In Forest with Castanets, Diane Mehta gives herself time. The 96 page book contains 26 poems, ranging in length from a single page to the sonnets, titled, “Unholy Sonnets.” The book also contains two short essays, giving Mehta the space that only prose can allow.
In the first essay in the book, “Remember You Must Die,” Mehta looks closely at books on death in different religions, along with the only book of life she knows of, the one in Judaism, that “exists in concept only, not on the page.” She shifts to speaking of her mother’s final days, how she dreamt she was signing the book of life, signaling to everyone that she would soon die.
This framework is important, but the real strength of the essay comes when Mehta pivots to her mother’s “book of books”: a list of every book she had read (481!) between 1974 and the mid-eighties. “Lists tell a story,” Mehta suggests, as she explains how there were names on the list of prose writers but also books, indicating her mother’s confusion — books on aging, on back pain, on what to do with the meaning of one’s life. The book of books functions like a poem, with each line opening some greater world of insight for Mehta, a form of documentation that showed not just her mother’s conscious headspace, but her unconscious one.
Mehta gives herself the same space in “Unholy Sonnets,” a crown of sonnets that rests solidly in the middle of the book. These sonnets address love, but love turned inward, as the speaker confronts her own body and how it relates to her environment. Also in these poems is the fog of grief that comes in flashes, in lines like, “And then, in a flash of knowledge, / repose. Undignified, I wouldn’t find myself / So true to something, even, yes, an absence.” This line seems to refer to “Remember You Must Die” when she says, “She [her mother] may not have died in a dignified way, but that doesn’t matter.”
The fog of grief appears, often, as real fog, most notably when she writes, “My disembodied shape is fog between concrete. // Summer drift. Is this what love is?” This self-reflection of environment onto the self is a strength in these poems, which are grounded in place, but a place that keeps shifting, much like one’s relationship with grief changes. No sonnet stays in one place too long but they do fight to find beauty in each place, with lines like, “Sky brightens to blue, pulpit trees say believe.”
Forest with Castanets gives Mehta, and by extension the reader, time to move through the emotional moments that collect around a large event. This time is a kindness, one we are lucky to have Mehta share with us when life is so often cut short.
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes is a writer and editor. Her book, Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, is forthcoming from Mason Jar Press.