What Does Not ReturnFebruary 22, 2021 — 7 mins
Reviewed by Caitlin Johnson Castelaz
Let it be known: There is no literary style guide that stipulates that a Bahá’í who writes poetry must write about certain topics in a certain tone and with certain turns of phrases that evoke the flourishes of the Revealed Word. No, in fact, a poet who happens to be a Bahá’í may choose to write about love lost and bitter betrayal (Anis Mojgani, In the Pockets of Small Gods), or acrobatic window washers (Robert Hayden, The Night-Blooming Cereus). Whatever is lived and authentic is fair game for the poet, and if life happens to bend in such a direction, one may choose to write about the loss that precedes loss when an elderly parent loses her grip on memory before departing from this world. Such is the case for Tami Haaland, whose collection What Does Not Return traces her mother’s illness and passing, and explores the marks she leaves on the space in which the daughter moves, both physical and spiritual. In this collection, one finds no overwrought gestures toward the great beyond. Instead, one encounters a loneliness so holy in its vastness, and a sense of nostalgia that stands stoic and upright, never wilting toward self-centeredness.
And what a feat to write with restraint about memory, longing, and what is left when, as Robin Behn put it, “certain / maps collapse” within the brain. In “She Was So Tiny,” Haaland paints a scene of daily life with a mother who does not recognize her family. Painful though the reality may be, there is a sense of acceptance—no attempts to tug a forgetful mind back into the present.
We were somebody’s sister or another’s enemy.
Sometimes they hadn’t seen us for years,
and we watched them make bright forests
on paper using glitter to imitate the sky.
This image of an ersatz sky made of glitter rounds out the poem, the infinite reduced to imitation. In this, there is only the act of noticing—no judgment—and perhaps a tenderness. Haaland’s verse flows smoothly, as if detachment were easy. Such an approach is not a given; other poets provide different perspectives of caring for ill and aging parents. In “Vigil: Dwindle” from her book, Horizon Note, Robin Behn presents one such alternative when she likens caring for her father with Alzheimer’s to stoking a dying fire. The repetition and an ultimate open-ended colon communicate the endlessness of the ritual, and its futility.
Warmth. Keep him warm. Light a fire.
Kneel. Use the bellows. Blow.
Again: Kneel. Bellow. Blow. Again:
Lynne Knight, on the other hand offers a sorrowful image of her mother’s experience with Lewy body dementia in “On Hearing of Robin Williams’ Diagnosis,” published in Rattle’s Poets Respond series.
…. Eight years of losing all trace
of herself, like someone following her shadow
into a forest that got deeper and deeper
until it became what Thoreau called
If Haaland’s poetry communicates acceptance of the advancement of a mother’s illness, readers should not conflate such an approach with coolness; she handles her subject with compassion. Again, in “She Was So Tiny,” she writes:
She was so tiny I would give her anything:
sweets, cinnamon or lemon, thick puddings,
strawberries. I would give her my arm, a smile,
kisses on the forehead, my rocking frame beside her.
Here, and throughout What Does Not Return, we see mother as child. The book offers few glimpses of mother as she was before her illness, or mother deified in an attempt to salve the grief. Instead Haaland commits to realistic sketches of a mother in transition.
In the space and silence between Haaland’s words, one feels the influence of the natural world of her childhood, the kind of place that B.H. Fairchild called, “the held breath of the earth.” The plains, the “world of the eye’s long gaze,” as Haaland names it, may harden the people who choose to live there. As she says in “Scandinavians in the High Plains,” “This land made us silent. We could / endure because that’s what we do.”
If life on a “windblown land” encourages a weathered endurance to hardship, then a childhood lived alongside nuclear warheads must induce fortitude of a greater magnitude, a knowledge and acceptance that one must relinquish control, that life and death run on a meter one cannot clock. In “Arsenal” Haaland writes of the initial panic over the nuclear weapons buried beneath nearby farms, the possibility of nuclear war, and how this fear gives way to acceptance.
….the missiles became
the gun in the garage, the bullets in the basement,
almost hypothetical. Just the weapon
we walked around on our way to growing up.
This ability to grapple with the inevitable, or, at any rate, the unpredictable, reverberates throughout the collection and gives her bravest words credibility. That is not to say that there is no vulnerability in Haaland’s work, but just like the tall grass and the warheads on the prairie, much of it lives underground. Where we do witness loneliness and longing, it stands against the strength of doing what needs doing. In “The Mother I Used to Call,” Haaland busies herself in the kitchen while “the crazy mother” picks her fingernails in the bedroom.
…I am dripping
into dishwater missing that other
mother the way I missed my dead father
years later, and I’d want to pick up the phone,
tell him about my day, tell her,
the one who would listen and know,
what a day it has been.
The reversal of roles is startling—daughter working in the kitchen, mother lying in a bed that has been turned down for her—because the speaker grasps for a comfort that can no longer be found. The duality of the images, the separation between them and the sound of the words, underline the new duality in an old relationship—“other / mother” and “dead father”; “tell him” and “tell her.” The back-and-forth between these forces takes up most of the poem, so that when the final line appears without a partner elsewhere in the verse, one is left feeling bereft.
This same sentiment is perhaps most potent in “Drawing the Mask,” the scene of which is “a room full of death.” As her mother’s body lies before her, the caregiver daughter shares a poignant statement.
….I drew you because
I wanted to see the lines I had taken
for granted, textures and shadows.
I wanted to fix you, to pull you back.
Still, death does not arrive without perspective. Throughout the collection there are hints at a world beyond this one. In “Still Inside,” everyone awaits the arrival of a new baby who is so close to the world outside the womb that she can hear the call of the mourning doves. For those who regard death as birth, the poem’s inclusion in this volume may ring especially true. If one takes the opportunity of reading this poem to compare birth into the physical world with dying into the next world, of being able to simultaneously perceive the calls of mourners and those welcoming them to the other side, so be it. If not, the poem simply suggests the natural and inevitable arc of a life lived into old age, starting with birth.
In “The Other,” the poet is even more direct about declaring the proximity of this world and the next. She addresses a listener, “When I say the other side, you may think / death, not life,” then clarifies, “But what / I mean is the flip side of the page, heads, / tails, fifty-fifty.” The staccato of the words conveys assurance. Truth is simple.
It does not follow, though, that certitude in the continuation of life precludes one from mourning. In fact, grief seems inescapable in “Keeping Time,” when her mother’s watch, removed from her wrist after death, has been misplaced.
This morning when it seemed to be gone,
I thought, yes, the end of grief. The band a little
too tight, minutes adding up too fast. Maybe
the start of a new life where I might ask others
about hours, barely knowing how they pass.
Then I found it on the bed, beneath my purse.
She concludes, “It’s back / on my wrist now, not lost, nor am I quite free.”
Despite the grief, Haaland’s tone is steady, rational. True, the watch counts the hours and minutes of mourning, but it remains a watch, and an ordinary one. Not, perhaps, the kind of heirloom intentionally set aside for the younger generation, and not an opportunity to lavish praise upon the deceased as Edna St. Vincent Millay does in “The Courage My Mother Had,” when writing of a golden brooch willed to her by her mother.
Quotidian objects are important in Haaland’s treatment of the subject at hand: Mourning is as ordinary as it is strange. In “Returning,” the childhood home is familiar yet altered.
It is a place where I know
the drawer pulls, the feel of steps
to the basement, the smell of cool cement.
The alliteration makes the words whisper across the page like a ghost or a memory, even as the text communicates something solid. The experience of moving through the house is part tangible, part immaterial. The grief seems built into the home’s structure, but the natural world offers its own symbols for loss, as in “Bees in Late Autumn” when watching the bees and butterflies yields the question, “How can I move toward what comes next?”
If Haaland offers an answer to her own question, perhaps it is that one is always moving toward what comes next, even unconsciously so. In “Night Journey,” Haaland writes of a dream in which she is walking through a moving train.
Far ahead rode my mother
and father. Though I hadn’t seen them,
I knew we were traveling
together, and I had the most ordinary
thought, that I would go to them.
Haaland does not explicitly claim that dreams are anything more than dreams, not even in “How the Dead Come Back” when she asks her father to visit her in sleep, but she handles dreams with softness. Hauntings or visits or symbols that she is moving closer to her parents, just as a train shoots toward its preordained destination—dreams are treasures. Or perhaps dreams are just things that happen sometimes; facts to be accepted like nuclear warheads buried under the farm or holding someone as she remembers and forgets.
Most people do not read poetry. They find more interesting and accessible stories in prose and on Netflix. But for the reader who loves to linger over words, who wants to “See into the life of things,” there is nothing like a good poem, or in Haaland’s case, good poems, that will satisfy them. Whether it is a moving and personal view of dementia or a new way of discovering familiar experiences, the attentive reader will return many times to What Does Not Return for its inspired language and quiet revelations.
Behn, Robin. Horizon Note. U of Wisconsin P, 2001.
Knight, Lynne. “On Hearing of Robin Williams’ Diagnosis.” Rattle.com www.rattle.com/on-hearing-of-robin-williams-diagnosis-by-lynne-knight/
Poems by Tami Haaland published in the Journal
“Flight,” Journal of Bahá’í Studies Vol. 27, no. 3, 2017
“Flight of the Paper Cranes,” Journal of Bahá’í Studies Vol. 24, no. 3-4, 2014
About the Reviewer
Caitlin Johnson Castelaz has a bachelor’s degree in English from Northwestern University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chiron Review, Coal City Review, Blue Island Review, Icarus Complex, and others. She is the former editor of Vahid, a Bahá’í-inspired literary magazine. Caitlin lives and works in media in New York.