By Walter Bargen
Literary Press, Lamar University
Walter Bargen’s My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes lays bare the emotional burden, trauma, and quotidian drudgery of caring for a parent who has toppled over into dementia. Bargen’s mother looms large in this collection, in the past as a sometimes toxic matron and in the present suffering from severe mental degradation. Each poem frames Bargen’s relationship with his mother, or more truthfully, each poem frames the speaker’s relationship with his mother. It’s grim, this suffering, and Bargen taps his German roots for all they are darkly worth. Though My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes does gleam with hope, love, and humor, at times, it is not through this light that Bargen brings the reader. There is a gothic architecture to these poems, which at times are like hymns or prayers, and the poems resonate like dark Lutheran churches. Bargen isn’t preaching, however, he’s only visiting on account of his mother, who died long before her physical death.
Bargen delivers a kind of epic elegy. Many of the poems in My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes are about the speaker’s mother and her last years before she died. It tells the story of an impossible disease that does nothing but lay waste to the victim, not to mention the family, made worse by the toxic personality and history of the diseased. Bargen gives us a speaker who is scared, angry, and anxious about his mother who is no longer the woman who raised him. Every bizarre, almost Lynchian experience with his mother recalls the past. Every new delusion shakes the speaker, the cognitive dissonance of knowing the past and being included in a delusion is bracing. In many ways, these poems dispel the delusion, refract the brittle winter light of aging and dying.
Of the poems that are not explicitly about the speaker’s family, two earlier poems frame the collection’s spiritual exigency and the collection’s broadest motif. An ekphrasis poem, “Autumn Forests of Yushan” (from a scroll painting by Wang Hui (1668)) opens the collection; it ends with the stanza, “The day cloudy,/Shoes insist we keep walking./Each step unfathomable.” This is a spiritual declaration, we will go, one day at a time, despite the unknown depths unseen ahead. “Marching Orders”, another early poem, frames the war metaphors Bargen employs to honor his father and to describe his mother’s emotional influence, before and after the onset of dementia. Combined with the Germanic cultural tones, the metaphor allows Bargen to orchestrate notes with grand aplomb. And with the zeitgeist crackling with Nazi and World War II rhetorical and political and sociological comparisons, thanks to the rise of right-wing politics worldwide, Bargen’s motif chimes and echoes with the present. People do terrible things every day, often in the most ordinary way, and those who die young die heroes, while survivors age into curmudgeonly anti-heroes or bitter villains. Bargen tells this tale over the course of six-plus sections where he writes about family, love, relationships, and nature’s beauty.
To say the speaker has a complicated relationship with his mother is an understatement. The poems express love, admiration, fear, and rejection, and these emotions are refracted throughout the collection. Perhaps none so lyrically as “Leveraging” where Bargen invokes a kind of folklore surrealism:
The uncertain oaks draw
Back in a blurred boundless ticking.
She offers the company
Of the telephone book.
A depression glows as she picks
And polishes each chicken bone into a mirror.
Make a mother cry....
The moon cries a mother.
Another poem that distills the collection’s complex emotions is “Immortality” where the speaker encounters the dead in the form of junk mail and bills that pile up on the table, each of them wanting attention from his mother and father, who if were alive would not be able to attend to them. The poem circles and circles like the piles of mail itself, the snaking enjambment of long colloquial notes ends with: “Father, mother, when will you stop by to collect/ your mail, so I can stop opening it and filling out your surveys?/ What’s the difference--that we are never finished, just done?” The speaker continues to interact with the dead, the dead living on in the most ordinary ways. Again, Bargen’s not a cleric but simply pointing out that the key to the afterlife resides in the clerical, paperwork becomes a memorial and an almost alchemical way out of death for the dying while also being an emotional slap to the surviving: one day it will happen to you and life will just keep on keeping on.
There is humor and music in My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes, and Bargen clips together music and pop culture, history and family myth as these poems move toward the inevitable end. The title is a kind of recurring joke, gallows humor if you will, from his mother’s dementia. The Mercedes keeps rolling into view, in his mother’s memory and her delusions. Through this car, his mother disowns him, in a way, distances him from her, by claiming the speaker has another mother. Though this is painful for the speaker, it is its own kind of gift, a constant reminder that she is no longer the same person she was. How terrifying it must be to watch a person un- become themselves. How disconcerting, to question the past in the light of the present.
Bargen explores aging, a journey of care and reverse parenting with grace, reminding the reader that to care for our family with love is all we can do, and even so that it isn’t always enough. There is hope that powerlessness can bring, in the form of a song, a prayer or a poem.
Stephen Scott Whitaker is the managing editor of The Broadkill Review, his poems have appeared in Grub Street, Anderbo, and Oxford Poetry. He has new work in Toe Good and at Broadsided Press. His novel of weird fiction, Mulch, will be published by Montag Press in 2019.