Kamenetz's 'Terra Infirma': reconciling maternal fierceness

February 21, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

You can get into some of life's most useless arguments over terminology. But, pedants and prattlers aside, accept this truth: There are no more implacable enemies, no more distant opposites, than sentimentality and art. Simply, a Hallmark card is the antithesis of a Degas painting. "Kumbaya" is at the other end of the universe from Schubert's C Major quintet.

Another simple truth: Unless you are a devoted matricidal maniac, it is impossible to write about your mother -- how she brought you up and how she died -- without sentimentality.

Well, almost.

That near-impossibility has been accomplished with astonishing artfulness in "Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine" by Rodger Kamenetz (Schoken/Random House, 116 pages, $18).

Kamenetz is a professor of literature at Louisiana State University. A native Baltimorean, born in 1950, he decided at 15 he was to be a poet, went away to Yale and then wandered the country and the world for a good many years. He has published five previous books, three of them collections of poetry.

Kamenetz grew up in Baltimore's old Jewish subculture and ghetto-ish neighborhoods, which were rapidly dispersing when he was young. (They lived on Forest Hill Road.) Though his father was present, and provident, he plays almost no role in the book. The family revolved fiercely around his mother.

And yet until very late in her life, Miriam Kamenetz was entirely secretive about her own family. Only in the year in which his maternal grandmother was dying did Rodger and his sisters and brother learn that she had spent the last 30 years of her life in Springfield State Hospital, an insane asylum.

Not unusually for second- and third-generation immigrant families, Gentile and Jewish alike, there were disappearances, reappearances, lost siblings, dark secrets, bitter conflicts, profound unfulfilled needs. But it was only as an adult, long removed from home, that Kamenetz understood the details.

Jewishness infuses the family, the rituals, the typography. But the book's narrative is alien, somehow, to that Jewishness. It is elaborately explanatory, with no tendency, cause or need to be either apologetic or celebratory. The perspective from which Kamenetz explores the theme and role of Judaism ultimately is more anthropological than personal.

When finally, in his 40s, he decides to try to write about his mother and their closeness -- really more their connection -- he is artful enough to know it cannot be a chronological record, because "at best history aggregates, only poetry unifies."

And from that point on Page 3 onward, the book becomes a unifying poem.

Its first words are: "My mother died in the Church Home Hospice in Baltimore at the age of 54. Her last words were 'I love you.' The radio was playing 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head'."

From there on, Miriam Kamenetz is rarely not in the forefront of awareness. She was not a pleasant person: domineering, melodramatic, secretive. Yet somehow, almost magically, she is, on almost every page, moving, deeply affecting.

She ruled: "With her approval I was everything. Without it, I was depressed, miserable, and desperate." And: "She had made a career of being a mother. She had given it inordinate energy. I was dazed by the extra attention like a body burnt by too much sun. I was embarrassed by her love, that deep embarrassment a child has when he feels himself turning into an object. Yet I was in a double bind. It would be churlish to refuse her praise. It was going the only place it could go, to my head."

Her unrelenting intensities had to do with her fear of becoming insane, as her mother had. As a child, she had been passed from one relative to another and then to a foster home. She dropped out of school at 16. With her children, she was often angry, screaming, a sort of serial perfectionist who let the house get filthy and then in a "cleaning frenzy" would go into tirades of ordered domesticity.

"My mother made us crazy and yet we were crazy about her," Kamenetz writes. "She was a spoiled, powerful child, and we felt protective of her." When she dominates his own wedding by turning up in a long white dress, he writes: "My mother's will had a ruinous intensity. Its strength made me weak."

The book is powerful because of its amazing simplicity in dealing with immense emotional complexity. Not a word seems wasted. Not a phrase does not belong. It has exquisite, unforgiving discipline.

Yet it wanders, it digresses, it darts and flashes here and there without mapping the diversions. In doing that, it weaves ever more tightly the story, the "legacy" as Kamenetz puts it finally: the mysterious being of a willful, difficult woman who was both impossible and irreplaceable, both hated and adored, but who finally in this magical book emerges in all the intricacy of a human being. She is very much alive as, finally, she dies.

Miriam Kamenetz suffered painfully and terrifyingly from cancer for seven years before she died. Early on, Rodger Kamenetz asks, "What story is more sentimental than the death of a boy's mother?"

And yet, the story he tells never is. It is beautifully clean and clear, painful and lovely. "Dreaming begins in the womb," he writes. "The eyes of the fetus can be seen moving rapidly, and it is believed the brain matures through dreaming, that dreams provide stimulus in the darkness of the womb. Inside a mother each of us begins a dream."

So finally, of course, this is a book only tangentially about Kamenetz's mother. It is a book about growing up, about Kamenetz's own dream. It's about facing truths. Above all, it reveals something about courage and courage's elusiveness -- and shows that without courage, very little else, if anything, matters, or can work.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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