Review by Elizabeth Bales Frank
The early death of a mother has been described as “the loss that lives forever.” The abandonment by one leaves a child to grow up in a life that loses forever. Abandonment, whether through drugs, alcohol or another pull that beguiles a mother from her maternal role, inflicts a specific pain on a child, since the briefest pulse of parental attention resurrects hope of a stronger connection and teaches a starving child to live on crumbs.
That concept is not always metaphorical, as evidenced by Irene Hoge Smith in her poignant memoir The Good Poetic Mother: A Daughter’s Memoir (IP Books, New York, 2001). Smith is the second daughter in a group of four girls born to spectacularly mismatched parents who met in the Signal Corps during World War II and carried the conflict, but not the communication skills, into their fragile marriage. From a very early age, during one of her parents’ many marital separations, Smith and her older sister Patti fend for themselves, searching empty cupboards for cereal in the mornings while their mother Frances “slept through the alarm, unable to organize breakfast and school clothes or to face the day.”
Frances neglects her house, her children, herself. During her good spells, she is an activist, protesting Jim Crow and McCarthyism. When the father returns home from one separation and enrolls in graduate school, two more daughters are born and the family play-acts for a time as a middle-class, left-leaning family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, until another further acrimony divides them again.
At the divorce hearing, the father is granted custody of the three remaining daughters – at 17, Patti ran away– prompting Smith to wonder how her mother was shoved aside so easily: “How could the judge know about the lovers, the filthy house, the feral children?” Frances chooses California and a hardscrabble life as a poet, while Smith joins her father in Washington, D.C., with the “little ones,” as she refers to her younger sisters, as though they are her charges, as indeed, they do become.
These early days, of moving home, cold, dirty houses, feuding parents, are recounted in a manner more logistical than emotional and the reader may long for full-blown dramatic scenes. The few that occur are based outside the family: a neighbor sneers that Smith’s father should better tend to a wife who is “off her rocker,” a teacher humiliates Smith for her messy clothes. But the teenaged Smith, displaced into a strange city as a de facto nanny to “the little ones,” reflects on how she has learned to shut down as a survival tool:
“I worried some, even at fifteen, about the long-term effectiveness of this surprisingly-easy deliberate forgetting. [My mother] was gone, and I had to find a way to keep going. What I couldn’t have understood, and wouldn’t fully recognize until after she died, is that I was doing exactly what she herself had done. Once she’d given up trying to take care of her daughters, and after the papers she had signed turned out to give us all to our father, she began to consider that part of her life as irretrievable, irrevocably in the past. She couldn’t think about what she’d left behind and face going on with her life.”
Smith’s detached guidance through the scorched earth landscape Frances left her to navigate makes the situation come all the more alive for the reader. A practicing therapist, Smith does not fall into the easy temptation of diagnosing her mother, but instead lays out the facts, allowing the reader to rage and grieve in her stead. In California, Frances refashions herself as the poet FrancEyE, and takes up with the poet Charles Bukowski, who describes her in a poem as someone who “has hurt fewer people than anybody I know . . .” Frances has a child by him and raises her. “The one daughter,” Smith muses, “that she was able to mother.”
As an adult, Smith founders then flourishes, detaches and confronts, and eventually negotiates a détente with her mother, whose carapace of “deliberate forgetting” cracks but never breaks. Smith earns a kind of Hollywood ending when she delivers a bracing but fair eulogy at a memorial tribute for FrancEyE held by her Bay Area community of admirers. The book begins with Smith sorting through boxes of her mother’s papers but this memoir is less the work of an archivist than that of a sculptor, chipping at excess to reveal the true, hard, beautiful vision within. Her ability to tell her story in this particular manner is her own reward, as well as the reader’s.