Thursday, June 4, 2009

Forgetting as disease: Dementia in recent poetry and prose (Julie Carr, Skip Fox, David Chariandy)

"This was our belonging. Memory was a carpet stain that nobody would confess to. History was a television set left on all night. The car chases and gun fights sponsored by oil companies. The anthems at the end of broadcast days" (14).

--David Chariandy

In a collection published years ago, editor James McCorkle included an essay by Ann Lauterbach that I have remembered. There she argued counter-intuitively that she's not a poet because she remembers but because she's forgetful. Even poets of memory depend on forgetting to generate their work; Proust's madeleine and cobblestone could not occur too often, or his book would not have ended. But these works depend on our thinking of forgetfulness as a natural process, one for which memory is ample compensation. To consider that forgetting stems from disease (dementia, Alzheimer's) casts it in another, less luminous, light. That such forgetting comes with physical manifestations like stumbling, like incontinence, poses an obstacle to the romance of remembering. Those afflicted return to a childhood without joys, accumulations.

In his novel Soucouyant, David Chariandy's narrator knows that what his mother forgets becomes his responsibility. Not only does he remember what she likes ("lemon and hot water in the morning . . . the taste of licorice") but he also knows what causes her pain, in-grown toenails, that he "alone might be aware of" (82). Not a responsibility that elevates him, but one that causes him "revulsion," as he approaches to cut her nails and she asks, "'Why? Why you cut me?'" (83). Telling others what no nurse can know is his duty; the writer-son performs his book as response to this "ought."

Writing as "ought," as duty. Hence perhaps the "Wrought" (wr-ought) of Julie Carr's new book, Equivocal (Alice James, 2008). "Wrought" is a kind of making that takes force, effort; iron is wrought, where we assume that we are raised, are flexible rather than fixed. Carr's mother suffers dementia; her daughter tries to force her words to mean. Just as a sculptor fills an empty space, the poet fills in--not the empty mind of her mother--but the space of a book. The reader fills her mind with what no longer finds a home in the mother's. Disease is not meaning, but meaning can perhaps take its place, compensate obliquely for what is lost. But "I grieve that grief can teach me nothing: Emerson, / choosing tautology to reveal emptiness" (6). When "time and its order is not" (7), then tautology comes to replace cause and effect.

Like me, Carr has young children; like me, she has a mother who intended to remain independent. "Wrought Pledge":

He flosses her teeth for her. She worries it will hurt,
that she'll go bankrupt, that her family will disown her.
Are there places for people like her? Will he cut her mouth?

In that last quoted line, ultimate questions and an immediate one jostle each other claustrophobically, as they do in the face of debilitating disease. Neither claims priority over the other; both are crucial, even if the first matters more to the daughter (at this point) and the second to her mother (now). Now is an island, now is crisis. And the poet: "What prepares me for this particular pain-- / the pain of leaving things as they are-- / of taking them as they are? (5). In fact, the ultimate question, "are there places for people like her?" is at once practical (having to do with "homes," with "caregivers") and philosophical (what manner of personhood is this, when one is reduced to worry about dental floss?).

Immediate and ultimate: personal and public. Carr also worries that difference, which is the difference between caregiving and writing poetry, among many others. The poem, we assume, has an audience, a public, which witnesses moments intensely private. (Especially private since the person whose actions are published would not want them known as hers.) "Emerson says that private thought is the universal / but it must never be construed as the universal" (7), Carr notes, and then two pages later: "Private griefs become public when theorized: I cannot get it / nearer me" (9). This notion of "theory" as the public space that privacy opens up is fascinating, and leads her to her (self?) reliance on Emerson and Aristotle and Coleridge (via a headnote) for anchoring ideas about time and loss (of and in time).

The sequence "Wrought" comprises only the first eleven pages of Carr's Equivocal. There is much to consider in the rest, including an amazing rendering of Homer and her mother, "Iliadic Familias (with insertions from Homer)" about her and her mother's wars (Iraq, Vietnam), but for reasons of my own, it is the opening of the book that will stay with me longest. For now.

David Chariandy's book is more portrait than parable of a mother's Alzheimer's. It is beautifully written, and brings in issues of immigration and prejudice in Canada (his protagonists are from Trinidad, are not welcomed into the eastern Canadian suburb they move to), with histories that reach back to other empires, other violences. I tend to agree with the novelist when he imagines speaking to his missing brother, a poet, however:

"I'd explain that I understood the need for poetry because language can never be trusted and what the world doesn't need is another long story and all the real stories have become untellable anyway" (129).

That most of these untellable stories are not told because they have not happened, and cannot happen, is something I find best told by Skip Fox, in his new book Delta Blues (ahahadada books, 2009). "in esse" begins with this story about a story that has not happened, may not happen:

"Beginning summer. Watching my father's long slide into senility, further each week. Mostly lucid but occasionally disconnected. He said, There's comfort in just doing what you're told . . . Now waiting for Mom to mend is his only plan. Then you can slip happily into senility, Dad? Something like that, he said smiling" (52).

The act of "waiting" is not a story, though it might be grounds for one. In dementia, "waiting for Mom to mend" might mean waiting for someone to mend who is no longer alive, in the way my mother waited for her own mother, dead these many decades, to re-appear. An odd reincarnation, this coming back to life in the mind of someone whose mind is no longer "her own." The act of writing is another form of waiting; part of the wait is the book's for its reader. These books are worth their wait.

1 comment:

underdog said...

If I interpreted what you were saying correctly, I agree that a poet must have some sort of form of dementia or, if I may be so bold, insanity. Then again, if I may be so bold, there is a fine line between genius and insanity.