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Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine

Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine

by Rodger Kamenetz

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Ter'ra in'fir'ma, n. 1. Shaky ground. 2. The uneasy shared territory of love and painful separation that defines mother and son. 3. The border between life and death. 4. The precariously emotional place in which we are left after the death of a parent. 5. The mythic terrain a boy passes through on the way to becoming a man. 6. The material from which a writer must


Ter'ra in'fir'ma, n. 1. Shaky ground. 2. The uneasy shared territory of love and painful separation that defines mother and son. 3. The border between life and death. 4. The precariously emotional place in which we are left after the death of a parent. 5. The mythic terrain a boy passes through on the way to becoming a man. 6. The material from which a writer must craft his story.

"Inside a mother, each of us begins a dream," writes Rodger Kamenetz. Actually, two: a mother's dream for her child, and the dream that will become a person. For Kamenetz, crossing the terra infirma—the place where the two collide—was not easy: his mother was a difficult woman who had loved her family with a tyrannical passion. Only as she was losing her battle with cancer at age fifty-four could her son begin to take the essential first step toward becoming a man, thereby fulfilling both of their dreams.

        Rich with humor and insight, Terra Infirma is a deeply moving account of one man's spiritual passage to the firmer ground of maturity and self-understanding.

Editorial Reviews

Tikkun Magazine
Honest and moving, this beautifully written memoir shows us how a first-rate poet honors his mother, while at the same time is liberated to travel along his own separate path.
...[A] family narrative in which the major theme is one of silence, of people revealing themselves by what they've kept back....[leaves] us to wonder whether there's more or less to these investigations than meets the eye.
Stephen Clorfeine
In Terra Informa...the burning through of a son's maternal ties allows the author to decode their relationship, as well as to release and regenerate both their spirits....Kamentz's memoir brings us to an intimacy at once personal and open-ended, specifically detailed and yet ultimately poetic.
Richard Bernstein
...[H]ypnotic, cryptically lyrical....not a narrative in the standard sense....It [circles] its main subject in a poetic meandering....Throughout, Mr. Kamentz is tough-minded and tender...sensitive with a quirky, original intelligence and a dry-urbane, self-deprecatory wit.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Poet and author Kamenetz (The Jew in the Lotus, 1994) turns his gaze more powerfully inward than ever before in this slender, emotionally searing recollection of his mother's life and death. His mother died of cancer at 54, ravaged by a typically long and painful battle with the disease. Her son was with her when she died, along with her husband and one of her two twin daughters, and Kamenetz recounts the exact moment of her death in carefully observed detail and strikingly modulated tones.

The rest of his essay maintains the mode of careful observation. The book is most powerful whenever the author draws upon the resonance of objects to convey the pain of emotionsnbut the tone veers, quite intentionally, between the detached coolness of the early pages, occasional dashes of humor, and a more openly agonizing self-assessment. Kamenetz's relationship with his mother was rocky, as she yo-yoed between a smothering affection and a fierce anger. As a result, mother and son seemed to spend much time circling each other warily, like two planets held in a painful orbit by mutually powerful gravitational fields. Using essayist Montaigne as a model, Kamenetz tells his own story in a discursive, digressive style, ranging from mordant and funny ruminations on marriage and the nuclear family to harrowing descriptions of illness. He writes like the poet he is, wonderfully drunk on language and constantly serving up fresh metaphors for familiar emotions and experiences. His love for his mother's difficult, savage, sometimes lapsing into a paradoxically deep distaste emerges clearly. At times a frightening read, but an honest and thoughtful one. (Author tour)

Product Details

University of Arkansas Press
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

A Beginning

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." The immediate cause was respiratory infection, a complication of prolonged medication for pain. My mother suffered cancer for seven years. At the end, a nurse stripped the neck brace, pressed her fingers against the carotid artery, and felt for the faintest sign of a pulse. The velcro made a sound like stitches ripping.

I remember the moment of her death, and in the moments that followed, a kind of wonder at myself, in my own blind efficiency. My father sat stunned as though this weren't something we had anticipated all along. I called my two sisters, and my two brothers, and told them to come downtown and see our mother's body. I called the funeral home, Sol Levinson Brothers. I remember looking them up in the yellow pages, which seemed odd. Shouldn't there be a card, or something, in a hospice? I had all these thoughts. All these practical, cold, abstracted thoughts. Because my mother was dead, and someone had to do something, and I was there to do it.

I felt very responsible for everything that happened. I felt responsible and guilty. I had needed to be there at the moment she died. I was calling the funeral home, and saying "My mother is dead" and saying "Her name is Miriam Kamenetz," and giving a date, an address and a time. All along my mother's body was lying on the bed in the dim lamplight. Her face was crumpled and had lost all its quality. It looked like a rubber mask tossed off on the pillow.

For the next week, I simply rode along on my feeling of mission. The funeral,and the seven days of mourning, coming together with my family, comforting one another, and through all of it, I saw that my eyes were open, and I was observing very carefully, like a son of a bitch, like a writer. I was not cold. I was feeling everything. But back there, way back, I was pivoting around, and seeing, and noting, and remembering.

I knew I had witnessed something extraordinary at the instant of her death. Her last gesture had moved right into me. It was staying with me all through the mourning, there in the place from which I am writing this down.

But I could not put it on paper then. It seemed a violation. I could see her whole life gathering around her last moment. I felt that I could hold its pattern in my hand. But then the fabric would dissolve and I had the gesture of lifting a wave out of water.

I thought I had to let her story go. But three dreams came in the months after she died. They came to disturb, but also to comfort. In the third, very elaborate vision, my mother appeared in a garden to give me a key to her story. I had to write about her then. Just as soon as I began, the dreams stopped.

All the same, I was afraid it would be too sentimental. For what story is more sentimental than the death of a boy's mother—even though Edgar Poe, for one, called it the most "poetical" of subjects? Poe also promised immortality to the author who wrote a simple volume, "My Heart Laid Bare." As though a naive writer could triumph over all the artifices of a master, if only he were sufficiently earnest. But Poe added puckishly, "The title must be true to its subject."

Here is such a volume. But I can be true to the subject only by straying from it. I have read a few books that have been more dutiful. They were all published by the vanity press. Like mine, they were haunted by the loss of a loved one. But their authors make no distinction between history and poetry, as Aristotle does. They tell every detail, in chronological order, as though the reader already acknowledged their significance. They do not see that, at best, history aggregates, only poetry unifies.

I wish to lay my heart bare. But my model is complex, the essay in its radical sense, as practiced by Michel de Montaigne. I admire him because he is so artful there is nothing he cannot say.

Here I must digress, to speak of Montaigne's digression. Only someone constantly aware of his subject could digress so freely. The revelation is always present, not as in the ordinary magic of suspense—but as a barely visible tracing, a pattern of avoidance.

Aggressive writing pursues its subject—a hunting metaphor. Digressive writing flees a painful absence—a haunting metaphor. For Montaigne the hollow induced skepticism, of which digression carved out a warning. For me, the haunting is literal: the dream that comes after death.

Montaigne's project is not always what it seems. If he titles a piece "On Coaches," his subject is not coaches. The title is more like a sign hung outside his construction—WRITING AT WORK. An aggressive reader chasing after the subject, coaches, is quickly outpaced. The coaches disappear at the first or second turn of phrase, and the more determinedly the reader pursues the supposed subject, the more exhausted he becomes, and the more empty the page feels. He has been abandoned by "coaches" and does not yet feel the writing as its own vehicle of transportation. If he lets himself be moved by the prose instead of pursuing the "coaches," then he begins to feel a profound absence of connections and is deeply in Montaigne's skepticism.

I cannot promise that my material is uplifting either. The subject here is death and grief. I am sorry for that, more sorry perhaps than any reader. If I had seen where it would lead me, I might have resisted more strongly. For I have discovered something, apart from the ordinary cynicism that "no one wants to read about death." The subject repulses thought.

Each time I approached the core of feeling around my mother's death, I found my thinking diverted. At first I accused myself of a lack of discipline, or a simple avoidance. I am now convinced, though, that this was at least a complex avoidance. My digression is language turning in grief. Turning away from its subject, to approach it again. This makes for a labyrinthine or spiraling pattern.

This book is part memoir, part biography of my mother, part autobiography. But neither my mother nor I are celebrities. We never committed great crimes. She was entirely a private person, and I am a poet in America, which is the opposite of fame. Yet the pattern of every life is instructive, and an ordinary death may be as tragic as Oedipus.

Every day others will reach the point my mother reached. They will be given terrible medical choices, cures that seem worse than the disease. Many will make courageous decisions as my mother did. I wish this story could be an inspiring one for them, about how defiance won the day, how the doctors were proven wrong, how a fighting spirit confounded science. Some popular books about death have this theme. My mother's story offers no hope. Her defiance did not win in the end.

Yet, if she had read the book of her life, she might have lived. If she had been able to digress, to step away from her own story, she might have seen herself as more than just a body in danger, when she had to decide whether to live or die. Her story, I have come to believe, is tragic. But I did not see this pattern immediately. At the beginning I had only the pain at her death, and three vivid dreams.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

What People are Saying About This

Rosellen Brown
Remembering his search for the separateness that would allow him to become an adult, Kamenetz writes fiercely and movingly. A classic story, beautifully told.
Philip Lopate
Entirely under the spell of deep feeling, yet never relinquishing the irony of complex intelligence, this is one of the most beautiful books ever written about a mother and son.
Robert Olen Butler
I would be hard pressed to name anyone who has written as beautifully and profoundly about death and family as Rodger Kamenetz in this remarkable memoir. Terra Infirma is a sweet miracle of a book.
Maggie Scarf
The terrors of intimacy are beautifully described in this tales of a despotic, mesmerizing parent and the son who struggles to free himself of her entrapping love.
Robert A. Thurman
I love this book. It is a powerful testament to the forces of life, will, and love. [T]his memoir will move the soul of anyone born of mother. It is highly rewarding and illuminating to read.
Alice Miller
One cannot be freed from a mother's possessive love merely by her death, without confronting one's own story. Kamenetz was willing to go through this process of liberation, and thanks to his honesty, courage, and skill as a writer, we have this absorbing and vivid account of his rescue from the silence that obscured his mother's past.

Meet the Author

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah, and of three collections of poetry. He teaches literature at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and lives in New Orleans.

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