(Seattle, WA: Red Mountain Press, 2020)
Donald Platt’s new poetry collection One Illuminated Letter of Being is a tribute to his dead mother Martha, whom he desperately wants back. Closure is a myth; we are unending, ever-evolving, always reshaping the past and the stories of those we love, with each new event forming a fresh layer and lens through which to view them. These events, along with the passage of time, both blur and enlarge our losses. They are continual reminders of a void. Loss lingers for a lifetime. Doors never fully close after death. Rather, our doors have handles with no catches, hinges but no locks. Platt convinces us that these truths are both comforting and crushing at once.
Each poem is written in free verse tercets, unrhyming but melodic, that flow like life itself: a loop of a beginning, a middle, and end. A rebirth, a new form, another death. The tone is wistful, painful, hopeful, and realistic. We tend to think of death as a sweeping thing, something that comes in and takes those we need, but Platt’s work challenges this notion so anchored in our transient and often casual society. Life, death, grief, and loss happen within the minutiae of the everyday, in found photographs, drives through the mountains, and memories that come to us at unexpected moments. Platt’s narrative allows for a deep and deeply human well of grief that society too often works to deny us.
In “Hospice,” the second poem in the book, the author tells us, “My mother is dying / while everything is coming into bloom.” Platt establishes early the circuitous ebb and flow of life. The earth and all its offerings too often become background noise to us rather than the point of it all, the teacher of lessons. Platt includes, describes, and considers all manner of nature: black tulips, lilacs, irises, pear trees, magnolia, crab apples, azaleas, weeping willows, mountains, driftwood, ocean, ash trees, orchids, crocuses, daffodils, mulberry trees. Even Martha’s rehab unit is called “Whispering Pines.” Through these and other of nature’s manifestations we are taught over and again that everything grows and dies, destroys and renews, threatens and comforts. We are as hearty as we are fragile.
In particular, wisteria crop up throughout the collection. The plant grows vines that wrap around any available supporting structure, much like human connection. It is strong, fast-growing, and demands reinforcement as it sprouts thick and tall. Mature wisteria are known to crush delicate structures. The poem “Wisteria” offers the book’s title. Platt speaks of planting it after his mother’s death and providing it “a trellis, / two treated 4×4 posts anchored in concrete, set twelve feet apart // and strung with horizontal / galvanized steel cable…On the harp strings of the trellis, it will blossom again and again into one illuminated letter of being.” The connected nature of all things recurs as a theme: “Mother, you are the clouds we drove through. You are / the blown tire / that could have hurt us, but didn’t. You are everywhere // around me.”
While much of Platt’s work includes sentimentality, he notes that his mother does not want any of that after her passing. Instead, Martha requests that no one eulogize her, that she wants
No calling hours. Only the church service.
getting up and saying nice things about me. Everyone
has their own
memories—good, bad, and indifferent. Chief purpose
of a funeral
is to pray for the departed. Also to give comfort
to those who grieve.
Martha clearly understood the dictum that eulogies say more about those who give them than about those whom they are meant to remember. Here, in this collection, it is Donald’s grief that we focus on, about who Martha was to him, what she looked like in the one-way mirror of his own reflections, and how his deeply personal feelings on the subject create their own eulogy, both sentimental and grounded. “My mother swims / with me in death’s amniotic waters, waiting to be born / into nothingness’s // darker other world.” Martha becomes the author’s muse, his soulmate: “It’s impossible to point / to the seam / separating life and death. Sometimes the one fades so gradually // into the other,” we are warned in “Watercolor With Trees in Fog.”
One Illuminated Letter of Being also addresses the death of the author’s father-in-law, Erwin, and the ways in which his passing intertwine with that of his mother’s. Platt was at Erwin’s bedside at the moment he slipped away. “Ocean View from a Hotel Balcony in the Off-Season” tells us,
I kissed his mottled, liver-spotted
the hem of the earth-toned quilt and prayed that his newly departed
soul, my mother’s soul,
and the trillion billion souls of the dead might find rest and travel
far from us and the restless
unceasing waves that are all I know of the ocean.
We’re reminded in Hamlet that we do not know what happens when we leave this “mortal coil” and transition to “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Instead, we are left to supposition, assumption, hope. Donald Platt wishes our next stop along the journey after this world lands us at
Goodwill is where we all will go. I can’t think of a better place.
There strangers try on
The lives we wore, buy them at bargain basement prices,
strut out the automatic
door. One wears my father’s tie. I always think I’ll see
my mother’s velour hat
on some red-haired, teenage girl. Fashion’s ever-careening wheel
turns and turns until
what’s old parades as chic again.
Ultimately, Platt’s book is smart, beautifully conceived, and faces head on that which so many of us are unwilling to face. “Death is never not loud / and redundant,” Platt tells us in “No Springs Honest Weight.” It’s an album on repeat, the end always signaling the beginning. The author finds comfort in this repeating of suffering and of memory. “Though I will never / see her again, // she is everywhere,” Platt asserts, because Martha’s “death flower, it’s in full / bloom.” May it always be so.
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Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018), and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at amystraussfriedman.com.