Friday, January 25, 2013

Dementia & Avant-Garde Empathies

In his memoir, Losing My Mind, Thomas DeBaggio writes about losing his ability to write: "The disease produces a literary trash pile of butchered words, once recognizable but now arranged in combinations neither I nor the spell-checker has ever seen," he writes (125).  My edition begins with a typo, "Many friends have helped with ths project," and the editions of my students and co-instructor begin with flurries of missing letters. (I'm trying to find out to what extent these omissions are "accidents," or intentions by the editors, and why different printings have different errors.) The passage that sent me back to poetry, however, is this one by DaBaggio:

As I type, my fingers hit unexpected keys and make words with similar sounds or rearrange letters. It began with small words. Recently I discovered the word "will" when I thought I had written "still." Another time the word "ride turned into "rice. . . Sometimes this "dyslectic" alphabet goes unnotced by me for several readings. Eye, hand, mind, the connections are weakening. Typos tell the story of the march of Alzheimer's. (134)

I was reminded of a passage in John Shoptaw's essay on John Ashbery and Charles Bernstein in The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry. In that essay, he quotes Ashbery on the deliberate cultivation of "typos": "I just wrote ap oem this morning in which I used the word 'borders' but changed it to 'boarders.' The original word literally had a marginal existence and isn't spoken, is perhaps what you might call a crypt word" (214). Like Garrett Stewart, Ashbery finds meanings between words, though not between material words, as Stewart does, but between homonyms. Shoptaw catalogues many of these crypt words and phrases, which include the shift from "screwed into place" to "screwed onto palace" and "Time stepped," rather than "stopped," both from The Tennis Court Oath. Charles Bernstein takes cliches and transmogrifies them by sonic shift, too:

half a loaf
would be not
so good as

no loaf (half
a boast not
so good as

no boast). (Tribe, 215)

My co-teacher, Lori Yancura, had just found an article by Aagje Swinnen on "Dementia in Documentary Film: Mum by Adelheid Roosen." At the end of this article, Swinnen uses Riffaterre (ah, blast from the critical past!) to read words written by the woman with dementia chronicled in the film, Mum. Mum was not yet mum, still had words and wrote them on a clear plastic "window." Taking what appears to be evidence of illness, confusion, and reading it through the lens of poetry, Swinnen finds important words, and parts of idioms.  She takes the following phrase: "No I don't have to be on the leg, on the dove . . . or on the breaking, but I do want to be free..." reads "breaking" as part of "breaking free" and then speculates that the word "leg" might also be related to "breaking," as in "break a leg."

I created a writing exercise out of these links, connections, breakings of words into other words. The resulting chaotic proliferation of meaning does not net communication or information, but fields of suggestive sounds.  We did a 10-minute automatic writing bout during which any word that could be flipped into another word would be flipped/flopped. My co-instructor, Lori, started writing and laughing.  When she finished and read her piece, which was suitably chaotic, she said she realized that every word she'd written, while it did not "make sense to anyone else," was important to her. Her words, like those of others in the class, came to her out of her recent experiences with cars, with her dog, and so forth.  Some of the material came out of the conversation we'd been having before class began, about Kapena's car, which was lost on the Honda lot, after he took it in for repair. My free write took the word "Cambodia" apart as "come boding in an rise paddy," where Cambodia came to mind based on a verbal/visual memory of the teeshirt I'd seen there that read "iPood," which came from earlier in-class conversation about measuring your health according to the color of your poo (our class is inspiring us to eat healthier food . . . ).

We had written "demented texts," but we were not dementia-sufferers.  We had laughed at our writing, whereas DeBaggio suffered deeply trying to write his. For him, the typo was horrible symptom of his disease; for us, the typo was mental liberation into zaniness.  So what was the point of the exercise?  We had not come to understand the anguish of trying to communicate, but instead writing word salad. When I asked if the exercise helped us to better understand dementia, Lori noted that she wants to use the exercise with caregivers, because this exercise made her more understanding (if not better able to understand exactly what dementia-sufferers say). Knowing that her own words meant so much to her, but couldn't be tracked by us without explanation, meant that efforts at communication by Alzheimer's sufferers likely include words that likely mean a lot to them.  I remember Florence, in my mother's Alzheimer's home, who talked so much about church.  Or Sylvia about her store. A woman who kept saying "baby" over and over again. Their sentences didn't make sense, but their words were meaningful.

The avant-garde poet is not usually looked to as a model of empathy. She's more a Brechtian alienist, setting herself apart from audience rather than creating a moving field of compassion. But this exercise reminded me that those poems that drive their audiences crazy are (linguistically) very like persons with Alzheimer's, and that those persons with the illness can perhaps be better cared for if we recognize in their words the feelings that individual and broken words carry.  Not words as sentences or words as stories, but words themselves, in their own frailty, losing letters here and there, shifting into other words, then wandering into other fields of meaning, getting lost, and only sometimes found.  I read a book called The Alphabet Keeper to my kids; I think I found it in a London bookshop. The alphabet keeper has a big net and keeps trying to capture words, set them down to be still, but they keep shifting into other words. It's a lovely book, and now I see how apt an analogy it is for the language of dementia and for our attempts to capture meaning in it.  The in-class exercise was at once a literary one (make an avant-garde poem) and also an empathetic one (make the poem and hear it as transcript of a possible dementia). Or, as the Riffaterre drenched Dr. Swinnen writes: "The semiotics of poetry is to be understood as the transformation of the signs from the mimetic level to the second, higher level of significance by the reader."


Thomas DaBaggio, Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer's. NY: The Free Press, 2002.

John Shoptaw, "The Music of Construction: Measure and Polyphony in Ashbery and Bernstein," in Susan M. Schultz, Ed. The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1995: 211-257.

Aagje Swinnen, "Dementia in Documentary Film: Mum by Adelheid Roosen," The Gerontologist (53:1): 113-122, 2012.

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