MFK Fisher, Aging and Poetry
Last House by MFK Fisher is good and sad. In many of the later essays, she’s angry at the aging process which for her was exacerbated by Parkinson’s Disease. Her descriptions of her frustrations force the reader to look aging square in the face in a way that isn’t comfortable.
She does take a wry view at times. “It may well be that spite and anger and even vituperation keep people alive longer than they should live,” she writes in the essay Beware.
“Certainly I do not want to end my days as a sweet-faced old Mom voted Dearest citizen of the Year in her Hometown. But I can’t stand the prospect of surviving on pure venom, into a haggard infamous death mentioned in all the obits with a sigh of earned relief.”
Ursula LeGuin is also funny on the subject of aging in her magnificent essay Introducing Myself in The Wave in the Mind.
“And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren't. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old.”
I suppose that’s what’s so painful about Last House, especially the later essays. It’s full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. It meanders and moans and paints a bleak picture of someone torn between struggle and surrender (or maybe resignation) as she lives the slow process of aging.
I do find comfort in Ruth Reichl’s essay about visiting MFK Fisher when Fisher was bedridden and close to death. But it’s comforting the way a good obituary is comforting. It celebrates Fisher’s unique voice and legacy. Reichl writes:
“England had the wild and brainy Elizabeth David, but the American food writers were all good girls, virtuous to a fault, who wrote about keeping house and family cooking. Feeding their families was a job, which is undoubtedly why the best-selling cookbook of the proto-feminist 60s was The I Hate to Cook Book. The notion that a woman might pour herself a glass of wine and cook a meal for the pure pleasure of the act never crossed their minds.”
Reichl’s essay spares us the inner struggle that may have been going on in the mind of Fisher as she “is dying, her wasted body unable to rise from the bed, sunglasses hiding old eyes grown too weak to read. Her voice is so frail a sliver of sound that visitors are forced to bend over, an ear to her mouth, to make out the halting words. Conversation has become so exhausting that after a quarter-hour Mary Frances waves me out of her bedroom.”
This interview takes place in 1992 and by that time perhaps Fisher had found a sense of peace and satisfaction with the small pleasures in life, such as the “mysterious pink drink” she sips that has the “lush herbal scent of gin.”
But a few years before, in 1989, in Frustration - II (Final Scream), one of the last essays of Last House, Fisher is understandably angry and resistant. “And here I could scream in silent impotent rage at the cruel fact that I cannot read what I have just written, so that I cannot in turn even finish this sentence. That is very disquieting, to put it mildly. I hate long involuted sentences.”
Much like the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, I usually want to identify what “the moral of that is.” But I’m not sure there are easy lessons to draw here.
Fisher sprinkles solace throughout the book:
“One of the best parts about growing older for me is that I am increasingly able to watch myself do so.”
“Perhaps the best thing about finding oneself old is trying not to be as dull and boring as all one’s peers.”
But for the most part, there are no palatable takeaways about aging. There are a lot of graphic physical details about things like vomiting and a fall she has (I learned to not read the book while eating). And maybe that's part of the gift of Last House. Fisher presents us with an unflinchingly honest account of aging, in a way that brings the frustrations and anger and helplessness and, at times, indignity painfully home to the reader. We experience it with her and can't brush it away as if this grim reality couldn't be ours. No pretty morals, just starkly realistic reportage of what D.H. Lawrence called “the changing phases of man’s life.”
If MFK Fisher gives us the unsparing details of sickness and dying, D.H. Lawrence redeems them in Shadows. It’s not the same as the false comfort offered by a handy moral or take-away that you can tuck away in the back of your mind to assure yourself that bad things will never befall you or your loved ones. But it’s poetry which has its own power to soothe and solace.
And if, in the changing phases of man’s life
I fall in sickness and in misery
my wrists seem broken and my heart seems dead
and strength is gone, and my life
is only the leavings of a life:
and still, among it all, snatches of lovely oblivion, and snatches of renewal
odd, wintry flowers upon the withered stem, yet new, strange flowers
such as my life has not brought forth before, new blossoms of me
then I must know that still
I am in the hands of the unknown God,
he is breaking me down to his own oblivion
to send me forth on a new morning, a new man.