For­est with Castanets

  • Review

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.

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