The complexities of mother-daughter love—the gravitational pull of natural affection working against the urgency for survival of an independent self—are the mysteries that lie at the heart of the poems in The Ledger of Mistakes by Kathy Nelson.
The book is about a relationship under pressure: the lifelong desire for a seemingly unattainable closeness, old unresolved conflicts, Alzheimer’s disease and the opportunities for reunion it forecloses, the recognition of a universal and inescapable mortality. Here, the natural world operates as both context and protagonist.
The Ledger of Mistakes makes the journey from grief to love reclaimed, from lament to the restoration of vitality. The poems range widely in form: there are sonnets, a pantoum, a villanelle, a rondelet, a triolet, as well as prose poems and more unconventional, fractured forms. While the work arises from personal experience, it achieves not journalistic autobiography, but, through language and image, the emotional truth that can arise from poetry.
Marianne Boruch, contemporary poetry scholar and author of Bestiary Dark, says of Nelson’s The Ledger of Mistakes: “’Why remember the dead?’ poet Kathy Nelson begins this sobering meditation, a descent and rise through what’s lost and sometimes found again, her keen eye on the natural world, her mother in the Bardo and in life, both trouble and love restored, unshakable grief, regret, triumph, mystery… And why exactly? Because we need these poems as lens, as touchstone. And such lovely, startling interventions of language and image! Vivid detail, layer upon layer—say, a ‘landscape stitched with fencerows’ (my italics), or to hold a breath ‘until someone unlocks the door.’ That someone is this most remarkable poet. ‘Last night,’ Nelson writes, ‘I found a hidden stairway leading down/into a maze of rooms…’ And what a rewarding gift for all of us, to follow her there.”
Kathy Nelson was the 2019 recipient of the James Dickey Prize (Five Points, A Journal of Literature and Art) and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. In addition to her two chapbooks, Cattails (2013) and Whose Names Have Slipped Away (2017), and her full-length The Ledger of Mistakes, forthcoming from Terrapin Books, her work has appeared in many poetry journals, including New Ohio Review, Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Stirring Literary Journal and elsewhere. Visit her at www.kathynelsonpoet.com.
Three of the poems from the book are presented below:
Excerpt: Three Poems from The Ledger of Mistakes
I Never Thought My Mother
would slip back in after she died.
How astonishing that she’s arrived
as a copperhead living under the porch.
I stand on the edge and scan the yard.
Mostly, I do not see her. But
in August, nearing birthing, she eases
onto the asphalt to let the sun
soothe the cold from her scales. She coils
about the drain spout or stretches
along the driveway’s grass fringe.
I know she is my mother because
her slow unspooling beguiles me. I know
her because I can’t take my eyes off her.
I watch with that same stitch at my sternum―
if I clear my mind of fear, we might
reconcile. I suppress my need for her
embrace. I imagine I am not the one
who needs escaping. At any moment,
her languid looping patterns could break
into lightning. My husband unlocks
the gun safe, warms up on a paper target.
She cares nothing about death.
She will return, one life to the next,
until I no longer need her.
Our Lady of the Locked Unit
From the valley of the shadow (Haldol, Risperidone), my mother
wakes, happy as a warbler in pine forest. She’s forgotten how to walk
but stands from her wheelchair, teeters like a baby bird perusing air,
or like Rodin’s Old Courtesan, or like the cripple at Capernaum.
This would be a story about miracles if it weren’t so full of sorrow.
Instead, I’ll call it Transfiguration.
Hello, Beautiful! she sings out
to the CNA. To the med Tech, I love you! No matter her serrated
syllables, he’s always cooed darlin’, perfect, kissing her cheek,
slipping Valium-laced vanilla pudding between her teeth.
In the dread-crippled, arthritic, word-terminal, decay-doomed room,
the lunch tray clatter slows and a line forms—the beleaguered faithful
gather for the Holy Mother’s blessing.And I, her famished acolyte,
don’t I ache too for that beneficence?
her bony palms enfold the maintenance man’s blameless hand.
To make that trip again across the Appalachians.
To set off at dawn, early spring,
make my way under the rising slivered crescent,
among the mountains’ stooped shoulders.
First blush in the crowns of redbuds.
Icicles dripping from road-cut schist.
When I arrive, she’s in the garden, as she was.
No diagnosis, no documents of surrender.
Only the smell of spring mud from the pond.
Tender buds of cattails, yellow forsythia.
She knows me—not the wrench
come to dismantle her life, but her child.
Her hands are full of the waste of winter,
cut stalks—yarrow, thistle—at her feet.
Then, between the leather of her thumb and
forefinger, she rubs the seedpods of moon plant,
teaches me to strip the dry husks,
let the lucent disks shine like silver.
Excerpts from the book are published with permission from the publisher.