Book Bag: ‘Muriel and the Grocer’s Daughter’ by Lee Uttmark Wicks; ‘Camouflage of Noise and Silence’ by Barry DeCarli

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Muriel and the Grocer’s Daughter: A Memoir, by Lee Uttmark Wicks (Off the Common Books/Levellers Press)

Do we all eventually turn into our mothers or fathers no matter how much we try to separate ourselves from our parents? Or can we forge our own way, hopefully taking the best of our parents’ qualities and finding something enduring in family bonds?

In a memoir that’s alternately hard-hitting, brutally honest but also compassionate, Lee Uttmark Wicks writes about her lifelong struggle with her late mother, Muriel, and the ways her mom — a product of the Great Depression and a woman with hard edges who often clashed with her daughter — helped her discover things about herself much later in life.

And Wicks, a former communications director for a number of area schools, as well as a former reporter and freelance writer, has a good story to tell. Using different voices for herself, while also giving her mother some sections to tell her side of the story (in an imagined voice), Wicks traces a winding journey that brought her from a working class Brooklyn, New York home to arrival in the Valley as a single mother in her late 30s with no real marketable skills.

“Muriel and the Grocer’s Daughter: A Memoir” begins on a blunt note, with Wicks, who lives in Montague, channeling her mother’s earthy voice on the very first page: “My daughter; she’s such a know-it-all. She writes about things that happened sixty years ago as if she can remember everything word-for-word. She makes me sound like someone too mean or too stupid to know what she’s saying, and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Wicks, born in the mid-1940s, knows her mother had a tough time as a young woman, obligated to raise Wicks and her two younger brothers in a cramped, three-room apartment while her father worked 80-plus hours a week at his grocery store in Manhattan. Wicks herself was something of a “daddy’s girl,” which only intensified conflict with her mother, who felt neglected by her workaholic husband.

The teenage Wicks (whose full name at the time was Barbara Lee) learns to keep her silence around her mother, which only enrages her further. “Nothing to say, huh? You and your father; you’re two peas in a pod, two silent Swedes … I think if you have so much in common maybe I should just trade bedrooms with you…. He’ll never miss me.”

“She’s a monster, and she’s disgusting,” writes Wicks.

Wicks, meantime, is testing boundaries: fooling around with boys, taking up smoking (like her chain-smoking parents), and skipping classes at school, though she’s a big reader on her own. She’s kicked out of Emerson College after being caught sneaking from her dorm to have sex with her boyfriend, an older college student named Spalding Gray (yes, the future actor and writer).

Wicks then scandalizes her parents in the late 1960s by moving into an apartment in Manhattan with a new boyfriend, a self-centered photographer, when the two are not yet married. Neither one cares for this new beau, Steve — a rare moment of unqualified unity for her parents, Wicks notes with some irony.

The memoir covers much other ground, including Wicks’ eventual troubled marriage to Steve, her stint as a faculty wife when he gets a teaching position at Phillips Academy in Andover, and then her arrival in the Valley in 1982 after her husband takes up with a younger woman. Wicks comes to Amherst to attend massage school — her first step in trying to make a new start.

Those later chapters make for alternately difficult and funny reading, as Wicks fights to provide for her young daughter, Ali, through a procession of part-time jobs before finding her way as a writer. You can also feel her rolling her eyes, the tough kid from New York, at the earthy-crunchy types she first meets here: “(W)omen wearing long limp skirts and well-worn hiking boots ... stride into the grocery store looking like they are about to forage for their food, or kill it.”

Yet Wicks also finds a new circle of female friends here, as well as a second husband, and she discovers an unexpected ally in her mother, who helps her through her broken marriage and her struggle to rebuild her life, promising to support her and Ali until she gets “everything that bastard owes you…. You will be fine. You are strong. You are your father’s daughter. He was a rock.”

Maybe her mother was, in her own way, in her corner all along, Wicks writes, even if she didn’t realize it until she was older. “Muriel and the Grocer’s Daughter” shows that family bonds and DNA can run deeper than expected.

Camouflage of Noise and Silence: Poems by Barry DeCarli (Off the Common Books/Levellers Press)

Valley poet Barry DeCarli, a former special education teacher, has published two previous collections of poetry as well as work in a number of different journals. In his newest collection, “Camouflage of Noise and Silence,” DeCarli examines the struggles of aging, the difficulty in communicating, and the currents of life today, from refugee crises to vanishing farms to our polarized politics.

In mostly short and some longer free-verse poems — written entirely in lowercase — he also looks at the contradictions in society and ourselves. In “Desperation,” for instance, he probes the link between poverty and public indifference.

“must there / be a gaping wound / flowing with blood / must our cheeks be streaked with crying / must we stagger / and fall / then must we crawl / before someone reaches out / before our words are heard … we all become victims / of the desperation / we seek to ignore / for in making beggars of the desperate / we become the ones / truly in need ...”

“Listening” contrasts the work of radio telescopes, probing the universe for distant signals, with the inability of people to communicate with one another: “yet we fail / to hear the words / of those closest to us / or misunderstand what they mean / the daily signals we do not receive / filtered out by the white noise of routine.”

Gary Metras, former poet laureate of Easthampton, praises DeCarli as a “metaphysical poet” who sheds light on the “dichotomies of noise and silence overwhelming the truths of daily living and how we camouflage ourselves … to avoid hurt and disappointment. It’s been too long in our literary culture since poetry of this design has appeared.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Barry DeCarli’s website is barrydecarlipoetry.com.