Sunday, March 27, 2011

The problem with Alzheimer's narratives, part 2: Rachel Hadas's _Strange Relation_

Let me repeat the problem in writing Alzheimer's, as of my last post: Those from whom one wants to hear word cannot--beyond some point--speak. They cannot describe themselves or the situation in which they exist, just beyond the veil we catch on when we ask those simple questions, like "What's your name?" "Who is the president?" "What day of the week is it?" "Do you want to eat?" Those who write Alzheimer's memoirs, therefore, are not victims, but survivors: children, spouses.

A quick facebook question from Chris McKinney allows me to refine my statement of the problem a bit. If the problem can be explained in terms of literary form, then it is two-pronged. On the one hand, the Alzheimer's memoirist uses the first-person pronoun, which makes him or her, not the person who has Alzheimer's, the central focus of the work. On the other, the form of the work, no matter what the genre, tends to be realist, self-contained, linear. It presumes that stories matter because they make sense, the kind of sense that leads the reader from a beginning to a middle and then an end. Between the first person pronoun, which presumes a singular identity, and the narrative, which presumes development of some kind, the very forms used by most writers about Alzheimer's fail in the face of a condition whose "progress" is regression, degeneration, falling apart. This condition fails-to-work on the level of the sentence, as much as on the level of memory, cognition, physical movement. What these texts offer (sense-making) is consolation. But Alzheimer's defeats literary consolation, as it defeats other forms of it, as well. The elegy demands an ending before it opens; Alzheimer's refuses to offer one. It's like Xeno's paradox, to which there is no apt marker.

My last post engaged Jonathan Franzen's essay, "My Father's Brain," along these lines (or tangles). That essay comes up in the next text I'd like to examine, namely Rachel Hadas's book, Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry (Paul Dry Books, 2011). Early on, as she thinks about how mysterious is the onset of Alzheimer's, she quotes Franzen's essay. Like Franzen, Hadas has lived with a man (her husband, George Edwards) who never was communicative, warm, friendly; like him, she wonders when that natural interiority became the awful inwardness of dementia. She also cites Franzen's sentence, "I still needed him to be an actor in the story of myself" (21), as a marker of how we fail to see "anyone else's behavior as a whole" (20).

Like Franzen's essay, Hadas's book is written in straightforward (and in her case often beautiful) prose. The book is as much about poetry as it is about Alzheimer's; clearly, Hadas's primary refuge from the awful rigors of living for upwards of a decade with a man who is no longer who he was is to read and write poetry. These poems, like the book itself, are formalist: they follow clear, traditional rules. Even when the lines and sentences are about collapse they do their work. They are sturdy. There is nobility in this sturdiness, but there is also something missing from it. What often seems missing is George, the husband, the (or one) subject of the book. The terrible rawness of her encounter with Alzheimer's is written over, made smooth--even as the information she relays is awful. Too often (but oh so understandably) this poet who loves similes uses it to leave behind the situation she has thrown us in: "The one-way road, the slow train, the uncertain sky: all these helped me, if not to understand what was going on, then to understand how little I could do about it, and, with this understanding, to manage the ups and downs, the fitful bursts of sunshine succeeded by more clouds" (48).

On the very next page, Hadas tells us that George "virtually never used the pronoun 'I,' as in 'I'm tired,' 'I'm hungry,' 'I want...'" (49). Whether or not the lack of a personal pronoun indicates lack of agency or self is a debate I'll leave to the experts (linguists? psychologists? neurologists?), but this fact--his lack of an "I"--is moving. I feel an emotional and intellectual tug here. I want to stop, absorb this news, let it settle. But instead, this news leads to perhaps the most problematic passage in the book, where Hadas and her sister develop "similes" for George. "George silently drifted in from the living room and sat down opposite her at the table, eyeing her plate (as she said later) 'like a cow coming up to the fence'" (49). Hadas thinks this simile worthy of Homer; more in the Disney vein is the comparison of George to a "'giant hamster'" (49). "But everyone who heard it laughed," she reports; "it was funny, and right, and helpful. In the world of dementia, a laugh, like a simile, is something they don't write prescriptions for" (49). Let me tread softly here, because I also know how funny Alzheimer's patients can be, how laughter among the caretakers can ease many a traumatic moment. But in this paragraph, which I take to be well-meaning, "the world of dementia" exists for those who retain their "I's," not for those who do not. While the paragraph begins with George's lack of self, it ends with the humorous assertions of the non-demented self, making similes of the demented one's dis-ease. George is not literature; he suffers. I've told this story before, but when I gave a talk on Dementia Blog at the Center for Literary Biography in 2008, I said that Alzheimer's is like a neutron bomb; it destroys everything inside the body, but leaves the shell. The old woman who called me on that metaphor was right. There is more than shell, more than bumbling, to an Alzheimer's patient.

Hadas is honest in her admission that the book is as much--or more--about her struggles with the illness than with her husband's: "Much has been written about dementia as an insidious disease. Few writers, however, talk about the insidiousness of the way a person living alongside the disease is first blind to it and then grows used to it" (115). She is also honest in expressing the "bad" feelings she has toward his silences, his inabilities, about her own loneliness, and the doubts she begins to feel about their earlier, happier, life together. This aspect of the book, its raw honesty, reminds me of Jana Wolff's Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother, a book that lays out an adoptive parents' fears in ways that most of us bob and weave to avoid saying out loud. Hadas says it by extending her simile: "There's the one-way road and the changeable sky; the cow at the fence and the tall hamster; and the prison house called marriage . . . Be careful what you wish for: Here I am, immured alongside him" (52).

The form of Hadas's life becomes one of confinement, not chaos. As a poet friend said to me the other day, we see the world in the forms that are most natural to us. And so Hadas sees the world in poetic forms that I am suspicious of, forms that contain rather than forms that open out. She still believes--wants to believe--that poetry can contain the pain she feels. In describing the end of a summer vacation, through the words of Frank Kermode, she expresses her belief in patterns, forms: "People 'in the middest,' as Kermode observes, 'make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and the middle" (168). Hence, "No person could hold these strong feelings in suspension, give them a shape we can grasp, an articulation we can remember. No one person could. But sometimes poetry can" (121). The kind of poetry Hadas reads for meaning is graspable; its meanings come in boxes, containers, rooms (like the stanza's). There is not even the instability of the sonnet sequence, in which each poem only stays our confusion until the next poem re-opens the paradox, problem, wound, and tries--again--to solve or salve it. Perhaps closest to the tradition that makes sense (ironic, eh?) of this perplex is Dickinson's poetry. Hadas quotes the poem that contains this stanza:

Ruin is form--Devil's work
Consecutive and slow--
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping--is Crash's law.

But how devious is Dickinson here. Crash has a law, yes, but "law" only half-rhymes with "slow." The discomfort left by the near-rhyme evokes the discomfort one feels in thinking about Ruin or the Devil. Hadas reads this poem as capturing "the theme of the extreme insidiousness of the loss" [of dementia]; what strikes me is that the "failure" of the rhyme (deliberate as it may be) evokes insidiousness rather than merely conveys it.

This idea that the text should evoke and not convey thought and feeling leads me to the two moments in Hadas's book that I find most powerful. The first, which offers a half-rhyme to Jonathan Franzen's citation of a letter his father wrote to a grandson, but never sent, is a "stray sheet of yellow legal paper somewhere in his room" (160). She writes, "I seem to need to keep this piece of paper near me. Sometimes when people ask how George is doing I have the impulse to show it to them. If they are people I like and trust, sometimes I do show it to them" (160). And then she shows it. I would like to think that her trust in this one reader she does not know is earned:

As I proof-read this post, I realize that I have said nothing about this page. What is moving about it is that the composer of it has asserted himself (his name is at the top), despite great difficulty holding the pen; that he is trying with great, graphic, difficulty to get out thoughts he cannot compass ("in in a a less more sens sense in more less the less morre the my more the producte..."); that his language IS still eloquent (think Gertrude Stein, think the residents of my mother's Alzheimer's home, whose words I did my best to transcribe here); that he is still making something. I accept Hadas's gift of this page with tenderness and not a little anxiety. More than the rest of the book, this is mine to deal with as I can; I'm set out on the same skiff she's on, and I'm not sure how to steer it, if it can be steered. So it's not simply the form (yellow legal pad with writing on it) or the content (which cannot be ascertained), but some combination of them both that pierces through the narrative voice and the reader's eye/ear.

The other moment occurs at the end of the book. This is the final paragraph:

George tries to catch some of the bubbles we're blowing, and laughs. Other bubbles land with a silent plop on the pages of the coloring book I've brought out again with the paints, brushes, and a glass of water. I've just about finished the fish mandala, and for a change of pace I open the medieval tapestry coloring book Amy passed on to me. I choose a picture of Death riding a pale horse. I think I'll paint the sky an ominous, apocalyptic red. But for now, I twirl a small brush first in the green paint, then in the yellow, and begin to color in the leaves on the greens of the forest through which Death is riding. (199)

Bubbles, coloring book, mandala. All of these are beautiful, and none of them lasts. I can see George blowing bubbles, coloring; I can hear him laugh. He exists for me on this page in a way he has not lived on any page before this. Each object--bubble, coloring book, mandala--arrives at a form and then loses it. Each loss is as it should be. (Remember the little boy who destroyed a mandala in Kansas City, and the monks who then simply set about making it again, so that it could again be dissolved?) Death is riding, but that's an active verb, and the poet's attention is, in any case, not on him but on the "leaves of the trees of the forest" (199). Just after quoting Frank Kermode on "coherent patterns," (see above) Hadas writes, "Absent these imaginative investments in patterns, endings are always problematic." In this last paragraph of her book, she has found a way to invest in patterns, while accepting the problematic non-ending of her husband's illness. Form and formlessness, coming into being and leaving it, these mark the oscillations that will perhaps offer Hadas another beginning, another leaf on the tree that the horseman will, inevitably, pass by.

Next up: Alzheimer's and the editor

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