By Jeanne Lohmann. Fithian Press, 2016. 96 pages. $14/paperback.
This past summer I spent several very sweet afternoons sitting on a porch in Maine reading Grace Paley’s posthumously published collection of poems, Fidelity, to a dear friend whose eyesight has been troubling her. The poems are frank, direct, and mostly about one’s last days. They quickly led my friend and me into some open and intimate discussions about death and dying—something far too few artists seem to address with the kind of genuineness and honesty that Paley does.
Jeanne Lohmann’s Autumn in the Fields of Language, however, is a very worthwhile exception to that statement. Beginning with the first poem, “A Poem of Goodbyes,” Lohmann sets out to record her experiences and questions as she approaches her “soul’s direction.” “Who can say what we take with us,” she wonders, as she reflects on her life, eats “sorrow’s bread,” and thinks about going ”whole into the dark.”
This is a deeply honest collection of reflections on the known, the unknown, and the unanswered questions that bridge both. “Who knows if all our loved voices / will be the chorus carrying us into forever.”
Lohmann’s poems explore the need to “find another language” with which to embrace and record the final sacraments, to say “It’s been a good life / we had these years.” Her poems share her discovery that in old age we finally begin to understand that what we have learned in our lives points us mostly to the great mysteries of what we don’t know.
Unlike Paley’s last poems, which are often tinged with grumbling complaint (though never whiny, never unwarranted!), Lohmann seeks very intentionally “to die in gratefulness”—as the Galway Kinnell epigraphic quotation at the beginning her book suggests. Even when Lohmann turns briefly toward complaint, she very interestingly shifts from first to third person as in her poem “Diminishments” where she writes, “One damned thing after another / the old lady says to herself.”
Lohmann’s journey does not spare us the anguish of not knowing. It is filled with questions, hopes and fears about the “crossing over”; it is filled with the need to accept that each of us must “do this alone and without / a game plan.” She writes of the lullabies she once took comfort in, “Prayers I then believed / and slept the better for,” recognizing now that she often doubts “such old-time sentiment.”
The openness with which Lohmann seeks to maintain “some sort of equilibrium” in the last light before the “oncoming winter” is both striking and genuine. The sweetness of life continues to call, despite the fact that the “years are filled with dying.” At the end, she says, “May I rejoice in having had my say.”
These are poems of perspective and wonder, gratitude and curiosity about “the far side of time.” They raise the unspoken questions of “what if . . .” and offer us the pleasure of reading the reflections of someone who does not presume to know what is next.
As a whole, Autumn in the Fields of Language is a treasure. I will bring my copy with me to Maine next summer in the hopes that I will be able to read it to my friend. I think she will find comfort in Lohmann’s words, though because she is more frail than Lohmann apparently is, I am prepared for her to tell me it is a tad saccharine.
Death is a journey that each of us must ultimately travel alone. Finding friends to travel with us is, perhaps—like many friendships—both a gift and a bother. Each of us, like Lohmann, must find out how to “shoulder my way into wilderness” and accept the “flight of our lives’ last trajectories.”
Eds: Jeanne Lohmann passed away on September 26, 2016, at her home in Olympia, Wash., about five months after Autumn in the Fields of Language was published. She was 93 years old. A milestone for Lohmann appears in the June/July 2017 issue.