Alan Catlin: Essay and Review

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Between the Earth and Sky: A Personal Essay and an Appreciation/Review

This essay/review references the following book:
Eleanor Kedney, Between the Earth and Sky, C&R Press,www.crpress.org2020, 91 pages, $16-

Author’s note, Other than brief correspondence with regard to possibly reviewing and writing this piece, I do not know Eleanor other than what she reveals within the covers of her book.

As a young child, visiting a parent in a mental institution biweekly, then weekly, carves a hole in your heart that can never be filled. Gradually, a piece of your soul dies and it is replaced by horrific images, thoughts, a six then seven years old, was not meant to have.  As I grew older, withdrawing, insulating, walling off the child inside against all else, life became a kind of prison, self-isolation, a place no one else was allowed to visit. The prison was invisible, a psychic barrier that has taken a lifetime to remove.  Not that such a barrier could ever be torn down like a Berlin Wall of the mind.  It can't be. 

While inside this prison I faced a real choice: either escape or stay inside to die the kind of death my mother did. Death for her came as a surprise, in a virtual cave of a room, on the sixth floor of a New York City Hotel for women, made dark by crepe curtains, a window intentionally sealed shut. The room was filled with all the physical and mental garbage she could collect in seven years of living there. The crap, mounds of it, could be cleared away, but the mental garbage was a universe of deeply emotional negative images that outlived her and found a home in my mind.          

Where to begin looking for personal and legal documents amid all the junk inside Room 641? Hundreds of travel brochures from every country in the world, most of which she didn’t believe existed, bags of lost keys that opened nothing but doors inside her mind, bags of cigarette butts, ashes, inexplicable stuff, tattered clothes strewn about...

So when I read a book like Eleanor Kedney’s exquisite, Between the Earth and Sky, I made an immediate connection. This connection is on a visceral level as Eleanor lays out her deepest emotional pain in clear, concise, contained poems. Her brother, the drug addict, her dissolute father, the alcoholic, returning from tours of seaman duty after three day binges, imposing his presence upon the family like a golem released from a fever dream, and her forbearing mother bearing a lifetime of personal tragedy.  From the killer opening stanza, quoted below, I knew I was in for a long journey into the midnight of the soul,

“When it was clear my brother
wouldn’t kick his drug addiction
and return to all the things he was great at­—
baseball, tennis, downhill skiing—
he still played the harmonica.”
(from “Harmonica”)

I was so struck by this passage, I had to pause and begin again.  I had an image of my mother in my head, who could do anything she put her mind to— brilliant, funny, athletic, sharp dresser, answered to her high school nickname of “Bubbles”... And how she ended up in that locked room, dead to me long before she passed away, a harridan who raved and demeaned, and hectored me for decades. I think how she traveled forty years, through two institutionalizations, some well-paying professional jobs, then increasingly less well-paying jobs, in inverse proportion with my slow cracking of the walls of the prison she had locked me into. She checked further in, as I fought for a way out. But it wasn’t as simple as that. If only it were. 

Kedney’s “Harmonica” continues” to show us a young man with gifts, charm, charisma as the concluding verses of the poem show,

“Once, at a summer wedding, in the lull
between the toasts and dessert
he took the band’s mic,
tossed his curly hair to one side,
and put the blues harp deep in his mouth—
puckered lips, blocked tongue,
the bending sound like a train
going through a tunnel.

My mother stood and clapped.
That’s Peter, she kept
saying. That’s Peter.

His eyes closed
to everyone in the room.
‘Not Fade Away’ took all his breath
to play.”

I can’t imagine a more complete, loving, distraught, depiction of a loved one as this poem. She stipulates the issue, a drug addiction he either can’t or won’t kick, the talent for sports, music, unfulfilled and, a moment in life, a time of celebration, when he shines as he never will again. It is both a snapshot to be cherished and a stab to the heart. The tone is set, the premise, the promise, that this deeply felt collection will deliver.

Throughout, it is readily apparent the poems in this collection were written and agonized over for years. Each piece struggles with containing the pain and the rage she feels. Achieving a rational, measured balance requires a will to suppress the emotions for the sake of the poem. For the sake of her own well being.  The reader can sense the aching beneath the surface of the poems seeping out, wanting to be heard. And we do hear it. Loud and clear.  And equally as important, we feel the empathy they contain. It hurts yes, but we must not let the hurt destroy us and the love for the people she is writing about and the people she is with now. 

Throughout the book, she reminds us that addiction touches all of us. Her brother succumbs to it and there is a deep sense of anger at how her brother was taken away from her. A sense of rage even in the way that Kubler-Ross outlines in the stages of grief. 

“Between stones a rill where water slows, beyond
turbulence. My hatred for a brother

was a receding wave, to say it existed
would be treason—the relief I felt when he died,

perfectly normal, I’m told; he stole more
from me than watch, ring,

gold chain: a rambling laugh, a whirling dance.
(from “The Study of Rivers”)

I recognize now this was the point, barely eighteen pages into an eighty plus pages collection, that I knew I could not be completely objective about Eleanor’s book. I could not write a review in the traditional sense, but I could respond. Maybe I could if I frame her work with some of my own life, I could offer some clarity on how deeply I was moved by this collection. I felt some trepidation, as a review is not about the reviewer, far from it, but the author and that is as it should be. Ultimately, I decided what these poems suggested in me was so strong I could not escape what they meant to me.

At my mother’s strange, in retrospect, memorial service, I spoke with my aging grandmother briefly after the service. She spoke of how a parent was supposed to love the child. That she forgave her for all the bad things that came between them. My uncle said nothing, as I suppose was appropriate, and I thought of the bad things that came between my mother and me for as long back as I could remember.

I thought about how she hectored me to love science and math instead of reading and literature though I was terrible and uninterested in science and math. Men in our family are engineers. Even I could see, early on, this profession would skip a generation. But she could not, would not accept a deviation from “The Plan”. “The Plan” like Sir Austin’s plan for his son in The Egoist, that I wrote about in great depth in graduate school. Being brought up by a plan does not end well. Not even in fiction.

On the beach, she always insisted I would never get sunburned no matter how long we stayed in the sun. We stayed for hours, unprotected and I always got badly burned. She insisted I should ignore the terrible earaches I had when I was a child and insisted we not to go to the doctors as they made make me sick. And now I have significant hearing loss in both ears. I thought of how I was never the perfect child she imagined I should be. Any deviation from her preconceived notion of perfection resulted in a verbal assault. I can assure you, you have not been verbally dressed down until you have been dressed down by her. And I have been dressed down by professionals.

And then I thought of how my mother was arrested after beating her mother senseless, almost succeeding in strangling her with the radio cord of the bedside clock radio, which led directly to her second involuntary confinement at Pilgrim State. I thought about the years of my mother sitting, silently brooding, drinking coffee, and chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, Kool’s she broke the filters from. I thought of how my grandmother sat watching television two rooms away, aware of her daughter, the one she had long ago given up trying to understand but could not stop loving. Who she took in when there was nowhere else to go.  I wondered if they spoke during those years and what brought on the sudden violence. 

I was not unused to violence, she had tried to strangle my wife one morning while I was sleeping after my night shift at the nightclub. I thought of how I was able to intervene in time to save her while my pre-school children played with their blocks on the living room floor. This violence had been brought on after my wife told my mother that we were having our eldest son’s adenoids removed as they were totally impeding his hearing. In my mother’s mind that was tantamount to destroying a world, the pristine beauty of a child. She believed in fairies, in the water babies of Charles Kingsley’s book.  She had ideas and they were absolute and they must never be violated. She would do anything to protect her fantasy world. Anything.

I threw her out of the house and forbade her to return. She didn’t, for years, until after the second, involuntary confinement. I did not report the violence to my grandmother or my uncle. In retrospect, I should have. I thought it was an isolated incident. My ignorance was almost a fatal mistake, showing what little I understood of her mental state.

Something changed inside my mother after that visit. The rejection, the destruction of her fantasy construction around our perfect little children, was destroyed and a rage built inside her. I assume the rejection led her to shift mental gears to blaming her mother for the destruction of her perfect childhood that ended when her father died when she was eleven. Destroying her mother was a projection but in reality, the end result was attempted murder. What happens when someone lives in two separate worlds at the same time. 

My grandmother, badly battered, reduced, survived. I was told my grandmother, just before the final choke hold, said to my mother, “Go ahead do it, it’s what you wanted all along.” And the hold released. Who knows why?

My mother spent two years at the institution and, according to law, was summarily released on her own. This became a special kind of bureaucratic nightmare for me too complicated to detail. Let’s just summarize it as an absurd, surreal and hellish. With legal papers and requirements. They wanted me to take control of her monetary affairs so they could collect fees for her stay. There was nothing more sacred to my mother than her money. Why didn’t they just give her a gun and a train ticket? She knew where we lived. Luckily it worked out for the good. She always paid her bills. I should have known that.

So there she was, in NYC, with no follow-up after care, fortunately having means to live in a hotel for women. They were dumping people in New York state then and most of the people like my mother ended up on the street. Where they still are. Or in jail. Or dead.

I tried visiting her once. I never learned. I had visited her during her second tour at Pilgrim State and it was a toss-up which was worse. I felt an obligation, that a child should visit his parent no matter what. I was thinking, that in a normal world, this is what is done. There was nothing normal about her world, not one thing and visiting her was a recipe for complete disaster.

She was hopping that summer. I won’t go into the details but let’s say hopping on one foot because the other was broken. I guess. I couldn’t get a straight answer about what happened to the foot she couldn’t use.  There was no talking about it or dealing with it. There was just the hopping. It was obvious to me then the doctors had done nothing to alleviate her psychoses. In fact, I would learn, they made her worse. Much worse.

We wouldn’t see her again for some time. That is until she began her annual surreal “surprise” visits on her just-before-Christmas birthday. The last visit, she spent the day trying to Super Glue her front teeth into her gums. Unsuccessfully. She didn’t want to talk about it. Why bother? I didn’t. Some things you just can’t change.

The stories and poems that I wrote of how she lived during that time were always rejected. Except for one I sold as horror fiction. This kind of person couldn’t possibly exist. It was all too unreal and too impossible. I should have sent one of the editors to visit her instead of doing it myself.   

In 1985 her nightmare ended, suddenly. How else could it end? We received the news in a bizarre way from a rookie cop after a series of increasingly odd phone calls from the NYC Police Department. By then we knew what the message was before he delivered it. I had asked the NYC cop, “What did she do now?” He didn’t say anything specific other than a local precinct cop would arrive soon to deliver the news.

The NYC cop said everything but the obvious, “What she did now was die.” You can only imagine the relief I felt to hear that. Clearly Eleanor felt the same way when her brother died as the poem “A Study of Rivers” shows. With feeling of relief comes a new feeling. Guilt.  Not at first but later, when we ask ourselves, “How can we feel this way?” We feel this way because we believe our loved ones are no longer suffering the results of their afflictions.

Months later we were living a different kind of nightmare that led us directly to that room I spoke of earlier. The one that smelled of soot and death and stale air and madness. If madness has a scent it was in that room. I am smelling it now, thinking of it. If I need a dose of the real thing I can unearth the stuff I took from there, the letters in particular, which still have trace scents. A part of me can never leave that room and I hated her for that. I despised her for that.  God died for me that day in that room. It is difficult to move on after something like that. I almost didn’t. I fell into a lake of scotch and started it on fire.

So I feel, acutely, the loss Eleanor describes. The loss of what the brother could have been, of what they could have, should have shared. He had escaped it into death. The shock of death for my mother must have been considerable as she didn’t believe in death, but a complicated cosmology of overlapping worlds.   

Later, I tried to unravel her world from the fragments of writings she left for me to piece together. I had suggested she write stuff down and part of her rational mind complied. Her irrational mind that suggested she kill the people closest to her eventually overtook the more rational part. She stopped writing before I could learn what some of the deepest symbols meant. What was with the horse racing stuff ? (I would be damned if I was bringing home seven years of carefully annotated racing forms.) What did she find in Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty that so energized her imagination?

I thought that the irrational mind deliberately shut down the writing. Or did it? Maybe leaving stuff behind was just an extension of the walls of the prison she had created for me as a child. Maybe what she deliberately left behind was a temptation for me to enter into the locked room, withdraw the key and trap me inside. Like Paul Auster’s locked room mystery in the NYC Trilogy. Maybe I am reading too much into too little. I was sucked in anyway. I tried to empathize, to enter the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic to better understand what it was like to live as one. What a fool I was.

I worshipped my mother as a child. She was all I had after the divorce back when people didn’t get divorced. There was a stigma about getting a divorce that explained why we were living on St. Croix. I was told it was for a rest but it was for the purpose of establishing residency and for obtaining an uncontested divorce. I only learned this after my father died in 2005 and I read the divorce decree. Trying to find out what my mother’s diagnosis was while confined the second time to Pilgrim State felt like another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of her mind.  It felt like something I had to know. But why?  A friend of mine responded to my need to know by saying, “There is a point when you have to ask yourself, how much is too much to know?”

I think back to St. Croix. A third world paradise in 1953 virtually unspoiled by resort hotels and commercialism. There we were, a twenty-something-year-old, attractive divorcee to be and her highly impressionable, increasingly withdrawn five-year-old.  She made friends. For awhile. Attracted a lover who wanted to marry her, some sleaze bag merchant seaman my grandmother took one look at and said, “Out he goes.” And gone he was.

After he left my mother quietly began losing control. She spent hours looking out the window at the sea, smoking Chesterfields and Pall Malls and drinking endless cups of black coffee. I don’t remember her ever eating. But she must have, we must have. The memories feel to me like a pattern of similar days, one after the other, merging as one, perfect blue sky and the pure black of night.

Then she lost it completely. Became hysterical. I have no memory of how or when or why, but we were flying back with my grandmother who rescued me. At least that is how I felt. Still feel. I remember my mother was screaming all the way from St. Croix to Ponce.  I can hear her now. My most vivid childhood memory.

Paradise had so many snakes in it.  Like almost drowning in the deep end of a pool while she read magazines, thinking fairy babies all knew how to swim. Not this one. My last memory of that event was slowly sinking in the pale blue pool. The taste of chlorine, the peaceful moments of sinking, weightless, to the bottom of nowhere. I have no idea who pulled me out of there. Someone did. Not her. I have this vague memory of someone telling me I had made the paper, an international one, I am thinking “The Times” but how could that be, “The Herald” —maybe?  Rescued as a prelude to visiting days on the psychiatric ward. A place that remains vivid for me even if it is in ruins now, or torn down completely. It will never be torn down in my mind.

All these memories evoked by one line in the middle of one of Eleanor’s poems. I can’t help the memories, I can’t escape them, though I try to lock them away. I was spared the identification process for my mother’s body through the good graces of a cousin who stayed in contact with her. Eleanor describes in a brief, compressed work what identifying the body of a loved one is like. All the conflicted feelings reduced to a brief moment so chillingly real and immediate it can never be forgotten. And yet the poem feels remote, oddly detached. How else can we live through these moments without a degree of detachment, I ask?  I know I can’t.

I have been criticized for being emotionally removed from poems of tragedy like the madness of bjc.  How can you be so dispassionate about such a terrible affliction?  The answer is, I’ve been inside that house, and if you dwell too long with madness, affliction and grief you can get stuck inside. That’s part of the spring-loaded trap of schizophrenics, to suck you in, to make you step on the lever that closes the steel jaws around your leg. Cutting off a limb is a possibility, but the more sensible choice is to remove yourself before the trap can be closed. Removing yourself means to work through the pain, the grief, and make something of it. To find consolation.  In this case, as Eleanor does, to write poetry. Deeply felt, empathetic poetry, for anyone who has experienced an extreme sense of loss.

Moments of detachment and perseverance seems to be something a mother imparts to her child, as this poem shows, quoted in full.


My mother was sixteen when her mother died.
The shades were drawn on the house
where her body lay in the parlor.
People came to the wake with homemade cakes
and brown liquor.

By the time I was sixteen, my mother buried
four sister and four brothers.
When the last died, she stayed up all night
drinking beer with ice cubes,
the TV blinking in the dark living room.
The white shades marked amber by nicotine,
thin and papery as moth wings.

In a real sense, Eleanor is working the stages of grief. Grief is the most complex emotion, I have found, because within it are all the other strong emotions: love and hate and loss, life and death. And guilt. We must never forget our own guilt, justified or not. I am guilty for not finding forgiveness for my mother. But I must find forgiveness, despite myself, or I would never completely let her go.

When you grieve, all your nerves are exposed. Even joyous occasions can be tinged with melancholy, but she has learned the hard way, joy tainted by despair is a compromise to make a life of your own. Here is her anniversary poem quoted in full.

Twenty-Fifth Wedding Anniversary

We walk along the black mangroves at Pelican Bay,
a baby alligator postures on its mother’s head,
safe in the water, under a low-slung Florida sun.

Many afternoons, I played a wave, rode your back
because I couldn’t swim. You taught me how to float
in an emergency, one hand cupped under my head,
the other, a shelf where my back rested. Then you let go.
There’s nothing more you could’ve done, you said,
as I held my mother’s urn on my lap.

We walk miles from the south to the north bay bridge,
salt-frayed air, turtles surface on the berm,
lizards rush into the saw palmettos,
our threaded hands sway under the cloud shadows,
the sky silver.

“We can’t go on, we go on,” Beckett famously said.  A beautiful day contains loss, an exquisite landscape misses a key element, a song that was once cherished, has a new meaning, in a new life context. The poet is forced, in the immediate aftermath of the death of her brother into absurd, even surreal situations. It is all part of the bureaucracy’s vast obstacles to easy resolution, to forestall the healing process of grief by creating obstacles for the loved one of those who have died.  Eleanor and her father have to search all over town for her brother’s vehicle.

“My brother was a John Doe overdose at a gas station,
after a month-long coma he wrote his phone number,
case closed. The report didn’t mention his truck.
Sirens pass, soda cans drop into the vending machine’s mouth,
and the sergeant’s front desk phone rang.

Two young cops looked my father and me over
and took us in their squad car. They chatted about where
to go for dinner, ran red lights, checked their watches
and yelled, Do you see it yet? over their shoulders.
Our breath against the window glass.

Yards from the Getty station, “Same Shit, Different Day”
popped on the chrome bumper. A loss can be turned around.
He swaggered up to the house the day
he got the truck, talked about the money he’d make
places he’d go.”
(from “Bumper Sticker”)

I’ve been in a cop car like that. After three hours in a Midtown South Manhattan Police Precinct proudly proclaiming itself as “the busiest precinct in the world” being shuttled from office to office with no good effect and ending up where we began, here. After three hours of being ignored by the insanely busy desk sergeant handing out jobs. After watching six changes of the shift an hour, actually a metamorphosis, as once attractive women in civilian clothes remove their false teeth, plates and bridges, tighten their loose hair into buns and become tough street cops. Ignored for hours, I began to despair.

Rather than complaining to the desk sergeant, again, I decided to stare directly at him. I follow every single move he makes, indicating I will never, ever leave this place until he details me two cops to get this opening of her room hurdle out of the way. Staring like that is a skill you learn tending bar. Believe me a former street cop and a bartender, instinctively knows when they are being watched. It is a very intense, uncomfortable feeling. Like being exposed, naked on stage only worse. In short order, we got two cops to drive us slowly across town, to the place I never wanted to go but had to because all the legal documents were there buried under those piles of  crap the investigating detective had warned me were waiting for us.

Driving across town, we listened to the jobs on the police radio: robbery in progress at a bank, man down in the park, assault, rape, drug overdose, on and on. Just another Tuesday afternoon in NYC.

And the cops checked out the babes, talked about one of their colleagues shooting someone, again, the office softball game, the social season highlight, more checking out of babes, rude racist comments.... And we finally opened the room where my mother died under the sign that says “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”  And I thought about the birthday card she sent me on the wrong date, “Today is the Next Day of Your Life, Don’t Fuck It Up. “I must have fucked up somewhere along the line. I was here. Where she wanted me all along, totally engaged in her fantasy world. I’m sure she didn’t even see all the shit she surrounded herself with but only one of the alternate existences she lived in. The perfect dreams of a complete innocent. No dreams for me. Just the nightmares. And the shit you left behind.

There is comfort in Eleanor’s book, in a life with so much pain. Eleanor cherishes her walks in the desert, along rivers, in mountains. She listens to the rocks speak, brings them home so they can continue their “conversations” or just to admire them.  Her poem “What We Do” catalogues the rich give and take of a loving marriage. They do for each other, they will never be alone even when they are apart. A brief selection from the poem shows the depth of their relationship.

“He makes me laugh with silly clichés.
I check in with him if he doesn’t call,
the way my mom did with my dad.
We’ll take care of each other when we are old.
I root for the Patriots with him and make guacamole.
He gave me the best birthday gift card ever.
We lie on the floor with the dog.
We ride a bicycle built for two.
He walks on the street side of the sidewalk
to protect me from puddles and cars as his grandmother
taught him to do. He told my mom, as he did my dad,
he will always take care of me.
He would marry me again.
I only swim with him.”
(from “What We Do”)

A spouse who saves his or her partner from despair is a gift. Theirs is the gift of life, of light when there does not seem to be anything but dark. My wife refused to let me go even when I was sliding off the edge of a cliff not unlike the one Eleanor’s brother and father fell from. Eleanor’s husband has provided her with the love and comfort and a home she can thrive in. This may sound like a small thing but it is not. The gift is everything, it is our life, and it is our job, as survivors, to make the best of it.