Bryan R. Monte
(AQ33) Spring 2022 Book Review
Jennifer L. Freed, When Light Shifts, A Memoir in Poems, Kelsay Books, ISBN: 978-1-63980-089-6, 99 pages.
Jennifer L. Freed is no stranger to Amsterdam Quarterly. Her poetry has appeared in seven issues depicting various subjects such as teaching, walking a dog along a road, her mother’s stroke and dementia, and her brother’s death from cancer. Her inventive poetry has caught my interest repeatedly over the last five and half years and I have marvelled at her range as a poet in various forms and subjects. Despite this, however, her new book, When Light Shifts was a pleasant surprise because it brought together many of these narrative threads.
The book’s prologue poem, ‘Leaving’ is prescient. In the poem, the speaker keeps saying to her daughters: ‘Look! ‘Isn’t she beautiful.’ When they ask her why she keeps saying this she responds, ‘Because / I know she is going to leave’. When Light Falls details the forms of this leave taking. It includes her mother’s partial recovery despite her physical, psychological, and social rehabilitation and her temporary move with her husband to a care centre. In my opinion, it provides an overview of how stroke affects a whole family. I say this from the perspective of someone who has lost a mother to stroke. However, I have never been able to express my observations and feelings as eloquently as Freed does.
When Light Shifts is divided into four parts. Section I is about Freed’s mother’s stroke (and her father’s accompanying anxiety) her recovery in ICU and in rehab with visits from therapists and social workers, and her mother’s and father’s decision to move into a care home. The different techniques used in this section alone show the range of Freed’s poetic expression. ‘The Border’ describes her mother’s stroke (and her father’s reaction) in sparing terms. The stroke begins as a sort of dizziness ‘while/bending over to paint an old rocking chair.’ Disorientation follows as she ‘set herself down/but found vomit there’ and then a loss of equilibrium when she ‘crawled/ to someplace clean’. Next comes her husband’s inability to understand why she’s there on the garage floor ‘the trembling / ground, the strangely shifting light.’ which gives the book it’s title. This poem is fairly traditional in form with left adjusted lines, written in free verse. However, other poems in this section are very different. For example, the next two ‘Cerebral Hemorrhage’ and ‘My Father’s Heart’ use unconventional line breaks. The former’s lines float down the page:
opens her mouth
not her eyes
we do not hear.
Her arm rises, fingers strum air
In the latter, her observations about her father’s emotional concerns on the left are questioned by an italicized chorus on the right:
The world warps
(His heart, his heart)
At its core
and inside his head, the buzzing—
emphasizing the mortality of her father and his physical inability to take in or deal with what has happened to his partner through the beating of his heart.
Other interesting typographical poems in this section include ‘Rehab Hospital’ and ‘We’re So Happy You’ll Be Joining Our Community’ in which some of the words and details seem to be erased or suppressed, mimicking her mother’s partial loss of speech and cognition. This erasure technique is especially effective in the latter which communicates much information in only six lines which I quote in toto:
for each of your parents
for our files
because your father
on behalf of your mother
In Part II., the speaker discovers how much her mother has changed since she was released from hospital. For example, in ‘Thrown’, she compares her active, pre-stroke mother ‘in the garage with her electric sander/ refinishing a second-hand table, a desk, a chair’ to her mother now who ‘can’t / understand. Why she can’t / understand.’ Here again Freed uses words spread out on the page to portray her mother’s loss for words and her fragmented perception of her situation. She describes her mother’s uncoordinated motor skills in ‘Scattered’ when her mother attempts to collect marbles that she has knocked out of bowl on the windowsill, but instead ‘her hand knocks them father away.’ In ‘Mystery (A Question)’ the speaker wonders where her mother went and if she will come back. In ‘From Inside Askew’, ‘Tilt-a-World’ (not Whirl) and ‘What Then’ Freed describes her mother’s loss of equilibrium and the accompanying falls in the now treacherous up-is-down, floor-rising-and-falling ship deck world her mother must relearn to navigate. Freed’s poem ‘Broken Brain Blues’, in rhyming triplets, describes the speaker’s mother ‘struck by a train, now she weeps and mourns’. Then a little later, her mother ‘standing again, but she can’t walk home’ embracing this characteristic lyric form of despair. The last stanza starts with ‘Feels like the burden to the man in her bed’ a theme which is also echoed in poems in this and other sections of this book. In the final poem in this section, ‘He Stays’, Freed describes the toll her mother’s stroke is taking on her hard of hearing and forgetful father. He’s ‘by her side, leans closer / to hear her / repeat / the best route home.’ He’s not accustomed to being a caretaker and Freed writes ‘how he wears thin’ in the assisted living home, but he won’t tell his wife because ‘he’ll break / her heart’, the final line break anticipating or mimicking his spouse’s heart break.
Part III continues Freed’s exploration of her father’s response to her mother’s stroke, rehabilitation, and physical and mental limitations. Its first poem, ‘The Occupational Therapist Answers My Father’, describes her mother’s encouraging progress the first three months, but offers no guarantees about the future. ‘Unsettled’ describes her father’s sense of having suddenly lost someone he knew, who knew how to manage things.
His chest binds when friends ask what he’ll do
with the house. She
was the one
who knew how to turn a page, make sense
of fine print.
‘Broken Love Song’ describes how he sings his ‘weeping’ spouse back from her sensory overload after their first trip back to a supermarket with ‘its high shelves—/crowded aisles. Its colors, sizes, brands, sales, / decisions.’ with a familiar song from when they were younger. ‘She was happier in rehab,’ describes the change in her temperament after her stroke. Now instead of being happy and active, ‘she quietly seethes.’ and wants ‘Someone to curse. Someone / to kick in the teeth.’ for her loss. She’s also unable to focus, her mind darting from one thing to the next as in ‘An Hour’ and ‘Proof’.
‘He Can’t’ details her father’s own disabilities ‘he can’t hear / the birds the phone her / voice, … ‘can’t see words in books the nuance / of her face.’ This poem ends with her father despairing, ‘Never mind I just can’t / do anything / to please / you.’ However, in ‘There’ Freed describes how her parents are able to stay together, no matter how much they frustrate each other. After her father’s walk, her mother ‘… smiles glad to see him again. /And he smiles, glad to see her again. / And she reaches up to touch his cheek./ And he hands her dandelions /from the side of the road.…/before the bickering resumes.’
Section IV describes the challenges the couple face after they decide after eight months to move out of a care home and to go back to their own home. In this section Freed also describes her brother’s death from cancer. Freed describes her mother’s perception of her son’s approaching death in ‘Her Strength’ and ‘Low’. In the first, her mother wants to stay with her son as he dies in hospital, but ‘Her own gray body’ and ‘Her gray husband’ both with their problems, prevent her from doing this. In the second, her mother doesn’t weep in hospital, but only ‘in the car.’ She withdraws from the world, ‘Stops going / to Group Chair Exercise, /Brain Games with Beth, / Current Events’ and instead ‘begs to sink / into the yawning dark.’ We see also the memorial service through her eyes in ‘Spirit’. She finds a field mouse in her bathroom ‘the very morning her son died’, in whose eyes ‘she imagined … he’d found his way back to her, (and) was saying / goodbye.’
‘I’ll Be the Safety Net Stretched Taut, Waiting’ depicts her parents’ decision to leave the care home, even though Freed knows how much they’ve both miscalculated their ability to live independently. For example, her father doesn’t realise that his spouse ‘can’t lift, or carry or clean’ or ‘how much time he would have to give / to rinsing salad greens, bringing plates to the table.’
The effect of her brother’s death on her own life is shown in ‘Then, Somehow’ when a social worker assessing her parents’ family support, asks Freed ‘Are you an only child?’ Once again, it’s what Freed doesn’t say that has the strongest effect.:
I am a fish
my mouth opening, closing
my eyes round
And already she is saying
Oh! I’m sorry. Oh
In the next poem, ‘Turkish Fig’ Freed mourns her brother and parents: ‘my mother / and father—going / my brother—gone.’ All that’s real to her is ‘the fading of taste’ of a fig on her tongue in that moment. Freed’s prediction of her parents’ inability to fend for themselves is proved true in ‘Help’ where thankfully a hired ‘aide’ is able to humour or to move things for her parents out of each other’s way, ‘saving / a small square of the world.’ As with many creative works written in the last two and a half years, Freed’s book ends with a Covid scene. She speaks to her mother ‘standing outside the glass door’ via a mobile, ‘draw(ing) a heart on the glass, kiss(ing) it’. Her mother, ‘grasps her walker, pushes to stand, kisses back’. It is the closest intimacy they dare in the first months of the pandemic.
When Light Shifts is an honest, brave book—written as a memoir of her brother and parents—by a poet placed in an unwinnable situation. Through her verse, Freed creates no artificial happy ending. Instead, she uses her poetry to capture her mother’s stroke in all its aspects including occasional acts of kindness and slight, temporary progress in a world beyond both their control. AQ