Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths. Susan Paddon. Brick Books. London, Ontario. 2014.
The deeper the reader goes into the utterly compelling Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths the more the past of Anton Chekhov becomes the present. Chekhov and his family, his circle, are present in Susan Paddon's world. They provide the narrative tool that compels Paddon to measure her sorrow, anger, guilt and joy.
Paddon's mother is dying in front of us with Chekhovian humour. These poems don't bridge the two world so much as integrate them. Paddon has rendered Chekhov's world as part of her own.
Place on a Lake
"But I am drawn here to this lake like a seagull." (The Seagull, Anton Chekhov)
My mother lives in a house on a lake that freezes
in a thousand meringues every winter,
just beyond the shore. She does not live
alone. My father is with her. Together
they weave a happy front, eat McDonald's
on Mondays and pretend everything
will be okay. Life is a list they're getting
through. My father's roots are in this place
on the lake, though it is not what it once was
when the ferry still came from Cleveland, when
Lombardo played the bandstand, before
the factories and smokestacks that won't let my mother forget
this is not her home. She grew up beside an ocean,
with real orange trees in the front yard. Now
she dreams of those trees, you can see it in the way
she closes her curtains, lies awake at night
reliving conversations from bygone decades,
the sounds of misplaced emphases, the offences she may have caused,
help me think of something nice, she whispers to my father
to quiet the voices that keep repeating in the cold sheets.
These poems are literary but not so that you'll have to visit the library. Paddon quite seamlessly weaves Chekhov world into her first book and her mother's world as well, and then back again.
Paddon's mother is not on the road to recovery, but as sad as that terminal news is, this book is never morose, it is not a dirge. Paddon uses the Chekhov narrative as a brilliant launching pad to her own family journey - and it all comes out so elegantly humane and insightful. Paddon has a lock on grace.
My Mother's Sister
sent a new tablecloth in the post
a week before Christmas every year until
she started forgetting that too. When she lived in New York,
she had our names put onto even our lunch bags:
Susan, Susan, Susan, I carried it under my arm
like a teddy bear.
With my mother's sister it happened suddenly
and then slowly, and my mother has spent
so much of her life afraid (no aluminum, no
aspartame) of losing something very different
from what she is going to lose.
I once heard about a woman
who wouldn't have anything to do with garlic.
It wasn't fair, the way it could look perfect
from the outside and yet,
if you got unlucky, under the skin
it could already have turned.
Sad tales of family and death, yet somehow Paddon's Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths is anything but tragic. It is thoughtful and touching, never trite.
No death is easy and platitudes don't pay respect. Susan Paddon articulates the range of frustrations and joys, moments of fleeting hope against reason, all of this artfully managed in narrative that not only illuminates a family coming to terms with the death of their matriarch - but she weaves a pertinent second narrative through the arc of Anton Chekhov.
This is very seasoned stuff but never overly spicey. It is also not nearly as complicated as my poor description suggests. On the page this played out like an excellent movie, plenty of beauty, lots of pace, great story, saddish ending.
I'll never know how my parents loved,
their bedroom door closed tight,
the sturdy furniture too big
for a room its size.
Or why we followed my father's car
in our New Yorker that time we saw him
on a street that wasn't his usual way home.
We didn't honk, or mention it later.
Were there certain perfumes he liked
more than other? Did he ever notice?
I wonder now if he sometimes takes the bottles
off the dresser, holds them
to his nose for a moment
while my sister, on the other side
of the door, picks up
the mess he needs to make.
These are things I hope
about my mother. I hope she felt
love each time they promised one another
everything would be alright.
The sad inevitable end is not really a tragedy in this case, more a trajectory. Paddon is headed for great things - these poems will make the reader look forward to anything Paddon does in the future.
This is remarkable first book territory. Susan Paddon, take a big bow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Paddon was born and grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario, attended McGill and Concordia in Montreal, and lived overseas in Paris and London before settling in Margaree, Nova Scotia. Her poems have appeared in Arc, CV2, The Antigonish Review and Geist.
"How is the death of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov like the death of a Canadian mother? Susan Paddon expands the pastoral heroic structure of the elegy to include the small devotions of family life. Telescoping time and vast distances, the Chekhov family and the poet's occupy the same dimension in their loss and grieving. This is a moving and mature first book, filled with grace notes and deep resonance."
- Mary di Michele, author of The Tenor of Rose and Stranger in You: Selected Poems & New
"This is a book that is not afraid to be -- and to name -- what it is: a tragedy. A book that moves us, along with its two heroes, steadily toward death. But it also includes, and is equally unafraid to wield, another force, just as powerful -- and that is poetry itself. This is a book that lives and breathes."
- Johanna Skibsrud, Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists
Reads from Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths (Brick Books)
video by: Brick Books
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