This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. —Patrick O’Reilly
Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
96 pp., $20
THE MOTHER IS DYING, and soon. There are few new memories to be made, no place to keep them, and no time at all for rehashing half-forgotten romances and arguments. But what Susan wants most from her mother is a finished story, a memoir ideally, which could adequately sate her own curiosity. As the mother’s death draws urgently near, it becomes clearer and clearer to Susan that she is not going to get it, that whatever secrets, stories, even anecdotes her mother has will go with her. Like anyone else, the mother is both finished and uncompleted, leaving Susan with the fragments of a story and no satisfying conclusion. This lack of finality may be why Susan has become so consumed by Anton Chekhov, a playwright whose own life was both celebrated and scrupulously edited by his executors.
This is the parallel that drives Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths, the debut poetry book from Susan Paddon. Chekhov and Susan’s mother, both victims of respiratory illness, are imagined by Susan as similar figures: important, intriguing figures whose lives are the victim of redaction (self-imposed or otherwise), the details of which Susan is itching to discover. Other figures from Susan’s life have Chekhovian counterparts as well. Her withdrawn father and pregnant (and therefore reasonably preoccupied) sister share the role of Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s inconstant wife. Even Chekhov’s curious, admiring visitors are represented by Leona, the lonely next-door neighbour. The parallel strongly established, but also fairly flexible, allowing the characters to sometimes step out of their roles and exist as themselves.
It might have been tempting for Susan to cast herself as Chekhov in the ongoing drama, but she wisely identifies with Masha, Chekhov’s sister, to whom the opening poem of every section is addressed, and who protected Chekhov in life and death,. It may be that Susan’s frustrations stem from the fact that without answers to her questions, she is unable to protect, and control, her mother’s legacy as Masha did with Chekhov. These questions are elaborated on in the poem “Yellow” (34-35): “Who was Penny again? Why did you leave Fort Lauderdale? / Did dad ever write you letters? Are they under your bed?” Without these details, Susan is forced to focus on “record[ing]” the more observable aspects of her mother’s life. Susan soon reveals “I have already imagined after,” a telling line from a speaker who often alludes to her own authorial aspirations, adding a layer of meta-narrative to the book itself.
In reality, the mother is not an especially mysterious figure, and the answers are gradually meted out later in the text: a few youthful flings, maybe, a long-lost friend, nothing that rewards this level of curiosity from Susan. Instead, Susan chafes against her mother’s hesitancy to answer any and all questions; it confounds her, spites her, when Susan considers all she has given up to be at her mother’s side. Before returning to rural Ontario to care for her mother, Susan had lived an implicitly bohemian life with “J.” in Paris. The series of “Unsent Letter” poems, addressed to J., aim to establish a kind of Prozorovian nostalgia for the Paris Susan left behind. Unfortunately, these are generally unsuccessful. “Unsent Letter #2” reads
Today is the Ouvres Portes. On your way up the hill, you will pass three / boulangeries with meringue in their windows, resist each time because there / are milles feuilles on Boulevard Simon Bolivar worth holding out for. The street / cleaners will spray the sidewalks as you pass. (45)
The second-person voice, the future tense, the abundance of unnecessary French, all contribute to a sense of speculation, implying a Paris that is more imagined than experienced. Ultimately, the “Unsent Letter” poems only add to an already lengthy list of diversions from the main text, and reiterate Susan’s self-absorption.
Susan’s frustration is clear not only to the reader, but to her family as well, to the point that her mother, dependent though she is, suggests “Why not / get your hair cut? How about / giving Tammy a call?” (54). From Susan’s perspective, her father is only minimally attentive. The sister’s absence, encouraged by the mother’s insistence on not worrying her with details while the baby is due shortly, reawakens Susan’s impressions of favoritism and sibling rivalry, as depicted in the two poems titled “My Sister” (38, 64). Left with the burden of single-handedly caring for her mother, and without at least the compensation of a startling revelation from her mother, Susan’s resentment is understandable, but no less obvious.
This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. Susan’s development comes as steadily and surely as the mother’s death (another parallel), and pays off with the one-two punch of “Jacksonville” and “The Minister’s Visit.”
“Jacksonville” finds the mother in the hospital. Susan, sitting at her mother’s bedside, begins musing on her mother’s beauty, both her physical beauty and her inner beauty. As she’s thinking, a handsome young doctor comes in to tend to her mother. Susan identifies him as someone who could be swayed by her mother’s beauty, even by something as simple as the taste of her blueberry pie. She begins to imagine herself bargaining with the doctor, convinced that her mother’s beauty and her own grief should be enough to halt the train. For the first time, we sense how imminent and undeniable the mother’s death really is. For the first time, we see the depths of Susan’s fear and desperation, previously obscured by the daily business of caring for her mother. The bargaining gives way to a list which emphasizes her panic, a show of desperation and dependency which echoes the mother’s. “I want,” Susan says, “to show him the Jackson / shot to see if your beauty can inspire a miracle. / I want to shake him in to God” (91).
Within a few pages, the mother has died, disrupting the parallel. Susan is no longer Masha, or Chekhov; With J. leaving Paris for Egypt with her own mother, Susan is no longer even the Susan who writes in her journal and ruminates on her worldly past-life. Instead, in “The Minister’s Wife,” she assumes a third-person voice centered on Leona, the nosy neighbour. Leona is sitting on her couch when the minister arrives. She’s been expecting him (she had already assembled the ingredients for a consolatory quiche), but his appearance provides a concrete image of finality, a cause for external grief. “Oh, God no. Oh, God no.” she says. The speaker continues
….When she is finished, she cries
for everything bad that has ever been.
Not because this loss
is so great, but because loss
is a reminder of other losses. (96)
This is the apex of the book. Susan’s resentment and self-absorption are completely washed away by Leona’s tears. Through the actions and emotions of a (literally peripheral) other character, Susan comes to understand her grief as not hers alone. It is one grief of many, significant, but not singular.
These are strong poems, and when they appear they have real emotional impact. However they are two bright lights in a technically troubled book. Two Tragedies reads very much like a novel, to the point that calling it a “collection” feels inaccurate. Though this isn’t bad in and of itself (“novel-in-verse” is a genre for a reason), it leans uncomfortably close to prose. The poems push forward in a punchy, journalistic writing style, steadily chugging toward their destination, but there is none of the precision, and none of the metaphorical illumination, of truly great poetry. Whatever could be gained through metaphor, surprising enjambments, or complex metrical shifts is missed here. Any allusion to Chekhov’s life is inevitably underlined by the direct explanation of that allusion. Take, for example, “This House,” in which Susan compares her mother’s house to a stage:
No two props set more than three steps apart,
the distance she can travel now
without a pause. I am her leading stagehand,
Danchenko: driver, bodyguard. (20)
It’s a clear case of over-telling, drawing didactic lines to Chekhov in a way that overwhelms the poems. The sentences are concise to the point of fragmentation, and still somehow too heavy.
It would be more charitable to say that Paddon is as committed to telling Masha and Chekhov’s story as she is to telling Susan’s. Occasionally this leads to some stirring moments, like the catharsis of “Dearest Maria” (97). More often, it leads to the intrusion of epigraphs, allusions, and diversions from the more urgent contemporary narrative. Paddon makes frequent use of epigraphs from Chekhov, but these are not often in service of the poems, and sometimes appear to their detriment. “Chekhov’s Bishop Dreams” uses another favourite tool of Paddon, the bridging title. This first-line/title is immediately followed by an epigraph from Chekhov’s “The Bishop”, thereby interrupting the poem to no apparent purpose. It’s a glaring technical misstep, and the poem suffers.
The truth is Two Tragedies is a little overstuffed, indecisive of just which story it should be telling and how much to tell. Another pass of the editor’s pen, a stronger focus on Susan’s own story, and the omission of some less-effective poems and epigraphs (three before the first poem even starts), could have greatly served the book. That Susan finds solace in her reading and her writing is important to her character, and to her story, but it’s not the whole story. Nonetheless, when she’s focused, Paddon is capable of some of the most touching, human poetry I have seen in a while. It is her first book, and I’m more than willing to chalk up any missteps to earnestness, enthusiasm, and commitment to the idea.
Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”