The Parkinson Poems. Jan Seale. Lamar University Press, January 2014. $14.95.
Review by Katherine Hoerth.
We know love is complex. It’s chaotic, multifaceted, complicated; it’s made up of both shadow and light, beauty and ugliness. The best contemporary love poetry rejects the notion that love is stable and fixed—an emotion that flows from subject (usually male) to idolized object (usually female) —and instead, attempts to illustrate its intricacies, contradictions and complexities.
Jan Seale’s latest book, The Parkinson Poems, explores the boundaries of love in a different sort of way, shedding light on the inner details of a marriage at once made stronger and revenged by a husband’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease. These are poems of strength and despair, elation and bitterness, victory and defeat. Through her poetry, Seale constructs a complex love triangle of sorts between the speaker, her husband, and this horrible (yet at times even hauntingly beautiful) disease. Through each of the sections which correspond to the different stages of the disease, from Onset to Treatment through Progression and finally to simple Abiding, we see the development not only of Parkinson’s, but the reshaping of love itself, all captured in tight, succinct, and accessible verse.
From the opening poem, “The Guest,” Parkinson’s disease itself is personified as an unwanted houseguest who “came one day to the door / knocked insistently” and “camped out on the porch” until the speaker acknowledges his presence and opens the door. Readers, along with the disease, are ushered into this couple’s life–the intimate details of their dinner table conversations thwarted by “dropped silverware, knocked over glasses,” the everyday struggle of the husband getting dressed with “pants that won’t stay up / shirts with difficult armholes / strangling ties, lost handkerchiefs,” and the wife, always ready for his “falls, indigestion / evenings of silence”—all brought on by the unwanted and overbearing houseguest. The poem closes as the couple flirts with despair:
They’re holding out hope
That someday, someone
Smart and great will come
To take away their guest.
He’s become the cart before the horse
The Man Who Came to Dinner
The bass ackards
Of their lives.
That sense of the speaker’s frustration towards the disease is echoed throughout the collection. The poem “In Bitterest Moments” explores this sentiment, too, where the speaker fantasizes about what her life might be like if “Jesus sent Parkinson’s into the herd of swine”: She and her husband could be “sharing one sleeping bag / in a northern wood,” or “sipping wine on a cruise ship / and soon out on the dance floor,” or perhaps, most significantly, their “bodies / could follow their own agendas in lovemaking.” For the speaker, the disease fills her marriage with shadow, with loss, with longing.
But she also revels in quiet moments of beauty, in small victories brought on by her strained relationship with her husband’s disease. In the poem “Night Sweats,” the speaker recalls her own experiences with tuberculosis as a child and waking up with night sweats, “these rainforests of the body / mini monsoons taking over your bed,” as she cleans up after her husband. There’s a renewed sense of intimacy, of closeness in the realization that she, too, knows “what it means to be clean and dry, / to lie smoothed, to start over, in hope, the second half of the night.”
Numerous poems also explore the husband’s complex relationship with his disease. In “Threshold Initiation Syndrome” we see him, “like a cat,” pausing in the doorway with “disobedient feet.” The speaker compares her husband’s struggles to a war, where “strangers, kind to a fault” try to help by “holding public doors.” Like a lover’s quarrel, the speaker concludes that “the victories are monotonous.” In “Gait Initiation Syndrome” the speaker describes her husband’s “slow-dance with Parkinson” as a series of steps: “you stall out forward, you’re to / take a step backward, then move ahead,” that are almost sentimentally compared to “rocking one-way in an old porch chair.”
And then, of course, the last relationship that’s explored through these beautiful and haunting poems is the relationship between wife and husband, the caregiver and caretaker. We see the numerous symptoms getting in the way of their relationship. This disconnect is made worse from “worried stares,” “the brain in cement shoes,” to the times when “silence is all / that can be managed.” Through all of this, the speaker longs to be closer to her husband, to relive the moments of her life when their love was less complicated by this third wheel. Longing becomes most apparent in “Sleep-talking,” where as a reader, we’re made to listen to the husband’s murmurings at night, “clearer and louder / than he ever speaks in waking hours.” Painfully, the wife confesses:
Even though I foolishly long to know him better,
This husband of many years, I am barred
At the gateway of his dreams.
His words waking me are like light pebbles
He tossed upward at my dorm window in the days
When we loved, both dreaming and awake.
But, of course, all is not lost. The relationship between husband and wife, though strained by the disease, is made even stronger in its triumphs with small, day-to-day victories. In “Coming to Terms” the speaker reconsiders their relationship, asking: “If I am the caregiver, / are you the caretaker” and goes on to reveal that the words themselves suggest a reciprocal relationship, that “we’ll both care, / in our giving and taking / and be careful / doing it,” pulling the words themselves apart to illustrate their complex relationship. The collection’s final poem, “What You As the Parkie Have Given Me,” explores the ways in which the speaker has been shaped by and has grown as a result of her role as a caregiver. The entire book ends with this at once triumphant and somber note:
And at this late date, you’ve given me patience I never had before,
With my strange limbic anger called into understanding
With waves of resentment transformed into compassion
And with permission to laugh with you
At things that were formerly serious and important.
The Parkinson Poems gives readers an intimate look into the everyday struggles and triumphs of a couple struggling through and learning to cope. But more than that, it’s an interrogation of relationships, and the ability of poetry to articulate complex and often contradictory emotions. At its core, these are poems of love, a testament to its power to endure.
Katherine Hoerth is the author of a poetry collection, The Garden Uprooted (Slough Press, 2012). Her work has been published in journals such as Pleiades, Rattle, and Front Porch. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas Pan American. Visit her online here.