Stairway To Heaven: Poems
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Penguin paperback $20
Release date: Sept 27, 2016
Stairway To Heaven by Alison Hawthorne Deming is about death, and grieving, of and for Deming's friends and brother, but especially her mother. At the middle, the core, of the book is “The Luminous Mother,” the longest poem of the book, about the last days and moments of Deming's mother, starting with a prayer for both, and an invocation of Whitman—that is, an invocation of poetry/art:
I light two candles of uneven height
one for my brother and one for my mother
both dead in the same inscrutable year
After burning for two days
the candles are the same height. What
is the science of their diminishing?
I want an explanation about the matter
when I should be paying attention
to the condition of my soul.
I take Whitman's command
as my own. I do not bow to death.
I place my hand against its cheek
as the heart quiets and grows still...
The spaces between lines read as lines unsaid, or hesitations, or places we readers might fill in with our own experience. This is always true with poetry, but even more apparent here, the three-line stanzas a seemingly much-needed structure Deming holds on to writing about a difficult topic that could send anyone out of control. The stanzas also a perhaps very slight nod to, or evoking of, Dante as well. Her poem not as epic, of course, but still, Deming's confronting death. Not quite the afterlife, not for her, but a questioning of how and why, and maybe an unconscious desire to take this experience beyond, to continue the dialogue.
Other poems about death and dying, meaning about grief, lie scattered around this one, but Stairway To Heaven also includes many desert poems, which stand alone, and are the best, like “What The Desert Is Thinking”:
We know the desert has consciousness because the saguaros
stand up and speak as one about the heat.
They tell the Gila woodpeckers to come in out of the sun.
They tell a man or a woman lost without water to lie
in the column of shade they make out of their kindness.
The saguaros all hum together like Tibetan or Gregorian monks
one green chord that people hear when they drive
through Gates Pass and come to the Place where they gasp.
Beauty does that though the nihilist will make an ironic joke
about the note of surprise that has escaped
from his or her loneliness. The smile from the joke will cover
for the smile for joy. That's okay. Consciousness
is like the saguaro's decision to wait half a century to com up
with arms though arms were in its mind all along.
'Place' in the book becomes vital. We go from the American desert to the east coast ocean and forest, and back to the desert for the last series of poems. In all cases, in all poems, except those when Deming is in a hospital room with someone dying, she places herself outside, and it's in the outside, in N/nature, where she finds refuge from, and solace in, her grief, culminating, almost seemingly inevitably, in Death Valley, maybe the starkest landscape in America, and certainly one most people would find uninviting or even scary. And yet, Deming shows us the beauty there. And this is what poetry, and art, does: not only to help us come to terms with death (others', and our own) but even find a certain stark beauty in it. It's hard to conceive, but in “Resurrection,” Deming's mother wants death, at 102 has had enough of life and its pain(s). Death can even be desirable.
The weakest point of Stairway To Heaven is the title poem. I admit, as an old Led Zeppelin fan I was curious, but weaving an interview with Robert Plant heard on the radio into the grieving process for her brother just becomes a distraction from the strongest part of the poem, the ending, with Deming in dialogue with her brother on his death bed:
…..Do you ever dream
of animals, I ask him, hospice bed
looking out on a plywood squirrel
perched on cement black wall.
Frequently. A lilt of surprising joy. What kind?
Mostly the jungle animals. Then: I'm going
to do my exercises now. What exercises?
I like pacing, he said, immobilized
upon his death nest of nine pillows.
Then he closed his eyes to become the inward one
whose only work was to wear a pathway
back and forth within his enclosure.
Sections like this, when Deming just stands back and lets us 'see' the scene(s) of the process of dying, and let's the dead talk, à la Dante, are where she's at her most powerful (likewise especially with her mother). Not forcing meaning, but showing us a picture, and letting us create/imagine our own meaning.
You don't have to read Stairway To Heaven as a series of connected poems about death and grieving, and it's interesting to think about how the 'theme' of the book would have changed if, say, Deming's mother and brother hadn't died—I think somehow the collection would have ended up more of a celebration of nature, which would have been fine. And yet, that aspect of celebration is still in here, on the edges of grief, where maybe it always is. Life is sad. Life has a lot of things to celebrate. We go on. We go out into the desert. We look up at the stars. And feel small. Isn't that beautiful?