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Poet Barbara Edelman’s debut collection explores the experiences of adult children and aging parents

“My mother is short, my mother is bent, / my mother is sick of living.”

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With some 46.2 million U.S. citizens ages 65 and older, and life expectancy near a peak, it often falls to the adult children of the elderly to become caregivers as parents reach senescence. This is a fact of life that many Gen Xers like myself must grapple with, and it’s the focus of some compelling writing in Barbara Edelman’s first full-length poetry collection, Dream of the Gone-From City (Carnegie Mellon University Press, $15.95).

Edelman, an Illinois native, has earned degrees from Colgate University and the University of Pittsburgh, where she currently teaches writing and literature. She’s received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant, and won the Turow-Kinder Award in short fiction. She’s also a daughter, using 86 pages to explore this dynamic from the lens of both child- and adulthood.

Her poetry reads strongest when the figurative language stacks up. In “Evening Song,” she begins, “My mother is short, my mother is bent, / my mother is sick of living.” Here, the ailments of old age become descriptive and metaphorical, as if the body is all there is. Edelman pivots later, writing, “she’s a marvel, a maze, I’m amazed / that she can still feel marvel: at the lilacs, / the ducks, at the purple-gray weight of the storm cloud / distending.” The stellar mix of wordplay and imagery points to life’s complicated nature.

Edelman continues in this vein, with the speaker considering her father’s dementia on a visit to his nursing home in “Maple Grove.” The poem swings between past and present, while considering how loss of memory equals loss of identity. Of one moment, she writes of him saying, “‘Piss, Shit.’ A man who / never swore, who never liked my mother’s cussing in her two / mother tongues (though he admired her flair for juxtaposition).” There’s a sense of irony throughout the lines, giving readers a chuckle in recognition of realistic moments like these.

While some poems rely on dreamy surrealism, it’s elegies like “For Patti” that keep it real, allowing the speaker to explore her own shared past. Here she writes of her “arm in arm partner” and their girlhood adventures in “my cow town shit hole /… my pay phone bomb scares… / my cornfield arrests.” As in much of Dream…, Edelman uses physical and mental loss as an effective means to contemplate formative time spent with meaningful others.

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