Petrified at Every Turn

From wheelchair row the view can be grim.
You swallow the horse pill of the world sitting down.

A whiskey’s what I mostly need,
she said, cryptic, bemused.

This is finally the loosening of words
as when a child is everything

before all divisions and theories.
Nothing matters now but the whispered transmissions.

The eye is the same, mandala of the eye.
Cat tiptoes by, sentient, unconcerned.

These are the proverbs of Phyllis
At Crossroads Retirement Center:

Watch your words. Never
Put your faith in a sphinx.

Beware of chocolates.
Sometimes they shoot bolts of electricity

that blunder around the room.
Don’t worry about me,

I’m sitting in the Mercy Seat.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Petrified at Every Turn”?

It is a delight to write about “Petrified” because it reminds me of my poor, sad, wonderful, amazing mother. The poem is part of the last section, “Matrilineal Lines,” in the volume At the Mercy Seat, a book published the year my mother died. I was inspired by the many times I visited mom in a nursing home in Redmond, Washington during her last years. If you’ve ever been in a nursing home, you know how distressing it can be to seen the white-haired elders lined up in wheelchairs against the walls and smell the stench of urine. My mother was a big-hearted, southern belle who came up north from Alabama at the age of twelve because of the Depression, and suffered mental illness most of her adult life. She struggled with anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia. I have written about the impact of Mom’s schizophrenia on me growing up in a book called Flying Wounded. That book enabled me to come to terms with the ways in which I had been wounded by growing up alongside mental illness. More significantly, it helped me to love my mother more deeply and see her as a victim of the patriarchal culture and the medical system of her time who managed to sustain her dignity and humour through it all.  What the poem hints at is that even with dementia, she maintained her wit and her faith. When she died my cousin called her, “a dispenser of laughter” and everyone I know loved to be with her because she was so much fun. “A whiskey’s what I mostly need,” “Watch your words. Never/ put your faith in a sphinx,” and “I’m, sitting in the Mercy Seat” are all her words, so all I had to do was transcribe them and embed them in the poem.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Petrified at Every Turn”?

During this phase of my writing, I was enchanted with unrhymed couplets for their snap and concision. In a poem that tried to catch the wacky, gnomic wisdom of my mother in her later years, the couplets worked especially well because they are like little, self-contained aphorisms or wise sayings. Most of the stanzas are end-stopped and only a few enjambed or run over. I liked the end-stopped ones because the reader has to pause after each stanza to reflect.

The poem alternates between bits of vivid description of the nursing home that mediate the speaker’s viewpoint as visitor, to the final four that reflect the mother’s startling perceptions. For instance, the phrase “wheelchair row” suggests the nursing home is another kind of “death’s row” or prison. The mother having to swallow “the horse pill of the world” suggests that not only her medications, but an entire lifestyle has been forced upon her over which she has no control or choice. On the lighter side, the poem chooses to end with the mother’s wit and wisdom, as the daughter’s commentary is no longer needed.  There is a sort of finality to the mom’s assertion: “I’m sitting in the Mercy Seat.”

My mom was a fundamentalist Christian who knew her scriptures well; so though it may seem bizarre and surreal to have her speaking this way, her words show that biblical imagery has seeped so deeply into her bones that it emerges even in dementia. Her tone is assured and confident, as if she is facing the end with aplomb. The speaker, in fact, calls her sayings, “the Proverbs of Phyllis,” to suggest that as a modern woman whose surroundings and situation have been difficult, she is to be respected for her wisdom. The mother in the poem has returned to a child-like state “before all divisions and theories.” By mentioning the nursing-home cat tiptoeing by “sentient, unconcerned,” the poem offers a non-human perspective on the scene. It tries to strike a balance between the utter “craziness” and pathos of Phyllis’s sayings and their truth for her: “Beware of chocolates./ Sometimes they shoot bolts of electricity.” Are we to cry or laugh? The shifting tone of the poem, its ambivalences and ironies, keep us on edge. In the end, I’d hoped the humour would rein supreme, but the poem moves us between sadness and laughter, remembering this woman with compassion.

This poem “Petrified at Every Turn” originally appeared in Auto/biography. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 172 (Spring 2002): 91-91.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.