Traveling with the Dead by Carole Stone
(Backwaters Press, 2007)
Traveling with the Dead. How can it be done? Through the imagination? Will it work? Hmm. In the book’s opening poem, “Dream of Mrs. Roosevelt,” no less than Eleanor herself advises Carole Stone, who lost both of her parents at age four and imagines them “at FDR’s inauguration,/ standing in the D.C. cold, drinking in/ FDR’s words like bathtub gin,” in an “anthracite mine”:
The President rolls out
of the black in his wheelchair.
Why couldn’t you save them?
I ask. Why did they die?
He rolls on into the darkness.
Mrs. Roosevelt hands me a pickaxe.
Dig, she says. (13)
The italicized questions are unanswerable, and nearly unbearable, but Stone takes the First Lady’s advice as she quests for imaginative compensation for her parents’ absence.
Although, in “Unlikely Pair,” she declares, “I have no stories about my parents,/ silent in their filled holes of earth” (38), Stone presents plausible specifics about their lives and deaths in a handful of poems. “Inheritance” identifies her father as a self-made man: “His fists raised him from nothing to something,/ boss of the New Jersey mob” (14). This ended, of course, when he was “speeding/ home from his gambling casino” and he lost control of his “yellow roadster.” “Goulash” tells us that he was “a chief petty officer, Third Fleet/ welter-weight champion” and later, “a bootlegger” and “shadow/ gunman who slept with his revolver” (28). “As a girl,” Stone’s “mother. . . lived on a mud street/ in a provincial town near Budapest.” Regarding her death, which closely followed her husband’s, and creating interesting parallels with the suicide of poet Maria Tsvetayeva, “Lantern” suggests the unconscious commission of a slow suicide: “She shivered as a girl in Hungary,/ became a woman who walked out her despair/ for hours in the freezing rain./ All my life I have tried to forgive her for dying” (15). Often, a statement like Stone’s would be deemed irrational and embarrassingly regressive; in this instance, both parents acted recklessly, courting death. In “Mother’s Gown,” Stone rightly asks: “On your death bed what did you think,/ knowing you would leave me/ only the gift of your likeness?” (32). She probably wasn’t thinking of her daughter and son at all, but about her grief for her husband. In several poems, Stone describes how her orphanhood has tarnished important aspects of her adult life:
The day my daughter was born, I called and called
to a place beyond calling from my mother and father
who never grow old. They weren’t there,
not cooing through the hospital nursery window,
not first day of kindergarten, not at my wedding
to arrange my satin train and give me away. (“Generations,” 77)
Even Stone’s experience of being a grandmother reminds her of the primal loss; in “A Word,” happy that she can “listen to Emma’s four-year-old serious talk,” she adds, “I love to hear her call/ ‘Mama,’ a word I never said./ But this poem isn’t about the dead.” Since intergenerational comparisons and contrasts are inevitable, the poem’s final sentence also means the opposite of what it is trying to assert.
Faced with the relative paucity of historical details, Stone often follows Eleanor Roosevelt’s injunction to “dig,” with the aid of traces, material, verbal, and cultural, into her own imaginative power to reanimate her parents’ history, to extend their stories and, in that sense, their lives. The book’s front cover has a clear photo of Stone’s parents, while the back cover has a bleached version of the same, with the poet herself perched over her mother’s hat, looking eerily like both. Two poems, “Petit Elegy” and “Souvenir,” use the photo as a point of departure. While in the former, Stone mourns the fact that her “father is empty clothing, a navy blue double-breasted/ blazer and white flannel pants in the photo// that has stood on the old Chickering piano for years,” that he “is a lost listing in the telephone book” (46), she fleshes out details in the latter poem and struggles to make them “here” so she can travel with “them,” even if they are unaware of it. The fine description of the festive event in “Souvenir” almost carries Stone into her parents’ experience:
in Sloppy Joe’s, Havana,
my parents sip Cuba Libres.
Black hair pomaded and parted
In the middle, my father in white slacks,
navy-blue double breasted blazer
blows smoke clouds with his cigar.
Beside him, my mother,
mink wrap around her shoulders,
a velvet cloche hiding
stares into the future
that never comes. (37)
The first jarring note, “forever frozen,” can be set aside, yet the twelfth and thirteen lines remind us of the subjects’ loss of an anticipated future. The poet aims for recovery by focusing on who the fellow “in the background” might be in relation to her foregrounded parents. Almost immediately, though, she lays bare her own device, and this honesty undermines the potential force of “presence”: “I invent him/ as go-between/ for the gambling syndicate/ and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. . . .” (37). It would be exciting to learn what such a “go-between” actually accomplished and how he did it, but the narrative—its fictive status exposed—is shut down before it can gather steam: “. . . my father as el jefe,/ while my mother spills/ her velvet words/ from the frame.” “As” calls attention to the father’s posing and/or being posed, the staging of his figure to assume a (foreign) likeness that is not an identity. The fact that the mother’s words—not only soft, smooth, elegant, and perhaps exotic but precious to the daughter—“spilled” from the photo’s historical container suggests that they are not delivered to the poet, prime representative of the next generation. They are wasted.
This disruption of “presenc-ing” by a narratized consciousness of absence also characterizes poems in the book that attempt to revive Stone’s parents by putting them in leading movie roles: “In the movie house I watched/ her half-parted lips, her thin eyebrows/ like my mother’s, lighting up the screen” (31). In the case of this Berlin-based “chanteuse in the strapless,” Stone breaks off the narrative to concentrate on her desire for the actress to stay in character and thus preserve her mother’s celluloid “life”:
I didn’t want her to falter before the camera
forget her lines, jumble her speech,
thinking strangers were old friends, her days broken dreams.
If she couldn’t call her daughter by name,
rinse her hennaed hair, if she shuffled
in padded slippers and frayed chenille robe,
bowing before the absent camera like a lily,
doing what she always did for love,
how could I keep my mother alive? (31)
Because there are multiple takes, the actress will never “falter,” but the viewer projects her own angst onto the women on screen. Expression of anxiety not only shows the precariousness of Stone’s attempt at imaginative displacement, but the exposure of its illusory qualities drains its possibilities of even a temporary impact, a respite from mourning.
When Stone titles a poem, “It’s Easy to Imagine You Here,” the ease of imagining is undone by the impossibility of keeping what is imagined. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud examines how his grandson plays the game of fort/da to “control” the pain of his mother’s recurrent disappearance, while Stone apostrophizes her mother—if she is addressed, she “must” exist—to tell of her sudden reappearance and re-disappearance:
Amid the Spanish tile, by the oversized pool where
Esther Williams once swam laps you come back, Mother,
my movie star, sipping a frozen daiquiri,
your long pearls translucent in your pink silk lap.
Now I see you poised at the pool’s edge
in your one-piece bathing suit.
Legs slick with coconut oil you dive
and disappear as you did when I was four. (45)
Even if Stone’s mother never set foot in a pool, the association with an actual movie star and champion swimmer sets a tone of glamorous fantasy comparable to those in “Before the Camera” and “Legacy.” As the last two quatrains reveal, the fantasy is vulnerable to dissolution. The “here” that Stone has imagined is exposed as existing at one remove:
I hold my breath afraid this will be the end
of my imagining, until you surface, wave to me.
Now you hold me in your underwater world.
Longer and longer I stay with you before you vanish
again, Mother, my mermaid, and lungs bursting
I must kick to the pool’s top where
on a billboard the peeling figures
of movie actresses hold foaming daiquiris. (45)
Stone is not in the “underwater world” at all, not next to her mother; she is “held” (captivated—in a sense, haunted) by an image, product of her imagining, that she cannot touch. Holding her breath to ward off bad luck and as though underwater, she is forced to understand the temporal and practical limits of this willed in-spiration: if she tries to live in her imagination to gain what cannot return in reality, she will cease to live (“drown”) psychologically. The one observed reality that greets her when she returns from the subterranean image-world turns out to be a mass-produced image, an advertisement promoting intoxication, and obvious physical decay undermines the ad’s rhetorical effect and ironically indicates the transience of images and human beings.
Stone’s book vigorously supports the thesis that (tragically premature) absence makes the heart obsess—without hope of enduring relief. Of course, fully articulated, aesthetically satisfying testimony may prove a small measure of compensation. The volume’s epigraph is “I told myself ‘pity should begin at home.’ So the more pity I felt, the more I felt at home” (11). Although obsession and self-pity are often tedious for those who hear or read about it, Traveling with the Dead kept me eager for more revelations. Not only would a purveyor of self-pity not include the ironizing epigraph, but Stone does not waste words or write imprecisely, she avoids saturated emotional language, and she displays a quiet wit. Respecting her pain and its persistence, we need not label her a whiner. Also, as my analysis should suggest, many of the poems illuminate, supplement, quirkily echo, or round out one or more others, so insights about the situation as a whole gradually accumulate, until, in the last poems, the orphan as grandmother reports that much is right with her, that the obsession has been somewhat muted.
Thomas Fink’s fifth book of poetry, Clarity and Other Poems, was published by Marsh Hawk Press in Spring, 2008. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism. In 2007, he and Joseph Lease co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics. Heather McHugh and David Lehman selected his poem, “Yinglish Strophes IX,” for The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). His paintings hang in various collections.