as boy and adult. There are poems about the pleasures of books, a beekeeper at work, blue jays (“those shards of sky”), eavesdropping, discovering a Kosher butcher’s death-camp tattoo, and his mother polishing her collection of silver coins. There are poignant vignettes of his grandmother’s gifting him a stone carving of the Virgin, the same grandmother’s funeral (in verse marked by participial propulsion), his mother’s nervous hysteria, her charity to a veteran down on his luck; her painful secret about being “adopted,” and her singing a famous Doris Day song (“Que sera, sera”) while bravely trying to make things easier for her husband in his serious physical decline.
Marchand can be elliptical (“The Cracking of Foundations”) and he can also score effectively with his evocations of long-lost social manners, as well as with his precise sensuous observations of the materials of life and hope, such as haberdashery, cosmetics, bric-a-brac, wedding portraits, and other mementoes. The final section of the book is the darkest and most deeply affecting, providing a palpable sense of his mother’s aging and dying, her decline phrased superbly in the pathos-laden “The Stealth of Snow,” the strikingly alliterative and consonantal “A Season of Extremes,” the poignant “Whittled,” and the melancholy “Like a Shirt.” Fusing sliced memories through which the outer world becomes the image of a mother’s remarkable soul, the book ends with the image of his mother’s corpse, head coiffed like a nun’s veil. A black joke that his Catholic mother would have enjoyed as she becomes history.
(update provided in 2021) Keith Garebian has published 27 books to date, including eight poetry collections, such as Frida: Paint Me as a Volcano (2004), Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (2008), Children of Ararat (2010), Poetry is Blood (2018), and Against Forgetting (2019). His chapbook of cancer poems, Scan, edited by Shane Neilson, has just been published by Frog Hollow Press in a limited edition of 100 copies, and next year he will have two new poetry collections forthcoming from Mawenzi House and Frontenac House. One of his Derek Jarman poems was set to music for choir and instruments by Gregory Spears, in the company of a poem each by Thomas Merton and Denise Levertov, and can be heard on the CD “The Tower and the Garden” (Navona Records). Some of his poems have been translated into French, Armenian, Hebrew, Bulgarian, and Romanian.