Towers of Aging
Of Towers of Aging, professor, writer, and editor of The Italian Americana, John Paul Russo wrote in the journal’s summer addition of 2020.
Socrates was sixty when he learned to play the lyre. Joseph Amato was seventy-five when he turned to his fourth career, as a poet. But then he published with the same fecundity that has characterized his intellectual life. Prolific as a naturalist, local historian, memoirist, and one of the founders of Rural Studies, he had already won a large audience with such works as Rethinking Home: The Case for Local History, Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, the prize-winning Surfaces: A History, and my favorite On Foot: A Cultural History of Walking, which celebrates the gold standard in travel writing, the foot (this book has been translated into numerous languages). Living in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, he looks out over the vast American prairie, which has long been the object of his study and the source of his inspiration. In the past fifty years Amato is the American writer who most resembles Thoreau.
No matter how much attention is now given to aging—in medicine, in the academy, in politics—the topic remains an exceedingly trying one for an artist. …While Amato faces the subject from many viewpoints and in varying moods, his strongest creation is his narrator ready to enter fully into an experience and render its meaning with accuracy and candor.
“In the Game?” opens with the narrator’s taking a break from his grandson’s baseball game. He has left the crowds in the bleachers and hidden himself alone beneath them where he paces back and forth in meditation. Gradually he loses track of time, and in his temporary discomfort, he undergoes the lyric moment, an epiphany of his own “game”:
I am just a drenched old man . . .
Seeking refuge from wind
And cold drizzle.
I lose track of time, . . .
How long have I been pacing
Back and forth?
When will they bring the lions in
And send the gladiators out?
Amato’s lyrics contain a high percentage of abstract words without any diminution of clarity; these lyrics “think” their way in and through metaphor. His language never strays far from common speech:
I am crazy to believe in an afterlife,
Resurrection of body and soul,
A saving God.
But I am not so stupid
As to believe
Absolute stone-still nothing. (“An Argument”)
The poems are in free verse; stanzaic patterns show up infrequently; formal rhythm is used sparingly; and rhyme is so rare that when it occurs, it hits disturbing notes, as in the poem describing cleaning ladies, where Rosalia is a near-rhyme for her own illness:
I see my long-widowed Grandmother Rosalia
Short, heavy, always dressed in black,
Suffering emphysema. (“Worker Saints”)
Just as the English traveler Thomas Coryat hung up his shoes at his local church on returning safely from a walking tour of Europe, Amato the naturalist “on foot” identifies with his “walking” and “rooting” cane, “Harvested from
the top / Of a Missouri River’s beaver lodge.” It is his scepter, his shepherd’s hook, which is “Aged, retired”; it is the “magic wand” that “Leads me by the hand / To where habit compels / And mind wanders” (“My Walking Stick”). The beaver is among the many fauna and flora that populate his pages: the menacing owl, the hummingbird, the phoenix, the black snake, seals, geese, the fossil ammonite, which is a mollusk related to the famous chambered nautilus (“Pure in form / Of sacred curve”), extinct with the dinosaurs (“An Ammonite”).
One entire section is given to the description of an elder care facility called Ridge Pointe Towers, which suggested the title of the volume. Towers are metaphors for taking in the broader view, one from the top; they, too, have associations with the sacred, as in the campanile theme in Italian poetry. The subjects of these tower poems range from the tragic (“West Tower”) and uncanny (“Winter in the Elevator”), to the hilarious (“Bingo!”) and the hortatory (“I Counsel Myself,” “Wake Up My Spirit”). The climax of the volume, two thirds the way through, comes in the tale of two towers: the “West Tower” is a nightmare of increasingly tortured agony as the narrator ascends from floor to floor and ward to ward. The “East Tower of the Rising Sun” is a dream vision of gratitude for what life has given the residents:
The truly emptying humility and hopeful buoyancy
It floats them hand and hand
In a treading circle of exchange and gifts.
Those of a certain age who have visited a parent regularly in one of these facilities will be moved by these poems, by their honesty and capacity to comfort, one of the enduring powers of poetry.