Books of the Dead: A Memoir with Poetry by Alan Catlin

If you’ve ever been to poetry readings in the Capital District, particularly to my Third Thursday reading at the Social Justice Center, or have read much of the small press zines in the last 25 years or so you would have heard or read poems by Alan Catlin. He is one of the most-published poets in America, & keeps cranking them out, telling his stories in the language even the barflies at the Washington Tavern can understand. &, full disclosure, Alan is a personal friend who has over the years steered innumerable poetry zines & many of his own books my way, & a colleague & former board member on the Hudson Valley Writers Guild.

Again, if you’ve heard Alan’s poems over the years you are bound to have heard about his late mother, a schizophrenic former patient at Pilgrim State Hospital (like Allen Ginsberg’s mom, Naomi). Books of the Dead: A Memoir with Poetry (Pure Heart Press, Main Street Rag) brings all that together under one cover. Actually, it is 2 memoirs, one centered around cleaning out his mother’s hotel room after her death, “The New York City Book of the Dead,” the other about taking care of his father’s & step-mother’s estate after their deaths in Florida, “The Central Florida Book of the Dead.” Both are a combination of prose sections & poems, like a twisted, claustrophobic 21st Century Basho haibun.

His story of cleaning out his mother’s things from room 641 of the Martha Washington Hotel for Women in New York City is voyeuristic & chilling. Alan includes some of his mother’s own writings as a Fun-House mirror/window into her world, including letters she wrote to him & her musings on health from her compulsive reading. Her writings are upsetting as we witness the line fracturing between the “normal” world of a mother’s advice & the schizophrenic’s short-circuited delusional world. Equally frightening is the tale of a grandma letting her 3-year old grandson steer the car, or her attacking her son’s wife, prompting an angry banishment. These are the impossible decisions family members must make to deal with someone they love but who poses a danger to themselves & others.  It is a sad, mind-wrentching story of an embattled son in a role-reversal with his troubled, impossible mother.

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“The Central Florida Book of the Dead” takes up the final 3rd of the volume & has the surrealistic feel of Kafka’s The Castle, with the poet & his family trying to make their way through the insensitive bureauacracy of hospitals & the bizarre Dali-like landscape & characters of Florida. A political commentator would make it a cry for a National Health Care system, one that doesn’t enrich the insurance industry, one that covers working people & poets too. Alan’s book is a example of how a sensitive, engaged poet, can turn a personal memoir into both poetry & a commentary on pressing social issues of the times.

 This post originally appeared on Dan Wilcox’s blog on September 29, 2014.

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