REVIEW: A HOUSECOAT REMAINS | BY TINA BIELLO

Guernica Editions | 106 pages | Fall 2015 | $20.00 | Purchase online
Review by Vanessa Shields

What happens to a family when aging and disease become its main storyline? In an attempt to keep the heart and mind connected, memories become medicine and hope sews them together. Tina Biello’s A Housecoat Remains is the quilted result of such a dedicated project — the project of remembering, reflecting, grieving, giving, and, essentially reclaiming the identity of the living poet who remains.

In a sentence, Biello’s second book of poetry is a collection about a daughter’s experience navigating under the darkening cloud of Alzheimer’s disease that is taking her mother. But oh, how this collection reaches into the deepest layers of family, history, disease, loss, aging, tradition and identity – and leads the reader, essentially, into her self through an emotional spark plug of awareness.

Reading Biello’s poetry made me pause, grip the book to my chest, and weep. Alzheimer’s disease is slowly ravaging her mother, and as it does, Biello uses poetry to help herself remember – remember her mother’s past, remember her relationship with her mother before she began to change, and remember to forgive her mother and herself as the disease progressed.

Today Mom hits me
right across the cheek.

I cry.

She walks the hall.

I sit on her bed. Look at old pictures. Try to remember.

(From “How to Pray”)

Biello’s honest pain and pure love for her mother is revealed as each poem takes the reader through the progression of the illness. How the disease renders common happenings like cooking and dressing to a painful memory. What arises is a keen awareness of what’s missing, of what once was – the smells, the sounds, the patterns that defined her mother, and Biello’s own experience as a daughter. I could feel Biello’s joy when her mother recognized her, and feel the pain when her mother could not. For those on the path of living with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, A House Coat Remains is a poetic offering of ‘how-to’ remember.

Born to immigrant parents, Biello’s upbringing is seasoned in ritual—the food that is cooked, the attitudes and interactions between women and men—all of it a part of who Biello is. It is all challenged when the matriarch, the solid centre of the family, begins to lose her self. The poet in Biello writes to remember and reflect – not only on her mother’s past but on her own past as well. Taking us back into her childhood as a ‘witness’ to her mother, and as a university student learning about money from her father; to the kitchens and gardens that filled her nose with smells, and her hands with skills to grow the best tomatoes, the reader becomes ‘witness’ to the blooming of Biello herself.

This poetry is storytelling through rhythm and wisdom. I can hear the knives chopping. I can smell the garlic. I can taste the tomatoes.

Peeling garlic for yesterday’s meal
I was suddenly outside, looking in.

This is how you peel garlic.
This smell is how you will know us.
We are in your hand holding the blade
When all thoughts arrest,
Removing thin skin so carefully.

(from “A Circle of Women”)

Though the immigrant experience may not be known to all, nor the experience of a loved one suffering from disease—death, love, grief—these are emotions that transcend land and religion, language and time, and Biello beautifully puts to poem these relevant themes.

Exemplifying a poet’s awareness of the simple daily-ness of knitting, gardening, cooking and reading the newspaper, one is transported into the layers of Biello’s life. Poems bloom and display a dichotomy of life pre, during and post Alzheimer’s gray hold, and are dappled with pieces about how to write through and love through this life-altering experience.

I have come from the bed where my
lover sleeps, to write.
All the poems in the world begin here:
watching to see if the ladybug will move.

(from “Seasons”)

Through Biello’s reaching back she is able to recreate and cultivate her own identity. Her simplicity of language enables an accessibility that is crucial as the themes she writes about are very complicated and layered, yet common human experiences. It is precisely the humanness of her writing that makes it so strong and powerful.

As she watches her mother’s ‘self’ disappear, and with it, the memory of her daughter (Biello), we can feel the loss of connection, though not of love, through Biello’s words.

Now mother, can you hold me again?
Your stiff body bars access other than a lift and a turn.

You who had the strength to birth eight children,
exhausted.

Your eyes open. Close.
Face wrinkles up. I touch your forehead, you relax.

Ripped from your womb,
now you are ripped from my life.

(From “Now Mother, Now What?”)

The humanness of her poetry is a wrench in the heart—with a push and a twist, for the death of her father hits hard as well. Important connections to her father are not untouched. “Facts About My Father” is a poignant numbered list poem that pulls us close to him like fresh panini to a bowl of sugo (sauce). The only opening into her father’s coping with his wife’s death comes in the poem, “The Smell.”

Food scraps squished into fibres, tight nap berber.
Tomatoes, potatoes, peas, roast beef and gravy.

The smell of bleach,
like any good hospital.

Dad can’t stand it any longer.
One day he bursts

When you get rid of dis tapett, this carpet.

(From “The Smell”)

We connect in the hospital room, in the garden, in the past, and we again are wrapped up in Biello’s love for her parent.

Palliative Musak plays somewhere close.
Do you want time alone? She asks me.
No. The death rattle begins to warn.
Inside my purse, I feel for the bell.
A simple bell, from far away Agnone.
A high F that Dad follows home.

(From “Flight Home”)

Eyes well with tears come the end of this collection. A reader’s heart need take pause for the poetic grip that her words create. Biello’s A Housecoat Remains grabs hold and doesn’t let go — yet at the same time, teaches the courageous act of doing just that.

Shields is a poet and mother who loves to write, read, play, laugh, dance and write some more whilst living and working in Windsor, ON. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman, was published by Black Moss Press in 2014. A forthcoming book of poetry will launch in September 2016 (Black Moss Press). Shields writes and blogs the League of Canadian Poets. Her poems, short stories, book reviews and photography have been published in various literary magazines. She is the Poetry Editor for the Windsor Review, and the creator and host of a storytelling series, Mouth Piece Storytelling.