Watching the Perseids
by Jed Myers
Sacramento Poetry Center Press
1719 25th Street, Sacramento CA 95816
2014, paper, 83 pp., $15.00
Reviewed by Thomas Hubbard
My stepfather wept often during Mum’s last year. Fear and shock shone from way back in her eyes, behind the blank stare. Her knowledge of who and where she was had already left. Dementia had stolen her brain, and after a final year of total helplessness, she passed — Mom was gone and it was finished. Dementia took her away from us, then killed her, and her long dying deeply scarred both my stepfather and myself.
If only Jed Myers’ book, Watching the Perseids, could have come fifteen years ago, the pain could have been far more bearable.
A bit of a father figure among Seattle’s community of poets, Myers is a psychiatrist with a solidly established, well-respected practice. His beautifully-written, poetic observations show us how — with love, respect and dignity — he navigated the passing of his father, who died of a brain tumor.
In the showing, Myers has given to us a master’s collection of poems, all interconnected by themes, by rhythm, and by a son’s strong, quiet love and understanding of his father. He has given us a guidebook and an anthem.
Inter-generational continuity flows through both of this collection’s two parts, “Until” and “Since,” serving as an overall theme. Myers’ subtle but ever insistent reminder that we are all made of the stuff of stars — atoms of our composition being without beginning or end — sparkles here and there throughout the book, and as suggested by the title, defines it.
“Cruising Home,” this collection’s opening poem, has Myers and his already bedridden father reminiscing on a winter day about “…evenings playing catch before dinner, / the night his father died….”
And farther down in the same poem,
….He couldn’t say
if it’s October or March—it’s neither.
But this his last February is
itself a river of what
we, together, happen
to remember. He clears his throat,
windpipe boggy already
since he’s reclined—he tells me,
in that gravelly stutter,
his feelings have gotten too strong.
Oh, he knows they’ve been there,
inside his chest all along…
since he was the young man he was,
cruising home from work in the Buick,
becoming and becoming my father—
now it’s harder….
Myers admits, in “Selfish Wishes,” that the limitations his father’s work made on their times together leave him short of complete satisfaction with their shared life. “…What about dinner? / I’d ask. He wouldn’t answer….”
…I wanted more. I’m ashamed
to come clean. Take the train to Rome,
perhaps find the oldest synagogue
together. Just look at it still standing—
we might not even enter.
But work. It came first….
The mention of train in this poem is first of several scattered through this collection. Trains were an important mode of travel in his father’s eastern city life, working in Philadelphia and New York. Also Myers mentions his father having played clarinet. Music becomes one of several minor themes that run throughout, as does water, also mentioned here.
Further along in “Selfish Wishes,” we see,
…I have to add how I wanted
to hear him play that old clarinet—
he led a swing band with it in high school!
I had the thing fixed, but he wouldn’t
pick it up for a minute, even
when he was well. I didn’t get it.
But he sings the old hits more and more
as his brain’s taken over by the tumor.
He laughs and weeps more easily now.
I’ll have to let his bed and my chair
beside it be where we meet on the shore
of that distant water….
These themes, these words, repeat and repeat without being intrusive or their repetition even being too obvious. And they give both of the book’s parts almost a feeling of being one continuous poem. Myers seems to have designed and assembled this collection so that every detail supports other details, creating beauty, interest, and a sense of human proportion and, most interestingly, a pronounced structural integrity. Reading through it brings a whispered subliminal pleasure, like the physical comfort one might experience while spending the afternoon in an architect’s house.
A sense of quiet grace glows within the family’s agreement regarding hospice care. The poem, “No IVs in Hospice,” shows us how his father’s comfort in that certainty of his last few days becomes the priority, displacing the family’s wish for more time, more goodbyes.
If we get more water into him
he could liven up, enough
perhaps to enjoy our visit.
No IVs in Hospice. He sips
the diet coke he loves from a straw
we place between parched lips.
But his thirst is almost lost.
Hunger’s gone. He hurries,
lying there in his pale blue gown,
off to a meeting. He’s got to
get on that train….
Additionally, this and several later mentions of trains underlines it metaphorically as vehicle for one of the collection’s tenors — Myers’ father’s constant striving, his work ethic.
A sense of his father’s presence lingers even after the funeral, an experience familiar to anyone old enough to have lost someone close, and emerges in this book’s second part, Since, where we find the title poem, “Watching the Perseids.”
The broadcast’s breaking up in static—
solar flares, snow, ozone
fluctuations, I don’t know.
Should I care? I can still play the message
my phone captured one year back—
“No Time for Love” he sings
the refrain in that same boyish tone
I’d heard come from him over a steak,
or climbing the bleachers to our seats
my hand in his, before
a night game at Connie Mack. Even
on his way out in the cold in the dawn
to catch the train, singing whatever
he said—his brisk See ya lat-er!
down the steps. See ya to-night!
Singing the tireless dance of his life—
he left no time in it for the quiet
closeness of watching the Perseids
or the river from its banks….
And so the memories shared at his father’s bedside, the observations of the man’s dwindling and final passing, the gradual acceptance of his absence, the going forward — all sprinkled with the themes of his and his father’s life and times, run through Myers’ book even to the very end, where in the last few poems he brings all the parts together, the water, the trains, the music, the stars, the living, immortal atoms, and his tender love for the father who raised him. In this telling of his father’s story, Myers marks the continuity from his grandfather’s father through to the three children Myers himself has fathered and reared, and in the doing he renders more bearable the pain and sorrow of losing a loved one.
This is a book for parents, their children, and those they love. It is a shrine built of profound truths.
Another version of this review appears in The Cartier Street Review, august 2015, an online magazine.
Thomas Hubbard, a retired writing instructor and spoken word performer, authored Nail and other hardworking poems, Year of the Dragon Press, 1994; Junkyard Dogz (also available on audio CD); and Injunz, a chapbook. He designed and published Children Remember Their Fathers (an anthology) and books by seven other authors. His book reviews have appeared in Square Lake, Raven Chronicles, New Pages and The Cartier Street Review. Recent publication credits include poems in Yellow Medicine Review, spring 2010; I Was Indian, ed. Susan Deer Cloud, Foothills Publishing, 2010 and Florida Review, and short stories in Red Ink and Yellow Medicine Review. He serves editorially with Raven Chronicles and The Cartier Street Review and he blogs about writing techniques for WordCraft Circle of Native American Writers and Poets.