Letters with Taloned Claws
Poems by Eileen Malone
Poet’s Corner Press, 2005
ISBN 0-9755972-9-9, 28 page, $12.00
Reviewed by M. Willitts, Hot Metal Press
You are probably wondering why I am writing a review about a 2005 chapbook. Sometimes a book needs and requires attention. This book is about a very difficult subject that deserves a lot of attention. It deals with schizophrenia paranoia. My wife had this diagnosis which affected her progressively for ten years. Even though no two people have the same type/reaction, I felt that this was important enough of a book to review. This book is about a mother with a son whose mental illness portrays the awful maze the patient’s mind is in. The book ends where the reader has to decide if the son has committed suicide. As a reader you have to decide what happened and if it about a real person. I will not tell you. I want you to read the book.
These words about how my son
stopped being my in
and made me his enemy
are too sad; they will cause you
to shy away, so I draw you in
(“Letters With Taloned Claws” pg. 1)
There is a risk about writing mental illness and/or suicide. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are the queens of this style and these poems do not have the same type or style of imagery (or I would not be writing this review). “Tranquilize him, chant the mental health professionals” (“What can You Do?” pg 10). You can feel the panic in these poems of a mother watching their child spin out of control and knowing you cannot stop or cure the illness. She captures the sense of overwhelmed that I had felt: “You watch this crazy woman weep” (“I Miss you”, pg 9). She is referring to the mental health professionals looking at her and doing nothing. She captures the struggle with Social Services and Mental Health to get help for her son that I had experienced for my wife/ Social Services and Mental Health are now designed to send the mentally ill back into society as quickly as possible. This has been in effect since Ronald Reagan did cutbacks in both services, and the agencies fed into the “modern/caring” idea that the mentally need to be “mainstreamed” into society. This justifies the Republican attack on “big government” and “tax cuts’ when it actually eliminate all Social Services because they do not like Social Services. So people like the boy and mother are caught in a terrible situation.
Behind the rolling back of his eye, in his cage of bone
the brain of your son convolutes, wrings itself out
obscenely warlike in abrupt swearwords, ease up, they say
love him for his lucid times, though less and hopeless
we’ve seen about what happens to him when you’re gone
schizophrenics don’t live that long
(“This Is What They Tell Me”, pg 12)
The old mental health system was terrible, but sending the mental patients into the streets has increased crime, homelessness, and other social problems. These poems capture this kind of terrible reality. In the poems, the son ends up almost like a wounded animal hiding in the family garage. Unfortunately, I knew something about this so I had to write a review about these poems.
This what Eileen said to me, “I speak for many others as well as myself. That is the most important purpose of the chapbook, to articulate for those who cannot. The first poem pretty much says that.” The book does not need to be her own personal experience, but it can be anyone’s personal experience. “To protect the privacy others involved, I've jumped from first, second, third person with no regard to who actually speaks, but rather utilizing the best mode to express the experience.” She speaks for the people who suffer, both the individual a well as the family members dealing with the individual.
There is a time when we write something so powerful it reaches deep inside us. “I felt compelled to write these poems for those who are like I once was . . . . colleagues arranged various readings and I was astounded at how many from the audience came up to me, in tears, shaking their heads at what they hadn't known or even suspected about serious mental illness and how our society seeks to avoid and deny it.” This is when the poem reaches the essential. It no longer matters if it is her personal experience. It matters that it becomes anyone’s personal experience. And even if they never had this personal experience they can still feel the essential sadness and shame: The shame of never knowing about these problems; the shame of ignoring the problem if they had seen a homeless person with dementia and never did anything about it; and, the shame and sadness for anyone affected:
“One contest judge e-mailed me and said for the quality of the poetry and the craft and the passion and the brutal honesty he wanted to award me first prize but his committee complained the subject matter was "too dark" for them . . and I replied well, let me tell you, it's too dark for me too.”
This kind of darkness terrifies us. We do not want to know it exists: “You prefer to live in our garage, a hermit/who spreads blankets like walls of silence” (“Two Doors” pg 6). Yes we are afraid of this kind of vision. “He was diagnosed at a slaughterhouse” (“Treatment Resistant” pg 22) and we do not want to know these truths are true. “The other thing that came up at my readings was that so many people live with a family member who is seriously mentally ill and don't realize it”. Yes, I lived with this type of terror of hopelessness a long time watching as someone I loved no longer was herself anymore and no longer knew who I was anymore. So of course I had to review an old book. I couldn’t be like other people who ignore what is right there in front of my eyes.
Causes Eileen Malone Supports
National Alliance on Mental Illness; Caminar; National League of American Pen Women; National Writers Union; Northern California Book Reviewers