Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Slow Death as the Son Becomes the Father

Jonathan Gillman, My Father, Humming

Jonathan Gillman’s father, an acclaimed mathematician and pianist, suffered a long, slow, humiliating death as dementia incrementally consumed everything that made him unique. Gillman, an educator and dramatist, struggled with the ambiguous feelings: this was his father, sure, but this was the man who also made him feel the greatest shame and most persistent frustration. So, like any good teacher, he turned to writing.

Gillman’s verse chronicle of his father’s decline quickly becomes an autobiography: his father’s struggles with Beethoven colored how father and son communicated, and when that communication stops, Gillman must decide who he is separately. The answer proves harder than he anticipates. How do you stay angry, Gillman asks, at someone progressively losing everything? He must decide what a life full of music means when the music stops,
the silence emptier
for what it used to hold.
We never learn the father’s name. Gillman paints a world in which principles loom larger than personalities. Bach and Beethoven recur, presences so vast that they become like Gillman’s surrogate parents, as Dad spends decades trying to perfect the “Moonlight Sonata.” Dad is a man proud of his active and questing mind, too aware to miss his own slow decline:
All that
and your mind went too,
your pride and joy
that you lorded it over
everyone with,
how people spoke,
even your wife,
as if English was logical...
Gillman is not a poet’s poet. He avoids techniques that garner acclaim from Pulitzer committees, and his poems are light on metaphor, enjambment, and other tools taught in MFA programs. Gillman prefers to focus his linguistic ability on capturing moments that define his father’s struggles. Rather than “pure language” favored by self-conscious poets, Gillman crafts snapshots of moments that merge into an arc.

Not that Gillman’s verse is facile or that he writes something anybody could write. Nobody, not poets nor curious audiences, likes prose chopped haphazardly into lines. Rather, Gillman uses poetry to expunge everything unnecessary from his father’s story, exposing a taut, sinewy progress through his father’s disintegration. He has no patience for generalities and bromides, favoring the episodes that real people must experience:
My father’s going
downstairs to bed,
my mother helping.
It looks like a disaster
waiting to happen—
tied together by a rope
running from waist to waist—
like the invisible tether
which has bound them for so long...
Moments like these, mother helping father downstairs, mother changing father’s diaper, mother helping father eat soup—anyone who’s ever eased a loved one through dementia will recognize these moments. But Gillman keeps them personal. This isn’t about some woman helping some man; these are two people who, stripped of burdens like names, exist purely in each other’s light, becoming whole in how they relate to each other.

As his father’s learned identity progressively falls away, Gillman comes to acknowledge, as much to himself as us, that this stops being his father’s struggle. He must, he realizes, contend with the legacy his father has bequeathed him, a battle we will all face eventually if we live long enough. Fathers, like any other influences, want us to become whole, mature people, but they have strong ideas about what this means:
I’m at my father’s piano,
playing a piece
he used to play,
but not the way
he played it,
not, he’s sure, the way
Herr Beethoven intended.
He’s hearing it,
not sleeping as he often is,
and he’s not happy with it.
Before, he would have
yelled out “Stop!”
or booed, or yowled,
“You’re trying to kill me!”
He’s not playing much these days...

as I go on, I hear,
so faint at first
I’m not sure what I’m hearing:
mmm mmmm, mmm mmmm
he’s humming, tunelessly,
along with me,
the way he used to
when he was playing.
This stark and sudden reversal, this upheaval of roles, underpins Gillman’s entire book. Even when Gillman thinks he’s standing fast against his father’s disapproval, Dad’s influence remains pervasive. This becomes the lesson Gillman must learn, at great personal expense: he only becomes his true adult self, only becomes who he was meant to be, when he stops battling that influence, and acknowledges, embraces it.

Gillman has also recorded this book, available on CD or audio download. Read in the author’s sandy, subdued timbre, it gains a valuable added dimension, becoming a one-man verse drama of the struggles one man undertakes as his role stops being “son.” Though not necessary to enjoy the book, Gilman has crafted a touching multimedia introspection.

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