Judah’s Lion by Anne Caston
Toad Hall Press, © 2009, 94pgs.
Reviewed by Cheryl A. Townsend
In an unassuming, almost Zen revelation, Caston prefaces this collection with the poem “What Seems to Be” reflecting that
Sometimes the life I am living
resembles the life I seem to be living
… and shares the natural beginning of mornings that “rise, shrouded/in mist” Such an allegory, as these poems seem to be misted with an uncertainty, a queue of conflicted confessions and exhumed emotions exquisitely juxtaposed in poetic explanations. Labyrinths leading to the soul of a mother raising an autistic child while working as a nurse, constantly giving care, knowing its boundaries, her limitations, the yin and yang. The medical field is one of vast juxtapositions. The saving or taking of lives. The terrifying realization that you can…unassumingly…play God.
I once believed
if I didn’t care for things,
they might forsake me or cease to be.
Yet humbly, she admits of her work: “As if that is the proper thing to do. As if/I have some right to it.”
When she introduces her son to us, it is upon his birth. His autism shuns her warmth, her love, and she suffers.. “to lean/an arm’s-length off, to bottle-feed warmed/milk” or to “race the stairs to find/him upright, bumping hard, the wall behind him crumbling.”
Exasperated, devastated, she Woolfingly walks “out/into the muddy Chattahoochee, skirt, shoes, and all” only to see that “it too refused me.”
This collection took me 5 readings to numb myself enough to its confessions. Their potency struck me so hard each time, I could not respond. Crucial, tragic, brutal, severe, appalling. These are chewable poems, cannibalistic poems that will leave that coppery taste of fresh blood in your mouth. Both compassionate and aghast in their truth. Re; “The Good We Do”
It’s strange, don’t you think, how the good
we do we do loudly. But our sins?
Those we ease into in secret and quietly.
And quietly was how I waited in that dim hallway.
The giving of a cigarette to a dying friend, who is also a patient. Breaking rules to ease his final crossing, allowing his wish to transpire, expire.
In the title poem, her son, who has a wildebeest as his imaginary companion, perceives Bible verses in childish contortion, as with “The Lion of Judah”.. which he innocently bequeaths to his neighbor’s cat and vows “I will kill that lion if he comes near.”
“Anatomy 101” was one of the poems that I needed numbing most to. Sure, we all know that “rubbery and reeking of formaldehyde” specimens are sliced open and inspected, dissected. Science is so brutal to the innocent that way. “their formal animal eloquence stripped down to rank/bone and sinew.” But here they bring in a Shepherd puppy “wagging and drooling,/fresh-sprung from the local pound.” Here they “run our hands/over his rough head and ears.” Here, via a single command to “Sit!” his obedience is met with a needle and “still slobbering,/still panting for joy” he “slumped and fell, sidewise, onto the steel/dissecting table where we were circled still around the dead/beast, like Stonehenge, our shamed and secret faces turning inward.” I could never work in the medical field.
It can only be apropos that the following poem be “The Burden” – I believe it is her nursing compassion that has placed these in one fell swoop.
By the time I got to them, the woman was stoned
on sorrow and half a jar of gin; her man,
Cold sober, was praying and casting demons.
On the kitchen sink table, a box: a doll
Dressed for burial. On the ashy hearth nearby, the dead
Child swaddled in a filthy towel.
I stooped to see: again, a son,
third one in three years to arrive half-made.
A changeling, the man called him, the Devil's
work in a woman's womb. He left off
the exorcism of her body long enough
to tell me: Throw it, like the others, to the dogs.
They’ll not touch the body again, not even
to dispose of it; that’s why I’m called, three times now.
No sin for me to lift the damaged and dead.
Lord knows, I’ve done worse. So I folded
the boy back into his rags and left with him
slung in the crook of my arm.
I threw the dogs, starved as they were, the blood-caked
afterbirth and cord, then drove seven miles west
to a rotting trestle hung out over a gorge.
I slid down the mud-slick slope to the swollen
banks of the creek where i pulled back the reeking rags
to have, in the bright morning light, a better look.
I tell you, it shook me a little, the sight:
that translucent fetal skin, all the veins
visible and cursive, like something penned
in an indecipherable hand and, under the milky lids, two
yellow orbs – no pupils, no irises. Ten fingers; ten toes.
And when I rolled him over, near the base
of the skull, the blue-gray brain bulged.
Worse: the rot and ooze down the under-
belly and along the swollen sex.
When I stooped to the shallows, to rinse the body
of birth’s debris, some of the skin washed
free of the bones; so I lifted what was left of the boy
and laid him down in the dew-drenched grass.
I tore the ruined linen three times down its length,
knotted the ends together, and wound it, whole-cloth
‘round the body, head to toe, binding a stone in as I went.
I tied it off with a double knot, breathed
a blessing over it, and cast the bundle out into the stream:
it bobbed twice and went under; it surfaced again.
Then it sunk and was gone for good.
Then there is repentance.. How could there not be some guilt when we do as instructed, even though sans agreement? How can one not be haunted by the turgid last visuals? The stamping of images - happy, yet caught by deadly surprise – damned from the beginning to return without choice – the trying, trying, trying to hold on before being washed away in death. I could never work in the medical field.
In “Bleak Pond,” a boy drowns in iced over water. His mother, beyond hope, stood calling for him at the pond’s edge. Caston mulls “Where, among the ordinary every-day/goings-on, begins the moment of disaster?”as she tries to comfort the woman, yet “watching something let go//the frayed rope-end of hope in his mother’s eyes.” Even now, I need to break from writing this review. I am not wimpy. I am just drained.
The next chapter is “The Story I Sometimes Tell Myself”: consisting of the jeremiads in a marriage of distance and death. As her husband fights in Bagdad, “She dreams tonight they find him, fallen/in a field, days-dead, a sparrow nested in his beard.” as she is left to wait for him and “Yesterday’s ghost still moves at will/through the ruined rooms of the house.” Indeed, how hard to see, touch, smell and possibly even taste all that you loved without its actuality.
The poem “That A Man, Returning, Will Not Be The Man/Who Left” is an all too common threnody for those left behind, as “Love, that tenderest tyrant of all,/fastens its necklace of flame/at her throat” and burns the once words of devotion into exasperation and futility. And then his suicide. Silent and separated. And then she ruminates .. “Maybe it’s hard to know what you’ve built/with a man until the roof’s on fire.” What can you build with ashes?
In the final chapter, “House of Gathering” – the beginning poem speaks of her adaptation for the hand she has been dealt “Lord, how can it be that/nothing in my life’s prepared me/for how prepared I am for this?” The thereafter. The dregs.
In “Conversation With My Body”, she is exasperated, perhaps even suicidal herself, musing “I could leave you tonight,/old bag of blood and trouble, old sack of pain.” And who could blame her? Surely her life has been above the standard for trials and tribulations. Even as a child, she endured death in her hands when a friend, amongst others, “spun the silver cylinder and put the pistol/into his mouth” in a mossy clearing of Russian Roulette. How she, “spattered and stunned, held that shattered head together” to no avail.
The sheer potency of her poems is beyond evoking. The gentleness in their telling furthers the impact. Like rubber-necking at accident scenes, you can’t help but be transfixed… Here, I cannot help but read on. Over and over, I have come back. Read more, felt more, ached more.
Yet if she can withstand her own life, a life where “the God I prayed to/who did not save me from anything” then I can assuredly finish this book. Given that, I can also recommend it honestly, adamantly and with confidence that you will remember the death it is filled with as if it were on your own doorstep. Turn on the outside light. Sometimes even death is afraid of its own darkness.
Anne Caston's first collection of poems, Flying Out With The Wounded, received the 1996 New York University Press Prize for Poetry. She is an NEA Individual Artist Award recipient as well as a Bread Loaf fellowship, Paumanok Award, a New York University Press Prize for Poetry, an International Merit Award in Poetry from Atlanta Review, a Jenny McKean Moore Fellow in Poetry at George Washington University and Prairie Schooner’s Readers’ Choice Award recipient.
Cheryl A. Townsend is a poet and the co-editor of A Trunk of Delirium literary magazine. Her reviews appear regularly on WomensWriters.net and Her Circle e-zine. She lives in Ohio.