Elizabeth S. Wolf’s Did You Know is a 2019 Rattle chapbook. The collection revolves around a secret that comes crashing down on a woman and her mother. Written in the voice of the daughter, the poems tell the story in a set of brief incidents.
When the mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), the father decides it is best for her not to know. Her doctors, friends, and even her parents are complicit in this, and remain silent even when the father dies unexpectedly.
My father left an insurance policy and an estate plan. / My father left no instructions for how to handle the secret. / And so / it continued to be kept. (“Tangled Web”)
Even without the secret she doesn’t yet know is being kept from her and her mother, the daughter is made to feel disconnected from her father. Siding with her brothers in their protest against the Kent State shootings in May 1970 does not make it better. By the time she’s 12, the daughter is, for all intents and purposes, homeless, handed off between services, foster care, strangers, and friends, running away, getting expelled. When the father dies, she thinks maybe she can return home, but finds
There was an even / higher law in play: a body in motion / tends to remain in motion. (“The Center Did Not Hold”)
In the meantime, the mother, puzzled by the symptoms of MS she doesn’t know she has, is afraid, worried she might be going out of her mind. In the 80s, a cousin spills the secret to one of the sons in a by-the-way sort of manner and the son pressure her doctor to finally tell her the truth. The mother’s reaction is to turn to her estranged daughter:
“Did you know?” she asked. / “Know what?” I responded. / “Did you know the secret?” she asked. / “What secret?” I responded.
The realization that they have been betrayed all this time somehow creates a shared point of emotional reference for mother and daughter:
Now there was an “us”: / the ones who did not know. (“That Night My Mother Called Me”)
The betrayal the mother experiences at the hands of her husband, her parents, her doctors and her friends is similar to, but not like the rejection the daughter experiences. In the mother’s case, the father’s behavior is ill-guided but motivated by affection: he patronizes her because he wants to spare her from the worry and fear that comes with being diagnosed with an illness that (at the time) seems untreatable. He treats her as if she is one of his children.
How odd, then, that he treats his daughter like she is not his child, and that his father treats her the same way. The daughter only understands the reasoning behind this long after the father has died, when her aunt explains:
your grandfather […] / declared you were such a bad daughter, / it killed your father. // Neither man / thought you did enough / to take care of your mother.” // “I was a child,” I said, “And, I didn’t know / that she needed to be taken care of.”
Mother and daughter begin to build a rapport, and at the same time as the illness breaks down the mother’s body, the mother reclaims the agency that was denied her by her husband. Both women learn to understand better why their lives have been the way they have, and both take matters into their own hands.
The language in Wolf’s poems is plain and accessible, which gives them even more emotional heft. This chapbook is a quick read, but I’ve no doubt it will stay with you for some time.
The father’s toxic behavior toward his wife and daughter are rooted in the problematic idea that women are somehow less rational, but more emotional and therefore should take care of others (husband, children, invalids, etc). Few of us today (I hope) would expect a child to parent her own parent, especially when the child is never told the parent needs help. And while the man has sons, too, who are older than the daughter and could realistically have helped around the house, he does not share the secret with them – after all, it’s his daughter’s job. (It’s not. No child should have to be a parent.)
Sadly, the toxic ideas that motivate father and grandfather in these poems are still around, and while it’s more obvious in some places (where women are not permitted to drive, go out alone, learn to read or write, or choose their partners), we don’t have to look far to find remnants of them. How many nations still have laws (written almost exclusively by men) that govern women’s bodies?!
I’ve written another Rattle chapbook review: The Whetting Stone (2017)