Monday, July 26, 2010

"Be a Haole, a Dumb Haole, or a Dumb F-ing Haole": On White Writing in Hawai`i

I'll begin with a couple of anecdotes, perverse scripture to my homily about haoleness:

On a recent flight from Atlanta to St. Louis, I sat next to a large white man, former college football player, country music producer (in his home), and staunch Republican. We ran each other through talking points, like football players on a telestrator, quickly discovering that all we had in common were mothers with Alzheimer's, a not insignificant fact, at least until you start talking health care reform.

"Racism is worse than it's ever been," he told me. What bothered him most was that people like him felt they couldn't criticize the Obama administration without being called racists. (Where the direct racism is in that I don't know.)


A (non-white) student told me that white people have no culture, go looking for it in other peoples' cultures. Hence white teens and hiphop. Hence even white people who take up causes like the environment.


Judy Rohrer's new UH Press book, Haoles in Hawai`i takes on the work of defining whiteness in Hawai`i. She notes the absence of scholarship about the category, "haole," as compared to work on other groups in Hawai`i: "Academics, who are still mostly white even in Hawai`i," she writes, "tend not to study themselves, but rather that which they deem to be abnormal, different, or a problem" (6). While I'm not sure I agree that haole scholars do not find themselves to be a problem (some do far too much, I suspect), I wonder why the term is so pervasive and yet still unused in some crucial contexts. Why, for example, do we not think about "haole writing" in Hawai`i? More on that in a bit.

Rohrer offers a needed contextualization of "haole," and tries to divorce the term from its racial marker. Among her takes on "haole" is that the subject position is performative: white people can be "haole," but so can those non-whites who "act haole," meaning they are loud, opinionated, full of a sense of privilege. Rohrer draws out the meanings of "haole" from several strands of Hawai`i's history. There's a "local" (mostly Asian American) take on "haole," which stems from the plantation system, where haole were the bosses. And there's the Kanaka Maoli take, which comes from the longer, perhaps deeper, experience of colonialism. And of course there's the haole take on haole, which she divides into the categories of "savior" and "victim" (too few categories, to my mind). And then there's the haole desire not to be haole, to be native or kama`aina. (This begins to sound like the whiteness of the whale. . .)

As this all-too-quick synopsis of Rohrer's book indicates, the narrative possibilities for haole are limited, often self-limited. The gerund states it better: haole are often self-limiting. I would add to her list of characters the "guilty settler," the person who (understandably, perhaps) feels guilty that her people colonized and damaged others, and who tries valiantly to avoid all of the categories described above. Rohrer sets out a concise history of haole privilege and of native Hawaiian poverty, rate of incarceration, and so forth. The guilty settler valiantly tries to find a way not to appropriate Hawaiian and local stories. Sometimes this person (or function) sets itself up to police other haole, those who write about Hawai`i. It is perhaps one of these gatekeepers to whom the following poem was addressed in a graduate workshop of mine several years ago. The poem is called "My Potatoes," written by Mason Donald.

Don't write about Hula,
she explains to me. It's not yours.
Try working with hula
hoops instead. That's more fitting
to your . . . personal subject position.

This voice goes on to tell the writer not to write about Kamapua`a, Waikiki, Pele, even about "commodification and sexual exploitation."

No, no. You don't understand,
she continues.
Write about your home.
Write about your people.

The writer of this poem grew up on the Big Island, graduated from public schools there, attended the University of Hawai`i, and currently lives in Honolulu. The punchline to his poem, "It's not easy writing about / potatoes," is doubly ironic, since he grew up on rice but is being asked to write about a food (crucial element of Hawai`i writing!) that he doesn't eat, only because it is associated with his ethnic group.

I would argue that such material privilege leads to poverty in narrative or poetic possibilities. Because, if we are to mark haole as haole, then we must consider them not simply as politicians and CEOs, but also as artists. If you are marked as an outsider even if you grew up here, it's pretty hard to write about your own life or about the place you grew up as you (and many of your friends) knew it.

It may be inevitable, then, that we don't talk about "haole writers" in Hawai`i as a group. They seem to me to be everywhere, but they are not marked as such. This strikes me as a curious combination of old-style privilege (we do not mark what is dominant) and new-style condescension (haole writing about Hawai`i is no longer dominant and they don't have much to say anyway). Well, that combined with the exhaustion of high school readers of Robert Frost, among many of the "dead white males." But I'm not talking Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson, here; I'm talking those who walk the streets of Honolulu, go home, and write.

Open the newish tome (and I mean the weighty door stopper on steroids volume), Honolulu Stories: Two Centuries of Writing, edited by Gavan Daws and Bennett Hymer. Cast your eye at the Table of Contents. Look to the categories used to group poems and stories. These categories come in an odd mix of period (the nineteenth century); economic system (plantation); places (Waikiki, around the island); feeling (dislocated); markers like local and Hawaiian; and the ambiguous, "The Way We Live Now."

So what is "local"? The selection is almost completely local Asian; there are no "local haole" here. In this section of the book we find what might otherwise be an issue of Bamboo Ridge Press's annual journal. "Dislocated" expands the "Local" category in intriguing ways, drawing in African American writers and white ones, but also including local Asians. The "Plantation" section is almost exclusively local Asian. "On the Beach at Waikiki," to which the book devotes two sections, includes many haole writers, including writers of songs like Irving Berlin. But we also find Haunani-Kay Trask here, alongside Paul Theroux--an odd couple if there ever was one. "To Be Hawaiian" speaks for itself.

There are haole writers here. The section "The Way We Live Now" begins with a poem by Faye Kicknosway. Kicknosway is a well known poet nationally who taught at UHM from the late 1980s until last year. Her poem, "The Other Shoe," fits in this section (maybe), but would also fit a section hypothetically titled, "White Writers of Hawai`i":

Answer the following: What's
a pineapple? A sheep? A night blooming

what's a South Sea Islander?
Measles? Immigrant labor? Cholera?

What's a rat? A horse?
Plague? What's history? And why

is it time sugar moved to Thailand?

I'll tell you: Because Max Von Sydow
and Julie Andrews
put long grey shirts on it.

This would be the 1966 movie version of James Michener's Hawaii. Von Sydow is a Calvinist, and Julie Andrews is his wife. As the "product description" at tells it: "They came to bring God, but instead brought disease and destruction." They also--the poem suggests--brought definitions with them, the need to categorize. And then literature (Michener) and film reinforced these categories through the costuming department in Hollywood. This strikes me as a poem worthy of the category "white poetry," (if there were such a one) in its oblique, yet pointed, critique of "haole colonialism," to say nothing of what is often called "Haolewood." Kicknosway is not Michener is not Stevenson or London. The other shoe has dropped.

Juliana Spahr's contribution is a poem about Palolo Stream and the parking lot beside it. It is about how space is organized in Hawai`i, about how "gathering" (or the Hawaiian sense of place) is carved up by fences, by ownership, by cars. "Certain of we have rights and / these rights are written so that / there is a possible keeping, a / keeping away, that denies / gathering." Among these "certain of we" the poet counts herself; she is one who drives to and from the "lot."

The white person (marked as tourist or colonial) appears in several poems by white writers, from William Stafford to John Logan to Terese Svoboda who writes the word outright:

Actual travel schools
refine this pact but you're not

the devil, you're "howl-ee"
as a full moon that rises apart
from the condos must be howled at?

For the haole tourist, money is to the land as blood is to the "native," in Svoboda's poem. It's not an equal position; it may represent economic capital and power, but not the power of story. Because this story is what happens over and again in this book and others. The haole writer gets to write about tourists and potatoes. Or maybe that is what he or she thinks. If there is bad ownership of land and goods, there is no good story to be owned.

Missing from this book, a gap that will be noted more by outsiders than insiders, I suspect, is anything by W.S. Merwin. The absence might be due to a lack of permissions or because Merwin's The Folding Cliffs (which takes place on Kaua`i) was seen here as an act of appropriation of a story by Pi`ilani Koolau, which was first appropriated by Jack London in "Koolau the Leper." (An extended and severe critique of the book as "a masterpiece of literary colonialism" by Kapalai`ula de Silva can be found here.) For whatever reason, and despite the various reactions to Merwin's work one hears --from boredom to disgust--there is in Merwin's work a concern for the environment. Quoted here is one such expression, notable now that Merwin is Poet Laureate (for whatever that is worth, likely not much):

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
with our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

If one did not know how different are the models provided by Merwin and Spahr, one might assume them to be of like minds, as they are of like repetitions. Palolo Stream and the everywhere of Merwin's poem are surely linked. (See "Thanks" by Merwin in full.) The intensity of discussions of how and when to write about Hawai`i can be seen in the exchange between Ku`ualoha Ho`omanawanui and Dennis Kawaharada, here and here.

In a fascinating and misguided op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recently, Sen. James Webb (D-VA) (known to advertise himself as Scots-Irish), does some special pleading for white people, while arguing against anti-discrimination policies that target ethnic and racial groups. He's making a class argument that gets caught up in the web of race. But the piece is fascinating because it suggests in what for a brief moment was called "post-racial America," we've more complicatedly arrived at an America in which there are white people who know they're white people. They are like my friend on the airplane, and many of them are unhappy about it. Given that there are white people, however, Webb is correct (as I see it) in asserting that "white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy." Cultures as defined by economics is what I think he means: Appalachian culture and Manhattan culture may share whiteness, but they sure don't sing the same tunes. Whites in Portland don't usually see eye to eye with whites in Alabama (although the exceptions are telling). I and my friend on the plane were both white, but our cultures--in the widest meaning of "cultures"--are different.

One way to think about "haole writing" is to categorize white writers, as people. There are the visitors, the distinguished visiting writers, those who stay for a few years, those who spend decades, those whose families span generations, those who stay and those who leave. A better set of categories, to my mind, would spring from the question: what does a haole writer have to write about? To that question I would answer that such writing, while it needs to acknowledge the histories of this place, also needs to look to contribute something other than self-critique. It needs to get into issues of the environment, family--issues that range from the global to the quotidian. We need narratives (beginning perhaps from the conscious destruction of the old "savior/victim" dichotomy) that add to the larger conversation rather than ape it or self-flagellate.

I've written this in the spirit of inquiry, as nothing fixed or certain. As Tinfish's editor, I try hard to avoid ethnic categories as such. Tinfish will never publish an anthology devoted to writers of a particular ethnicity. Tinfish 18.5, for example, was a book by Hawai`i writers of different backgrounds whose concerns focused on Hawai`i. (It seems ironic in this context that there were no haole writers among them.) The aim is to create conversations across and between the usual categorical imperatives. In the case of 18.5, the writers applied their various lenses to issues of development, militarism, tourism. The point of the anthology was to link writers, not to list them. (This is an intention that is often ignored by students who want to read Hawaiian writers, or local writers.) But given that these categories exist, that they can do good work for writers and readers, let's honestly engage that of "haole writer" and see what good can be made of it. So far its range seems excessively narrow, if sometimes powerfully mined. Not only should we not write much about potatoes, but we should not have to write about how we can only write about them.


The title of this post comes out of Judy Rohrer's book on haole. The phrase was spoken by Prof. Phyllis Turnbull after weeks of hearing a white student from California complain about being categorized as "haole." These were the three choices Prof. Turnbull offered the student, clearly feeling that she belonged in the third but might better aim for the first.

Ed. note: Merwin apparently has never written about Honolulu, which is why he's not in the book, according to Gavan Daws. Amazing that he never wrote a poem about O`ahu.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday morning phone call

What are you doing, mom?

Listening to you.

I hear you fell and hurt your elbow.

Oh no, I'm fine.

(She coughs. Coughs again. Again.)

I'm fine. (In a high-pitched wail this time.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Blog as an Aid to Forgetting

The sitemeter to my blog tells me several things, one of which is to which blog post someone traveled. Occasionally I follow the trail to see where they went. So the other day someone in Ohio went to this blog post. As I read it, I realized that I had forgotten reading Hix's book, let alone writing about it seven months ago. Re-reading what I had written was an aid to memory. A complicated memory, that, in which I recovered the memory of the book by way of remembering (mentally reconstructing) the post I wrote about it. And then I remembered caring about the book, feeling its affects.

In fits and starts, I'm reading Jonathan K. Foster's Memory: A Very Short Introduction. Early on, he offers up the conundrum that our memory of ordinary objects is not as good as we might think. Consider coins: penny, nickel, quarter. I quickly realized that I could not draw any of these coins accurately (beyond making them round). Which direction does Lincoln's head face? Washington's? What and where is the writing on these coins, and what the images on the back? Where are the dates? What extra markings are there on each coin? My husband remembered a bit better; he used to collect coins, after all. But even he failed to remember significant details about each coin.

[click to enlarge--or better remember]

It's hardly important to remember the content of the coin, since it is all symbolic (actual) value. If I give you a quarter, neither of us needs to know what's on it. (Though I now feel bad for whoever designed the coin; their work is so very present to its audience that no one attends to it!). I enjoy remembering that Wallace Stevens's wife's face graced the dime before Roosevelt took her place, although she too was rendered into symbol, Winged Liberty. And I sure couldn't draw it, so here's Wikipedia to the rescue.

What does it mean that we never actually look at those things we use habitually? That forgetting them means not attending to them in the first place (forgetting to look, that is, instead of forgetting what one saw)? It's surely a different problem from that of forgetting habits, like talking, like walking, like swallowing, which are part of Alzheimer's disease. But it does suggest a kind if dis- or perhaps over-ease with our surroundings.

This Fall I'm teaching Foundations of Creative Writing to incoming MA students. I hope none of them is reading this blog post, because I intend to start out by asking them to draw coins. We will then read Kathleen Stewart's wonderful, odd book, Ordinary Affects. The first line of copy about the book reads as follows: "Ordinary Affects is a singular argument for attention to the affective dimensions of everyday life and the potential that animates the ordinary." Suffice it to say that, having read it a couple of years back, I don't remember it very well, but I do recall its effects. They were much like those I felt in watching the short film about Glenn Gould sitting in the truck stop listening to voices and sounds become a fugue. Stewart enters public places and sits down. She allows the world to come to her, and she sets it down. That is not just what she does, that is also her theory of what she does.

This is what sitting with memories does. Not as violent or as dramatic as the Roman aids to memory, where events or lines of speeches were mentally staged for quick retrieval, this notion of memory involves quiet sitting. One has an audience for one's memories. (Picture yourself either the Pope or Mickey Mouse.) They come to call, then depart. They call in another. And sometimes they are very strange indeed. I have a persistent memory of walking between buildings at the University of New South Wales with Hazel Smith in 2001. I have no idea what we were saying to one another. The buildings were ordinary. The sky was blue. Nothing about the scene called for re-collection (unlike Harvey Hix's book about a woman who discovers late that she was adopted, a subject close to my concerns as an adoptive mother). So why did it stick? Even more oddly, perhaps, that memory does not stick to other memories, except perhaps to the young man hawking a newspaper on the same campus whose headline was loudly anti-American. When I reached for the newspaper, he said it cost $2 and I made an awkward quip about Americans taking things as I walked past. But most often, the campus memory is discrete--so discrete I cannot say why it is there. (And "there" is where, I wonder.)

Jonathan K. Foster describes two kinds of memories, the flashbulb memory (what a fossil metaphor that is!) and the reminiscence bump. The former involves a public memory, the assassination of Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, 9/11; the latter tells us that we remember best what happened during late adolescence and early adulthood. These are dramatic events, years of sturm und drang (speaking only for myself, of course). But what of those ordinary, bland, dumb memories like the walkway between buildings at UNSW? Of course it happened in a place to which I'm not accustomed; there is that. But more dramatic events happened in Australia.

Which brings me back to the ordinary. Even in that rather ordinary dictionary, Merriam-Webster, the word has several meanings in advance of the one I consider ordinary. Before the sense of "regular" and "predictable" and "habitual," I find this: "a clergyman appointed formerly in England to attend condemned criminals ." The ordinary has the power (he is higher on the hierarchy than the condemned criminal); he also has the power in the church to govern. To govern the tongue is to be an ordinary of speech? And ordinary speech is then one that is governed?

A fellow editor described my book on dementia as being about "the quotidian." I was a bit taken aback, as Alzheimer's disease hardly seems ordinary. (Although I was also taken aback because he grouped together "books by women about the quotidian" in his sentence.) But in the sense that the ordinary is what governs our attention, and our attention is what gives us meaning, then so be it. According to M-W, attention is not simply the act of paying . . . of noticing, but also " to go or stay with as a companion, nurse, or servant." Let us be companions, then, and attend to the ordinary, even if it is (best? inevitably?) forgotten. Condemned, even.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Memory Card, July 8, 2010

Lately I've been writing memory cards again. Over ten years ago, I started writing prose poems that fit on large index cards. Index cards as measure; index cards as research tools; index cards as markers to memory that can be shuffled. When the cards were published, their order was fixed, but what I had intended was more a deck of cards that could be reordered by will or by chance. Call it hypertext for the technologically inadequate set. The book was published by Potes & Poets, which has unfortunately since passed away into the long history of fine but defunct small presses. This morning's card was inspired by a facebook posting by Alain Cressan about mirabelle and merde. I have no idea what he meant by it, but the sound sequence started my engines.

Mirabelle, merde. The fields of Lorraine. Alzheimer's carpets. Another 4 a.m. call. Another fall. The other one they call the. She didn't want to talk about Frost, doesn't like Frost. Last time I saw my mother she was past the smiling happy phase. Plenty of dysfunction there. She hasn't paid me back; she hasn't respected the parents. Fractured elbow to go with fractured time. It doesn't fugit, fusses with itself like an 8-year old her hair. Mirror, mirror on the floor: who's the most ancient of them all? What she sees is not her self, her being, her body. Parents should reconsider their reasons for placing their children in competitive soccer. Skin tears, lacerations. They were amazed by the pervasiveness of smiley faces, or smilly when they're misspelled. Spell me, mother, spell you, spell check time past. This spell comes to a close; it falls, and we fall with it. She can tell us when it hurts.

--8 July 2010

for Alain Cressan

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pain & Sentience: Follow-up & 4 a.m.

My last post on lyric subjectivity and Alzheimer's elicited more responses than anything I've written here, though most of them came to my facebook page. Our links between self and brain/mind, self and the pronoun "I" seem almost immutably fixed. Several poets to whom I've spoken over recent years express particular horror at the prospect of losing mind; poets are not alone in this fear of making sense. On reading the post, my colleague Jon Morse sent me the pdf of an article from the 1990s by Oliver Sacks about a man who lost his memory, did not even know that he was blind, and yet still enjoyed and remembered music (of a certain era). Ben Friedlander remarked on the irony of my claim that dementia is anti-Emersonian, reminding me that Emerson himself succumbed to dementia in later life. There is much for me to think about in these responses. Let me share a few of them as I try to tease out my own end of this conversation that I so appreciate during this time at "the threshold," as Ben calls it.

Martha Evans, who shares her first name with my mother, wrote: "But our bodies are our terrestrial home: the brain is one of its most important rooms. If that room be removed, the rest of the structure cannot mean anything at all to those looking outside it...." This is beautifully put, and in many ways emotionally true. I would quarrel with the "anything at all," though I know she was thinking out loud. Martha is a Dickinsonian and it shows; she knows that planks fall, that reason breaks.

Katherine Durham Oldmixon writes, in response to the arguments about pronouns, and to the notion that Alzheimer's patients often still remember songs:"The lyrics that came to my mind as I read your thought-provoking blog are from the Black Caribbean. I'm thinking specifically of the I in Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" ("Old Pirates yes they rob I / sold I to the merchant ships"). There seems to be a deliberate relationship of I to self that inheres in the language, and one might argue/wonder, the thought of those who speak the language." That the lines she recalls are about theft is sadly ironic and appropriate. The I robbed of its I is a self taken by Alzheimer's pirates.

E commented on the link between music and memory thus: "My grandmother had dementia so badly by the end that she didn't really make sentences; her syntax was all garbled, and thus her pronouns, all sounds, but she still seemed to like chatting and had things to say. Once I saw her & we had a garbled chat and at one point she started singing a song she used to sing a long time ago (she was a flapper in the Chicago 20's and liked to sing old show songs to us when we were kids), a few lines at least, and certainly the tune. I had a sense of recognizing her when I heard that, but then I had it before too, by how intent she was in talking, her demeanor." It is almost as if those who can no longer remember become goads to the memories of those who can. My desire to remember everything I see grows huge when I'm visiting my mother, in nearly mathematical relation to the fact that I am witness to the actions of people who can remember little, or nothing.

Maxine Chernoff wondered what we can know of another, used autism as her example of pronomial "confusion": "One wonders what others know about one's subjectivity. A child on the autism spectrum, for instance, may consistently use pronouns incorrectly ("You want a drink?" to mean "I" want one, etc.), and that this inflexibility is"proof" of lack of self, of lack of empathy, etc. Judging from the instance I've observed, it seems to be a pronoun lapse in someone with a healthy sense of self, humor, empathy, etc." Lapsed pronouns as lapsed selves. To what extent are selfhood and empathy contiguous, as they are in Maxine's comment? Surely not in Timothy McVeigh's assertion of self by way of "Invictus"--his use of stoicism as a justification for cold blooded murder. Serial killers can use pronouns without lapse. They have selves. So, surely, do those who cannot wrangle the right pronoun to make a sentence grammatically complete (or "appropriate").

But this morning I got my second 4 a.m. call from the Alzheimer's home in three months. My mother had fallen, was complaining that her arm hurt. The caller had dialed 911; my mother would be sent to the ER. Several hours later, when I finally got the head nurse on the line, she told me mom had fractured her elbow and had skin tears and sutures. She was back; they would give her pain medication; she's a tough cookie. A friend says she hopes my mother "recovers." There is no question of that. Recovers what? Her elbow? The problem of language extends to the language of empathy, as well. But I thank my friend because I know what she means.

Pain medication suggests, if not a self, then a being that is sentient. Sentient beings feel pleasure, feel pain. My cat, Tortilla, cannot say his name, nor can he use the first person pronoun. But he has a self, does he not? My mother, who no longer knows me or more than a few consecutive words of English, is sentient, has selfhood, does she not?

So my sense of my mother moves away from herself to her sentience, from her former self-assertions (her storytelling, her own brand of stoicism, her desire for control of self and others) to a self that is now posited by others, but a being who remains sentient. My mother felt pain, complained of it, was taken to the hospital, and is now medicated. And I am her 5,000 mile witness.

"The point is to try to develop the scope of one's empathy in such a way that it can extend to any form of life that has the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness. It is a matter of defining a living organism as a sentient being." This comes from a teaching by the Dalai Lama that can be found here. My mother is a living organism. What else she may be is pure mystery.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"I wandered lonely as a cloud": Lyric Selfhood and Alzheimer's

In their 1992 article, "The Construction and Deconstruction of Self in Alzheimer's Disease," Steven Sabat and Rom Harre assert that so long as "the [dementia] sufferer can be shown to employ first person indexicals coherently in his or her discourse . . . the sufferer has displayed an intact self." According to Jesse F. Ballenger, in whose excellent book I found this quotation, "The authors considered the possibility that the appropriate use of pronouns could simply be a habit . . . but they argue that the competence displayed is too high an order for this to be the case" (169). How odd to claim that selfhood exists if one can say "I" and fails to exist when one cannot. When I visualize the common area of my mother's Alzheimer's home, then, should I separate those who still speak (my mother uses what I call "language lab English," which employs statements that begin with the first person pronoun) from those who do not? On the one side selves, and on the other what? Bodies that eat, that sit, that suck? But not persons?

Turn from this odd (but generationally appropriate argument--in 1992 deconstruction was still in circulation, still had its "I" about it) to Gary Mex Glazner's edited collection, Sparking Memories: The Alzheimer's Poetry Project Anthology, to find these questions posed differently. For Glazner's collection--of poems that many Alzheimer's patients remember from their childhood--is heavy on the lyric, the poem most associated with the "I." In the brief introduction, Glazner calls up the memory of a man to whom he recited Longfellow's "The Arrow and the Song." "When I said the line, 'I shot an arrow in the air,' he looked up and said 'where it lands I know not where.'" Glazner takes away the idea that "he was able to reach back to some part of his psyche that was not damaged by the disease" (12). But how is the "I" used, first in the poem, and then by the man with Alzheimer's? The "I" does not belong to Longfellow, but to his character. OK, so Longfellow's use of the "I" gives evidence of the poet's self. But the man who furnishes the second line? Is the "I" his own, that of the poem's mechanism, or both at once? And why should it matter?

I gave a talk at the Biography Center at UHM about my book shortly after it came out. I don't like to read talks, so I ad-libbed from a sketch and found myself comparing Alzheimer's to a neutron bomb, which destroyed life, but left buildings behind. Afterwords, an older woman approached to chide me for using that metaphor. "They are people," she said. And she was right. It does matter.

Jesse Ballenger's book is a well-researched and written history of the way our culture perceives dementia; by extension, he addresses our fears of old age, of dependency, of our inability to earn a middle class living, of everything anti-Emersonian. If self-reliance is an American desire (so rarely performed as intended), then the reliance on others brought about by Alzheimer's inspires terror in us. How can we depend? (And not on Depends, the ironic moniker for an elder diaper.) How can we imagine ourselves as our selves when we have forgotten what we know, the furnishings of our everyday lives? (That the furnishings in Alzheimer's units are relentlessly American middle-class only emphasizes the economic anxieties that Barrenger points out. Alzheimer's patients who are not middle-class are even more hidden from the world.)

Glazner's book is full of lyric selfhood, assertion, jars in Tennessee that organize the wilderness around them--even if the poems are all from the 19th century or earlier. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" "How do I love thee?" These questions, while rhetorical, assert agency. The speaker can compare, can love, can use rhetoric to perform these actions. "My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky." "I remember. I remember." The verbs are active, the "I"'s coherent and in relation with others, whether with other selves or with rainbows or daffodils.

No one reads poems to residents of my mother's home, although those who are still able to visit the large common room often sing songs from old musicals or out of their patriotic childhood classrooms. My mother's memory was never superb, unlike my father's--he recited many lines of "Snowbound" quite frequently--but she had a Master's degree in Drama and Speech and loved to read Whitman's "O Captain, my Captain" out loud. She especially treasured the concluding lines to "Invictus," by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). Once I was diagnosed with depression and unable to live up to them, I came to abhor the lines. In recent years, I have found them moving and sad in relation to my mother's life:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

When my mother was badly hurt at a very young age, she promised herself that she would never again in her life be hurt that badly. She would master her family's chaotic life (alcohol, probable mental illness); she would captain her own soul away from the rocks. The last two lines, I need hardly note, begin with that indexical first person pronoun: "I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul." I and the. I am. I am my. When does this pronoun mark form and content, and when does content fall away, no matter how it's sounded? (Odd analogue at the right margin: drawing of a blonde woman in bikini with the seemingly hand-written tag, "Trick of a tiny belly.") And so self-reliance becomes a scheme to lose weight, fall away quite literally. Self magazine, anyone?

As I looked for the poem on-line, google informed me that Timothy McVeigh handed the poem entire to the prison warden just before he was executed; his last statement, then, was an extended quotation from "Invictus," rather than anything "in his own words." So that his "I"--one that asserted its absolute power--was borrowed from the speaker of a poem, just as my mother's "I" had been. While there are no other direct comparisons I can, or want, to make between McVeigh and my mother, they both came out of a tradition of stoic individualism (albeit expressed in a British poem). "In the fell clutch of circumstance," goes the second stanza's opening, "I have not winced nor cried aloud." What happens when the speaker can no longer wince, remember these words, utter the "I" and mean it as a marker of the self? When is control ethical? When is it demented, in the metaphorical sense?

Elsewhere in his final chapter, Barrenger quotes Kathleen Bredin and Tom Kitwood as they perform a turn on the question of dementia, suggesting that it is not they who are demented, but the we who are. Perhaps the poem, and the sentiment it puts forth, displays as much dementia as do the residents of the Alzheimer's home. "In some respects . . . we [the normal ones] might be considered more problematic than they [those suffering Alzheimer's]." And then, "What is more, it is arguable that the general pattern of everyday life, with its hypocrisy, competitiveness and pursuit of crass materialism is, from a human standpoint, deeply pathological . . . when the inter-personal field surrounding the beginnings of 'dementia' is looked at in this way, the problem is by no means focused on a single person whose brain is failing. Those others who have face-to-face contact are also involved; and in the background, so also is the prevailing pattern of social relations" (184).

Several posts back I found parallels between the language of the Alzheimer's patient and that of Modernism, in particular Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. I do not mean to push these parallels in any way except as analogy, but I was struck, in reading Barrenger's review of memoirs by Alzheimer's sufferers (in the early stages) by this quotation from Cary Smith Henderson. "The one thing I know is the dog is with me and when the dog is with me I at least have some solace, even if I don't know the way" (180). "I am I because my little dog loves me," echoes Stein. No need for human care; any living response to an Alzheimer's patient affirms their living, their being, stands in for the personal pronoun, if it has been lost. For what is the "you" except a way in which we give another person an "I," a self?

As I return to this post, Ghana and Uraguay begin World Cup overtime. "Regular time" has ended and "overtime" begun; if overtime fails to find a winner, there will be penalty kicks, or "sudden death." Demented time is overtime without sudden death, is a game seemingly without goal. Our attitudes toward demented time reflect our fears of death and of a life not devoted to the "pursuit of happiness," but to sheer survival. The Alzheimer's patient is a survivor; many display courage in their daily lives. Their efforts to walk, and talk, make sense to others are brave. Even given "the culture of consumer capitalism, [in which] dying increasingly became another means of self-expression, if not self-indulgence" (147), there is expressiveness in their [in]terminable dying.

How appropriate, then, that Glazner's collection of poems contains so many about dying and about surviving death. They are poems of transcendence, not of the day to day. From Blake's "The Tyger" ("What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?") to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: ("So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee") to the perhaps more appropriate line from Milton ("They also serve who only stand and await"), these poems would have taught their students (now these patients) how to think about death.

A second overtime has begun between Ghana and Uruguay, after one minute of "stoppage time," time added on to replace the time that had been taken away.

A couple questions come to mind about Glazner's poetry collection. Those of us who grew up without learning to recite poems will remember what? Popular songs? If Bob Dylan can no longer remember his own lyrics, how will we? And what will be their mood about death? Will they celebrate our overcoming of it, or will they lament our passing without the gift of transcendence? How will these sounds, these intonations, affect the Alzheimer's sufferer of a decade or two hence? And what of people raised outside the English-American tradition that Glazner's book offers up? Will residents in Hawai`i remember "Hawai`i Pono I?" What other poems will have proven memorable to people raised and educated in this state or in others where literature has been stretched to include more cultures? It would be a valuable project to find which poems and songs could be used in Hawai`i's Alzheimer's units.

Uruguay has won their match against Ghana, which could have clinched the game at the end of overtime on a penalty kick. And so time ends; we have a winner, a loser, memories to carry with our selves into the time beyond overtime.


"I think there are some analogies between the experience of Alzheimer's and the Great Plains. There is vacantness of the plains and to this experience. It wasn't uncommon for the first settlers on the plains to get lost, not be able to find their way home." (Peter Beeson, quoted by Glazner, 115.) Beeson suffers Alzheimer's, and writes about it. While a captain has a ship, and a master controls his soul, the settler-wanderer on these plains is rudderless, leaderless. And yet I can't help but sense connections between these poles; the desire for control matching its loss in almost equal measure. This is poetry, I know, not fact. But poetry matters.

"The poetry of earth is never dead." John Keats