Thursday, September 22, 2011

Post-Trip Ruminations

[I've just returned from what I fondly called The Dementia Tour.  The Kelly Writer's House gigs had been planned for nearly a year; I'd thought going to Philadelphia would make it easier to visit my mother in Virginia.  But as it happened, my reading at the Writer's House included a farewell to the long project about my mother, which became, more importantly, a farewell to her.  And so I gave a reading, did a public interview with Al Filreis, and recorded a PoemTalk with Al, Leonard Schwartz, and Tom Devaney on a poem, "Eating Fried Chicken," by Linh Dinh.  After going to see my Cardinals beat the Phillies (though Al and I only heard the game as it was ending on the car radio, streaming St. Louis announcers into the bowels of Philadelphia), and spending time with a college friend and a couple of UNO pals, I went on the West Virginia University to give a talk on Alzheimer's writing, meet with grad students, and see old graduate school friends.]

That's the inventory.  But what actually happened?

Al Filreis began our conversation by noting that I have written about the Cambodian genocide, and he began to connect that content to the Alzheimer's writing I've done that offers a testimony of witness to my mother's decline.  But we adopted our son from Cambodia! I told Al.

Our friend Hongly Khuy was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge.  He's come to several of my classes to talk about his experiences.  He traumatized that first class of freshmen, talking about what it's like nearly to starve to death, what it's like to see a woman butchered to death for asking for more food (his laughter at the situation's absurdity bothered the students most), how far one had to walk simply to get a few grains of rice.  After a couple more such talks, he had grown much more gentle.  He talked differently.  Al distinguished between "deep memory" and "common memory."  Deep memory occurs in the present tense, always.  Common memory acquires a past tense verb, assumes a distance between the moment of trauma and the moment of story-telling.  It's easier on the teller and his audience, but less "true" to the experience.

That didn't diminish the force of Al's intuition about genocide and dementia.  If there are national dementias, imposed from above, then the Holocaust was one of them, enabled by forgetting on a massive scale.  The comparison comes at a slant, not directly.  Alzheimer's is nature's evil, not humanity's.  The disease is not ethical, though our reactions to it are.  But the force of Al's comparison hit hardest when I sat in on his Holocaust literature class and his students discussed Aharon Appelfeld's Story of a Life, which I later read on my brand-spanking-new electronic device.

Much of Dementia Blog and what followed on this Tinfish Editor's Blog happened not in "deep memory," but in the "deep present" of confronting Alzheimer's sufferers.  Or it may be the "deep demented tense," as it lives in an out-of-time that resembles the surreal in its reality.  Appelfeld writes about stuttering.  Do not tell the story because you cannot remember it, counsels the child who became the writer.  Do not claim to master any language, because you have either lost those you spoke or failed to attain full command of the new language.  A mother's loss is likewise the loss of her language, which was German.  Hebrew was an imposition, one he molded into a lifetime of work.  A mother's loss is the loss of her language into illness.  I do not want to overplay the comparison (I spent years furious at Plath's illness/Nazi metaphor), but reading Appelfeld's memoir proved to be an amazing exercise in reading a poetics that works for Alzheimer's writing, as well as Holocaust literature.

--I've carried with me my mistrust of words from those years.  A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion within me.  I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you.  Smooth, fluent sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness (AA, 102-3)

After the war, Appelfeld writes, the memoirs and the books started to come out: "these pages carry a great deal of pain, but there is also within them much that is cliched and superficial.  The silence that had reigned during the war and for a short while afterward seemed to be swallowed up in an ocean of words" (104).  And then, most tellingly (as it were): "The really huge catastrophes are the ones that we tend to surround with words so as to protect ourselves from them" (105).

The direction of these catastrophes does not follow the same compass, and the silence is not shared between sufferer of Alzheimer's and caretaker or family member, but the sense of writing toward an awkward comfort is familiar to me.  Why do I not write down everything my children do?  Why instead did I obsessively write down everything I heard in the Alzheimer's home?  Why does lack of memory spark the desperate need to remember, while living with other memories does not?  The answers may seem clear, but then they blur back into lack of clarity, the stutter.  The comfort is in the record, not what has been recorded.  (I discovered that while reading some of the material out loud.)

Linh Dinh detests the poetry world; according to reports from that world, he has renounced poetry, as well.  It does no good, he says.  There is no audience.  Use photographs, use Counterpunch, use means that arrive at more doorways than does any line of verse.  His anger is sublime.  He has taken on all the hurts of our age.  I want to say to Linh, be easy, remember also to love the good.  Appelfeld did.  Some of the most moving passages in his book are about the goodness he felt in the midst of total murderousness.  Hard to remember the day after the murder of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia, but.  Leonard Schwartz spoke repeatedly about "big anger" and "little anger," about the importance of persuading readers not through direct action, but unconscious influence.  Not sure I go all the way with that idea, but agree that deflection (and to my mind, the carnivalesque) work better than onslaught.

In West Virginia the reunions with two grad school friends were good.  They'd been married for most of the time I've known them, and now they are not, but thrive in different ways that are lovely to see. John Ernest has written several important books on African American literature, history and theology of the 19th century, and now has an Eberly Chair at WVU.  Justin Legleiter, whose lab just got a $100,000 grant to study Alzheimer's, came to the talk and a dinner afterward.  I wish I understood his language better.  He got interested in Alzheimer's not through family experience, but because the problem so resembles a problem he started from in working on nano-technology.  Yes, that too becomes clear in the Alzheimer's world.  We are technologies, and our controls (remote or not) often do not work as planned. 

Appelfeld's book is about the power of the stories you cannot tell.  In so many ways, I identify with that problem, finding the stutter more eloquent than the speech, the search for memory as powerful as any memory your mind claims to hold to.  On returning home, I discovered in the mail pile a beautiful note from our department secretary Gayle Nagasako on the loss of my mother.  In the note, she mentioned also being an only child, and imagined the loneliness of the loss.  My mother spent her last years anti-social and then ill.  Her friends and neighbors fell away.  Without making too much drama of it, I am her last witness, the remnant of her memory.  It feels a burden, but as the man at Gate 8 alerted me, it is also, at times, a (loving) responsibility. 

[The reading & conversation with Al Filreis will be on PennSound soon, and the PoemTalk will come out in good time.]

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