What if the only compass you had to the past was a series of fragmented images of home? What shape would these images take? What sound? After assembling what you could, how would you determine a beginning, middle, or end? And later, after stepping back, what would be real and what would be imagined? What feelings would fill the gaps? The only hope for this daunting task would be to have a set of clear instructions—concrete labels, names, meanings—that could provide a sense of order and help with assembling all that home embodies—pain, loneliness, angst, imprisonment, loss, and joy. In the end, there is always that search for place and belonging—the innate human desire for flight. Luckily, Laura Read brilliantly guides a reader into her own journey in her book of poems, Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral, the 2011 Donald Hall Prize Winner.
Read’s poems are singular jewels in a carefully crafted ornate necklace. Each provides a specific image, a feeling, a moment of memory, an interpretation of that memory, a song. Read wrestles with many difficult subjects—the death of her father, the remarriage of her mother, a complicated relationship with a brother, teenage angst and desire, the powerlessness of childhood—with deftness and grace. She arranges the poems in a chronology that is divided into three sections: Part I, which deals with girlhood and the immediate death of her father; Part II, which regards teenage recklessness, desire, and a search for belonging; and Part III, which journeys into Read’s present roles of teacher, mother, and writer. Overall, the sections work to provide the reader with a framework that propels the maturing voice, the dreamlike verse grappling with reality, and the intense focus on particular objects in a constantly moving setting. There is always the underlying theme that the narrator is ready for flight.
Titles, such as “We Move to a House Where He Never Lived,” “When She Married Him,” “Even Though I Know the Door to Our Compartment Won’t Lock,” and “You Flew Across the Map” illustrate some of the boundaries the narrator wrestles with. Read’s poems ask difficult questions of those boundaries as shown by a woman political prisoner who keeps a photograph of herself as a young woman in her cell; the wallpaper a mother puts up in a new house; the garbled family name of Cefalu—almost lost in translation; a lonely old man in a donut shop, desperate for a young woman’s attention; a community college student who works in a hospital where the narrator’s baby is delivered.
The space imposed by boundaries is always left to interpretation. In “We Move to a House Where He Never Lived,” the narrator reflects on a new house where no one has died. But, one can never be sure of what has happened in the past and what has transpired between the four walls of a room. Read illustrated this by the verse, “Just like they don’t know—/the people who came after us/in the house we left behind./We didn’t say, This is the room/where our father died./Or Maybe you don’t know about/the other rooms”. The other rooms are compared to an “accordion fold” and are said to “open out” from the room where the father died. Everything has been colored, in a sense, by that loss, and yet, when the inhabitants of the house move, that experience moves with them.
Read also juxtaposes the imprisonment of boundaries as well as the freedom that can be created by having them. This freedom appears absurd and impossible as well as something filled with an unusual and intentional hope. In “Trying to Contact Neil Diamond,” she writes,
My parents will get down on their knees again
so they can dance with me and my brother.
The sunlight will slant into the room
and the dust will swirl inside it, and it will be
the dust from his blue bathrobe,
and this is better, I tell Neil, than going back
to that house I’ve driven by for years
but never gone up to the door.
The motion of passing by a house the narrator has “driven by for years” shows both the power of boundaries as a source of grounding and a motivator for change as well as an enclosure that one needs to take flight of—something to leave behind.
Boundaries appear as prisons and challenges to take flight of. Within each poem is an interpretation of that flight. The narrator’s grief accompanies this flight and often provides a motivator for take off. In the title poem, Read writes,
I had to tell the story of 30 birds,
where they lived, what they ate,
how you can spot them up in the branches
and tell them one from the other.
I had to color each feather on their breasts.
Their hearts were beating
underneath the paper.
My mother said that’s where
they keep their songs but don’t press
your ear there to listen.
This verse aptly demonstrates Read’s skill as a poet, her understanding of lineation and form, and her search for sound—which is ultimately found through verse. Each poem is beautifully written, imagistic, and carefully crafted. Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral provides a guide for how to take flight and continue moving upward.
Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral, by Laura Read. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 104 pages. $15.95, paper.
Kate Kimball received an MFA from Virginia Tech in 2010. Her work has appeared in Kestrel, Weber, Ellipsis, Hawaii Review, and Midwest Literary Magazine, among others.