On
Retirement

75 Poems
Robin Chapman,
Judith Strasser,
Editors

(University of Iowa)
When Betty McDonald was in the TB hospital, they brought in dinner trays at six in the evening and each one included a "Thought for the Day," the equivalent of a Happy Face. With her pork-chops and mashed potatoes, she'd get

    Ideas are like children; there are none so wonderful as your own

or

    If you want the rainbow, you must to put up with the rain.

She'd find herself thinking, "I wonder what knucklehead thought that one up?"

So it was for us with the title, On Retirement. "We can certainly do better than that," we thought. Gold watches, letters of appreciation, a small, embarrassing luncheon. And once out the door, the old graybeard forgotten forever. That's what the title reminded us of.

But, surprise: The poems avoid, mostly, that moist sentiment that we get when people start talking about the Send-Off. Ishmael Reed tells of the closing of a bank branch in his neighborhood and having, instead, to go to the place in town with "latte cafes" and "art cinemas," and the bank "will make phone calls to / See whether I am who I say..."

Grace Paley writes, "Here I am in the garden laughing / an old woman white heavy breasts / and a nicely mapped face." The "old guy" in Wesley McNair's poem is "stunned by the failure of his heart." "Spy with me," writes Klipschutz, "on this train going nowhere,"

    no wonder
    I keep losing
    my desk.

"I know the future, / that iron door, / will be there waiting / no matter what / I have baking in the oven."

§     §     §

It gets harder for us to drive from here to there. All those fuzzy dials: we can either see the road or we can see how fast we are going, but not both. That's all right. It's the Heisenberg uncertainty principle --- you can know where you are, or you can know how quickly you are getting about ... but you can't know both.

I'm a little uncertain myself about my driving, but I don't want to scare the clients (the children and the grandchildren and soon-to-be-gone friends); I see that they put on their seatbelts with an alacrity they didn't have a couple of years ago. We just don't have the power we once had; it dribbles away so easily, so silently.

The young: they get sick, get well, fall, break an arm, but it all comes back together in an amazingly short time. Carolyn Kizer writes about them:

    Eyes closed to news we've chosen to ignore,
    We'd rather excavate old memories,
    Disdaining age, ignoring pain, avoiding mirrors,
    Why do they never listen to our stories?

Susan Elbe says "In the too-bright bathroom light
I splay my starfish hands"

    the rambling veins now
    less like fine-penned blueprints
    and more like bare-branched trees.

And for Stephanie Cohen,

    Our children turn into adult strangers
    holding babies, who wave goodbye.

This is a brave and good and funny compilation. It won't mitigate our fears, but at the very least it will convince us that we are not alone.

--- Rebecca Watson