Friday, February 26, 2016

At night he screams shipmates' names

Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, published by Kent State University Press in 2009, is an impressive collection. Among its roughly 150 poems and essays are many gems, including this one by Brian Daldorph, “The Tired Builder”:

He isn’t getting the words right.
He knows it, keeps reaching
into his dark wood-hoard
and brings up only apple cores,
fish bones and cool stones.
There is a word, he knows it,
for what he wants to say, but he’s in a room full
of dictionaries and doesn’t know where to start.
He’d give his right leg to get his mind back.
He’s got cathedrals there,
under construction,
but his stone masons can’t remember
how to hold their chisels.
The window designers can only imagine plain glass.

In an explanatory note (all the poems and prose include such entries, sometimes unnecessarily), Daldorph mentions that the poem is about a fellow writer and friend who was still at a relatively mild stage of the disease. For this book as a whole, however, the focus is almost entirely on people with severe dementia. And while most of these poems are well-crafted, the cumulative impact can be deadening.
Many of the poems are eulogies, frequently including the indignities, if not the horrors, of this terminal disease. In other poems, the tone is overly somber, as if death by what used to be called senility is a tragedy. The rare poem with a sense of humor, such as Sheryl L. Nelms’ “Early Alzheimer’s,” is a breath of fresh air:

Emma set her
kitchen on


she forgot
she was cooking

but the water

gushing through
the ceiling

for the bath

she forgot
she was taking

put it out.

An endnote helpfully points out that the poet is also an insurance adjuster.
Some of the most effective poems balance pathos with science, as in the last two stanzas of Sean Nevin’s “Again the Gnome and I Catch Dawn.” The subject is “sundowning,” the agitation that can come as night falls; this can include staying awake during the night and sleeping during the day. Here are the last two stanzas of Nevin’s poem:

What if this is my life, on fire,
the lit fuse of ganglia and synapse
sparking away like the gilded flecks of ash
that flare then vanish in the plume?

What if my life is the neighbor’s howling dog
who has snapped its chain and gone begging
from yard to yard to be taken inside?

In a similar vein, Melanie Martin, in “Verbal Charms,” writes:

Her brain, a tangle of altered proteins
 clumped inside cells I cannot see.

What I do see are her lips moving,
 A word her mouth is forming.

She clings to my arm,
says, Be careful. Watch out
for those people.

And Scott Pederson, in “Finding Mother,” writes:

I found my mother
the other day, hiding
inside a desk drawer
way in the back, behind
an old telephone book,
next to some loose change.

She was inside
an old pocketbook
the one she hasn’t used
in ten years, since
she began to wander, and
we took her keys away.

The final stanza:

There she is,
all of her 
before she disappeared
and became something else.

Two poems were inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.
Richard Beban’s “Odysseus, Mortal” is worth quoting in its entirety:

Afraid of his next step he clings to her
who mothered reluctantly, who sees

marriage end as it began, one last child
supplants her proud king. She waited vital

years for this?—to watch him lose his slow brawl
with memory, calling her Calypso

or Circe, deaf to her corrections.
At night he screams shipmates’ names as he dreams

the one-eyed giant. She is sorry he
lashed himself to the mast, didn’t succumb

to the sirens—wishes for him Hector’s
sword had been true. He who risked the domain

of shades now a fading sallow shadow.
Imitating her work, he unravels

his life each night, waking to find weft threads
gone, absent skills to weave himself back to

Ithaca, back to her, back to himself.

Another favorite of mine is “Pacific Sunset,” by Arthur Ginsberg. The poem is a kind of love song for the poet’s mother, an immigrant whose profound dementia causes her to mistake a beach on the largely wild ocean side of Vancouver Island for the city of Montreal. The poem suggests a deeply reciprocal relationship played out between mother and son. With good cheer, Ginsberg describes the old woman berating him for things he is not responsible.
Patiently, the poet spoon-feeds his mother mammaglia

the corn gruel she loves
from Pietra Namsk in Romania,
where she grew up. What tenderness
I hold for this marred mind, how fine
to have known this palace of her spirit,
the template for mine. Lip smacking
speaks to a wordless content,
as she sundowns with the light
leaving me holding
an empty bowl in the dark.

Are there weaknesses in this collection? My main objection is that the vast majority of poems and essays focus on people at or near the terminal stage: the stereotypical face of the disease. And in conceiving the book, the editors never seem to have realized that there must be many poets and writers with Alzheimer’s. I’m one of them.
One poet represented in this collection, Arlene Ang, commented in her explanatory note, “Alzheimer’s disease is frightening because it happens without the person realizing it. And sometimes I feel that slipping into such forgetfulness can be as easy as falling asleep.”
But that is not how Alzheimer’s works, particularly with those of us who have the early-onset version. To be diagnosed early can be a blessing, allowing people to make the most of the years that remain. Yet the poems and essays in the book are overwhelmingly about people in the disease’s dreaded late stages. At times I found the effect deadening: It forced me to dwell on what likely awaits me.
For all the strong writing in Beyond Forgetting, the anthology’s narrow focus has the consequence of making Alzheimer’s seem an even more ghastly illness than it actually is.

Beyond Forgetting can be purchased from Kent State University Press: www.beyondforgettingbook.com.


  1. Your critical analysis of this book, and too many others I suspect, makes your own blog all the more poignant and valuable, Mitch. Please keep sharing your insights and feelings.