Robert Browning, in his dramatic monologue "Rabbi Ben Ezra," begins with the Rabbi asserting "Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be." Not every reader considering Janet Cameron Hoult's images of old age in the poems in her new anthology, Body Parts: A Collection of Poems About Aging would agree.
Poem after poem details the physical breakdowns associated with the 'best' that is yet to come. "Just can't bend over anymore," she tells us in "Anymore." In "Lost in Noise," she tells us "My hearing loss is getting worse," and in "Ringing in My Ears," her tinnitus "rings like a church steeple."
In "The Nose Knows," she talks about the loss of the sense of smell, and other poems talk about loss of memory, loss of teeth, not to mention sagging body parts. Of course aging isn't only about loss, there is gain as well: hair in the nose and ears, pain in the joints, wrinkles in the flesh.
And Hoult knows what she's talking about. Certainly, we don't want to confuse the poet with the speaker in her poems, no more than we would want to confuse Browning with the good Rabbi or any of the less reputable speakers in his poems. Poetry is not autobiography; as the author profile on the back cover of Body Parts proudly proclaims, the poet is in her seventies, and though she may well suffer some, even all of the maladies and disorders described in the poems, she and her husband are still actively "chasing solar eclipses, mentoring student rocketeers and visiting their grandchildren and great grandchild." Nevertheless, you can't be in the seventies without at least some experience with the physical decay endemic to aging.
So, let's postulate that Hoult indeed knows what she is talking about. It is significant, then, that despite all the demeaning insults of aging, she can still find like Tennyson's "Ulysses" that "old age has yet his honor and his toil." Poets have long sought the "newer world," the "work of noble note" left to those grown old. They have sought the "abundant recompense" that makes up for the loss of "splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." The fire and passion of youth may be gone, but there is something new to replace it: a new calmer way of looking at the world, "the philosophic mind." It may well be something less intense, but it may well be something well suited to the later stages of life. Intensity may be overrated when the AARP beckons.
"Choice Parts" is a poem that looks what seniors still have to offer:
Yes, we can make a difference
in this world of ours;
And sharing skills with others
can help to pass the hours.
We have so much experience,
there's so much that we know.
Why don't we share this wisdom
and help young people grow?
It is the choice of the senior to go on living as best she can, or simply die a little more each day. So "let's just keep on, keeping on," she concludes.
In "Memories and Sensations," she talks about the loss of youthful passion in terms very much reminiscent of Wordsworth. She, like him, asks, what can fill us with joy and delight again now that age has drained us of "vital juices." What she concludes is that we have memories: "the sight of a lovely sunset,/the sound of a haunting violin. . ./the touch of a lover's caress." In a somewhat less serious vein, "Compensations" points out that while old age may ravage us physically; those very ravages prevent us from seeing the flaws in those we love. If our significant other snores, our hearing loss lets us sleep peacefully. Since we can't see each other's faces as well anymore, we can't see the gray, the wrinkles, the age spots. Growing old together then is not all bad.
Hoult's poetry is not always so serious. She likes a pun: "Mr. Arthur It is." She plays with Poe's "The Bells" in "Pills" and Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" in "Knees:" "I think that I shall never see/A replacement lovely as a knee." She does a couple of comic turns on the confusion of similar words caused by hearing loss. She pokes some gentle fun at the forgetfulness that haunts us as we get older, the glasses we can never find, the people we can't remember, the car that we parked and lost.
The poems in Body Parts are not written in the cryptic mode of much of modern poetry. Hoult writes with a simple clarity and ease. Her imagery is drawn from experience. The verse patterns are fluid but never the stuff of insipid doggerel. In short, this is an anthology that deals with its subject seriously and with honesty.