Herndon, Virginia, U.S.A.
On Mimi White's Memory Won't Save Me
Memory Won't Save Me by Mimi White. Cumberland, ME: Deerbrook Editions, 2012. Paperback, 44 pp. US $12.00. ISBN 978-0-9828100-4-0.
In this extended haibun, a meditation on the death of her father, Mimi White has composed a tour-de-force. As she weaves through time and memory, we are drawn in to become witnesses of a unique and universal milestone.
The poem is framed by the fact of her father's passing, a device that provides the reader with a perspective lacking in the busy-ness of life. White picks up the narrative thread with her 95-year old father, his health failing, in Boston, when she and her husband are moving temporarily to Asheville, N.C. Geographic distance complicates the already painful situation. "I fear I will miss his death the way I missed my mother's." Indeed, the long-ago loss of her mother is a constant undertone as a new death approaches.
In the final weeks, father and daughter maintain increasingly difficult contact by telephone.
One call is "poignant to me because my father sounds so healthy and energized by the news of my trip. It's only much later that I realize that he sounded as though he were giving me his blessing for going to Asheville, as though he were finding a way to say good-bye." Things inevitably deteriorate: "His voice is weak. I am afraid that talking is hard for him . . . I'm standing in a dark bathroom, leaning against a cold sink."
Who hasn't been there, or is certain to be? White and her husband rush back to Boston in an especially powerful sequence, full of panic, guilt and frustration.
wet roads black clouds sheets
of rain wind floods ahead we
drive straight into it
As the narrative continues to its conclusion with her father's death and funeral, and the first Passover in his absence, White deftly conveys the extremes of emotion and changes in mood that accompany such loss, as well as the persistence of the daily. "I have no father. I have never had a father. The days blur. I cannot cry or grieve. I sit at my writing desk and stare out the window at the tight lilac buds. I walk the dog. I swim."
And at last, there is a kind of epiphany while White is fishing, as she and her father had so often done together:
river, my heart, break
over cold stones, release
my green wilderness
The prose is pitch-perfect; the haiku appear at just the right moments to provide either relief or a heightened sense of tragedy. Of the thirty-odd haiku, there is hardly one that adheres to the standard concepts or definitions of the form, arguable as they may be. Rather, they are three- line poems brimming with feeling for the human and natural worlds. They work very well here, and I would venture to say that more traditional haiku might not have been as effective. A haibun as long as Memory Won't Save Me (not that it seems at all long in the reading) relies a great deal on its fluidity of movement and the inherent self-containment of most traditional haiku would probably interfere with the continuity, giving the impression of choppiness. What could be better than
new sky, dad's voice clear
as a radio—jigs, reels
in the world, god-damn
to express defiant joy in the face of imminent loss? Or
not all sounds equal
silence or noise, consider
the coffin lowering
to capture the dreadfulness of this moment? So we won't quibble over the haiku. Or over any of this wonderful, honest book. Fortunately, it is not an example of the overworked "therapeutic literature" genre, but remains true to its title, beyond the scope of healing or redemption. There is no saving us, but White's unflinching artistry leaves us somewhat better off for having shared this truth.