Modestine

Lynn Crosbie

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We have each tried to read to him, with no success, except for James, who read him all of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

 

I was there, in the first of the long-term care centres, when he finished the story,

 

And we all shared the narrator’s sadness about giving up his donkey,

 

Not having realized that he loved her; unable to retrieve her

I was lying beside him, listening to the sounds of small, solid hooves and

 

A tin bell, my father’s good breathing

 

The kinds of sounds that strike like hammers, later on in life

 

He was better then: my phone reminder CALL DAD still appears each night at

 

Eight, but there are no phones where he is now, no nurses to plead with to let me

 

Speak to him, and anyway, he will have been asleep for hours

 

We talked every night for months, then less and now

 

I wait until my mother, sister, or brother is there, and have short, stilted

 

Talks that end either in tears or furious impatience

 

He has stopped talking about his cat, or his own bed

 

And asks some questions over and over, while swerving in and out of sense

 

The donkey’s feelings are not evoked in the book;

 

The author also thrashed the abused creature, and God only knows

 

How she fared with her new owner: inside of her is the baby she was,

 

Learning to stand, then endure, enduring all

 

Please let me go home? my father said out of the blue, not too long ago

 

I’ll be quiet; I won’t bother anyone

 

Please, he said, again but so quietly, having been beaten down,

 

Having seen nothing but the dark, interminable road ahead

 

Diminish into a short path, governed by certainties that fly right past him,

 

By grace itself, by its absence and outrage.

Lynn Crosbie’s “Modestine” first appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of The Walrus, selected by Poetry In Voice Creative Director Damian Rogers in her role as poetry editor there.

Dive in: 
  1. The title of Crosbie’s poem refers to a donkey named Modestine. This is a literary allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.” Do you understand the poem, as it is, without having to research the literary allusion? If you think the title isn’t effective, can you suggest another one?
  2. In her micro-interview, the poet says that “Modestine” is a “poem about a poem.” How does Lynn Crosbie use metaphor to show how the loss of the donkey is parallel to what has been lost in her father’s life? Give specific examples of how she makes that connection.
  3. Consider the way in which a poem’s stanzas work on their own, and then again together. Read the poem out loud. Can you pinpoint the places where the tone or perspective shifts or changes? In what ways does Crosbie move from a daughter’s point of view to including her father’s perspective? How does he become a more active participant in the life of the poem? Give specific examples.
  4. What sensory imagery does Crosbie use to root the poem in the concrete, everyday details of a person’s life? Make a quick list of images that appeal to your senses. How does using sensory imagery make the poem more effective in conveying its main idea?
  5. This poem begins by retelling a personal story, but “Modestine” also includes some recollected conversation and dialogue. How would you change your tone of voice so that the father’s voice is distinct within the poem as it nears the end?
  6. Write a poem that captures the relationship between two people, perhaps of differing ages or genders. See if you can incorporate bits of dialogue, or even suggestions of conversation, as Crosbie does in her poem.

 

Useful Links

Check out this article for background on Lynn Crosbie’s personal life and her take on how poetry can be used to effectively write about both dementia and grief. https://www.cbc.ca/books/how-writing-helped-lynn-crosbie-deal-with-her-f...

Read this article to find out more about the poet’s close relationship with her father, giving a more personal context to “Modestine”: https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2017/04/01/lynn-crosbie-unde...

See why Lynn Crosbie believes writing poetry is a very different process from writing prose. https://brickmag.com/on-writing-lynn-crosbie/

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