In her intimate collection fretwork, Michele Glazer creates an expansive elegy that views loss from multiple vantage points. By not dividing fretwork into sections, Glazer builds a moving narrative focused on the loss of her mother and father. Yet fretwork is as much about Glazer finding her own place within the mourning of her parents. In poems closely related to her parents’ deaths, she grapples with death and her increased recognition of mortality, while in poems outside the central narrative, Glazer turns her keen gaze to other broken things—a cherry limb, a friend’s marriage, a garden plan, her brother’s benign tumor.
For Glazer, her mother’s mental decline initiates her loss, with neither mother nor daughter being able to recognize the other as invisible, inevitable death draws near. The separation of mind from body reverberates throughout fretwork, as Glazer struggles to determine what of an individual remains in a body where the mind is seemingly gone. Glazer recounts a phone conversation with her mother in “Yellow,” likely one of many repetitious check-ins of a child to an ailing parent. Even though Glazer can “recall to mind brightly” her mother sitting in her usual yellow chair, her mother is unfocused:
something has turned inside you
know there is something you
should be doing there
is no one who tells you what.
Formally, Glazer captures this mental upheaval by removing punctuation and creating line breaks that disrupt syntax. Words like “you” or “there” can attach themselves to what precedes or follows them, forcing readers to interpret how the words should go together, much like her mother must work to make sense of her days.
Dementia muddies Glazer’s established picture of her mother but also seems to clarify her mother’s basic wants and needs. In “Who never wanted,” Glazer and her family see their mother “barreling off, a locomotion,” yet “. . . there was / someone clearer, in her, / than she was.” Glazer also addresses this duality in “Asunder,” a multipage poem that has her mother’s death as its nexus:
But someone is missing
as she recedes. She is arranging chairs,
and spoons, and folding
and unfolding kleenex. Someone is present. She is
depopulating a pomegranate, she is removing the skin
from her thumb with her teeth, she is.
The complexity of her mother, and Glazer’s memories of her mother, have slowly broken down to such simplicities. A mother bobbing a balloon back and forth with others in her care facility. A mother “clad in how-unlike-her / lavender,” unable to recall a name. A mother whose head must be held “against the irreconcilable weight of it.” A mother who is matter, then is not.
Another multipage poem, “Wilds,” has Glazer reflecting on the diminishment and death of her father, “laid out in a room intended / for dining in a bed that uplifted // the body lying in it.” Here, the solid body of her father grows malleable, his mind confused, as he approaches death. Written almost entirely in present tense, “Wilds” jumps through the time leading up to and after his death as if Glazer is building a container for her father’s final breath. He questions, he promises, he sleeps. He “is / out of his mind” and inhabiting “a new body, fetal; and thin.” Glazer embraces her father’s last day as one slow action, where time bends and weaves around that brief, forever moment:
Stillness, be still
at the end
everyone was a moron,
bad daughter, taking notes.
not just any dead,
For Glazer, surviving her parents results in displacement, less from her surroundings than from the very human insistence in our own significance. As she implies in her opening poem, “Thereafter,”—a poem that recounts ornithologists’ attempts to recreate the sound of extinct birds and acknowledges the passing of the last white male rhino—loss begets vagueness. If the world we know is ending, Glazer suggests there might be consolation “in knowing // little, little flame. / We go out.” Yet loss also requires specific choices be made after our death—like burial or cremation, in “Clench”—which can be “more dark / than I thought possible” in the depth of grief. These choices also give mortality an unexpected and not entirely welcome intimacy.
In a third multipage poem, “Issue,” Glazer juxtaposes hearing her mother’s voice when she is not present with the record of twelfth century Cathar prisoners being blinded, but for one who retained one eye for the purposes of leading the group back to their homeland. The nearness of her mother’s death and the presence of her mother’s imaginary words lead Glazer to question if she, too, is losing her mind. “We have arrived at what we dread” she writes of the decline of those she loves, “dread / that is the one certain shore.” What Glazer has done or not done to support her mother in her decline, like sharing fresh mangoes, becomes an expression of the mortality of both:
That’s how it ends.
Without sweet fruit.
What happens is you fall out of sense out of order out of time.
It’s a parade.
In fretwork, Glazer asks us to consider our own place in that parade, our own march toward the end, never more so than in her two powerful closing poems, the titular “fretwork” and “Path of Totality.” The ornate imagery of the first —two crows in autumn bothering a raptor near an evening garden—echoes its title. The second poem captures the path of a solar eclipse, equating totality with a wish to remain in the exact moment between existence and absence. Both acknowledge the fret involved in working through grief. Both come to a discomforting conclusion that we might be better off if we acknowledged how small a part we play in the expansive universe. Even so, Glazer does not stop opening her gaze to things that have everything and “nothing / to do with us.”
About the Reviewer
Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.