Saturday, August 29, 2009

"My dear times' waste": Shakespeare sonnet XXX, Tortillas, & Dementia

This past Wednesday, we inaugurated English 410 (Form & Theory of Poetry) with a discussion of one of my favorite Shakespeare sonnets, #XXX, which begins, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past . . ." The sonnet works as a fugue of metaphors--legal, financial, emotional--that circulate against the central metaphor of the poet's mind as a courtroom where memories are brought forth and weighed as evidence of his losses. The judge's gavel comes down with the happy ending in the final couplet, where the poet's thoughts of "you" make all things right, losses turned to gain.

One of the things I love about this sonnet is the way that the word "sessions" opens up the entire poem, once you linger on its legal connotations. The economy of the poem is so tight (so in the black) that words like "grieve" wobble productively, pointing to the complaints our memories bring back in our mental courtrooms, and to the grieving we do afresh each time we remember. That we grieve for what we do not remember only adds to the affect (and effect).

I told the story of my daughter's encounter with the difference in meaning between words of the same sound. When she was first learning English at age three--her first language was Nepali--she wanted to know what my husband was making for dinner one night. He responded that he was making tortillas. Now, our cat's name is Tortilla, so what ensued was a very long evening during which she repeatedly demanded to know if we were going to eat our cat. (What made the long story even longer was that my husband eventually said yes, out of frustration with her unwillingness to take no for an answer.)

Tortilla, tortillas. Both are nouns, but one we do not eat. A lesson learned through tears. It was a story my mother would have loved, or loved to tell, had it been hers. She was a wonderful story-teller, and many of her stories were about words. I remember one about a young soldier who greeted her each day in Italy during the Second World War by yelling, "wanna marry me, Marty?" My mother got tired of the greeting, so she asked the military chaplain to walk with her one day. When the soldier called out his greeting, she said, "Yes! Right here and now!" That put an end to his greeting, that promise to enact his words as a deed (of marriage). There was the less happy story of a pilot she knew who told his girlfriend that if she did not marry him, he would not return from his next mission. She said no and he did not. Whether there was volition in his disappearance or just another random act of war no one would ever know, just as we often fail to know the ends of our words' stories.

These stories came to mind when I telephoned my mother yesterday. For two or three years now her responses on the phone from her Alzheimer's home have reminded me of the language tapes I used in college to learn German. The tapes employed repetition and small variations (moves from past to present, present to future in shifts of vowel) as ways to impress verb forms and phrases in the mind. So my mother would say each week, "I'm so glad you called and that everything is all right. It's important to know that everything's all right." Then she would want the conversation to end (she never lost the sense that long distance phone calls cost a lot of money and should be kept short). She would sometimes vary things by answering questions about the weather, or the food she was eating. Sometimes she said she was happy there.

This time, there was silence, not rote repetition. I spoke into the silence, but I'm not good at inventing talk in thin air. I asked if she was there. She said, "yes, I understand," and then went quiet again. Never before has there been such pause between words, even words that didn't mean much except that we were still speaking them to each other. She is losing speech, even as she loses weight (seven pounds this month). Where stories ceded to phrases, the phrases now succumb to quiet.

I needn't have gotten up at 4 a.m. to see Teddy Kennedy's funeral; there was much gathering of people and vehicles and media chatter, and the ceremony did not begin for over an hour. Yet I'm glad I did. Leaning on his son's arm, Sargent Shriver was ushered into the cathedral, muttering as he went. The reporters told us that he suffers from Alzheimer's, had just recently attended the funeral of his wife, Eunice, and run after the hearse perhaps a bit inappropriately. That the family chose to have him in church says much. That they did not hide him from the public strikes me as a model for the rest of us. My mother's home, albeit lovely in spirit and space, can be entered only through a door that requires a combination to get in. It's a sealed place; the gardens form a circle that cannot be broken. The Kennedy's broke that circle, making us all witnesses to the Alzheimer's sufferer not as someone else, but as one of us.

[Martha J. Schultz, February, 2009]


slarry said...

Indeed, "A lesson learned through tears."
This particular post, brought me to tears and takes my breath away.
Aloha and gratitude, always, dear Susan.


a.k.a. "Joe" said...

me, too.