In this poetry collection, Gillman (The Magic Ring, 2000) considers his father’s slow descent into dementia.
Gillman had a brilliant father who was an accomplished classical pianist and a distinguished mathematician known for his work in topology. But in the stark poems that make up this book, readers see the father’s confusion and weakness as Alzheimer’s steals his autonomy bit by bit. Even in the past, the two couldn’t always connect; music sometimes seemed like a barrier, part of the father’s autocratic distance. In “A House with Music in It, II,” the 12-year-old son tiptoes into the house where his father plays piano; shutting the door to his room, he prefers the radio and Chuck Berry. In the title poem, the narrator recalls how his father used to hum along while playing the piano, an indistinguishable drone: “One couldn’t tell / from listening to you drone / what piece it was, / all tuneless and the same.” Three poems engage with the haunting image of the parents’ twice-daily journey up and down stairs, something like divers: “Going down, / she has a rope, / tied to his belt, / wrapped around her waist,” which “will somehow stop him.” In one of the book’s most potent poems, Gillman sees his father, strapped upright in bed, “as if / fastened to / the piling of a dock” while the tide slowly rises, which powerfully conveys the slow, awful dread of waiting for someone to die. Sometimes, the poems edge into the prosaic, with too much explanation, more like a journal entry, perhaps: “It’s been hours / and I’m still angry / at what this brings back up: / how you imposed / your one right way / on everything we did.” Poems about connection appear as well. In “Requiem,” for example, the poet imagines lingering reverberations in the father’s music room, “lower and lower / till they have reached a place / ear can’t hear / but heart still knows.”
Clean, spare poems that resonate.