Rebecca Aronson’s Anchor provides consistent reminders of what it means to be part of a family, to be human, to be embodied. This collection of poems brings together the themes of death and grief, anxiety, and identity like materials forming a nest—each is delicately intertwined with the other so that, at each line, readers can simultaneously experience the pain of loss, reminders of our mortality, and the anxiety that comes with loving and living in our contemporary world.
This collection readily conjures the concept of memento mori as the poems remind us that we exist in fragile bodies that are destined to fail. This comes through with mentions of cancer, canes, legs filled with fluid, falling, forgetting, hospital corridors, “dry thin paper skin,” stopped breathing. The speaker claims that the body is “its own trench,” and that just as chrysanthemum feathers are temporary, so is everything else. Despite acknowledging the briefness of life, the speaker never quite accepts the inevitability of death, noting that “everyone dies is not a helpful truth,” and “I am unprepared for the death of anybody.” She goes on to define grief as something unwanted but necessary:
those awkward pointed stars
there is no easy way to hold,
and I wanted to set mine down
just as I want to now.
And later: “grief is in you from the start and in you at the end.”
Just as grief is a necessity, so is the responsibility placed on the speaker as a daughter caring for ailing parents. This responsibility takes its toll, and the poems express clear apprehension and show that the pressure of caretaking can take away our lightness, leaving us as sunken versions of our former selves. The speaker returns again and again to the agony brought on by her father’s illness, pain only made worse by a loss of balance that often leaves him bleeding and injured. Along with this loss of balance are many references to gravity, a concept that becomes a devious and unrelenting character in this collection. The speaker calls gravity out for what it has done to her father, stating, “so once again, you knock my father to the ground,” and “you dislodge / an old man from his own center, my father / subverted.”
While the speaker blames gravity for hurting her father, she also notes that it’s what kept him tethered to the earth through a difficult illness, even though, toward the end, he was “stretched between realms.”
Anxiety and identity are additional themes intimately woven into most poems in this collection. The speaker experiences anxiety as a woman, mother, and caretaker to her parents. Further, there is anxiety about death, the unpredictable nature of our bodies, and an ever-changing and tumultuous world. As woman, as caretaker, the speaker is uncertain about her ability to tend to her aging and ill parents, her arms lacking “the gym muscles of a good son.” Her experience of motherhood is also full of trepidation as it is characterized by an “endless falling and fear of failing.” However, while motherhood has its difficulties, it’s also a source of joy for the speaker as it has provided her with imagination, with a “boy whose cells / are also” hers.
Discussions of motherhood expand to address the speaker’s relationship with her own mother. The speaker’s love for her mother is apparent in the poems as she laments her mother’s battle with dementia. Even so, there are moments where the complicated nature of a mother-daughter relationship comes through. For example, an entire poem in the collection is devoted to listing what the speaker’s mother doesn’t approve of, while in another the speaker expresses that her mother didn’t understand her: “You who mothered me . . . Who looked / but could not decipher what you saw.”
A friend claims the speaker lives in her own head, a truth that is evident as she grapples with climate change and things gone wrong. She also questions the importance of her own struggles as compared with the many pressing social and political issues going on in the world. This mental chaos leads to moments where the speaker longs to escape her circumstances “like a flash of something disappearing fast into tall grasses,” yet she remains steadfast in her role as mother, daughter, and caretaker, and appears to turn toward hope: “I carry hope on my hip / like a weapon I’m always ready to flash.” All of this speaks to the overwhelming emotional labor placed on women, even in the midst of immense loss and grief.
Anchor is an apt title for this collection, as it connects to gravity and embodiment—we are tightly held to the earth, to our bodies, realities that are both comforting and disquieting. We can’t escape our own bodies or aging or the injuries and illnesses that plague us. Rather, we are who we are because we are embodied. However, “anchor” isn’t always a metaphor for uneasiness in this collection. Where there is grief, there is family connection, love, and care. Where there is fear and anxiety about the state of our world, there is compassion for the earth and for others. Aronson gently reminds us that our humanity is what anchors us but also what allows us to float “loose from the weight and heartfeel / of our earthbound and bleeding forms.”
About the Reviewer
Kristin LaFollette is the author of Hematology (winner of the 2021 Harbor Editions Laureate Prize) and Body Parts (winner of the 2017 GFT Press Chapbook Contest). She received her Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University and is a professor at the University of Southern Indiana. Learn more about her work at kristinlafollette.com.