Looking back and within, Blaine Marchand’s recent Becoming History: A Life Told Through Poetry (Aeolus House, 2021) is a touching and skilful blend of prose and poetry drawing from family photographs, letters, and the author’s own childhood as one of eight siblings, then as the good adult son watching over his elderly mother. Not only is the writing itself a pleasure to read, tight and vivid, this remarkable tribute to the late Kathleen Dorothy Marchand (1913-2016) also gives a warm nudge to memory for anyone having grown up mid-century. Precise detail after detail calls back little moments in everyday life from that earlier era.
For example, from “Equations”, in elementary school before even ballpoint pens were invented: “I look over my workbook, / rub out number after number, brush / what the eraser leaves behind / into my palm, roll the bits/ down my finger with my thumb”—Oh, the bane of those messy eraser filings!
Or, from “Shh”, in the 1950s when money was tight, trying to massage margarine to look like real butter so it would appear more palatable: “ . . . No longer the salty taste / of butter on bread, now you squeeze / the orange round in the white margarine bag / and we all make faces when you serve it.” No substitute for the real thing!
In “Selling Out”, well chosen, sensuous details lead inward to flesh out character: “Father disapproves of him – his manner, his suit, / his promise of more money, his praise smooth as whipped butter. / A little too close to home, to something my father resents, / prefers to forget – the pluck and polish of Granddad, / his golden tongue when he sees business coming his way.”
In the final section of the book, Marchand poignantly describes tending to Dorothy as her death draws nearer. Lines such as “In the glass cabinet, the prized / bone-china teacups, hand-painted, / unstained, never warmed by tea” from “In Keeping” recall the careful habit of saving fine possessions “for good”—that near-mythical Special Occasion. In “Darkness Coming Sooner”, the graphic opening “Help me out, help me out. Your hands tap / your forehead to dislodge the word”, makes physical the troubling memory lapses, presaging Dorothy’s end when “your breath becomes almost imperceptible, / the burr of hummingbird wings, / as your chest rises and falls.” It was moving to be so reminded of my own mother’s final days in her 95th year.
Becoming History is a beautiful book, one that in documenting a simple, long life brings us closer to our own humanity.