by Paul Buhle
Dementia: This Undiscovered Country, by Norma Coleman Jenckes. Pawtucket: Blackstone Valley Press, 2013. 56pp. ISBN: 978-0615845593, $10 paperback.
(Swans - January 13, 2014) This slim volume of poetry offers a deep sentiment about the reality of aging Americans and others around the world. The poet was born and raised in the first mill town of North America, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a hard-scrabble location for about two centuries and counting. The scars of working-class life, along with the legacies of Irish life in the homeland, can be seen in her poems. But these should not be seen without the tracings of heroism, most especially, if not only, among the women who carry on.
There's a Rhode Island legend in her name alone: the mighty Jenckes, mill barons who rose, and lived, at least some of them, to see descendants fall in a truly Rhode Island way to horses, whores, and the decline of the textile industry (it began to move South as soon as unionization -- or compulsory schooling of the children -- got in the way). This Jenckes is from a branch or shoot twisted around another tradition, that of her mother, blue collar Irish-Americans who joined literary clubs, wrote and read poetry. The first set of verse, "Poems for Margaret," is for that mother:
Outside your bedroom window
The Blackstone glisters.
Unaware of the stream,
The city lives on its banks
Deserted mills perch on each falls.
When I leave, I turn
Down a side street
Past crowded three-deckers
Toward open space
At the foot of the hills
Where the river glides
In a silent wash of brazen light.
A life heroic in its own way, a hard-gambling husband, and for children, Norma herself and two sisters with Down Syndrome to raise. Mother Margaret Jenckes endured endless jobs, equally endless ironing in apartments near the mills, in a kind of life too rarely recorded. The mother, caregiver, saw the memories of it all slip away.
Jenckes turns next to own her husband of forty-some years, a distinguished scholar of Shakespeare and a revolutionary Marxist writing furiously for a time in the Canadian newspaper that his brother, also emigrated, led and edited. The paper's readers, twenty years ago, were said to be mostly woodcutters from the same India as the brothers, likewise making due in a climate cold beyond any homeland imagination. In short, a remarkable figure in his own way. Since he has lost memory of his worlds, she recuperates them for him, before they abandon Cincinnati (and a final academic job) for Rhode Island.
The heat of this valley burns like your heat, Punjab.
Miasma rises from the Ohio like the mist
I don't tie my turnan here or keep my bear
Still my heart aches for my father's village
I lay awake at night until I almost hear
The sound of milk changing to yogurt.
I picture where it waits -- warm milk
In a stone crock wrapped in wool
Sink to its rim in a bin of what flour.
In my mother's kitchens lizards sit on the ceiling
Their right tongues flick at mosquitoes;
Fans whir the frangipani night air
Outside the dog stirs on the broken charpoy,
Restless to the cries of jackals in t he nearby hills.
In the morning smooth white coolness of curd
Mixes well with sun-warmed mangoes.
There I can predict the eternal routine
In the smallest things;
Generations stretch behind my father
To the time of Akbar the Great.
Here I am amazed to wake
Without the riot of thousands of green parrots
Gossiping in the pipal tree in garden.
Here a lone cardinal calls in the cherry tree.
The last third of the book is dedicated to caregivers, and that definitely includes herself.
The emptying out goes on:
Teaching ends, talking stops.
Just listen now to the silence
I am the widow's mite --
Little bits left of my life.
All I can offer, I must offer.
Jenckes reveals, at the very end of the book's Acknowledgments, that is to say on the last page, that she was stirred to completion of this volume by finding her mother's diary, a diary that extending from her 70s into her 80s, full of determination to write more poems, better poems, before life gave out. Quite a role model. And quite a response.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. His latest comic is Radical Jesus (Herald Press). (back)