The author of this intimate collection is well-known American feminist poet and essayist Katha Pollitt. Following on from her previous works, The Mind/Body Problem maintains a note of social criticism, although here it is subdued by the more private and urgent theme of nostalgia for things and times passed.
Divided into three parts – “The Mind/Body Problem”, “After the Bible” and “Lunaria” – the collection comprises around fifty short poems.The first section displays an extensive scale of collected memories gathered from personal stories, conversations uttered and remembered, and gentle fleeting impressions. The main theme of nostalgia emerges in a subtle manner, but with an extraordinary and varied impact. We are presented with objects carrying memories, objects long forgotten or never found, and objects displayed in order to be remembered. In “A Chinese Bowl”, Pollitt transcripts an inner dialogue between an objectified memory and an ageing mind:
I drink from you,
clear green tea
or iron-bitter water
that would renew
my fallen life?
Then, in “Visitors”, we get to know people once met and now distorted in the dim light of the past:
Of course. I almost cried out: “Madame
Champrigand!” Who taught us girls Topaze
and the belle logique of the pari-mutuel system –
and there was a long pause
before I thought, but she’s been dead for years.
This happens not infrequently – more often
too as I get older – the dead appear.
The second section wavers between the shared theme of nostalgia and explorations of religious themes, whether indirectly reflecting a day-to-day reality of infidèle married life, as in “Martha”, or presenting more straightforward Biblical references, such as in “The Expulsion.” Although the poems in this section are exquisitely written, they do not resonate with the spontaneous feeling of private soul-sharing we hear in the other two sections.
This openly-confessed intimacy is best illustrated in the final part of the collection. Here we get a taste of the saddest verses, filled with reflections on time and the sudden realisation of being older than you ever thought possible. Pollitt does not hesitate to reveal the twin processes of physical and mental ageing and the pains and worries that this life-long union presents. She ponders how, from childhood on, one grows to understand what Life is supposed to be about – or even if it does not seem to make any sense. The character of this collection is epitomized in the poem “What I Understood” with all its nostalgia, its bittersweet memories and its almost tactile note of the ephemeral nature of present days:
and when my grandmother
screamed at me, “Someday you’ll know what it’s like!”
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
In conclusion, it truly is the collection’s first and title poem “The Mind/Body Problem” which sets our expectations for the volume. Personally, I find this to be a slightly unfortunate choice as opening poem because its verses seem quite distant from the rest of the collection. Its stronger feminist nature might lead to a slight confusion as to the content of the collection. Nevertheless, despite this minor discord, this is a lovely and rewarding collection of touching verse that points straight to the substance of growing older and increasingly reminiscent.