Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Wishing for Snow – Minrose Gwin - Book Review
Minrose Gwin, Kenan Eminent Professor of English at the University of North Carolina and Co-Editor of the Southern Literary Journal has written a touching and often heart rending memoir of her childhood growing up in Mississippi with her often silent step-father, un-named and only to be known at The Salesman, and increasingly erratic mother Erin Taylor Clayton Pitney, a poet whose downward emotional spiral parallels her rise as an increasingly effective and evocative poet. Wishing for Snow examines the the difficulties of living with the mentally ill and the fear of becoming ones own parent, a fear that reaches deep into all of us who have parents. Gwin herself is a deeply poetic writer who uses the imagery of southern life and mores to illuminate the challenges for intelligent, sensitive women growing up in the South. Her prose is filled with heat, and flowers, the pain of self-deception, and the rich coloration of southern life.
Erin Taylor, descendent of a line of faded gentry leading back to Charleston, SC marries The Salesman after a brief marriage to with a now absent soldier who left her with an infant daughter. Minrose, named after her maternal grandmother, grows up in a house filled with silence, anger, and increasing madness, her mother not capable of finishing anything she begins, managing a home or children, or facing the world she finds increasingly unbearable. She seems incapable of showing affection to her children, holding a job of any kind, or undertaking housekeeping kinds of work. Cooking is beyond her ken. This is not to say that many of these skills were highly valued in the world where she learned how to behave, a world of servants and ladies who were more treasured for their looks than their achievements.
The words “poet” and “mad” are often elided in popular culture. The mad poet is almost as common a figure as the mad scientist. It seems, however, that Erin Taylor comes closest to being herself and communicating her love, needs, passion, and keen sense of awareness of the world about her in the world of poetry. Her ability to communicate person to person, at least within her family and community, are severely limited, while her communication through her poetry displays her pain,vision, and passion in a highly evocative fashion. Reality, her reality, comes through in her poetry – spare, clean, truth-telling, honest. This is, perhaps, the only way she can communicate with others. As Minrose explores her mother's papers, she discovers friends Erin Taylor has met in poetry seminars, classes, and through her writing, friends she never expected existed. Whether Erin Taylor's poems are the sane woman seeking peace or the excrescence of her madness finding release I'm not poet nor sage enough to know, but her daughter digs deep to find both herself and her tortured mother in them. Meanwhile, she reflects on her mother's downward spiral and the complexities of their relationship.
In exploring Erin's life and poetry, Minrose must, inevitably, examine herself as well. Her maimed childhood, her motivations for becoming a literature professor, her mother's and her relationship to The Salesman, her disabling neck injury and, finally, her fear of her own possible madness are all recurring themes in the book. Another recurrent theme is her own family life: marriage, her relationship with a lover, and motherhood, the passing of a family history to one's own offspring, all in the context of fear that she could and might be becoming her own mother.
The title, Wishing for Snow, stands as a metaphor for quiet, clean, coolness, sanity, and a quiet, comforting blanket always looked for but never arriving or staying for long, disappearing in the dank chill of a Mississippi winter like Erin Taylor's lucid or calm moments. For her, the snows arrive too infrequently and dissolve too easily. Her madness is the central fact of her life. Here's an example of one of her later poems:
Five years and 41 poems
typed and retyped quaking
on the page like jello pudding
half-cooked, or Santa's belly
belted down for the wild impetuous
trip. Ashes, switches and soon signing
my forehead like a pilgrim on a perilous
journey of words, trapped midway between
heaven and ashpit.
1825 days of work squeezed from
every niche and cranny of the house
heaped with dirt swept beneath dusty carpets
where poems sprout like a mushrooms shattering
at my touch, when the vacuum roars down upon
them like a firestorm gobbling them up.
41 poems refusing to fall
into place like kids chasing
fireflies just beyond their reach
or toddlers with fragile fingers
clutching at the moon.
Half-naked poems peering
back at me, impertinent, unafraid
Heartbread of my life spread wantonly
upon the page.
ERIN CLAYTON PITNEY
Minrose Gwin struggles to end her book, to find closure for her mother's life in her own, as we all seek to do and, sadly, most of us fail to accomplish. We can't do it because we are our parents, whether we like it or not, and will always continue to seek a resolution. Wishing for Snow is a lovely and readable account of a daughter's efforts to reconcile her own life with the struggle of her mother's insanity. Her language is lovely. Her courage to face herself and her situation admirable. The book, filled with beautiful language and deep understanding is a worthwhile read.