~This poem previously appeared in The Sewanee Review (2009)
When Odysseus descended to the underworld
and crossed the dark river to learn the key
to his destiny, he poured the ritual milk and honey,
the wine and barley and blood to summon the dead,
but he never expected to find his mother among
the shadows who were filled with mist and sifted
with the wind which had no source. He had thought
her alive and back in Ithaca expecting his return.
He had assumed the worst ordeals were his own.
But when he reached out, shivering as he wept,
to embrace the ghost, that wanderer found
no substance, no flesh nor blood nor bone,
and he must have felt as I did that first time home
when my mother’s mind had begun to wander
and she disremembered not only the laughter,
the lightning-struck chinaberry, the sunset
peaches and fireflies and the sharp smell
of catfish frying, but also her name and the fact
that she was sitting in her kitchen of fifty years
beside my father who stood there straining
not to wring his hands or surrender to the tears
welling around his eyes. She gathered her purse
her hat and wrap, then said, Please drive me home
before strangers take every damned thing I own.
Her eyes glaucous with terror, she was exhausted
and desperate, almost herself “an empty, flitting
shade,” as Homer says it, uncertain in her haze
whether she was moving toward or away
from what might be called the Great Dream.
When she sobbed and cried, Where is my son?
I, too, felt bewildered, and not even a seer
from the land of night and frost and smoke
could tell me what words would amount
to comfort nor which constellation to steer by,
nor where all this heart sorrow might end.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM
I don’t suppose anyone can accuse me of coyly deploying allusion here. Book 11, or “The Nekyia,” of The Odyssey has always held great resonance and terror for me. Circe has essentially told Odysseus that if he wants to find his way home, he has to go to Hell, where he will receive further directions, and Book 11 is the record of that haunted voyage and visit. While there, seeking the prophet Tiresias in the realm of shades, he encounters his mother Anticleia, whom he has not known to be dead. Dead, in fact, of grief over his absence.
I suffered a less dramatic shock the first time I visited my parents after my mother had begun to wander into dementia, but how much more horrible than my discovery it must have been for her to wander around in her familiar place now made strange and inhabited by strangers. And my father, to be counted as one of the strangers. What son, especially a distant and often elusive one, would not feel shaken?
I find some comfort in the fact that, between the time I wrote the poems and her death last year my mother had extended periods of complete lucidity, but I’ll never forget that first encounter with her lost among the shades. ~ R.T Smith
ABOUT R.T. SMITH
R. T. Smith is the editor of Shenandoah at Washington and Lee University, where he also serves as Writer-in-Residence. He also teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Converse College. His most recent book is Sherburne: Stories, and two of his collections of poetry, Messenger and Outlaw Style, received the Library of Virginia Poetry Book of the Year Award. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Smith lives in Rockbridge County, VA.