by Amy Lemmon
C&R Press, 2019.
Amy Lemmon’s book of poems, The Miracles, is a meditation on life after loss, and its themes are motherhood, love, and aging. Lemmon writes, “The structure of the book was inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949) for solo clarinet and jazz ensemble.” In a sense, the solo instrument in these poems is the unnamed narrator, divorced and widowed in short order, living in present-day New York City, while the ensemble consists of the two children she raises (in shabby outer-borough apartments with mismatched dishes and broken doorknobs), their deceased musician father, and various new romantic prospects, both real and imaginary.
The “Prelude” consists of a single poem, “The Miracles”, and its three parts open up, like a triptych, to depict different scenes of a mother, father, and two children. (In her dedication, Lemmon refers to her children as “two miracles.”) In the first section, the couple with a new baby boy visits the Cloisters (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to art of the Middle Ages) for baby’s “first Easter.” The mother feels ambivalent and uncertain about her new role: “I thought I wanted to be a mother. / It was too late to change my mind.” She notes, “The garden was only a little green that day,” which mirrors the newness of the baby’s life, and her ability as a mother (still green). As the occasion seems to warrant ceremony, she gropes for the right words, thinking, “We can believe something is always growing, / something else dying, and even in growth death / is contained, blah blah…” There’s a sense that though she wants to honor the experience as profound, reality is going to undercut her ideas of how things should be.
In the second part, the second baby (a girl named Stella) is born with heart trouble. In the hospital, awaiting surgery for the baby, the narrator is anguished and overwhelmed, mentally addressing her husband: “I wanted to cry alone / like you did when you vanished to the restroom, / left me with my hungry crying baby who could not understand / why Mother didn’t feed her.” The episode lodges painfully in her memory, “shrank to her cries, your reddened eyes,” perhaps suggesting that the husband, rather than standing as the narrator’s partner and equal, is another person she needs to mother.
The third scene is a happy one: the narrator dancing with her children to oldies on the radio in “this cruddy Queens kitchen.” But when a song comes on that causes her to remember a boy she desired in her youth (“I had not yet learned that wanting makes nothing so”), the mood turns bittersweet, and then sour; it’s implied that the children’s father is dead, and can now only be evoked as a memory (“I had not yet found and lost you”).
The poems in the “Fugue” section ruminate on this loss, and poems like “After Bathing I Smell Smoke,” “Discontinued,” and “What to Fix, What to Keep Broken” show the narrator struggling as a single parent. In “TRIBORO PHYSICAL THERAPY,” the narrator’s “son sits in the waiting room” for some undisclosed injury. Now eighteen, son and mother must negotiate their interdependence. Poignantly and innocently, “He texts / Are you my primary care provider?”
“Riff-A” returns to the subject of the children’s father, and, like a short-repeated phrase in jazz, clarifies, expands on, and, most interestingly, challenges assumptions the reader might have made based on scenes from the some of the earlier poems. “Our Measure of Misfortune” shows the couple, after their daughter is born with heart trouble, thinking they’ve won a bargain with fate: “Nothing else bad can happen / to us. Our parents won’t sicken and die, no one we love / will get cancer, there won’t be any bad accidents—.” In a neat kind of trick, this after-the-fact information foreshadows something we already know about: the husband’s death. “Father’s Day” reveals details about that death (“You were forty-five, / ate vegetarian and rode your bike”) while “Positively East Fourth Street” places that death in a different place than we might have assumed on the timeline of their relationship: “I always cry for you in the East Village. / I have for years now, even back when / it was only our marriage that had died.”
“Duration” seems to point to a new way of life—enduring. Lines like “The East River looks frozen, choked” and “Picking my way through stepped-on / frozen slush” show the narrator struggling with widowhood in a bleak winter, asking, existentially, “How many more miles without you / or any other You?”
“Riff-B” picks up on this change in melody: the search for new love. The poems in this section, including “Well Met” and “Sestina d’Alba,” detail prospects for new romance. In “I am writing this with your pen—,” the narrator writes a story of her past with the pen of a crush “which I forgot to give back, so flustered was I / by being near you the day I borrowed it.” Here she sketches more details of her children’s father, giving him another dimension: “Clean when we met, he started up again towards / the end, when I was too much for him, and when / he quit it, he had to quit me, too. Then the world quit him, / the cruelest joke.”
Failed romances are recounted in “Midtown Valentine” (“There’s a new pace in town, I hear”) and “Curator” (“So many years yours stories brimmed with women / who were not me”). These acute depictions of disappointment build toward revelation. In the collection’s standout poem, “Another Day,” the narrator, going about her ordinary business, shopping in the grocery store (“Moving from Cheer to Joy, From Joy to All”), suddenly reflects on her youth—“I longed and longed till I was made of longing”—with the realization of having squandered something precious once thought inexhaustible. With incredible economy and mastery, Lemmon negotiates questions of aging, mortality, and in a certain cast of mood or light, how little our lives amount to:
“I am not exceptional.
Staring at the mirror like a fogged effigy,
Unclear how one so young can look like that,
How one life can, after all,
Be so confused, so commonplace, so solitary.”
The “Coda” returns to an earlier part of the music Lemmon has so deftly been playing, finishing with a single poem, “The Argument,” which returns the narrator to conversation with her dead husband.
Interestingly, it restores them to a place of conflict, perhaps suggesting they are fated to eternally be at odds. “The kingdom / of heaven is not attainable / by means of relationship,” she notes, and that is a reckoning of their marriage, and in some sense, both the husband’s death and any hopes she might pin onto a future love interest. Metaphorically, the poem recounts the risks they took (“We always hiked too long, / too far into the woods— ”) and the reprieves they possibly took for granted (“we always made it back / before dark”). Yet as long as the narrator is alive, “Your body lives / in my mind’s meadow— / greening the hill, / spending the daylight / fast as it can.”
The Miracles is a stunning composition that captures the brevity and messiness of life, and the joy and heartache of relationships. Completely unpretentious, there isn’t a false note on any of its pages. Lemmon’s considerable gift is for understanding and conveying the promise that love holds, and continues to hold, no matter the reality of our relationships, and the way this promise both misguides us, and sustains us.