Little Boy Blue, a Memoir in Verse, by Gray Jacobik (Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, Ltd., 2011)(www.cavankerrypress.org). 63 pp., $16.00
Reviewed by Barbara Crooker
To describe this book as a dramatic monologue in twenty-three movements that span forty years about a mother and a troubled son (with the dual diagnoses of ADHD and bi-polar disorder) would be accurate, but wouldn't begin to describe the emotional territory that it covers. The jacket copy says it "examines motherhood, sanity, and heartbreakingly tender, resilient love," but it does even more, as it explores the heartache and struggle of dealing with a brokenness that can't be fixed, while going "beyond the false narrative of guilt and redemption" (Richard Hoffman, jacket copy) that we see far too often in disability narratives.
Instead, this is a mature work by a mature poet who has done her time in difficult dailiness. Widely published, here are some of her credentials: a Ph. D. in American and British Literature from Brandeis University, recipient of an NEA grant and an Artist's Fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, poems in Best American Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Ontario Review, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, The Connecticut Review, and her prizes include the Yeats Prize, the Emily Dickinson Prize, the Juniper Prize, the XJ Kennedy Poetry Prize, and the AWP Series Award. She has been on the faculty of Eastern Connecticut State University and the Stonecoast MFA program, and has served as the Robert Frost Poet-in-Residence at The Frost Place. She has also written six other books of poetry.
In talking about her process, Jacobik says this, "At the time I was writing Little Boy Blue, my son had asked me not to communicate with him; I hadn't heard his voice in two years. The poems wrote themselves . . . coming rather quickly over a six-month period in 2006. I did very little in the way of revision in terms of content. . . . I did make decisions about form and they are written with varying stanza patterns and syntactical and punctuational variations as well as different rhetorical strategies: that's where craft came in. Of course, in truth, they took forty years to write since they contain material I hadn't the craft or the perspective to approach until they arrived. Afterwards, I sat on them for two years, although I read them in public. The enthusiastic response of those audiences, plus the passionate support of a number of friends, gave me the courage to seek a publisher." (interview with Melanie Greenhouse, The New London Day, September 2009). There are several important points to be made here: sometimes, material is so emotionally charged that we need to wait before writing. And then sometimes we need to wait before sending, as well. I'm sure, in the two years that Jacobik sat on them, that the poems continued their own maturation. Note that she while talks about little revision in terms of content, she talks a lot about revision in terms of craft, and how she continued to work on them with the finest of sandpapers. . . .
The narrative strategy Jacobik uses is to have the speaker address the estranged adult son. He is clearly the primary intended audience; we, her readers, are the secondary one. The narrative begins with an unplanned teenage pregnancy ("Roe vs. Wade hadn't / happened or you'd not have been / born.")(1.)(Each movement is in the book is a separate, numbered, poem.). In fact, she tried to make it go away: ". . .I did try to find & couldn't, a back-alley // abortionist in the Negro district of Newport News." (1.)
Jacobik uses is to have the speaker address the estranged adult son. He is clearly the primary intended audience; we, her readers, are the secondary one. Jacobik later learns that the quinine " your father's football coach gave him to give me" (1.) is responsible for tooth buds not growing in his mouth, and she wonders if his bipolar disorder and maybe the ADHD were also caused by it. She contemplated suicide, thinking about throwing herself off a ferry, " hurl myself into the wake. / No 'right to life' on my mind. // Not yours. Not mine. Only / the need to no longer be." (4.) To add to this measure of guilt, is a horrendous birth experience: a spinal block, three hundred stitches, no support from family. But ". . .all I wanted was to unwrap you, // look at you whole" while at the same time wishing him back in her body, "for there. . . ./ no one could hurt you." (2.)
. . . But you
The difficult baby turns into a difficult toddler: "You'd hurl yourself against any wall // . . . slide down & pinwheel kick, screaming, flailing, // spinning on your back, your face blood-red, // tear-soaked, gasping for breath." (3.) As the mother of a child with autism, I know whereof she speaks, and she has nailed this.
Jacobik received little help. When she told her mother she was pregnant, "that mouth of hers so often / pinched around a menthol" opened, and she said, "tightly / enunciated, How could you do / this to us?" (4.) Later in the book, we find that they (the grandparents) had wanted Jacobik to go to Catholic Charities, give him away. But Jacobik decides to keep him, although she wonders now, "What were / the moonscape scratchings of that girl's nature that had / her keep the child despite / each voice's admonition?" (18.) and gets the Red Cross to contact the father, a young soldier who lied about his age in order to enlist at seventeen, and who is scarcely up to the task of fatherhood.
He abandons them soon after, only to resurface in one of those "if this were in an outline for a novel, it'd be rejected as too unlikely" scenarios years later. He and his second wife found their seventeen-year old daughter murdered in their bed, her boyfriend also dead beside her, on Christmas eve. The wife wrote a Dear-Santa letter to the mall, adding to this horrific story that her husband had a son he'd lost track of, and what a special holiday it would be if he could be found. She won the contest, and they found "their" boy, "never mind that the teen father / had abandoned his wife & / son . . . . had held the small boy to // the potty for hours, locking / him in the bathroom while / the child screamed / . . . so determined / was he that a sixteen-month old, any boy of his, would no longer // shit in his pants." (11.) Should I mention that they (the father and his second wife) were fundamentalists? That the joyous reunion only lasted one week?
And this is a family with more than its share of difficulties and sorrows: an aunt with a thirty-six day coma and lasting brain damage, a cousin (her son?) in prison for selling meth and grand larceny, Jacobik's second husband (called "your second father" in the book), whose "icy heart" (6.)("cold as a frost-bitten toad")(19.) nearly killed her, turned out to be gay, ended up in the slums of Baltimore, beaten nearly to death by a lover who gave him AIDS.
Mostly, Jacobik is alone, raising a boy who kicks, screams, and is described as hyperactive. There are oceans of guilt here, such as when she sends him
away to a boarding school, finally, relieved & free,
which gets us into the endless cycle of schools demanding drugs, child complaining of side-effects, mother caught in the middle, that many of us, who are caregivers, are familiar with.
Later, he tries to self-medicate on drugs and booze, and by creating a burrow (perhaps even something like Temple Grandin's squeeze machine, a pressure bed) or "cocoon, one thing piled on another. / So many small spaces I've seen you build // over the years–self-designed Murphy beds, / collapsible desks, cubbyholes. (10.)
At one point, he was married, but that failed. Then he has a girlfriend who turns out to be abusive and controlling, "the woman, who is not here . . . / who's said you cannot ever speak to me / again," (2.) who accuses her of abandonment (seventeen times), said she (Jacobik) "didn't deserve a son."(5.) Instead of doling out blame, Jacobik says, "I hear again, that awkward, tuning-fork / hum of the silence that's always been between us."(2.)
Anger issues and violence simmer below the surface: "you weren't beyond / shoving me or taking a swing," (10.) but the complicated braided mother-child bond is constant, and there is also great tenderness:
. . . I am pure space now when I wake at night
She calls him "Little Boy Blue," (6.) describes what a funny child he was, how he kept the family in stitches with his made up rituals.(7.) Here, she describes one perfect day, the day you'd like to come back and live again on earth:
I love you both she has a daughter from the second marriage so absolutely at that moment
By the end of the book, Jacobik has reached a place of peace, and acceptance. She describes listening to her son's pirate radio broadcast:
That night I let your voice lead me through the dizzying maze of your ingenious mind, . . . Listening, I no longer felt guilt toward you or shame for myself, only glad I'd kept you, that we were in one another's life. And I saw then that you are mine & there is no mystery to it. (21.)
In the hands of a lesser writer, attempting a book-length poem like this might have fallen short of its aims. But because Jacobik is a writer of great strength and skill, we are swept away with it. She achieves her power through language, long winding sentences that can be followed without difficulty. "The turn of the line is always right, the tension between line and sentence integral," writes Carol Moldaw on the jacket copy. These lines create an internal rhythm, and this is underscored by the folded nature of time in the narrative, which deepens as it unfolds. The sections are not sequential, but move back and forth in the forty years they span, so that you are introduced to an image, say the "two toast brown dogs in the white truck" early on, or the mother as a zebra, "flashy and calm," and then that same image returns again later. In a similar way, different parts of the story are revealed in the early part of the book, then recede, then come back again, a rocking motion that might echo a wave, or a cradle. Richard Hoffman cites the final lines, "breaking like waves on the shore," and like waves, they have gained great power in their journey towards land. Robert Dana aptly notes how this book is a testimony to the "struggle of the spirit to survive and finally, to triumph." There are no easy answers here, no Hollywood ending, just a mother's love letter, in the form of these twenty-three linked poems, to her damaged little boy blue, to a love that transcends, to a love that goes on.