Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Sudden Death Living's Imperative

Review: Thelma T. Reyna. Dearest Papa. A Memoir in Poems. Pasadena, CA: Golden Foothills Press, 2020. (link)
Michael Sedano

Dearest Papa. A Memoir in Poems by Thelma T. Reyna starts like so many books, with an Author’s Foreward. “Poems,” the subtitle calls itself, hence, ordinarily I’d flip through the prefatory pages searching for the poetry. Why delay, get to the main point, let the poetry speak for itself. Ordinarily, I’d do that, but some power compelled me to start at page 0 and read Dearest Papa cover-to-cover and you’ll be glad you do this, too. Every word matters in a collection like this.

Dearest Papa. A Memoir in Poems isn’t about poetry. Dearest Papa is about getting ready for death. Don’t take that wrong. Dying is universal, but knowing about how to live with death comes hard, or not at all, to the living. 

Aging people, sick people, people with dementia, terminally ill people, and those around them, panic when mortality enters awareness. Dearest Papa is what critic Kenneth Burke calls “literature as equipment for living,” that is, something useful, writing as a way of sizing up situations to formulate effective responses to crisis. When my wife’s Alzheimer’s dementia got “bad,” I descended into debilitating panic for months. Reading how Reyna lived through the death of her husband would have been a balm for hundreds of reasons.

Fifty years, Victor and Thelma had. Back sometime in the late sixties, “Two young Latino college students from backgrounds of poverty, with divergent life stories and roots, made vows to live life together” and that’s what they did. Until one ordinary day Papa takes a playful bite from his cat. The wound poisons his diabetic system and after extended medical treatments and amputation, an everyday surgical procedure kills him.

Readers who come to Dearest Papa find themselves privileged to share this wife’s final words, the last thoughts she will ever get to say to her “Papa,” the grandfather, father, husband, lover. No words will ever be as intimate as these, important just to Thelma Reyna, but now part of a reader’s experience. The privilege of sharing intimacy makes a person special, not solely in those passionate moments of metaphor and narrative, but afterward, when the reader steps out of apostrophe into eulogy, then into literature as equipment for living.

Everyone knows or shall know grief. Dearest Papa accounts Thelma T. Reyna's passage through illness, death , absence. Reyna expresses her sorrow through prose poems and verse that create a stunning narrative of minor events unfolding into catastrophe. On every page, readers share the poet's grief, regret, celebration. Reyna's overwhelming gratitude for life makes Dearest Papa a book to share with caregivers, diabetics, elders, and people who love.

Reyna’s account of her sorrow, grief, suffering, and growth belongs in so many readers’ hands. The book deserves to be read along with Rudolfo Anaya’s masterful exploration of death dying and grief, The Old Man’s Love Story. Elders, caretakers, children of aging parents, these readers, especially appreciate the perspective of a widow and “getting over it.”

“It” constitutes the couple’s Beginnings and Endings, the first two sections or chapters. Then the widow’s Mourning. Her Balms and Resolutions conclude her poet-widow’s five-step method of taking a deep breath, making sense of the unaccountable, dealing with loneliness, moving on purposefully. 

People cannot sustain grief without becoming emotional cripples, at least until memory fades or something worse comes along. In its way, Dearest Papa is the old woman’s love story and a valuable addition to United States literature of grief and consolation. This book is an antidote to suffering.

The poet structures the collection to confront mourning and recovery with dramatic immediacy. In the 100-page book, Papa is gone before the book is half complete. This structure offers a pointed reminder, that life continues once the duality of beginning ending have wound their paths.

Beginning remembers a handsome young man and a quiet inconspicuous woman. They couple and court. The poet marks their vigor and commitment in erotic poetry, their sexual playfulness a demonstration of the wholeness inside that quiet girl he sees in the back of that classroom. 

Like the poet, readers remember intense days of blossoming love, this first section so open and true, so intimate and private, it’s the poet signaling her trust in her readers with a completely open ethos. Writing openly about something as elemental as sex prepares readers to think about something even more elemental, sudden death.

Caregivers have to spend time with the poems in the Endings chapter. Papa never needed to stop hoping he’d get over this. He was the star patient at the nursing home. He falls. Nonetheless, compared to those other guys, things look good. Papa’s got the good healing attitude.

Diabetics don’t heal well. This knowledge undergirds the narrative of Papa’s ending. Stepping out of the aesthetic realm into health education, families with diabetes will attend to what happens to Papa owing to his diabetes. An apparently insignificant foot injury is lethal. This section of Dearest Papa is frightening and can be a “scared straight” illustration for diabetics.

Papa is dead. The poet doesn’t challenge herself to ask “why” nor “why me?” It is what it is, and it’s all the same to the cat. Hold your breath, the poet does not blame the cat.

Opie curled in his white Sherpa-wool bed each night,
oblivious to hospitals, IVs, ICUs, and the whole alphabet.
Cats don’t worry about spelling or school.
Cats don’t care about calendars or cures.
But perhaps Opie wondered why Papa wasn’t home.

Papa disappears entirely from the work now, after Mourning he’s a pronoun or an allusion. Balms poems are for the poet. For instance, the passive voice of “Bonsai” removes from the tree Papa’s hours over years forming that tree, save for the mention of a “sturdy” limb, the poem contains not even memories of Papa. The bonsai tree exists. Nothing of Papa’s cutting and wiring and twisting and years of forming that shape is in the poem nor the branches of that bonsai:
cuts are gentle, kind
a nick from blade
snip from shears
bending of the limbs in nuanced arcs
baby branches coaxed
with copper twined
on base and slender arms

Death doesn’t matter anymore to the dead, death is for the living. The poet allows herself remonstrance in “Dear Doctor.” Papa is dead, the doctor is telling the woman consumed in grief. She ignores that fact, wildly seeking succor in everything else that’s wrong about this moment. The poet nor the poem says what the poem really wants to say to the doctor, “doctor, you killed Papa.” Don’t wonder why she doesn’t say that, nor beat the anesthesiologist over the head with bitter words. What good does it do?

The most intimate poem in the collection comes with death itself. Reyna reveals her breasts were delights in her love-making, something no one in the world knew until that poem. But something everyone experiences that cannot be shared, disclosed, nor offered is the moment a person’s life stops.

Did you hear your surgeon say, “I’ve got to tell his wife.” Did you see him pull his face mask off, and did he scurry out the door, a frightened ant? They said compressions on your
silent chest went on and on, that your heartbeat blipped back for a tiny flash, then disappeared, fading faster each time. Did you see them staring at the screen, and did anybody cry?

They say humans know the moment they expire.

But words and the world of sounds will be just out of reach to everyone, the living and the dead. There are always things that mattered, ideas that need to be gathered, words that need to be said in a eulogy so everyone left behind can hear what no longer matters but my gosh, it used to matter so much to two people.

Dearest Papa. A Memoir in Poems collects all the words Thelma Reyna has to say about her 50 years with the man her family calls Papa. Words are all that remain after fifty years and eight months. The poems, verse and prose poems, the narrative elements, these, every word, are the final expressions and memories in one woman’s life about something everyone is going to experience. Profoundly intimate, the words, in the end, don’t have to mean anything to anyone but Thelma Reyna. They don’t have to, but when you start confronting inevitability, don’t panic. Read Dearest Papa before not even words remain.

Golden Foothills Press distributes via the internet giant that’s killing the independent bookseller but makes acquiring small press titles convenient. Mail Order is a little less convenient, but back when America was great again, Mail Order was how we did it.

Mail $15.00 plus 8% sales tax and estimated shipping—USPS Media Mail costs $2.80 for a book this size--to the publisher for a paperback copy.

Golden Foothills Press
1443 E. Washington Blvd. #232
Pasadena, CA 91104


Thelma T. Reyna said...

Thank you, Michael Sedano, for your words and insights. Thank you for deciphering what I was trying to do in this book...and for understanding it better than even I did during that first year of grief. You warm my heart and do justice for Papa.

Gina Chapa said...

This is beautiful