Poetry Sunday: “Arthritis,” by Carol Moldaw

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Written in free verse organized into 21 short-line couplets, “Arthritis” alternates two perspectives—one looking back, one in the present—and uses association and word play to make its sometimes-circular advance that mimics the way memories interact with our daily lives. The poem opens with a bang, in a line of dialogue actually spoken by the speaker’s mother either in the present or not-so-distant past: “Save your hands.” As mothers do, this one exhorts her daughter to conserve her energy and strength, not use herself up. Some of the interest of today’s poem derives from that age-old tension between young people who believe they’ll live and last forever and parents who have seen firsthand the ravages of overuse and time.
The poem moves the way the mind does at play, by association. The memory of what her mother said about wrangling jar lids reminds the speaker of other maternal advice, this time about intimacy and sex. Whose mother hasn’t said these things or things like them; which mothers among us have not said them to our own kids? Our impulse is to guard and protect our offspring, especially against injury we have suffered ourselves. They reject our advice, of course, just as this speaker rejects her mother’s advice, just as we rejected our own mothers’ advice in our time. These ideas point up another kind of movement in the poem: circular. It progresses by association from image to image and idea to idea, but also takes the time to tack back, returning to memories of the mother in the near and distant past and to ideas about the tension between conservation and consumption as they pertain to ourselves and our physical bodies.
The tension-and-circularity is beautifully captured when the speaker describes herself as scoffing at her mother’s concern that her breasts could be, like fruit, damaged from too much rough handling. Embedded in that jeer is the present-day speaker’s understanding that breasts, and indeed all parts of the body, can and do “bruise, scuff, // soften, rot, wither” like fruit. In these lines we have a sense both of the idealistic daughter believing she’ll last forever and the contemporary speaker who knows better. At this point, the mother embodies the role of the sadder, wiser perspective. But, by the end of the poem, we will also be afforded a glimpse of her when she, too, was young and reckless, willing on at least one occasion to drink life to the lees.
The poem moves from the memory of the mother’s admonitions to focus for several stanzas (5-9) on the present-day speaker’s arthritic hands. We are given the image of an index finger exhibiting swan’s neck syndrome, a condition in which the finger is permanently bent, dramatically, into a near right angle resembling the neck of a swan. Readers, there are lots of photographs of this syndrome on the Internet and—trigger warning—some are not easy to see. But you don’t need to go there, because the poem paints such a vivid picture. “Paints” may not be the best word here because Moldaw invokes many other senses besides sight. We hear the finger joint “clicking” like a clock dial, and we feel the straining of muscle, sinew, and bone in “hoisted, prodded,” verbs as active and visceral as they are precise.
From this extraordinarily vivid, even painful, image, the poem turns to a present reflection, one that synthesizes all that has been remembered and presented before: “I balk at the idea that we can overuse / ourselves.” How refreshing that some of that youthful idealism and rebellion remains in the speaker today! She, for one, is not resigned to eking out her days in frugal husbandry of her body parts and functions; she does not want to “parcel and pace” her energy “so as not to run out of any / necessary component while still alive.” That thought, again by association, gives rise to musing about what “necessary” means, the speaker shrewdly observing that the word “necessarily” must itself change over time. What mattered to us at 18 is not what matters now. That play of “necessary” and “necessarily” evokes the idea of change being the only constant and relies on the same kind of tautological word play that delights us in that old adage. As if to drive the point home, the next lines tell us that “The only certainty is uncertainty,” something the speaker “thought she knew” when she was young, which enabled her to ignore and even “laugh” at her mother’s advice.
The memory of laughing off her mother’s counsel reminds the speaker of other warnings given “about boys and sex” and how, in general, her mother invented “traditions” wholesale, communicating them by use of the communal we: “we  / didn’t kiss boys until a certain age” and so on. The poem reports the speaker’s response—basically, we who, or what we?—and that leads to a much bigger question: “What part of me / was she?” No part at all, according to the speaker in her rebellious youth.
But the older speaker knows better, and if she has not aged into the kind of person who dispenses cautionary advice to blooming youngsters, she has at least come to understand where such advice comes from. And in a poignant moment near the end of the poem, she discovers another point of commonality with her mother. The memory recounted in stanzas 17-20 takes place in the near present, with the speaker old enough to have arthritis and her mother older still, “half-napping” and talking to herself in her room. What the mother recalls is herself as a girl defying the save-for-a-rainy-day advice dispensed to her daughter, impulsively kissing a boy for no other reason than “he wanted her to.” The mother’s present-day reaction to the memory—“Now why would I do that”—betrays a degree of self-delusion we’d never expect  to see in her daughter, and how it makes the mother feel—“distraught anew and freshly / stung by the self-betrayal”—is sad. These lines break the generational cycle, and I for one am quite certain that today’s speaker would never second-guess her most joyously impetuous life decisions in this way. And look, here she is with a significant manifestation of crippling arthritis doing—what? Only looking forward to all she still wants “to do with my hands.” It’s not offered as advice for how to live your life—use it up or hoard it and let it go to waste—but I am happy to take it that way.]]>

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