Road Scatter: Poems
by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)
The revolutionary aspect of Sandra Meek’s new collection Road Scatter-in which the poems are focused, although not exclusively, on a daughter’s vigil at her dying mother’s beside-is that it gives us elegy as kinetic sculpture. Instead of traditional lament, we get clatter, crash and shimmer. It is as if, in each poem, grief plummets like a ball down a shoot, hits a force field of running water and is then channeled to a lever, which flings it onto a piano key, forcing it to set off not just an echoing note but also a flashing light. We get a sense of how living through a death-in the dullness of its seemingly endless repetitions, but also in its unexpected scintillations-is like turning on a grief machine. Grief is not static, but rather in constant motion, is one message of Road Scatter.
“A word is elegy to what it signifies,” Robert Hass wrote thirty or so years ago in “Meditation at Lagunitas.” That poem famously ends, “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”-an utterance that simultaneously confirms the power of the word blackberry as universal and highlights the failure of any universal to capture the multitude of particulars to which a word like blackberry might correspond. Indeed the pathos in Road Scatter derives from the very failure of mother as universal to even begin to capture the multitude of particulars to which the word corresponds in Meek’s life and art. “If mother is alpha and omega/spoken back to the rain,” Meeks says at the start of “O,” indicating that she understands what she is up against in trying to solve the signification problem. Limited as they must necessarily be, the particulars do begin to accumulate and cohere into a luminous whole. In “The History of Air, Part I,” we learn that the mother’s moan as the nurses turn her in her hospital bed is the flavor of strawberry yoghurt, and in “The History of Air, Part II,” that in a plaintive role reversal the daughter has inked her mother’s name onto the vomit tub in the same way that the mother used to ink the daughter’s name onto the soap dish she took to summer camp. In “Spreading Ash,” we learn that the daughter experiences the mother’s rasping sickroom breath as “a stone skipping/across a lake-two, three,/ four times before sinking/ somewhere short of the glittering/horizon I first knew/as home….”
Meek limits her palette to a (mostly) monochromatic gray. A mother’s face pools and stills in shadow in “Shadow Portrait,” the first poem in the book. The hill’s “buzz cut of winter,” the daughter tells us in “Round Trip,” is as gray as the ashtrays her mother would habitually wash out each night. The ash in “Spreading Ash” is the mother herself, now “a gray arc shimmering/between pines.” In “Healing by Secondary Intention”-in which birds weave hair the mother has shed into nests up and down the street-we also get glimmerings of silver. These poems are the poetic equivalent of museum-quality black-and-white photographs. They derive their eloquence and grace from Meek’s exploitation of a limited tonal range.
Numerous poems fall strictly outside the narrative of the mother’s death. “Urban Warfare by Design” gives us a blown-up mosque, with one man dead in the rubble and another above him cocking a gun. “The human heart can be measured/by two human fists,” Meek tells us. “Museum of the Party” introduces us to Desi Bouterse and his cronies, who were responsible for untold human rights violations during their reign of terror in Suriname throughout the 1980s. An (allegedly nonexistent) U.S. plane dipping below U.S. radar to deliver a cache of AK-47s to militants and then rising into the sky in plain sight of a whole village stands in for Bouterse’s (unreliable) version of the truth. “Transparency‘s a platform,” Meek argues. Like the pebble that hits the windshield in the title poem and spiders the glass, the anonymous deaths of powerless people, while perhaps seemingly inconsequential, do cause the world irreparable damage. The shock of these deaths is meant to register on us, along with that of the mother’s demise.
One of my favorite poems in the book is “In Case, Since You Left, You’ve Been Wondering”-something of a “Dear John” letter to a former partner from the harrowing confines of the terminal ward. It is a seething, incendiary, cacophonous symphony of a piece, in which multiple griefs collide, and duende runs deep. Instead of dying after five days of maximum-dosing on morphine, the mother gets a new lease on life and dictates memos to the hospital staff “demanding/ her right to vanilla ice cream and chocolate/ice cream and by god chocolate-vanilla-swirl ice cream.” Instead of falling asleep in her mother’s hospital room, the daughter channels late-night vampire movies and conflates her mother’s 30-year-old divorce anger with her own. “The labor of love” Meek tells us, ” is not letting it crush you in its collapse.”
Another favorite is “Cumulative Sentence,” is which we get, essentially, a hospital-room psalm drawing reverent attention to the very objects that make the average person a little queasy-umbilical tubing, bedside commodes, breathing masks, catheter bags. “Mother of Coughed Blood’s Garnet Wings,” it begins, and builds powerfully, via anaphora, to great incantatory effect.
Many poets writing elegies have sought consolation in glimpses heavenward. Meek does not. Her approach to grief is more in keeping with the truths of science than of theology. The law of conservation of energy specifies that the total amount of energy in a closed system must stay constant over time; energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It is applicable here. “Mother, turn on the breathing light, turn on/the mother machine, oh god, Mother!” the daughter pleads in “In Case, Since You Left, You’ve Been Wondering.” There is, of course, no such thing as a mother machine, but Road Scatter gives consoling proof that the energy of love between mother and daughter is conserved even in death. Road Scatter is a fierce and wonderful book, which attests not just to the radical contingency of one mother and one daughter, but of us all.
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won both the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the RPCV Writers and Readers Award. Her poems and translations have appeared in many magazines, including The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Manoa. She is Director of the Low-Residency M.F.A. Program at Murray State University and Editor of New Madrid.