I enter a lot of poetry chapbook contests. (A chapbook is a small collection of poems, short stories, or essays, generally less than 40 pages.) I entered three chapbooks into the Rattle Chapbook Prize contest last year. I didn’t win.
This is one of the winning chapbooks. I almost don’t mind not winning, because this chapbook is really good. (If I had to lose, it’s an honor to lose to this one.) The poems center around the end of the poet’s mother’s life, including memories of the mother (Estelle) when she was younger, how she and her husband related to each other as they aged, and observing the strain of caregiving on his father.
As anyone knows who has witnessed the progression of Alzheimer’s, it is a cruel disease that robs the victim of her personality piece by piece, leaving a stranger in her place. The beauty of the poems in Visiting Her in Queens is that they convey with love the challenges of watching a loved one fade away. The poems capture the bitter-sweetness, the affection among the tears.
In the center of the book is a photograph—I’m not sure if it’s one picture cut in half, or two separate pictures that line up really well—of a couple whom I assume are the poet’s parents in middle age. The mother is doubled over with laughter; the father smiles at her. Their fondness for one another is palpable; they were married just short of 65 years.
My favorite poem in the book is “Losing My Parents in a Small CVS Drug Store” which describes his search with hilarity. One employee saw them reading greeting cards to one another. A customer saw them over by the adult diapers. A stock boy caught them in employees’ rest room, where they were admiring the hand soap pump. The surveillance camera caught them eating in the candy aisle. Finally the manager makes an announcement over the public address system: “Attention Michael’s parents—please report to checkout immediately without rushing too much. Your son trusts you and wants you to have your independence but he doesn’t want you to miss Jeopardy.”
Of course, not all the poems are funny. But they are touching. And they are varied. Some of the titles are “The Wish,” “Watching the Golden Gate Bridge Disappear,” “What My Father Heard the Rabbi Say at My Mother’s Funeral,” “Dancing with My Father at My Son’s Wedding,” and “Celebrating His 92nd Birthday the Year His Wife Dies.”
This book will be especially meaningful to senior citizens and to anyone who has been a caretaker. The Rattle Foundation sends out a different chapbook with each quarterly issue of their poetry journal. Copies of this book are also available on their website. It’s only $6.