Thursday, October 10, 2019

Did You Know? Elizabeth S. Wolf

Did You Know?
Elizabeth S. Wolf
Studio City, California: Rattle, 2019
ISBN 978-1-931307-40-6
48 pages; $6.00

Review by David P. Miller

Elizabeth S. Wolf’s Did You Know?, a winner of the 2018 Rattle Chapbook Poetry Prize, tells a compelling story of family destruction and heartening (if incomplete) recovery. There is no sidestepping the fact that the engine is, yes again, male arrogance and devaluation of women. I’ll confess to a dilemma: I’d like to say more here than I will. A more extensive description would mean one spoiler after another.

There are two critical elements braided through this tale of severe dysfunction/recuperation. The first is the decision by Wolf’s lawyer father, in 1968, to deliberately conceal the fact that her mother had a degenerative disease – knowledge concealed from his wife and children, but apparently from no one else, including the mother’s parents. As she writes: “Believing the stress of naming the disease / would make it worse, my father chose / to be her guardian, the gatekeeper / of incoming information. He would tell her / when the time was right. He was certain / he would know / when the time was right” (“Tangled Web”). That time, unfortunately, never arrived, as the father suddenly died eight years later.

The second major element is the exceptional rejection of Elizabeth, the daughter, by her father and grandfather (also a lawyer). This is introduced by typically obtuse misogyny: “My father used to say there was nothing a girl could do / worth paying for. Girl talk was vapid” (“May 4, 1970”). It manifests in the casting-out of the daughter into a chaos of homelessness and foster care, beginning here:

My father made vacation plans with my mother.
He told me, you can do whatever you want
for the holiday, as long as it isn’t with us.
                I was 12.

(“The Center Did Not Hold”)

Sadly but unsurprisingly, her mother seems to have internalized not only a state of helpless dependence on her husband, but also his disregard for their daughter, who became the subject of a complex family shunning and bizarre institutional cruelties.

The secret inevitably explodes after the father’s death. This marks the beginning of Wolf’s re-integration into the family (grandfather excepted) and the steady remaking of her mother’s new-found autonomy, even as her body continued to degenerate. Wolf finds new personal strength, and crucially, a rebuilt and affirmative relationship with her mother. The crux of it is here:

Now there was an “us”:
the ones who did not know.

And with that I was restored.

(“That Night My Mother Called Me”)

Among stories of the mother’s developing self-image, “There Used to Be Rules” is one of my favorites. During a visit, Wolf experiences both astonishment and tenderness at what her mother truly considers an act of rebellion:

“I used the top sheet from one set
with a different fitted sheet,” she declared.
“I thought you’d get a kick out of that.”

I stared at the bed.

I stared at my mother.

But realizing that this is really a threshold moment, the daughter gives her mother what she needs:

“Wow!” I answered. “I thought I woke up
extra spunky. Now I know why!”

She turned and crutched down the hall, giggling.

As subsequent poems show us, Wolf’s mother moves well beyond this first stage of self-repair to become truly her own woman, even as her physical condition continues to decline. In “March 2004,” Wolf and her young daughter visit for the final time: its conclusion is one of the most moving passages in all of Did You Know?

The nuclear family’s healing (Wolf’s brothers included) does not, however, mean the rehabilitation of the father’s memory, nor of the grandfather’s after the latter’s death. The family damage these men did was their legacy, even as their professional associates held them in warm memory. “July 1993” begins: “When my grandfather died, / lawyers wept. The family / held a roast, presided over by his younger daughter, at a hotel / by the funeral home, / probably on his dime.” And Wolf’s mother was, at last, able to forgive all those who deceived her, “Except for my father. / He remained dead.” (“April 2004”)

And that’s enough spoilers for one review: there’s a lot more to discover in Elizabeth S. Wolf’s Did You Know? Only one concern: the boilerplate on the title page verso says “While the perceptions and insights are based on the author’s experience, no reference to any real person is intended or should be inferred.” Well . . . not true. Fortunately, this isn’t really part of the book. Was there no other legalese to use instead?