What Remains by Caroline Maun

What Remains
Caroline Maun
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
Perfect bound, 68 pgs
ISBN: 978-1-59948-427-3

Reviewed by Dawn Leas

When I chose the books to review for this issue, I knew a few details about Barbara Crooker’s Gold, but I didn’t know the themes of Caroline Maun’s What Remains, which I chose because I recognized the title as being one that a friend of mine wanted to use but didn’t because a book with it already existed. It quickly became evident during my first read through that the books were on parallel paths with several themes in common – both address the loss of a mother, both use references to natures, both speak of love and of art- Crooker in responding to art, Maun writing about her mother as an artist. It was a pleasure to re-read them and then skim again to see where the styles of the poets converge and diverge. Both arrive at the same point of honoring a mother, acknowledging the brevity of life, and leaving the reader with answers and some questions to ponder, but by different means and methods.

In What Remains, Maun offers glimpses of who her mother was and of the time they spent together before her death, “what remains” afterward, of places she has lived, and of a romantic love that feels strained and seems to have an undercurrent of anger and unsettledness to it. The collection is divided into three sections – Temporary Container, Love, and What Remains, with the poems chronicling the loss of her mother nestled in the first and third sections, and the more emotionally muddied poems about love in the second section.

The first section opens with Maun’s mother already gone in “Temporary Container.” In it, she describes bringing her mother’s ashes home in a black box and then choosing a more appropriate final one that she buys at an antique store. The poem concludes with:

In the end, the powder was fine and uniform.
Raising only a shadow of dust,
she slipped into the pretty vase.

From poem to poem in this section, Maun writes her mother’s story, a character sketch stretched across 22 pages. In “Basket of Roses,” “Lobsters, Copper Pot, Lemons and Wines,” “Cardinal in Snow,” and “Peacock,” the reader learns she is a painter. In “Street View,” she is a smoker who isn’t in her “usual seat” in a Google maps image of their home. Her health is failing in “NPO,” “In the Middle of Dying,” and “A Hand.” And in “Love that Pink” we meet a woman who stayed true to her color:

She swore an allegiance to a shade of lipstick,
a moist cross between Gulf sunsets
and early, split tomato…

And at the end of the poem, one of her mother’s friends says:

I’m wearing
Love that Pink every day, she said.
She knew what she wanted, your mother.

In the middle of this section are two poems, “Registered Nurse, Los Angeles, 1953” and “Greyhound from Montreal,” that show her mother as a young, independent woman moving to the United States, becoming a nurse, learning English; a woman with purpose and a goal. “Registered Nurse, Los Angeles, 1953” begins with her mom out looking for work with her RN degree, but no English yet:

I was dressed, you know, with the best
shoes for dancing. They were just
a few straps, but they fit like a glove.

And ends with:
… I didn’t want to go to Surgery,
because everyone there wore masks. I had to see
the eyes and the mouth to understand.

The Love section has a shadowy cast to it, a tension that is palpable. “Polar Opposites” begins with:
Why don’t you write about magnets, he says
You know, how they are attracted to each other
and how if you move them a little bit, they repel.

The last stanza drips with sarcasm:
It’s funny you should mention magnets, Sweetie,
because when you hold my hand,
peering at length at my nude ring finger,
your eyes are just like those magnets, turning.

On first read “My Soup is Broken” (I love this title) is a poem that list a host of healthy, organic ingredients that should mix the perfect soup until the last lines:

…but still
the soup is broken.

On diving into the poem a second or even third time, the reader sees another level of meaning that perhaps the poet is using the soup as a metaphor for a relationship, and once the reader realizes this, the beauty of the poem bursts open.

Several of my favorite poems in the collection are found in the final section, What Remains. It is in these poems that the reader can feel the loss of the mother. Maun has a talent for crafting these small nuggets that encapsulate her own memories and daily life in a way that then evokes memories for the reader. In “Everything’s a Memorial” Maun describes a nightly ritual of her mom:

Mom pin-curled her hair, each nest
pinched to her scalp by crossed wires.
She didn’t turn as she slept; on her table
stood the chromed canister of spray.

While reading this, I immediately saw my grandmother in rollers and a hair net, sitting on the edge of her bed on a balmy summer night watching “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“Ultimate Maternal” is a quietly beautiful poem about Maun receiving the call of her mother’s passing. She included a memory of her mom singing to lull her to sleep. I want to include the poem in its entirety here, but will settle for part of the beginning and part of the end.

 …Those had been long sessions,
continuing for years, since I was born afraid
of the edges of the bed. She would stay,
singing, and once she was sure,
she would return to Dad, the news.

And the poem ends with:

I woke supernaturally rested,
in peace, a minute ahead of the call.
She had woken me softly,
leaving all the comfort she had.

The brevity of Maun’s poems mirror the brevity of life/love/what remains, and as I read the collection I wondered if she intentionally wrote short lyrical poems to convey this idea or if it was just one of those happy surprises that surface after you see a body of work organized and in order. There were times that I found myself wanted more detail, more imagery – the morsels and tidbits – to show what was underneath the surface, especially in “Undone,” “Older Eyes” (which I am experiencing right now as well), and “Smartphone.” With that said, I do believe that leaving a reader wanting more, wondering about a poem or two is not necessarily a bad thing; that what is not said, what floats just below the surface for the reader to uncover is often just as important as what the poet does decide to include.

The more I went back into the collection to re-read and decipher, the more I realized that it is like a family photo album- snapshots that individually give you a quick glimpse at a solitary place or event, but as a whole carry the weight of a layered story. What Remains may not have the physical heft of an old-fashioned album, but it certainly carries emotional and aesthetic appeal worthy of time spent on each poem rather than a cursory flip of the page.

Dawn Leas’s chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet, was released in 2010 by Finishing Line Press. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her work has appeared in goldwakepress.org, Literary Mama, Willows Wept Review, Southern Women’s Review, Interstice, Poetry in Transit, and others. She is the Associate Program Director of the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MA/MFA programs.