THE AFTER-DEATH HISTORY OF MY MOTHER by SANDY MCINTOSHTHOMAS FINK Reviews:
The After-Death History of My Mother by Sandy McIntosh
(Marsh Hawk Press, 2005)
[First published in Tamafhyr Mountain Poetry, 2005. Ed. Kenneth Gurney]
Sandy McIntosh’s poetry is often energized by a psychological charged history; this is nowhere truer than in the (first) title-section of his fifth book, The After-Death History of My Mother. In “According to My Mother (4),” when the poet-speaker gets his mother drunk enough for her to reveal major secrets but can’t retain the vital information but he himself is soused, I am led to believe that he fears the difficult truth and wants it to be revealed to him, yet repressed from conscious awareness.
In the prose-poem “Private,” the speaker’s schoolboy self has “studied” the “bundle of nudist magazines” he found for clues about “the adult world,” a seemingly “strange land, compelling and lonely but full of possibility” (4). After he “hid them under [his] desk blotter,” his act is exposed:
Later, I found the pictures on top of my desk. My mother had rummaged through my room, never saying a word, leaving the naked pictures there for me to know she knew I had them. I was never beyond her grasp. Private parts would never be private. She herself was a greater force of nature than even adulthood, and we both knew her name was Silence. (4)
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein observes children’s sense of the simultaneous presence of a “good mother” and “bad mother” in one woman. The poet’s attack on the “bad mother” would label her subtlety as a cruel reinforcement of the superego, and readers’ empathy for him is compensation. On the other hand, the mother is “good” in seeking her son’s well being, so when the speaker re-enacts his punishment and courts our humiliating awareness of it, he punishes himself for his symbolic matricide. In Klein’s terms, he gives reparation to his mother by exposing her triumph at his expense. In each case, the reader (as implied third character) serves a function for the two explicit characters’ benefit.
Section II, With, pays close attention to McIntosh’s two major teachers, David Ignatow and H.R. Hays and to some of his choice interactions with them. Perhaps because McIntosh juxtaposes diverse narrative situations—especially in “With Hays,” which includes verse, prose, and lines of dialogue (as though from a documentary or play)—an aggressive exposure of the teachers’ flaws mingles uneasily with homage and compassionate understanding. In “Ignatow Interrupts a Dream,” McIntosh places a prose section on how another poet on an airplane lent a grieving traveler a book by Ignatow that helped her come speedily to terms with her grief directly before one in which Ignatow’s egotism comes to the fore. Hays and Allen Ginsberg are reminiscing about the night of Jackson Pollock’s death:
“I didn’t even live here then,” said Ignatow.
“We weren’t talking about you,” muttered Hays.
That evening was long ago. Hays died first, then several years later, Ginsberg. Ignatow, never subtle in person, looked significantly at his wristwatch, then at me.
When Ignatow died he left me his watch. (24)
McIntosh is “telling time” here. The poet in this section uses careful narrative juxtaposition and minimal interpretive framing to help us see precisely what he learned from his teachers: poetry’s power to assuage others’ suffering, pitfalls of egotism, the coexistence of admirable sensitivity and significant insensitivity in one person, the way (in Hays’ story) that history can obliterate one’s intentions, and the importance of precision in the use of language.
“New to the Reincarnation Game,” McIntosh’s third section, offers diverse poetic vignettes. In “Bride of the Mall” and “The New Life,” an aura of “destiny” seems to be a cover for a dearth of assertiveness. Ordinary insanity—what McIntosh in his prior book called “a louder desperation”—wrecks havoc for quieter, better adjusted folks. In “Prof. Ferguson’s Weekend,” an English composition pedagogue’s bizarre empirical research on three different ways of cutting lawns is a wonderfully humorous lesson on absurd obsessions and their consequences.
“Obsessional,” in fact, is the long poem that comprises the book’s final section. Composed in free-verse of irregular strophic patterns and interspersed with a few prose passages, “Obsessional” confesses a male literature grad student’s obsession with the validation of his thesis (which I won’t spoil by summarizing here) about the alleged impact of tenebrous scholar Nicholas Grimald on Tottel’s Miscellany, the most influential anthology in Tudor England. But it is more than that: not only do some characters from the previous section pop up again, but there are strong parallels between the Tudor story that the grad student is piecing together and the twentieth century story of his own encounters with a fellow graduate student and poet named Max, whose poetry the speaker calls “sentimental horseshit” that “nobody should fall for,” though they do (61). Frequently pretending to advise the speaker and just as frequently abusing his trust, Max advertises his modus operandi during a poetry reading as the key to worldly success:
When he’s done, the girls collect around,
some teary eyed with wistful
smiles, but all with pens
for him to sign
the books he’s thoughtfully brought
to sell (“Always carry your books,”
he sotto voce instructs. “You never know when
your market will get hot.”)
To each girl he whispers something,
in answer to her praise, I can’t quite
make out what he says,
but he says it with sincerity.
(“Oh yes,” he instructs
afterwards. “You must learn
really, really well.”) (61-2)
What Max has learned to do extremely well is to be a devious competitor, a worshipper of the will to power, and a perpetual ironist who finds no chance of sincerity in himself or others. He performs roles and stages elaborate dramas with great precision and no misgivings about their phoniness. For Max, “’A fart/ is high art/ when you cut it right’” (75). Max’s acts of pseudo-benevolence gain him leverage to derail others later, just as Grimald must have “played” Tottel and the great poets he used, Wyatt and Surrey. Whether unduly obsessed or not, the speaker, on the other hand, seems sincere in desiring to study English literature and to contribute to scholarship; he perceives fellow students as comrades. Though continually finding himself unsettled by Max’s antics, he is insecure enough to seek his approval and holds out a bit of hope for Max’s genuine friendship, until a major back-stabbing incident destroys any chance that this could happen.
The unnamed speaker, however, is not exactly an “anti-ironist”; recognizing the competitive aspect of any institutional structure, he is suspicious of “sincerity” that could merely be “sentimental horseshit” and is fascinated by ironies in the literary historical situation he has been uncovering and in Max’s personality. McIntosh faces the lamentable truth that the unethical are often rewarded and those with integrity prevented from making positive contributions and reaping rewards. The poem ends with a dream of the speaker engaging in acrimonious dialogue (in the linguistic styles of both periods) with Grimald and being woken from this reverie by Wyatt’s most famous line:
“It’s bastards,” I say
that maketh martyrs.”
Studies me, accusing eye.
Then quoth: “If
I’m to be the bastard
Well Amen! Amen!
The bastards mayhap
but it’s bastards still
So saying, pushing past me,
Then I lay broade waking. (85)
The fact that the poem ends with the speaker waking up from this nightmare suggests that he is not giving Grimald and Max’s disturbing perspective on artistic creation the last word. It is obvious that numerous “bastards” have made “art,” and fewer martyrs have, but can one think of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Joyce, Borges, or Morrison in either extreme category? To Grimald’s rude command, the final “broade waking” responds that McIntosh will neither move out of the way nor push others aside: dialogic analysis of the causal factors of the trends of literary history and assessment of social and aesthetic value must continue, whether “obsessively” or with calm thoughtfulness.
Thomas Fink, Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, has authored 4 books of poetry, including NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY (Moria, 2006) and 2 books of criticism, including A DIFFERENT SENSE OF POWER (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001). He is also co-editor, with Joseph Lease, of the forthcoming, BURNING INTERIORS: DAVID SHAPIRO'S POETRY AND POETICS (Fairleigh Dickinson UP). His paintings hang in various collections.