Amy Small-McKinney
One Day I Am a Field
Glass Lyre Press

Reviewer: Erica Goss

“Instantly, soundlessly, a meadow called bereft.”
— “One Day I Am a Field”

In her most recent poetry collection, Amy Small-McKinney delivers a devastating account of caregiving’s emotional and physical tolls. By turns fierce, exhausted, passionate, and wise, the speaker in this book reveals how performing that particular variety of unpaid labor affects the mind and body. From daily emergencies: “alarms // for medication” to poignant reflections: “I’m not / the caregiver of blossoming,” One Day I Am a Field is imbued with the graphic, vivid moments that occur during the long days and nights of caregiving.

“I am drowning in remembering,” from “The Doctor Said We Need to Return In Two Months After Further Testing Including Bloodwork,” the book’s opening poem, describes the fractured state of mind that accompanies so much of caregiving. The line “a woman, ruins,” is a metaphor for the coming months, a time when Small-McKinney’s world will narrow to little more than fulfilling her husband’s needs as his illness brings him closer and closer to death. As she writes in “Clematis Vitalba,” “Grief does not ask me / to be pretty.” Grief asks much more: “It wants me to push up from roots / that scarcely survived, enter / its plain door.”

Insight arrives unbidden; while viewing a painting at an art gallery, Small-McKinney allows herself to think the unthinkable: “Know this. The words are not leaving or left or if… // I have said it: / When he dies. When.” (“Saying It, at the Art Gallery”). That revelation comes after she recalls “how my husband refused to kill a red ant … / because it might have a family … / ferried it out on his gigantic finger.” This dawning represents a small but important shift, allowing Small-McKinney to begin accepting the inevitable: that her husband will die—not if, but when.

“Grief” is the title of several poems in the collection, and grief comes with a distressing cluster of consequences. Small-McKinney writes about the physical tasks of caring for a person whose body no longer functions properly: “Learning to roll and remove pee-soaked sheets from under a body isn’t easy,” “the dying stop pissing and shitting and then suddenly whatever is left inside is released, flung out like birds from a rotting cage.” The emotional load is just as challenging: “What am I afraid of? Aloneness does not have a body. It does not have a gun,” “Sometimes I am handing over tax forms; sometimes I live in a forest that is / red and yellow and trees chattering to themselves.”

Caregiving can literally exhaust a person to death. In these lines from “Grief” (14), Small-McKinney speculates on the damage to her own health: “I have lost control of my body. Will I die from caregiving and grief? / A friend died six months after his wife.” It’s a sad fact that many people die shortly after the death of a spouse, unable to recover from the intensity of their own grief.

“I know how to laugh out loud,” Small-McKinney writes in “Grief” (17). “Everyone thinks I’m fine.” With these lines, she reminds the reader of our culture’s unrealistic and even callous expectations regarding how long it will tolerate open expressions of grief. There’s little allowance given to the altered state we experience after a loved one’s death, a state Small-McKinney describes in “Grief” (20):

I walk from room
to room
as if
a pressing task
requires attention.

In “Love/Furious,” Small-McKinney takes inventory of caregiving’s toll on her body: “Since he has died, I have awakened to a body broken / more damaged than I knew… // I can’t find / the body I knew before wipes, pills, the save him, save him.” The trauma of having ignored her needs in the face of her husband’s manifests in a “finger broken,” “the purple bruise on my calf,” and “my eye closing, its lid covering half of the pupil.” The fragmented emotions from earlier poems return, but this time, they’re more specific: “is this the divide: loving/furious? afraid/furious?” The energy she relied on to survive her husband’s death still exists, filling her body and mind as she performs the tasks required after someone dies: “sitting by the file cabinet sorting through history, / deciding what to shred, what to save.”

Most of the poems in this book take place during the periods of caregiving and just after her husband’s death, a time of emotional intensity and extreme vulnerability. And yet, the possibility of closure arrives in the last poem, “Without.” As she goes about her day, Small-McKinney looks for her husband’s presence in “bird or air,” “ice crystals,” or “a random word.” She asks, “Where are you?” The question itself is enough to conjure him, to keep her memory of him alive as she negotiates life without him:

I am a blade of doubt
though I want to say oh gorgeous
want to say that if the next song
is about love
I live another day.

One Day I Am a Field teaches us that the burdens of caregiving will eventually consume all the love, devotion, and self-sacrifice one person can give, and that there’s no shame in admitting to those limitations. Amy Small-McKinney invites the reader into a world consisting of just two people, herself and her husband, but the world they share reflects the reality many of us will eventually face. In spite of the pain of those last months of her husband’s life, this book assures us that to have lived and loved so intensely, with such unshakeable devotion, is to have experienced life to its fullest. As we read these intimate, honest, and powerful poems, we feel their transforming energy.