Bryan R. Monte
AQ32 Autumn 2021 Book Reviews
Irene Hoge Smith, The Good Poetic Mother: A Daughter’s Memoir, International Psychoanalytic Books (IPBooks), ISBN 978-1-949093-87-2, 232 pages.
bart plantenga, LIST FULL: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness, Spuyten Duyvil Press, ISBN 978-1-952419-54-6, 137 pages
It is my privilege, as AQ’s publisher and editor, to read excerpts from works that will sometimes appear later in published books. It is akin to having a backstage pass to literature, which I thoroughly enjoy. Both writers above have appeared regularly in AQ during its first decade: Irene Hoge Smith in AQ9, AQ12, and AQ29; bart plantenga in AQ23, AQ25, and AQ28 as well as being an active member of AQ’s Writers’ Group. It is exciting to see what was once a single, stand-alone piece, take its place in a larger collection. It is even more exciting if this collection seems to extend the writers’ expression and/or our understanding of arts and letters or history in general. In my opinion, both Smith’s and plantenga’s collections do this. Furthermore, it is exciting to see how these two writers use different genres, prose memoir for the former and list poetry for the latter, to travel through similar territories in their development as writers.
Smith’s book, The Good Poetic Mother: A Daughter’s Memoir, is an account of her life and that of her mother’s, Frances Dean Smith, aka the poet francEyE, who abandoned her family to move to California to become a writer. Here for a time, Frances Dean Smith became Beat poet Charles Bukowski’s partner and muse. As I read Smith’s book, I immediately became aware that the passages, which originally appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, only tell a portion of this mother-daughter story. Smith’s memoir depicts the neglect she felt both as a result of her mother’s California move and her father’s work in Washington DC, whilst Smith and her sisters lived in Michigan with relatives and family friends. The absence of both her parents resulted in Smith having to raise herself and her sisters, trying to keep their abuse and abandonment a secret from those at school and church, though not always successfully. Decades later, after raising her own family and getting a university education, she tries to make sense of her parents’ neglect and abandonment: what it means to her own family and to her professional and later literary development.
The Good Poetic Mother begins with a chapter entitled ‘Pandora’s Box’, which refers to the ‘battered, cardboard box’ containing her mother’s papers she receives from her sister Sara in 2009.
(T)his box had been in our father’s possession from the time our mother left
at the end of 1962 until his death in 2000. It didn’t seem that the box had
ever been opened,
The box image is repeated on the book’s cover, perhaps in reference to the Pandorian myth of satisfying one’s curiosity without knowing the possible disastrous consequences. Ultimately, after hesitating ‘several weeks’, Smith chooses to open the box and read what her mother left behind before she abandoned her family and went off to California to become a poet. And it does have a negative effect on Smith who, in response to her husband’s ‘How’d it go?’ says:
It’s like the box is radioactive—each thing I read is confusing and crazy,
and I swear whatever she had, it’s contagious.
In the box, Smith finds her mother’s poems, letters, short stories—and a one-inch-thick document labelled ‘novel’, which turns out to be a journal her mother kept during the last five months of her marriage to Smith’s father. It answers many of Smith’s questions, raises even more, and leads Smith to understand that the book she needs to write will be about her mother.
In the following chapters, Smith reminisces about how she received her first name, as mentioned in a popular song of the day, her first memory of her family’s home, ‘grandmother’s brick row house in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Washington, D.C.’, and her sister Patti’s defenestration where she just missed being impaled on ‘a spiked iron fence’, landing instead on the sidewalk with a broken ‘arm and leg’. The following chapter ‘Riverside (California 1951 to 1954)’ describes the family Quonset hut home on a former military base (both her parents were army veterans) and the beginning of her family’s bicoastal life. Smith and her mother stayed in California for one year before returning to her grandmother’s house (the one with the spike fence), while Smith’s father remained in California keeping her older sister Patti. Smith writes that her father was changeable: wanting her mother ‘one moment and rejecting her the next.’
Without a doubt, the frequent moves and Smith’s parents’ unstable relationship and eventual split adversely affected Smith’s and her sisters’ physical and mental well-being. In later chapters, Smith describes the abuse and she and her sisters faced: not having enough to eat, living with several of her parents’ friends in uncomfortable basement bedrooms, raising her younger sisters, growing out of her own clothes and trying to wear her mother’s clothes as replacements. Or, whenever her father was there, how he ‘banished his own self-doubt by projecting all inadequacy onto others…’ Smith’s adjustment and acceptance of an adult role, whilst still a child, is so complete that she broke up with her junior high school boyfriend rather than tell him she was moving away again. Later on, she drops out of college after her freshman year at the University of Texas.
In her 20s, Smith begins to turn her life around. In the chapter ‘Transcript of Record (Washington DC 1968)’, she has a job, an apartment, a stable relationship, and is resuming her college studies. She also corresponds with her mother seeking some sort of connection and an answer to why her mother abandoned Smith and her sisters. These attempts met with little success. Her mother does not reply to the letter where Smith mentioned her progress above. Months later, her mother does respond to a second missive, but makes no mention of Smith’s life. In the months of silence, she’d been in San Francisco with her oldest daughter, that daughter’s two young children, and her own daughter, Marina Bukowski. That situation has not worked out and now she implores Smith to come to California for a visit or perhaps to live with her mother and half-sister “in a rented trailer fairly near the beach.” Smith supposes her mother is hoping for assistance with childcare.
In 1981, Smith finally visited her mother in Santa Monica after she had finished graduate school. By then, Smith had learned to keep the anger she had for her mother to herself and talk more about neutral subjects such as gardening or her mother’s writing. Smith brought her thesis along for her mother to read, but she just puts it aside in her cluttered, bohemian home. In 1987, Smith invited her mother to visit her in Washington DC, where she wanted to share her research on trauma over lunch. Smith opposed conventional medicine’s attempt to return the psychiatric patients to the ‘baseline’ because she believed:
…there are some experiences that change you forever, after which there
may be healing, but no going back to being the person you once had been.
At which her mother ‘smirked’ and remarked:
Changed forever, you think? Yes, well, that’s a popular idea, I suppose.
Before her mother leaves for the West Coast, however, Smith finally levels with her mother about how difficult her life had been in Ann Arbor—her parents’ constant fighting—and afterwards when her mother abandoned her children. ‘I have to tell you, it was just—it wasn’t okay.’
Smith notes that:
She hadn’t been expecting that, and quickly, she was angry. ‘Oh, it
wasn’t, wasn’t it? Not okay?’ She took her cup and saucer to the sink,
lips pressed tightly together, and walked out of the kitchen.
But in the train, her mother wrote Smith a thank-you note:
Words cannot express my thanks to you for this wonderful vacation. It was
extremely generous of you to take such good care of me. And thank you for
telling me off. It was painful, but it was necessary.
This indicated that after decades of effort on Smith’s part, they were finally making progress. I won’t reveal if or how they finally reconciled. That’s what you’ll have to find out by reading the remainder of Smith’s memoir.
Structurally, bart plantenga’s LIST FULL: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness is a very different type of collection. However, through these lists, plantenga covers six decades of his own life and sketches the histories of his Dutch parents, from their WWII experiences, US emigration, and their mostly unsettled, constantly-on-the-move-for-a-job family life.
LIST FULL includes everything from the sublime ‘List of Near-Death Experiences’ to the ridiculous ‘A List That Makes Me Doubt Who I Ever Was’. Before he goes into his own lists, however, plantenga mentions other, more famous lists such as Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Silver left at Montecello’, Mark Twain’s ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses’, or Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘fictitious taxonomy of nonexistent beasts’ along with other, more common, Top-40-type lists in his preface.
plantenga’s different types of lists include chronologies, such as ‘List of Lonesome New Year’s Eve’ and ‘No Hot Water/Heat, [Kew Garden Hills, NY 1979-80]; timelines, ‘List of Places Lived [1954- ]’ and biographies, ‘List of Near Death Experiences’; statistics, ‘Score: Track Meets in 9th Grade, 2-mile’; inventories, ‘Contents of Foppe’s (father’s) Secret Cigarbox’ and ‘List of Candies 2017’ that his mother filled her walker basket up with during a trip to a discount store; to-do lists, ‘List of the Hopeful Writer, 1984 NYC’ including bookstores where plantenga had books on consignment and magazines/journals to which he planned to send out work; brainstorming, shopping, and checklists for items to take on a journey; lists of misspellings of his last name (a wound I have also acutely felt my entire life with a much simpler name); and even other people’s sometimes abandoned lists. Through these various lists, plantenga narrates the story of his life.
There is so much in these lists, that I found them to be a veritable inspirational gold mine for poets and writers. Some of my favourite sections include his father’s ‘List of Clothing To Take To Berlin, 1943’ as dwangarbeider (forced labourer) in German armament factories during WWII. It includes practical clothing, ‘2 shirts (underwear), 1 long 1 workpants, 4 short pants, 3 borsttrokken, [singlet or undervest], 2 flannel shirts, 7 pairs of socks’, stationery supplies and documents ‘1 ink pot, ‘1 writing folder’, ‘paper’, ‘school results’, and hygienic supplies such as ‘1 mirror’, ‘toothbrush’ and ‘6 handerkerchiefs’. Another feature of the book of lists is its photographs of the original lists that sometimes appear on facing pages such as his father’s ‘KLEDINGLYST’. (This list is contrasted by a list called ‘List of Clothes of England’ with items numbered from 1 to 27). Another list that is very creative and reflects the dreams, aspirations, and whimsy of their owners, is plantenga’s ‘Boatspotting List’, which I will posit provided the creative inspiration for his ‘Boatspotting’ memoir about his ’90s Amsterdam squat days along the IJ that appeared in AQ25. This list opens with: ‘Anima, Borneo, Thomasa, Anita, Lara, Sirius, Hirundo, Geert Jan, Diadema, Condor, Meerval, Saturnus, Thetis, Janny, Fury, Speculant, Forel, Isala, Marie Jose, (and) Rope of Sand’. Meanwhile, his father’s ‘KLEDINGLYST’ certainly provided the raw material for plantenga’s AQ28 memoir, ‘The Man Who Came Home’.
However, it is the ‘List of Places Lived [1954-]’, with its 42 addresses where plantenga’s life experience mirrors Smith’s many residences (both having lived in nine or so homes before going away to college). plantenga’s abortive first year at the University of Wisconsin, briefly mentioned in the list above, mirrors Smith’s first year of college at the University of Texas described in her chapter ‘Failure to Launch’. This is not uncommon for writers, many of whom don’t stay at their first or sometimes not even their second colleges beyond a semester or a year—present company included—as they search for a place where they can be nurtured and inspired. (plantenga went on to study his second year at the University of Michigan at Flint, before spending his last two and half years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he won a Hopwood Poetry Award in 1977.
Later reckonings with parents and a more sympathetic awareness of their human imperfections also occur in both books. Whether it’s through a list of their frailties such as plantenga’s ‘List of Drugs Taken By My Mother’ or his ‘1960s Man’s Adventure Magazine Story Titles’ list of his father’s soft porn stash or from Smith’s later correspondence with her mother.
Irene Hoge Smith’s The Good Poetic Mother and bart plantenga’s LIST FULL are radically different approaches to the memoir. However, both dramatically reveal the inner development of the writers over six decades, challenged by economic adversity and their parents’ unsupportive and sometimes adversarial stances to their creative aspirations to find a place for themselves in the world as artists. I assure you, you will be inspired by these books’ narratives to examine your own family’s documentary history. These books may also provide strategies on how to understand chaotic, confrontational, and estranged parental relationships and perhaps ways to mend them or to provide closure later in life, no matter what medium or genre you choose. AQ