no velvet on the word

I’ve been reading ‘Dementia Blog’ by the Hawai’i based poet, academic and editor of Tinfish Press, Susan M. Schultz. We published an extract from the blog in issue 35 of Jacket magazine. The complete ‘Dementia Blog’ was recently published by Singing Horse Press.


Susan writes -

Dementia Blog was written over the course of six months during the worst of my mother’s dementia. In August 2006 she was still in her home; by January 2007 she was settled into an Alzheimer’s home. The blog, like all blogs, moves backwards from the present into the past. Because it moves back, the reader has no sense of cause and effect and often does not recognize what has happened until reading further back. This form struck me as appropriate to a meditation on memory and self-loss.


Coincidentally, and perhaps with some unintentional sense of precognition, six years ago in 2002-03, Susan and I collaborated by email on a poem called Amnesiac Recoveries, written for the Department Of Dislocated Memory for the web project International Corporation of Lost Structures. The poem engaged with daily life in Sydney and in Kane`ohe in the face of the then imminent invasion of Iraq by the USA, UK and Australia. It was also concerned, more loosely, with the role of social memory in those countries.

As Susan says, her blog entries about her mother’s dementia were made over six months in 2006-07. It is profoundly moving to read this book but she also sustains a unique thoughtfulness, a complex poetic perspective and a connection with the world-at-large via her children and her own vigilant awareness of the parallel gradual disintegration of the United States government and its involvement at war in Iraq.

Susan relates how her children, Sangha and Radhika, experience the displacement and uncertain memory of the adopted child -

I show Sangha photos of his aunts in Cambodia. He says he remembers the smaller woman on the left in the pink shirt. The significance of photographs in adoption narratives.Their sister was your birth mother, I tell him. She died. Those who remain to be photographed do not smile. Their faces are tired, foreheads creased. Speedboat on a river in Takeo province. Field beside the water. The sisters appear again. “You could not remember her,” I say; “you were a tiny baby.” Then let go. If he says he remembers, he does.


Susan’s poetry has always connected the culture of personal life and its context, the political world. Her concern with memory is a significant thread through earlier books. In 1999 she published a series of single cards in various colours that were extracts from a work called ‘Memoir’ which developed, the year after that, into the chapbook ‘memory cards (the happiness project)’, and then the following year, that chapbook combined with another sequence to become the book ‘Memory Cards & Adoption Papers’ (published by Potes & Poets Press in 2001). The first section of ‘Memory Cards & Adoption Papers’ is called ‘Mother’ and the book is dedicated to Susan’s father. ‘Adoption Papers’ is dedicated to Susan’s adopted Cambodian son, Sangha. There are often intensely personal paragraphs throughout 'Dementia Blog' that are reminiscent of her writing in general and there is a consistent self-conscious analysis of writing’s context-

Poetry or poetic prose. Sequence or unraveling of. Prose or text message. Forward, then back. The writing dances, a child beside the canal, its green water not yet inviting. Failure to thrive. Two of them died right after they came. She did not. Failure to fail to thrive is life. Life is a happy place.


To write about others without making of them stick, stock figures. The one who learns language, the other whose teeth sprout, the third who shepherds them to school. She who writes about them loves them, but in the writing loses feeling. Words are not to be touched, not here on the screen. There is no velvet on the word. It is dark and hard and composes itself letter by letter, the kind chiseled into lead or pixellated for your reading comfort. He laughed that I did not know “Pilates” as exercise, rather than Roman King.


The layered writing in 'Dementia Blog' slips between dualities like the sometimes childlike behaviour of a demented person and the experiences of an actual childhood. There are also diegetic moments that mimic the states of confusion that can accompany both memory loss and the writing process -

I don’t know how this section relates to the one that precedes and follows it


When she is clearly not going to be able to live there any more there is the problem of putting Susan's mother’s house up for sale . These entries are tacit and, for me, utterly poignant. Here are some extracts from that section -

The house. Read it as her autobiography: dark wood, crumbling wallpaper (dark again, checked squares of brown and white), the paintings (representational, a mill in the woods, some storm-tossed ships), the 1970s style modified shag carpet, parquet floors (dark), fireplaces (three of them), front and back yards needing to be mown. How did she come to this?


The “home”. Read it as biography. A porch outside the Country Lane, picnic bench, umbrella, a brightness next to the window. Outside inside. Remember your corridor by the décor. The artifice must present nature, or a loving intervention in it. What you remember shall comfort you and what you do not is simply not here. This sanctuary is not only for the birds.


…This is about the problem of what is private and what is public, what ought to be shared and what must be. The process is not fiction, but enactment. Easement. When the property is sold, it can no longer be taken as the story of her life, or of mine. Interpolated, perhaps. But the quotes have gone missing.

Concluding with -

There is an offer on her house, for it “as is.” The closed house is yours. The open one will not be.


At times there is a kind of intense exhaustion that leads to an informed, acerbic cynicism-

Better the sins of empathy than its lack. Key words in this text include: “privilege”, “gender”, “race”, “institutions”, “narcissism”. “Empathy” must not elide any of these terms, for fear of their erasure. I must feel empathy for my own kind, lest I bend categories, ignore my privilege. If emotion is itself a privilege (what hungry person has time for it?), then interrogate it. Critique, intellect, idiolect, locution, execution. The seven Chinese brothers were a perfect Adam Smith machine. One did the seeing, another the hearing, a third the crying, and the others were strong. When in doubt, drown your enemies in tears.


Towards the end of the book (which, because the posts read backwards in time, is actually towards the beginning of the blog, and is also why I placed the back cover image at the top of this blog) Susan writes a kind of ‘definitive’ entry -

None of this is new. Dementia is bricolage, is collage, is mixed-up syntax. It is nothing new. To describe it is to say nothing new. it cannot be analyzed, because its origins, and its ends, cannot be located. The maps are hanging from the laundry lines in a humid country; the ink that is their roads has dripped off the dark paper that had enclosed them.


One of the reasons I find this book so powerful is that over the past year I’ve spent every Thursday (except on the occasions I've been out of town) working with a group of elderly demented men and women at Mondeval Day Centre in Leura in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney. At first, I was apprehensive about participating, thinking that my inexperience would be a disadvantage and, also, that I could possibly become depressed or saddened by working with people with dementia. Gradually though I became familiar with everyone and I adjusted to their personalities and abilities and to the situation as a whole and I am continuing with the task. Of course, I have experienced reflective moments when I’ve wondered about the usefulness of communicating with people who, for a variety of reasons and to varying degrees, have lost their memories. When phrases, stories and responses are so often repeated from week to week and, sometimes, from hour to hour; when someone has ‘the wanders’ and continually gets up and walks off somewhere and needs to be followed, walked with and brought back to the group, the things we do can seem so habitual (although, interestingly, never perfunctory) and perhaps futile. The outcome is, after all, predictable.

What has struck me is that loss of memory, and its associated deteriorations, is a far more sorrowful experience for a relative or a friend than it is for people who work with the ‘lost one’ and quite often or, mostly, not such a crisis for the ‘lost one’ herself.

Aspects of the emotional upset or devastation that can happen to relatives coping with the onset of dementia in family members were portrayed in the recent films Away from Her and The Savages. The day centre I work in provides respite for the carers of elderly people with dementia. No one lives on the premises - the centre’s vehicle picks up the clients each morning and returns them to their homes each afternoon, so the situation is different from Susan Schultz’s mother’s and from the agendas in the films I’ve mentioned.

Early in 2008 someone I had known as a friend for over 25 years committed suicide after having been diagnosed with dementia at the relatively young age of 60. He had lived with the disease for a brief period of his once engaged and very active life as an academic, writer and political activist. He courageously decided that it was preferable to opt out before the condition worsened.

For further information, the Singing Horse Press link is here
You can read US poet and editor Eileen Tabios’ response to ‘Dementia Blog’ here


Anonymous said...

Found this really interesting. Particularly resonant for me as I'm working on a piece that is, in part, about my father's journey through Parkinson's Disease. Had similar worries about it being a difficult and depressing task. It is proving difficult, but not depressing--quite the opposite, in fact.

Also just had to say that this is one of my favourite blogs. Happy 2009!

Noëlle Janaczewska

pb said...

Thanks for your message Noelle, your response is appreciated.

All good wishes for your project - is it for the theatre ? Or radio ?

Happy new Year too,

Anonymous said...

This has been quite an engaging read. Pleased to have found you here via Jacket. It's encouraging to note that you were concerned about your inexperience with the elderly, yet there you are offering your contributions nonetheless. I must stop using my inexperience as an excuse for inaction. There is much here to reflect upon. Thank you.

pb said...

Hello Maekitso,
Don't get me wrong.
I'm still doubtful about the value of my day-a-week with the demented. Where I go tomorrow...
I'm pleased you found the blogpost engaging. Susan's book is really worth a read.