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Finuala Dowling

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

It is difficult to explain

Notes from a Dementia WardNotes on Notes from the Dementia Ward

A useful poetry exercise is to ask students to begin a poem with the phrase, ‘It is difficult to explain…’ They can ditch the phrase later, but the idea behind the exercise is to trick them (by asking them to complete the sentence and elaborate) into describing something that is on their personal continuum from problematic to unfathomable.

The exercise is one that comes straight from my own writing practice – I often feel the urge to type those very words when I sit down to compose, full of thoughts but with no words as yet to explain the predicament within. Not exactly ‘no words’. At the beginning of the creative process, I feel like an archaeologist piecing together extant papyrus fragments and then guessing what goes in the lacunae.

What was difficult to explain, as I wrote many of the poems that are about to be published by Kwela in my new collection, Notes from the dementia ward, was the effect of caring for my mother as she descended inexorably into dementia; the feeling of betrayal as we committed her to institutionalised frail care; the panic and despair as I failed to match the burden of caring with necessary extra income; and in the midst of it all, the sudden death of a beloved and apparently healthy brother.

Within this period of loss – theft, really, it felt like at times – there were of course also lighter moments, lightning flashes of love and hilarity. Notes from the dementia ward does not depart from my favoured tragic-comic pitch.

In an early meeting with Nèlleke de Jager and Gus Ferguson, my publisher-editors, we all sensed that something was missing from the manuscript scattered across my dining-room table, sugared over with pastry sprinklings from Olympia bakery. Without directly asking whether I had any poems hidden away or still inside, they intimated that they’d like to see a few more.

I realised that one of the things that was missing was a poem that would in a very straightforward way introduce my mother’s dementia – a poem I had in fact written but planned to leave out of the collection.

I initially left out ‘At eighty-five, my mother’s mind’ for a silly reason. I’d read it once at the Centre for the Book, and I didn’t feel satisfied by my own response or the audience’s.

As I scuttled away from the podium, I was convinced that the poem hadn’t worked. It didn’t convey how hard it was to care for my mother while continuing daily life. My whole family was being utterly overwhelmed by the disintegration of my mother’s mind, and the audience had just sat there as if nothing had happened.

It was only later, when I saw this first attempt in relation to all the other poems I’d written on the same topic, that I could see it was not a failed poem, but a lonely poem. Poems need to speak to other poems around them. Recently, when I have read poems from the new collection, I always read three or four of them together. Only then can one understand the complexity of the grief, anger, guilt, exhaustion, not to mention the temptation to matricide.

‘At eighty-five, my mother’s mind’ uses the image of a castle in ruin to suggest what it was like to be faced with the decline of an utterly beautiful, personally magnificent, intellectually and spiritually redoubtable parent. The poem begins with a catalogue of present woes:

    When she wanders from room to room
    looking for someone who isn’t there,

    when she asks where we keep the spoons,
    when she can’t chew and spits out her food,

    when her last dim light flickers with falling ash
    and she exclaims: ‘What a dismal end to a brilliant day!’

It ends with a strange, twisted reference to our own captivity as her children and carers:

    Do not think that we are good
    or merely tourists.

    That which detains us
    was once our fortress.

    The fact of looking after an elderly parent leads inevitably to reflections on one’s childhood. My mother was forty years old when I was born, and I often kept myself awake at night with fears of her mortality:
    I was ten to your fifty,
    would be fifteen to your fifty-five,
    twenty to your sixty.

I was trying to work out if there was a point at which I’d be old enough not to mind her death, but ‘the numbers toppled –/ an orphan at any age’. The poem ‘Shift aside’ sets this memory against the irony of my current situation, where I still calculate our ages, but with a somewhat different sense of dread.

I’m glad I was brave enough to include the question, ‘Why won’t my mother die?’ in the poem ‘Where Google has not been’. Like many people in distress, I’ve searched the Internet for solutions. Though I’ve found answers to all manner of general knowledge queries, I’ve found nothing helpful on the subject of being a carer.

The material that came up suggested to me that I should simply accept that it’s tough caring for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The main thing is to keep the patient happy. Every now and then, ask a friend to stand in for you while you go out ‘for coffee or a movie’. My Google poem seeks its own revenge against the platitudes of NHS brochures.

Another ‘missing poem’ was one I sat down to write after the dining-room table meeting. This was ‘Mere oblivion’, which tried to set right an imbalance, namely that in the collection, my mother was portrayed almost exclusively as a frail octogenarian.

Yet visiting her, even now when she has almost entirely run out of words and waking moments, I always have this sense of her other selves – youthful, glamorous or brilliantly competent – being present:

    blurred box-brownie baby from Ficksburg,
    skinnymalinks hand-standing at the Wilderness,
    buxom WAF officer in her pips,
    aquiline actress, face turned to the light,
    amused matriarch captioned ‘dear Octopus?’
    unamused wife of an alcoholic

One day, when I was helping my bent-double mother on one of her brief shuffles down the passageway of the nursing home, I was almost unnerved by the presence of these former incarnations of hers. They seemed to be walking along with us, watching her with concern as she clutched the hand railing; I felt they were of more help to her than I, her fumbling and inept daughter.

I’d wanted to write a poem about it at the time, but frankly it seemed too difficult, so I didn’t. But in the end, you always have to write the missing poem, explain the thing that’s difficult to explain. For example, how it feels the day ‘you steer’

    your mad mother down her own front steps,
    drive her silently from her own house
    for the last time, carefully not saying:
    ‘Look back, Ma, look up – that was your home.
    You are seeing and leaving it for the last time.

These lines come from ‘Lastness’. It’s one of my favourite poems in the collection, perhaps because of the way poetry audiences have so immediately ‘got’ it, responded to it with precisely the feeling that was there at its genesis.

I do have favourite poems in the collection. The slightly nutty ones – ‘I am the zebra’; ‘How to use a porcupine as an alibi’; and ‘Other metaphorical uses for worms (apart from death)’ – help to balance the sadness elsewhere. The poem, ‘How I knew it wasn’t me’ is, I realise, a cover version (if there is such a thing in poetry) of ‘Not waving but drowning’. I’m also fond of the poem, ‘Catcher’, about my daughter, and the last poem in the collection, in which I sort of convince myself that it’s alright to be poor because in fact I’m rich.

Another tricky poem which I knew I had to write but tried to put off is ‘Thoughts on emigration’. Here I had to write against my own sense of being a traitor for having such thoughts, against my fear of the contumely that might be brought down on my head for writing the poem at all. When after several drafts and moments of despair, the final image of the poem came to me, I felt very relieved:

    I foresaw our floating – too far from ropes
    and the gentle knocking of familiar boats.

There are two poems relating to the death of my brother Sean. The one I read at his funeral was the hardest – I had to write it, and at a time when I felt numb. But once the central image of the game, ‘Red Rover’, came to me, I was home and dry.

I’ve concentrated on difficulty, but there are also several ‘found poems’ in Notes from the dementia ward – poems that reflect verbatim what my mother has said since being committed to frail care. In these cases there is nothing difficult to explain. I am simply a collector of treasures.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 24th, 2008 @10:44 #

    Hi Finuala - this idea of working and living a poem in every aspect is a wonderful one. A reminder that writing can be a soulful craft. I'm not sure if it would be giving away the tricks of your livelihood, but what about holding a weekly online poetry symposium here on BOOK SA?: suggest a poetry or prose exercise and members can see what we can come up with... it would certainly help keep our juices flowing and keep us connected to the word when there are so many other distractions available.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Finuala</a>
    July 24th, 2008 @11:33 #

    Hi Louis -- thank you, and that's a good idea about the forum. Here are 3 of the exercises I've set for my students this month, no excuses now:
    1. A poem on the topic ‘Scars’.
    2. Using the following Louis Jenkins’ poem ‘The Afterlife’ for inspiration, write a poem in which you too consider life from the perspective of the afterlife. (You may also use the prose poem format if you like.)
    The Afterlife by Louis Jenkins
    Older people are exiting this life as if it were a movie... “I didn’t get it,” they are saying. He says, “It didn't seem to have any plot.”
    “No.” she says, “it seemed like things just kept coming at me. Most of the time I was confused... and there was way too much sex and violence.”
    “Violence anyway,” he says. “It was not much for character development either; most of the time people were either shouting or mumbling. Then just when someone started to make sense and I got interested, they died. Then a whole lot of new characters came along and I couldn’t tell who was who.”
    “The whole thing lacked subtlety.”
    “Some of the scenery was nice.”
    “Yes.” They walk on in silence for a while. It is a summer night and they walk slowly, stopping now and then, as if they had no particular place to go. They walk past a streetlamp where some insects are hurling themselves at the light, and then on down the block, fading into the darkness.
    She says, “I was never happy with the way I looked.”
    “The lighting was bad and I was no good at dialogue,” he says.
    “I would have liked to have been a little taller,” she says.
    3. Write a poem in which you reflect on the discrepancy between what other people say (or you suspect they say) about you (or something/someone else), and how you really feel.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 24th, 2008 @12:31 #

    Excellent, thanks, Finuala. These will keep me well occupied over the next few lunchtimes. I will post something back here in a few days.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 24th, 2008 @13:22 #

    1. A poem on the topic ‘Scars’.

    It was a rottweiler when I was small, she said.
    In a neighbour's garden. Unchained.
    I'd go in uninvited, stealing juicy cherries from his tree.

    She turned her back and took off her shirt.
    All I saw were the fresh welts,
    the sticky red laid down last night.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    July 24th, 2008 @14:29 #

    Whoosh, Louis! Dizzying.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Megan</a>
    July 24th, 2008 @14:59 #

    Hi Finuala
    I read your Notes on Notes without knowing who the author was or the book, and read and read, piecing it together, and then clicked on the right place and saw it was your new book. Congratulations! On an absorbing and brave and informative piece of writing in the Notes, and what sounds like an amazing collection. I look forward very much to reading it, with the prospect of some shock and pain, and also to hearing you read from it, in August, I hope.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Finuala</a>
    July 25th, 2008 @10:42 #

    Hi Megan
    Yes -- we're reading at the Book Lounge together-- I'm so pleased!


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