M.M. Wittle's creative non-fiction chapbook Three Decades and I'm Gone is her personal story of the author losing her father in her first decade of life, her mother in her second decade, and nearly losing herself to her grief in her third decade. The story is mostly written in a linear sequence of vignettes of prose poetry with some traditional stanza poetry. This treatment of memoir in a chapbook/poetry form gives the popular genre a compact, accessible feel. One can take the tragedy of each decade piece by piece and still experience the fullness of the story because each bit is an independent thought or feeling that supports the story as a whole.
The Prologue, written in prose, is the memory of the family on a stormy night in which the then-six-year-old author and her twelve-year-old sister end up in their parents' bed and, ultimately, in a tickle fight with their father. It is an endearing look at the family before the father's accident and the mother's illness. The prologue also sets up the normalcy, including the safety and comfort of family that the author loses and will continually seek throughout the book and life.
While the pieces, for the most part, are prose poems, there is little lyricism. The pieces, numbered with Roman numerals instead of titles, are more like extra-short flash scenes that communicate a thought, feeling, or idea through memories. Sometimes, there is a disjointedness created by jumping in time and place between vignettes, but it makes sense and fits with the theme of feeling disconnected from life and people and the author working through issues in therapy.
An exception to the prose/poetry format employed throughout the work is poem XXIII. It is written in six stanzas of varied line length and recalls the lowering of the poet's mother's coffin into the earth and the ensuing week that covers it with snow. The author describes herself as "Not brave enough to turn back/and watch her final descent." She ends the poem by clearing the driveway of snow for her sister's return home and says that a piece of her own hair "whips around [her] neck/lacerating what remained of [her] life." It can be less taxing at times for a memoir writer to communicate a particularly difficult time within the beauty of structured poetry instead of simply peeling back layers and exposing raw prose. Wittle manages the message in the structure quite well this way.
Another striking element of this work, along with the writing, are the two photographs included. The first, numbered as vignette XXIV, says, "The only picture I have of my father and I" above it. The other 3/4 of the page is filled with a blurry black and white head-and-shoulders close-up of a balding man in a dark sweater with a little girl to his left. The photo is so washed out that the little girl's face is almost bleached away except the faint outline of her big toothy smile. The sadder of the two photos, vignette XXVI, captioned "This is the only picture of my mother and I," is another black and white image that contains no people. Instead, in the center of a grassy area is a flat gravestone partially reflecting sunlight and completely blurred. On the ground beneath the stone is the shadow of a figure of someone bundled in a coat. These two images beside the prose solidify the distance and isolation facing the author due to the deaths of her parents and the feelings of grief that haunt all of us who have lost a close loved one.
At sixty-two pages, including acknowledgements, Three Decades and I'm Gone is a quick read. It is a chapbook to revisit often for a cohesive story written in interlocking moments and thoughts that are relatable to those of us who have ever wondered if our losses have made us outcasts. It is a book to pick up when you feel disconnected because you've stumbled into a desolation of loss and grief of any kind. It's the book that reaches out to say, "Yeah, me, too." There isn't just a universality in Decades, but a story that evokes sincere empathy in the reader that can be labelled as universality, but it surpasses that because it is felt so personally. As much as any of the poetry in the book a line in the acknowledgements best sums up the theme explored by Wittle when she thanks one of her friends "for sitting with me the night my mother died and for showing me death doesn't make me a freak."
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