Friday, June 28, 2013

Of blood and its discontents:

This was the week of the Voting Rights Act decision by the Supreme Court (awful) and the gay marriage decisions (mostly good); it was also the week of the Adoptive Parents v. Baby Girl case, otherwise referred to as the Baby Veronica case. This case pitted the adoptive parents of a child (the case has been going almost as long as Jarndyce at this point) against her birth father. He gained custody of her a couple of years into her life because the American Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that Indian children remain with Indian parents. (More on the history and the case here and here. Google will open more sites, too.) While the Act makes sense, the case itself seemed a nightmare that King Solomon himself could not resolve, unless perhaps he were to decide that instead of cutting the baby in half, the baby ought to be shared among her four parents. Better have the Court decide this than I. But on facebook, friends put up status lines that with great simplicity rooted for the birth father and dismissed the adoptive parents. The case was termed utterly crucial for native rights; the birth father's actions were excused (at worst) or extolled (at best). Some sources were presented as dubious (NPR, for example) and others as true (tribal sources). The outcome of the case in favor of the birth father was, in other words, deemed absolutely necessary. The status of status lines is always dubious, of course, because they tend not to argue but to state. They are messages to friends, not provocations to complexity and debate. They are ideological statements of purpose and belief, not (usually) admissions of confusion or inability to decide.

Even given this fact, along with the way in which these friends were clearly positioning themselves as supporters of native rights in ways that more resembled flags than actions, the blurts of opinions hurt. When I wrote in a time or two or three to say simply that there was clearly a lot of suffering to go around in the case, someone would inevitably click the "like" button and move on to explain why the case had to be decided against the adoptive parents. My emotions were getting in the way, it seemed, and if I could only clear my adoptive mother eyes, I could see that the law was just and must be enforced in all cases. Since the decision came down, one that splits the difference between this case and the principle of the Act more generally--a decision that strikes me as the best possible of many bad options--more opinions have been spilled on the pages of facebook and the internet. But also by one of Slate's resident opiners, Marcia Zug, went so far as to generalize beyond the boundaries of what is an equation of tribe and culture (babies stay with the tribe so that the culture does not die) to what strikes me as a symptom of our culture's deep distrust of adoption. She argues for biology, pure and simple:

--This disagreement over the importance of biology is at the heart of the Baby Girl case and it is why this case should matter to more than just Indian families and their advocates. For the majority, biology is insignificant, but as Scalia notes, “it has been the constant practice of common law to respect the entitlement of those who bring a child into the world to raise that child.” More importantly, this recognition of parental rights is not arbitrary. It is a recognition that biology matters. As Justice Sotomayor wrote, “the biological bond between a parent and child is meaningful.” I have no doubt that the Capobiancos also have a deeply meaningful bond with Veronica, and I cannot imagine their pain since losing her last year. But Dusten Brown is Veronica’s biological father, he loves her and wants to raise her. This should matter."

Leave aside the odd bed fellow agreement between Scalia and Sotomayor, and here you see an expression of the belief that biology does not just matter, but that it trumps all other notions of family. Children should always be placed with birth family (unless they are being abused), someone else opined on the Donaldson Adoption facebook page. And you know, I might have agreed with that, or not cared about it, were I not a mother by adoption.

Some things happened:

: My husband and I adopted our son at 12 months. Twice when I was at the cash register of the local supermarket, I looked at my Cambodian son in his stroller and saw the face of my father. This was not his face from old photographs of his childhood, but his face as I last knew him. A white man with wrinkled face and white hair.

: A few months ago, we traveled to our son's birth village in Takeo Province. I saw in his face in that of one of his Cambodian cousins. I was happily, eerily, astonished. This is to say--among many things--that when we identify physical likeness, we automatically extrapolate to other forms of relation. "He looks like you!" is one of the most common forms of praise for parents of children who resemble them, sometimes even those who not. No one needs to add "and this is a good thing," because no one needs to. That we do not say this to someone whose father abused her ("wow, you look so much alike!') or to someone whose father killed his mother ("how similar are your smiles!") also goes without saying. To be fair, my mother would tell me I was like her mother only when I was being difficult. She had a real quarrel with genetics as hers involved alcoholism and chaos.

:"Are your kids related to each other?" one baseball mom asked me; I dislike this question, because I know what she's asking, but refuse to answer it in those terms. "Because they look so much alike!" Well, not only do my children not look alike, but they are not related by birth. The fact that they are members of a family, however, tends to make people think they look alike.

 :A woman at a playground years ago asked me if my son were adopted. She wanted to know because she had assumed that she could never love an adopted child as much as she could love a child she bore herself.

: "Where do they come from?" "Do you know their families?" "Were his parents tall?" "Is she a real orphan?" "Why didn't you adopt an American child?" "Does he remember his language?" To which I explain that height also correlates to diet, that a one-year old or three-year old learns a new language and forgets the old, that it's none of your business what the details were of our adoptions (or that it would take months to tell the stories with their meandering and doubt and hope and disappointment and frustration). To which I explain that we are family. 

When you are an adoptive parent, you become a teacher. Or, when you are a teacher, you play that role in the parts of your life that don't match the mainstream. But first you are your own teacher. I can remember wondering how to parcel out the feelings you might have toward children who are fully yours biologically, or related biologically to your partner but not to you, or conceived in-vitro, were only 1/2 or 1/4 of your blood, or or or. It seemed such a puzzle, how feelings might follow biology, how you might have different feelings toward children based on whether or not they looked like you, or like your partner, or like someone else entirely. Such speculations turned meditative hours into exercises in percentages, blood quantum and made me miserable because I'm not good at math. To say nothing of the fact that hypotheticals can't be resolved on their own hypothetical terms.

And then came a boy and a girl, he at one and she at three. Those hours of parsing and measuring and wondering now seem comical in retrospect, because it has mattered not a whit. When I saw my father's aged face in my son's one year old visage I saw a likeness not recognized by those who would base family solely on blood ties. Someone suggested that this palimpsest meant I had accepted my son. Maybe so. He has my father's middle name, Frederick. He also has my father's gentleness and dry wit. My daughter resembles my mother in her utter lack of a sense of direction--if she turns left, know to turn right--and in her glinting eyed sarcasm. Are these markers of relation, happy coincidences, or figments of my imagination? As Nancy Pelosi said of Michelle Bachmann's opinion of the gay rights decision this week, "Who cares?" And if my children decide some day to find out more, it's their business, not yours.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"But it matters": Mark Edmundson and the extremely bad state of contemporary American poetry

The year was 1991. I was teaching "20th Century Poetry in English" to a lively group of students at the University of Hawai`i. The day I'd chosen to have them read poetry by Frank O'Hara from the anthology, I knew there'd be a lot of laughter in class. We began our discussion. No one laughed. In fact, there was no response at all. My students' eyes looked blank. Knowing something was desperately wrong, but not sure what it might be, I read O'Hara's lines out loud, using the ironic tone of voice that's appropriate to his work. The classroom was quiet, deadly quiet.

What I learned from that day is this: Frank O'Hara is a local poet. He lived in New York City; he wrote about New York City; and his tone is New York City. This is not to say that he's not a wonderful poet. I still teach his work, though these days I ask students to use it toward their own experiences. Make his local your local, I advise them. Poetry is a goad to experience, not simply a set of marks on a page. Last semester several groups of my students did videos of Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died," set here. To teach O'Hara in my classrooms is to engage in an act of translation, where I explicate not only the words on the page, but the culture of the east coast, where I grew up.

I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Mark Edmundson directed my dissertation on the poetry of Hart Crane. The dissertation was worth abandoning, but the fault was all mine. I've followed his career as a public intellectual with some interest, if not utter devotion. I've read his books about poetry, used his critical work on the fight between poetry and philosophy in at least one of my graduate classes. So I was intrigued when I started seeing strong responses to his new article in Harper's, "Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse." I begged a copy of the piece, outside the pay wall. Edmundson's essay reads like something out of my recent trip east. I remember these arguments, these disappointments, these poets' names, but they feel strange, as if translated from another language, another time. After nearly 23 years in Hawai`i, I read the piece as an outsider, one for whom critiques of this American poetry (and its cousins) mean very little. I can't muster up the anger expressed by many of my facebook friends, because the poetry about which Edmundson writes is not the poetry I read (or: even if I read it, I don't read it the way he reads it). Edmundson, it seems, is a local critic. His location is east coast, Ivy League-trained, New Yorker-reading, and he as much as admits that in his essay. But it's hard to find this caveat amid his strong rhetoric, namely the shoulds and the musts and the references to ambition and to a communal "we" that still reaches for some sublime space beyond us.

How does Edmundson define poetry? "It is, to speak very generally," he writes, "a moment of illumination. One might call it . . . a spot of time." Its vision needs to be comprehensive. What does Edmundson want in such poetry? By way of lines by Robert Lowell, he admires "artistry," "subtlety," "melancholy grace," "rhymes," and he wants the "ambition" of "a graying weary seer  . . . pronouncing judgment."  He wants poets who are inclusive, who use the pronouns "us" and "our" (though if they're like Lowell, they don't always consider whom they include in these inclusivities). He wants poets who speak not only an "internal language," but also make public arguments. He wants poets who hunger after "the universal." He wants poet who "have something to say." 

Edmundson argues for ambition in contemporary poetry, an ambition that might bring together lyric poetry and public intervention, a poetry that argues for something. But his own essay sounds more ambitious than it is. If, like Frost, he believes in poetry that uses a net, Edmundson's tennis court is one populated by award-winning mainstream poets, the ones published in the New Yorker, Ashbery post-tennis court oath (though he slams a few lines from that book, too) and almost exclusively white and male. Ask him for a tradition he approves of and, no matter how often he uses the pronoun "she," you get this: "Blake and Wordsworth and Whitman, and also . . . Auden . . . Eliot. It [this completeness and expanse that he yearns for] came in Frost, Pound, Williams, Hart Crane, and . . . in Stevens. One expected it of Lowell and Ginsberg." These tennis players wear white, which is not to say that they were not wonderful poets, but that their ability to write in the vatic mode was in many ways determined by that fact. This is not to agree with Edmundson's (sometimes accurate) notion of cultural studies as a purity-inducing machine, which more than cautions against crossing boundaries of race, class, gender. But it is to say that such views of the world come from somewhere other than the academy, however the academy chooses to present them. That Frost and Williams were also intensely local poets argues against their inclusion in this group, but Edmundson is into canon-confirming by name.

It's very tempting to shoot back a list of names, as some of my facebook friends have done. One sputters with names of amazing poets not on this list, nor even on the list of Edmundson's contemporary failures (Hass, Muldoon, Ashbery, Olds, Rich, et al). But part of the problem with that argument is that it too closely resembles Edmundson's own: it's about names, about individuals, and not about the real state of contemporary poetry. Poetry is more than the individual lyric voice or the individual vatic call to "us" and "we," which Edmundson repeats over and again, without questioning the demographics of the "we." (It's not my students, or likely yours.) Poetry is a way of looking at the world, one that involves particular lenses, those created within and across traditions. Sometimes it's not verse, but a frame, a vision. It is a way of reading literary history that includes political, economic, and cultural histories, and not just those of MFA programs, which he goes on to bash as career-establishing institutions only. Romantic poetry involved "spots of time," but contemporary poetry has other ambitions.

Some of these ways of seeing the world are as follows. I leave out (most) names deliberately, though if anyone wants names and titles I'd be happy to offer them up. Even better, I'm happy to recommend presses far away from FS&G. Most of these modes overlap:

--Language writing. Though it has not existed in its pure form since the 1980s, its influence has been vast. Based on a critique of advertising language and the language of governmental dishonesty, this mode retains a power to intervene in the way we think about the world. No, it does not offer the direct arguments Edmundson wishes to hear, but that is part of the point. Direct arguments are too often canned, too easily composed because they are already floating in the virtual air like templates, or Hallmark cards.

--Documentary writing/poetry, which takes as its foundation the prosaic news of the world and offers arguments about it, arguments that are not about God or transcendence but about politics and grieving. The poetry of witness is part of this. So much to witness: war, crimes against humanity, Alzheimer's.

--Long poems, those that navigate philosophical and material vocabularies. An astonishing number of contemporary poets are working in this mode, and successfully.

--Ethnic poetries. Choose one. African American. Native American. Asian American. Latino. And yes, Euro-American.

--Post-colonial poetries, or anti-colonial. These poetries often overlap with postmodern poetry, not for reasons of belief but because colonialism shatters cultures and languages. See a different version of Eliot from Edmundson's. See Brathwaite, who found inspiration in Eliot.

--Feminist poetry. Not just Adrienne Rich, either.

--Gay poetry. Edmundson devotes some space to Ginsberg, without ever mentioning that one of Ginsberg's real ambitions was to break poetry out of its sexual closet.

--Conceptual writing and flarf.  I'm not a huge fan of these modes, but they're out there, and conceptually (at least) they work against the mainstream. Even when their ambition is/was to be unambitious, that was part of the intervention in the larger culture. Flarf began as a mom-and-pop response to Target. That it now sometimes seems more like Target than like the local superette (if it indeed survived) is part of the problem of late capitalist culture.

--Ecopoetry. Ahsahta Press has an enormous new anthology, and that's just the tip of the iceberg (what's left of it).

--Poetry of spirit. Not spirit disengaged from world, but deeply implicated in it.

--Yes, even slam poetry, outside the essay's punning title. Not always my cup of tea, but most of its practitioners are engaged with external realities, not simply internal meanderings. They, too, are interested in "voice," but in a public/private voice.

But even if Edmundson hasn't read these modes of poetry, he has read John Ashbery. Back in the late 1980s, he told me (after I asked him to write about JA's work for my Tribe of John) that Ashbery lacked the kind of clarity he valued. Fair enough. But that is not an argument. In this essay, Edmundson leaves it at this slap to the face: "From the point of view of the reader who hopes occasionally for prophecy, Ashbery's work is a perpetual hedging." Along with the word "hedge," Edmundson offers "evasion." He lumps all of Ashbery's work together, as indeed he does Heaney's and other poets with long careers. If the best lack all conviction, then Edmundson puts Ashbery in this category; otherwise, he finds only disappointment there, in the pages of the New Yorker.

I've not read Ashbery's new volume with the care I mean to read it. But there is ample evidence that Ashbery is not simply hedging his bets. If Stevens wrote about the "climate" as a mode of thinking, then Ashbery engages the actual climate.  In "Recent History," he opens with "Desperate asks, how driven batty / by climate change." In "Laughing Creek": "We were in Samoa. The sea will wash over us. He came like the Johnstown flood." If Ashbery follows these lines with "It was worth waiting around for," that is not to say he believes it; typical Ashbery undermining (the deconstructive urge Edmundson alludes to) expresses more anxiety than glee. He is undermining his own poetic practice, finding the precise lack that Edmundson finds, but with more lyrical subtlety. "We're very into whatever it is we're doing. / I say. // But it matters." What else matters is the economy, and Ashbery's got more hedgefund than hedge invested in such material. In "This Economy," he writes an elegy to the U.S. (or is it "us"?):
Somewhere in America adoring legions blush
in the sunset, crimson madder, and madder still.
Somewhere in America someone is trying to figure out
how to pay for this, bouncing a ball
off a wooden strut. Somewhere 
in America the lonely enchanged eye each other
on a bus. It goes down Woodrow Wilson Avenue.
Somewhere in America it says you must die, you know too much.
This is the America that also fills Ashbery's poems with terms like "anti-personnel" or "Marine" in the sense not only of the ocean, but also of "Action figures [that] take us just so far, to the edge / of the abyss. The fucking man swears by rifles." There is "Time enough for the purple brine of consequences," for "bugle and castanets." And it's "bungled." Woodrow Wilson was an idealist; he invented the League of Nations. He failed, and Ashbery knows it. Knows too much.
A more direct poet is Seamus Heaney, but Edmundson also takes him on for his evasions. (There are not enough American poets for Edmundson, so he takes on an "adopted" one, which makes this reader wonder where Derek Walcott might be, or Kamau Brathwaite.) The lines of Heaney's taken to task are these:
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.
Edmundson claims that this verse is about "voice" only, that it lacks the ambition that comes with content. He claims that it does not have an argument. "Here and often elsewhere, Heaney can't find a difference he won't split," Edmundson writes. But it does have an argument that anyone who's lived in a colonial or postcolonial space understands. That Heaney sympathizes both with those who would punish the woman (for sleeping with the enemy) and with the woman herself (she is a human being, after all) surely makes sense. It makes the sense of ambivalence, which is also an argument, one that points to the knot created by colonial situations. It speaks against pure ideology (aka argument, in Edmundson's words), and as such, is an important call to wait, to consider consequences, to empathize. The sublime contains no empathy (as I found myself in trouble in the ocean once, I realized it would not stop for me), but "our" poetry "must" include that impulse too, no?
Odd, then, that Edmundson finds fault with theory, with the "war of philosophy against poetry" that has interested him for decades now. For Edmundson is himself theorizing a mode of poetry that hardly exists for readers like me and my students. While much of it may be worth reading, this poetry usually feels beside the point. Ironically, this is what Edmundson argues.  There's no good poetry post 9/11 he argues. But that's because he's not been reading anything except the prize-winners.  A strong argument often leaves out a great deal. But Edmundson makes the mistake of not including the counter-argument that is writ all around him, and not in water. He wants a poetry like that of Robert Lowell, whose "we" included us all: "Now, using Lowell's 'our' and Whitman's 'we' can register as a transgression against taste and morals." I happen to agree with the sentiment, without abiding by the content of Edmundson's sentence. The "we" that might be spoken is a terribly complicated thing, and operates largely outside of the otherwise wonderful tradition from Blake to Whitman to the Ginsberg who is all bard, and not a minority poet (Jewish homosexual). Had Edmundson simply admitted that he was writing about one tradition, not many, the essay would have been more persuasive, if less ambitious sounding. But Edmundson's voice demands ambition, and that's what sinks his simplified argument. 
I've occasionally wondered what my intellectual life would have been like had I stayed on the east coast, had I been a good enough student to get a plum job (so-called), to have published in the organs of good poetry. I can't imagine that it would have been so interesting a life as that of a diasporic academic living in Hawai`i and reading work whose "we" explicitly excludes her own. I can't imagine that it would have been so good as to be in a place where a student (again, long ago) read Ron Silliman's "The Chinese Notebook," and rewrote it as "The Chinese-Italian Notebook," because those were his ethnicities. I can't imagine it would have been as rewarding to start a small press whose utopian goal was to create communities out of writers who did not yet know of one another's work or existence. With the narrowing of my sense of who "we" are has come a paradoxical expansion. Empirical, but without the empire. These new thresholds and new anatomies are available to the readers of Harper's, but only if they wander off I-95 and into the side roads. Sometimes the road not taken does not resemble the one that got took.

Thanks to everyone who sent pdf of the article or promised one. You can read the Harper's piece here for free.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

AMOUR & emotional memory

The man of the couple in AMOUR, which I watched on a tiny seatback screen on the flight from Dulles to Honolulu the other day, tells his wife a story. Neither he nor I can remember the content of that story. But he tells her that what he does remember are his emotions then, emotions that carry over to the brief present-tense of the scene.

I spent a week on the east coast this month, mostly in D.C. and Virginia, where I grew up, and where my mother's Alzheimer's home was and is. Bit part stories floated up as I drove here and there, mainly stories of childhood set in places that resembled where I was now, but have changed considerably. White people in NE DC? Metro being built out to Tyson's Corner? The very maps had altered, as had I, though my experience of the place was like a palimpsest of old and new tenses. Less narrative than emotional. Cycle and recycle of feeling.

My mother's Alzheimer's home has changed, too. Decor less Ethan Allen furniture store-like than before, more contemporary. Colors more vivid, wall installations to touch and make sounds with, a mock hobby shop in one corner, and a new name for Country Lane, where Martha lived not in room 9 (as I wrote in my book) but in room 11. Never was good with numbers. Sylvia now uses a walker; she's still playful and can read (though what content there is to the sounds we can't know), but she's more frail, less fiesty. No more asking for cab fare out. No more talk about da stoah. No more handbag bursting with fruit. Gone are Florence, with the lovely sweaters and the constant non-narrative, and Estella, who yelled "NO CHEESE" at every meal. Gone are others I can hardly remember. Present still is Thea, whose daughter was pleased to hear of her mother's compassion when mine died, two years ago almost to the day of this visit.

A death fantasy that is not my own. Proviso that one would need not to have family responsibilities, just oneself. Buy a boat, fill it with drink and smoke, fill the tank with gas, and drive it as far as the fuel would take you. Enjoy a last party. Make sure not to leave a mess. Go off, before dementia came to meet you, came to steal your fantasy.

At the Hirschhorn a large installation in a small room with a very high ceiling. Inspired by a man in Philadelphia who pinned notes to himself all over his house. The room's floor is waxed, but there are slips of paper underneath the wax. Don't wear shoes. The walls are covered with notes, most too high to read, some too low to get at. Each note the size of an index card, but on slighter paper, pinned to the wall with a single steel pin. A fan at the entrance, one that moves back and forth. The slips of paper move with the air, make the sound of an auditorium full of students with thin papered Nortons when the professor gives them a page number. The slips I read, which were at eye level, were about a strike, labor. Others were quotations, one from Proust.

I left the room, put on my shoes.  "Miss Tina, Miss Tina" a guard kept saying. He was looking at me. He thought I was his English professor from Temple. We talked, sensing the connection that so often comes of accident. It seemed we were both going to Philly that weekend, he to play basketball, me to read from my work about losing memory.

Rachel Blau DuPlessis and I walked Philly, talked Philly (with Brian Teare and Bob Perelman/Francie Shaw and others) and I read from DB2 at the Penn Book Center. Then the return to DC to read in the In Your Ear series, and to see friends again.

I'm now on Maui with my daughter and her soccer club (yesterday she had a breakaway goal and a fine assist). Back in the present tense, albeit on another island. Emotions yanked back to now, which is not to say they are any stronger. The emotions involved in time travel seemed more intense, as they were so involved with what was not there. We are here, now. The mynas are screaming, the weed whacker has gone, children's voices fill the hallway.

The man in AMOUR smothers his wife after telling her a story from his childhood, stroking her hand as he does.  On-line comments from "he's a Nazi" to "what an act of love." He grows more and more isolated in his caregiving. His wife loses more and more of her spite, which seems a large part of who she was. There are no judgments to be made. Should have could have doesn't exist in such extremity.


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

From "weird reading" to "demented reading"; or, finding the appropriate in appropriation

          [photograph by Maggie Steber of her mother's hand]

I haven't read the essay, mind you, but my eyes strayed to this long sentence of Eileen Joy's this morning: "Whereas traditional literary criticism often seeks to reveal the psychic-cultural-historical orders in which texts play an important part (and thereby, for all of contemporary critique's disdain for what is 'universal,' texts are often subsumed, whether as willing or more subversive actors, into larger and supposedly totalizing orders of meaning, referred to, with some suppleness, as 'context'), a speculative reading practice might pay more attention to the ways in which any given unit of a text has its own propensities and relations that might pull against the system and open it to productive errancy (literay, 'rambling,' 'wandering'--moments of becoming-stray)" (29).

Or: “An Alzheimer's patient,” writes Catherine Malabou, “is the nemesis of connectionist society, the counter-model of flexibility. He is presented as a disaffiliated person: errant, without memory, asocial, without recourse.”

I've thought a long time about writing Alzheimer's, the most effective ways in which to honor the person who carries the illness (I'm avoiding "who is the illness") rather than scribbling about being the person who has to live with the person who carries the illness.  But I've not thought about what it might mean to read Alzheimer's, to do as Joy suggests, namely "wander" through texts, as I strayed through hers. Wandering is one of the major symptoms of middle-Alzheimer's. We found my mother several houses down from her own one day, seated on someone else's porch, staring at the empty street. Another day she wandered and fell.  One morning, according to a neighbor, she arrived at their door at 3 or 4 a.m. and announced that the sun had not come up that day. While this last presents an instance of inaccurate reading (she thought it was 10 a.m., when it was 3), in the hands of a reader it could have been an imaginative one. In fairy tales or science fiction, such things do happen.

Which gets me, in a round about way, to the question that sometimes comes up, and comes up today because I'm about to go a-reading on the continent (Denver, Philly, DC) from my latest Alzheimer's book, "She's Welcome to Her Disease." The title of the book comes from one of many monologues I wrote down in my mother's Alzheimer's home. My friend Vera loves the section called "NO CHEESE," which is likewise a "found poem." Reduced to the dimension of paper (or screen), that section records events in the Alzheimer's home around lunch time, when one of the residents always yelled out "NO CHEESE," lest someone might serve her some. While this section, like others, reads like avant-garde writing, it is utter realism, the recorded speech of several residents and of voices from the television, which always played counterpoint (or fugue) with the living voices. (Here's a version of that episode on the blog.)

After I read this section in Honolulu months ago, one of my graduate students came to ask me about it. She wanted to know about the ethics involved in using peoples' voices without their permission--permission that could not be had, in any case, because the residents are beyond permission. At a university where "human subject" forms are required for many projects, including those in oral history and the humanities, this is a live question. And it's a border crossing, this move from writing as oneself to writing as someone else (who is not the someone else they once were). At one point in my blogging life, someone from Manorcare wrote to ask me not to use names (I only used first ones) when I wrote about my mother's home, owned by that corporation. She, the writer, understood that I had done no harm, but she, the employee of "Corporate," simply had to do her duty. If she still has that job, she may read this entry, too.

I was, as Malabou would say, "flexible."  I reduced names to first letters, at least for a time. I kept going, but I stayed out of trouble, whatever trouble could have come of that. The question of medical privacy is real, but so is the problem of bad secrecy. How many Alzheimer's sufferers does an ordinary person see during the course of a day? Probably none, as they are hidden away, especially if they tend to wander. They are at home, or they are behind locked doors that require codes to enter. We do not see them, as if they are not there. We cannot read them. Names unlock some of these doors. There's an ethics of uncovering, as well as an ethics of retaining borders. But I get ahead of myself. 

These are conversations about borders. When is a walk actually a wander? When is wandering meditative and when does it amount to straying? (When is a dog a pet, and when a stray?) When is the record of a voice appropriate, and when is it appropriation? I talked to Hank Lazer about these issues when he was last in Honolulu. He said when he used to write about his grandparents, he considered what he was doing an act of honoring them, not one of doing them harm. That the conversation has moved in another direction from there, away from honor and into hurt, as if writing down the words of one's family or friends could (only?) wound them. In a place like Hawai`i, which is so small and where so many people know one another, the question is even more loaded. Consider, however, that borders can be crossed in the way that languages are translated. Something is always lost, but there is contact. Only in contact zones can we find each other, if our languages and cultures are not the same. Alzheimer's is that: another culture, with another lexicon.

Here is Maggie Steber, from the Leica camera blog (see direct links below):

--MS: That’s a great question. Of course in some ways I was desperate to make images for myself of moments and things that would remind me of my mother and the experiences we were sharing. But I also tried to distance myself when I could, in both caring for her and photographing her, to make images that showed in a more clinical documentary way what this process of forgetting looks like. It’s important to understand what someone with dementia goes through. I wanted others to have a better understanding of the process, to dissect the process so it doesn’t seem so scary, and that it passes. I want to encourage people to be the warriors for their loved ones and participate in their end of life experience because it is such a gift.

"What this process of forgetting looks like" requires a person to look at, to be with. We cannot do that in the abstract, it requires documentation. I can hear the question to Steber about whether or not her mother would want to be seen in this way or whether or not she is invading her mother's privacy or what right she has to "take" these photos (the verb does have an edge, does it not?). The intimacy of this looking requires distance, as Steber points out, and it's perhaps that distance that most disturbs the listener or the reader. To be confronted with utterly intimate detail, but to know that it requires distancing, is a vertiginous feeling. A disturbance. We're used to the gesture toward intimate detail, if not the detail itself. We assume that to move toward the detail is a form of pornography. Wandering covers surfaces, as does pornography. Alzheimer's porn to go with photographs of Detroit. Steber has heard this question, it becomes clear, when she points out her mother's own (former) habit of mind:

--MS: I also thought it was important, because my mother was a scientist, to take this more scientific, clinical approach so the images might have value beyond the emotional ones. Sometimes I made images because it was the only way I could be close to my mother when she didn’t know me and could no longer speak. Some days I would just photograph her face over and over. That was for me, to help me get through it, to imprint her face on my mind. In that way photography was therapy for me.  Instead of being heartbroken, I would photograph and it gave me comfort. The experience made photography something very visceral for me — it held my hand through this long process.

The photograph at the top, of Maggie Steber's mother's hand, is beautiful. The hands of the very old are topographical maps of histories we cannot know, especially if they no longer have the words to say them to us. They are ridged, purplish, dry, sometimes cracked, artifacts. They often do not work well, either because bones are arthritic or because the mind that made them move is no longer up to that task. Our hands alone are not up to the task of witnessing our parents' declines. So we reach out for the hand that Steber describes as photography, or as writing, or as any form of art. Holding hands with art is a lovely, weird, image. But when we read from our books, we hold those books in our hands; we hold them.

To write "art form" once one has lived with Alzheimer's is to know how fluid form can be, how boundaries shift, and how wandering assumes the form we might have assigned to the word "walking" before. This is why we write others' voices, take others' photographs, to offer them and us form within the wandering. This is how it gets easier, not more difficult, to find intimacy. As Steber says in words I almost thought were my own: "An even more important reason, as I expressed earlier, was that for the first time in my life, a rather contentious relationship as often occurs between strong-willed mothers and daughters, could be set aside or even forgotten. I became liberated from the memory of that." This is why the Ashbery poem hanging in the midst of the New Yorker article on dementia care was so significant, in part. It provided a counter-wandering for the content of the article. A context of wandering. As Joy writes: "This [her notion of 'weird reading'] will entail being open to incoherence as well" (30). She's writing about academic writing and reading practices, but why not explode them (with the plastique of demented reading) into a larger, floating, framework of Alzheimer's?  She advocates putting two unlike texts next to one another, then wandering over them. That is what the New Yorker (alas there's a pay wall part-way through) asked us to do when they (for whatever non-reason to do with layout) placed those pieces on the same page. That is what we do when we spend time with Alzheimer's, running the constant border between sense and non-.

Here is a photograph of my mother, who died two Junes ago (on the 14th). It's her hand that I see, even more than her eyes, which in this photograph seem more playful than they usually were in those last years.

The interview with Maggie Steber is in two parts.  Part one Part two. Thank you to Jonathan Morse for sending the link my way.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"You see I've always been a rather dull-spirited winch": Ashbery & Alzheimer's

The link between Alzheimer's and Ashbery is sonic and metonymic, not actual. This week, Rebecca Mead has an essay in The New Yorker (May 20, 2013) about dementia care. Her article focuses on a retirement care facility in Arizona called Beatitudes, in particular on the director of education and research, Tena Alonzo, who practices compassion in her work with dementia patients. The article complements Norman Fischer's new book on Lojong, the practice of compassion, which he adapts from the Tibetan tradition into his own teaching of Zen. Alonzo's practice, as one might call it, is beautiful: she herself underwent a public bath in front of caregivers at Beatitudes. Another time she had staff members spoon food into each others' mouths to show them how discomfiting this is for residents. If compassion comes of discomfort, then Alonzo is its guru. But there, hanging in the midst of the page that begins with the comment of an Alzheimer's expert about Beatitudes is a new poem by John Ashbery, "Breezeway." "What was most impressive was not what was going on, but what wasn't going on--the absence of palpable distress," says the Alzheimer's expert. "Alas, it wasn't my call," responds Ashbery. "I didn't have a call or anything resembling one."

To the left of Ashbery's poem, a skinny column tells us about "a bird-like woman" who seems inconsolable. The staff tries everything, to no avail.  Perhaps chocolate will help, they say. Or lollipops. Demented patients often suck on their gums, like babies. "The days go by and I go with them," reads one of Ashbery's lines. "We have to live out our precise experimentation." The poem wanders, like an Alzheimer's patient still possessed of a cocktail of memory and imagination, and ends up with a divine Batman (he is a Him). 

We've been watching old sci fi episodes the past few evenings: The Outer Limits ("Paradise"), Eureka ("You Don't Know Jack"), and a Star Trek episode in which the crew succumbs to very quick aging, dementia. In each of these shows, the primary fear seems to be of sudden onset Alzheimer's. Characters in their 20 or 30s suddenly resemble 80 or 90 year olds. (Make-up workers had steady jobs for a time.) In the first two of these shows, the episodes end with the birth of a baby; in the third, Kirk is brought back from the certain death of the entire Enterprise (an incompetent captain takes over when Kirk loses his memory) through an adrenaline-based serum. It's part of a new hunch of mine that aliens and Alzheimer's are often yoked together, whether in science fiction (which I know precious little about) or in the way we talk about those among us who wander (the homeless, the "alien"). That last perception comes of Catherine Malabou's political and economic reading of what she terms "flexibility" and "plasticity" in conjunction with Alzheimer's. If the powers that be demand our flexibility (flex-time, the willingness to move, to change jobs, and so on), then our own plasticity (change that comes often of destruction) may point a way out of this late capitalist nightmare.

Sci fi television is hardly about compassion, but there are moments in these episodes where compassion seems almost to cure Alzheimer's.  This is especially true in the "Paradise" episode where only the old couple who really loved one another can create a baby (from an alien's egg); the other old women who appear as young vixens, instigate one night stands, return to old age and die rather suddenly. (Yes, there's also some old-fashionized moralizing under the surface here.) Mother hands her daughter (incapable of having children) a baby, then returns to her old age, now clear of the Alzheimer's. Of course this is compassion in the service of entertainment--having just read David Shield's Reality Hunger, I reminded of my own love of meaning over entertainment value--but it's an act of love that pulls us back from Alzheimer's.

That is a moment of fantasy.  Alzheimer's, through the machinations of science fiction, where imagined things happen in real life, is really cured. In our real life, that cannot happen. Ptolemy Grey cannot find his and his culture's past by way of a magic (and ultimately deadly) pill. The story, insofar as it remains story, becomes one-sided. Caregivers go along with stories, play with them, until even story fades. Then the narrative is that of the caregiver and someone for whom time has fled.  In the best case scenario, that narrative is one of compassion made of simple acts, like a kiss in the photograph at the top of the Meade article. The article shows us how we can care for people who can no longer care for themselves. Or, as Daniel Tiffany wrote on my facebook page, where I linked to the article, it shows us "how to care for anyone."

"Otherwise there's no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards."  [JA]


A 2005 link informs me that Scotty, from Star Trek, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He died July 20th of that year.