The Blessing (The Real Story, Part 2)

In my writing classes and in my own writing practice reading other poets’ poems and then choosing a line or more to (in jazz parlance) rift from is a very useful starting place for new poems. One of the poems in Palindrome, my book written in response to my mother’s dementia, is called “The Real Story.” Interspersed throughout there are phrases I pulled from poems in Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things. “No one tells you the real story,” my poem begins,

No one tells you how old you’ll be someday, old enough to be mother to your mother. Your father, meanwhile, left the party early, before the need for pulling down the rafters, boxing the whole thing up—ash now in his own last box, died with his last book sliding out of his lap, and it’s come down to you to figure out the real story—did the flu shot really give her the flu that year, you away living your child-free, parent-free life, and somebody wants to know, now she’s in a nursing home, pulling off her shoes, putting them on again.

(Pauletta Hansel, from “The Real Story” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

I used my poem as a prompt in a recent workshop I offer (with my colleague, the writer Annette Wick) for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati called Writing Our Lives as Caregivers. I have found that my own “real story” is an ever changing one. Here is the version I wrote alongside other caregivers that day:

At the beginning, all you can think about is loss: what will be gone, what might be left, and sure, as with any grief there is bargaining. “Okay, we’ll try this drug, this doctor. Mom, you’ll need to give up a little independence, but you can stay in your house, so that’s okay, right? At least you get to stay here.” And then, “You have to leave your house, but see these big wide halls with rails on either side you can walk safely down. See, you can still walk.”

 “But no, here is this wheelchair, you need to use it now, so you won’t fall again, but it’s okay, we’ll come every day and take you out from these four walls…”

And here, on the other side of the walls: “At least she still knows me. Well, at least most of the time she knows me, and if she is sleeping most of the time, well, at least she is not crying, and if she is talking about me, even when she is talking to me, well at least she is not sleeping, she is alert, see, and if she is crying, well, at least she will not remember this sadness, right? She will forget.”

 And what is it I want, the asleep, or alert, the remembering or forgetting, and what I want is all of it, all of it (except for the crying) for as long as I can have it. Because when it is over, it is gone, and all that is left is a hole where my mother was, and what was all this for, this running hither and yon, this weeping, deciding and trying and loving more than I ever thought would be possible, what was it all for, when she is gone?

I wrote this on October 14, 2017, my mother’s 85th birthday, not knowing that I would mark that day as the beginning of the end: my husband and I arrived after my writing workshop to take Mom for her birthday lunch and found her and her wheelchair drenched in urine. A change in staff at her nursing home resulted in a series of toileting “accidents” that week, and the resulting urinary tract infection set the stage for what felt and still feels like a rapid demise. Mom died on January 7, 2018.

And what is the real story now? I am still living—and writing—my way into it.  Palindrome was written in the present tense of my years of caring for my mother with dementia. As I have said in the Preface to that book, “Not Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ but crafted within my ongoing experience of a mother in the midst of a devastating change.”

Once the book had been accepted for publication, it was important to me that it be released while my mother was still living. Because the poems themselves were an extension of the complex relationship of care, I wanted the book, too, to be part of that present tense, at least for a while. To not move immediately into elegy, but to be a document of the ongoing nature of familial love, and an expression of the imperative of creating art from life.

How much I will write of the sweet and difficult days of her active dying is yet unknown. Where will the process of grieving will take me and my writing? When my father died, much more suddenly, in 2006, I found that new memories opened to me, even “memories” that were not my own, in the exploration of his childhood. With my mother, much of that work—though surely not all—was done while she lived, traveling with her through dementia’s fractured time.

But the answer to the question I asked in October, on the eve that final stage of my mother’s life, “What was it all for, when she is gone?” comes clearly to me. It was for me. All that love, the grace of that particular and infinite love. It is still mine.

The Blessing
“If you are going to die, why don’t you do it all at once and not this little bit of dying every day.”
Participant at a Dementia Caregiver Workshop

But Mother, it is that bit of you, that stuttering spark
only those bent close enough can see, lighting
the dark around the you I never would have
known had death blazed full and hot
and gone, no charred pieces left
to quietly burn throughout
our bundled days,
the bellow of my
breath against
your skin.

Pauletta Hansel © 2017

Note: this is the final of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia,  The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love,  The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, Her Words and On the Value of Literary Communities.

For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

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On the Value of Literary Communities

Because I am a teacher of poetry, an editor of a regional literary journal, and a poet who sometimes gets published, I am often asked about publishing. My basic advice: Write what matters to you. Learn and use the craft to write it well. Be a generous participant in a generous literary community.

Why community? First, and most selfishly, that community is a listening ear for a poet’s work. Workshops, readings, critique groups all provide information about the ways in which poems do and don’t work, and can help a poet to judge the viability of her poems outside of the nest of the notebook. Clearly, discernment is necessary; as Naomi Shihab Nye has written, “Some ears are tunnels./Your words will go in and get lost in the dark.” But if nothing else, reading your own writing aloud to others and hearing theirs is important training for your poet’s ear; you begin to hear what sings and what clangs.

I have never been the lonely poet in the garret. For me, the solitary act of writing happens within a community of other writers, each of us, to paraphrase Rilke’s definition of human love, protecting “the solitude of the other.”

Nearly a dozen writers read my latest book of poems, Palindrome, from start to finish before it went to press. I sent it to one friend very early in the manuscript process asking a dangerous question. Palindrome is a single subject book; some might call it a poetic memoir, written in response to my mother’s dementia. I asked my friend, “Does the subject matter overwhelm the craft?”

I am not entirely sure why this question seems to matter more in poetry than in prose, but I think it does. Memoir, especially, is still a more populist literary form. A good story will hold our interest to a degree from which even a poorly-made container does not completely distract. And we seem to want stories that connect with our lives, that make us feel less alone in our bodies. There is a much smaller audience for poetry, and that audience has strong, if often conflicting, views of what makes a good poem. Perhaps, too, it matters more if the poet is a woman, and if the subject matter is one that is traditionally a “women’s issue”: my poems about caring for my fragile mother left me feeling vulnerable for both of us.

Portrait of My Mother as a Discarded Birds’ Nest

in my hand unraveling.
Pieces crumble
to my page. I can see
the seam, the two sides knit together,
but I can’t make it hold.
A softness at the center remains.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

A most crucial reader was, of course, the book’s ultimate publisher, Robert Murphy, himself a fine poet. Other writers were kind enough to read the manuscript in order to compose endorsements. Two poet/teachers gave their time to do copyediting for grammar and punctuation. Others responded to a last minute call to help me choose which poems to remove from the almost final manuscript when I decided it was too long. Beyond these readers, there have been dozens of poets in my workshops who have read early or late drafts of poems on their way into the manuscript. And beyond readers, there have been listeners of individual poems or, as the work progressed, substantial sections of the manuscript at public readings. In each of these cases, I listened carefully to the feedback I received, always weighing it against my own goals for this particular work and my own passion for both the subject and the craft.

I have come to think about myself and my poems as part of a literary ecosystem. We, too, are necessary for its health and ultimate survival. Editors and publishers are part of this ecosystem. So are teachers and students and readers. So are bookstores, libraries, poetry readings and audiences and the young woman who reads the poem she wrote on the napkin while waiting for her turn at the open mic. So is the guy in the critique group who only likes poems that sound like his. But unlike traditional biological ecosystems, we are always trading places. Sometimes I’m that guy, and I need to have my ears opened to the light. Sometimes the napkin girl’s poem can show us the courage that ours are missing. Sometimes my editor is publishing my poems. Sometimes I am writing grants to help keep his press going. Sometimes your friend is singing your praises on Facebook. Sometimes you are introducing him at the reading series you started. Not tit for tat, but nurture for our community of words to thrive. It can be messy, but it does not need to be lonely.

I hope you will join me for my last public program as Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate on Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7 pm, at A Panel on Publishing Poetry at Chase Public, 2868 Colerain Avenue in Camp Washington. I’ll discuss my theory of the literary community as an ecosystem, as further discussed in my post called Publishing Tips, as well as my own experience as editor, editee and sad rejectee.

Until then, I leave you with a blessing for whatever community you might create or find:

A Blessing for the Feast of All Poets

For words, for vowels, for syllables
that purr off my tongue,
I give thanks.

For black ink on a page,
for margins and lines which,
like rules, beg ignoring and for all
punctuation, especially the dash—
forgiving and constant—
I give thanks.

For poets who like miners
go down underground
with only the light
of their own unknowing
to guide them,
I give thanks.

For the ones who do not come up again,
who lay broken beneath
fallen pillar and beams
of the lives that chose them—
though I turn my face
from those cratered lives,
hold their words like a candle
too close to my skin,
then too far from my eyes—
I must still give thanks.

Oh, but those who go down
and come up every day;
who plumb mystery, pull weeds
from the garden, the poem,
the dark path underground;
who sit with me at tables,
hold my words in their hands—
you who are constant as dashes,
as forthright as ink,
I would bless you with light
for your journey,
as you have blessed me.

(Pauletta Hansel, from What I Did There, Dos Madres Press, 2010)

Her Words

When we moved Mom from the small ranch house she bought after our dad’s death into the dementia care unit of a nursing home, my sister got the job of cleaning out her papers from the maple desk that had been in every house I remember. It was, like the Tardis, bigger on the inside. My sister’s voice was shaking when she told me that she had found 500 plus pages of handwritten letters from Mom to Dad, all dated the year after his death. I knew that Mom was writing some; even after her diagnosis of vascular dementia she attended many of the community writing workshops I led. She had written a sort of prose ode to her family’s old mule, Sam, and some beautiful first draft poems about her mother and about our father. She never wanted to give these to me to type for the group anthologies after she read them to the group, and would instead keep the original and copy another for me by hand. She always brought her own notebook to class.

These letters began as her grief journal, cycling through her anguish at Dad’s death, her loss of independence (she had moved from small town Kentucky to be near me in Cincinnati, and she had never learned to drive) and of the beautiful, sprawling garden she had left in Somerset, Kentucky. But later, as she moved through those grueling early months of grief, the letters also became her memoirs. She wrote in one of her last letters that she hoped her children would someday find and read them, and know something of our parents’ lives and love. And I have to think she knew that if I found them I would use them in my own writing, as I did pretty much everything else she gave me. My siblings certainly knew; no one questioned that these papers were going to me, and when, for Christmas that year I had them typed up and copied into spiral bound books for the family (Love, Larnie, I called it, as this is how her almost daily letters were signed), my brother said, “Good, now they will be easier for you to use.”

But what do you do with 500 pages of letters (260 typed, with photos included)?

I had been writing poems about my mother’s decline since before her diagnosis. I write poems about everything, but family, and my mother in particular, are top among my poetic obsessions. But though I did not, then, think that I would be writing the “dementia book,” less than two years after Love, Larnie, Palindrome, a book of poems and prose in response to my mother’s dementia, was published by Dos Madres Press.

These poems and prose pieces were mostly written from my own perspective as daughter learning to care for her declining mother. I have discussed in an earlier post how approaching this often harrowing topic in form (primarily blank verse sonnets and other syllabics) provided me the poetic and emotional distance necessary for the crafting of art from life. But as the title suggests (palindrome means something that is read the same backward and forward,) there was a fair amount of time travel in my mother’s new interior world. Working with Mom’s memoirs while being with her was a sort of time travel for me as well, back into the days after my father’s death with my grieving, but articulate and self-aware mother, and into my own childhood with a young, remembered mother, and on back into the past before me with this feisty girlchild who still lived inside my demented mother’s mind, as well as in her letters. The frightened child who was calling for my attention both on and off the page.

I began the first poem from her memoirs about a year after Mom’s move to the nursing home. It started as a prose poem telling the story of my mother being sent by the missionaries from Cutshin, Kentucky to Buffalo, New York during the latter days of World War II for school. In this first draft, I used her story, but not many of her exact words, choosing instead to craft a younger voice for her, one I imagined she might use as a child of twelve. But as I continued to work with her letters, I found a number of passages about Buffalo, and her ultimate return home, and then away again. I pulled all of this material into one document and tried to figure out how to shape it. By this time, I had already begun my work with sonnets, and had also read Tony Barnstone’s essay on sonnets, including his description of how he crafted his book, Tongue of War by shaping firsthand narratives from US and Japanese soldiers into this form. I shaped the prose poem into a double sonnet, and then just kept going. As the poem progressed (it is six pages,) there came a merging of the voice I crafted and my mother’s own written voice. Here is a passage from the middle:

At home my brothers knew for sure I’d died
or maybe Dad had sold me. When I’d send them
store-bought things, a truck with wooden wheels (we shipped our rubber to our boys across the seas)
they thought Mom charged the toys on time from
Dewey’s store to fool them. Jimmy’d gone and come
back dead. My sister Becky was the only
one who said I’d never leave them, not for good.
Bea was a baby when I left, still was
when I came home, a crybaby at that.
Mom couldn’t nurse her anymore with Helen
on the way and gone were all the summer jars
I’d helped her fill. We lived on Dewey’s
goodness—beans and fatback tasted fine to me.
(Pauletta Hansel, from “My Mother Remembers Buffalo, 1944-45” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

This poem was the longest of the three I eventually wrote from her memoirs, and it is the one that holds the most of my own language (though the story and much of the phrasing is my mother’s.) By the second poem, about my parents’ meeting and ultimate marriage, I had learned to trust the process of letting the counting of syllables and lines (roughly ten syllables per each line, fourteen lines per stanza) guide the compression and language choice. Mom’s voice was sassier in these passages, which suited me just fine. Here is the opening stanza:

I remember the first time I saw you.
I had only been at Southland Bible
Institute three days. At supper, we new students
tried to size you old ones up. You in your
Combs High jacket, black and orange, teasing
everyone and I thought several things about you,
but mostly I thought you were a smartass.
I was not looking to find a boyfriend.
I had one I didn’t much want in
Korea and anyone knew that a
girl didn’t leave a soldier off at war.
And anyway we were there to become
good Christian girls, go out and spread the gospel,
not to find a husband, “Oh no, not that.”
(Pauletta Hansel, from “After My Father’s Death, My Mother Tells Him of Their Life Together” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

The third of the memoir poems, called “My Mother Tells Me What She Really Thinks” is all hers. Though I compressed the language, and moved passages around (in addition, of course, to line and stanza breaks) I added nothing of my own, in tone or description. Mom wrote this letter when she was angry at me for something I had written and read at a workshop she attended. I don’t remember what, and she never said. Here is the final of the two stanzas:

I did not want to do to you what had
been done to me. By aged seven, when a new
baby came, I cooked and did whatever
else was needed. I could never do enough
to please my dad. I’m sorry, Pauletta.
I think you had it pretty good. I hope
I showed and told you love. I never heard my
mother say it. I knew her work was love
keeping us alive. She let me learn to
help her. My love kept you from more you could
have learned. I wanted it all perfect
for you, and then I had to go and have
a baby brother and spoil it all. I hope
someday you’ll know how hard motherhood is.
(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

By the time I crafted this poem I often introduced myself in phone calls to the nursing home by saying, “Hi, this is Pauletta, Larnie’s mother,” unconscious of my mistake until the slight pause before a response. I knew something of how hard motherhood is.

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome , winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry.  The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia,  The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love ,  The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers On the Value of Literary Communities and The Blessing (The Real Story: Part 2).

For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

 

The Real Story: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

At the beginning, all you think about is loss.
An incomplete geode
on its way to full formation
but somehow interrupted
from reaching its brilliance.

Like a piece at the potter’s wheel,
you are gradually changing,
like a rock in the stream
becomes less sharp and develops smooth corners.
Perfectly imperfect.

Excerpt of poem from participants in Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, October 14, 2017. (Composed with lines from all by Pauletta Hansel)

Most of the poems in the book I called Palindrome (meaning something that is read the same backwards as forwards) were written in the roughly two year period my mother spent in her first nursing home. There are outliers on either side, but Mom’s move into “care” in March 2015 marks an unofficial start to when my life both on and off the page leaned into my role as her shepherd and as her scribe. Nearly two years later, the manuscript of poems and prose written in response to my mother’s dementia was accepted for publication. And about halfway through that period, in April 2016, I became Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate.

The timing was pretty good for putting my name in the running for this very part time positon. I had not tried to replace my previous position as writer in residence at a local college because of my new focus on Mom, whose dreaded “middle-stage dementia” had her literally bouncing off the walls. And while Cincinnati was asking for an occasional “occasional” poem, mostly they wanted a poet who had a clear plan for the role. Mine was to connect people to poetry and connect people through poetry, mostly through a series of writing experiences.

The first such experience I offered was a workshop called Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, in partnership with the Cincinnati Alzheimer’s Association which had been a huge help to our family before and after Mom’s move. Annette Wick, a writer, teacher and caregiver to her own mother, enthusiastically joined me in the project. (You can read Annette’s caregiving blog here.) Annette and I were on a similar journey, both as writers and daughters. Through the wonders of social media, I had learned of Annette’s interest in starting a family caregivers’ writing group, and invited her to pilot it through this joint effort. A year and a half later, we are still doing it, and have expanded our partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association and with each other to include writing with professional caregivers and sometimes with people with dementia, through their Memories in the Making program. (To find out about our February 27 program with professionals, including nurses, social workers and aides, “How Stories Help,” click here. For our March 22 program for family caregivers, click here.)

While most participants are also grateful members of the Alzheimer’s Association’s ongoing support groups, they appreciate how writing allows us to go down beneath our usual struggles and complaints to a place where we can experience the spiritual and emotional truths of our lives as caregivers. It helps that Annette and I have been at this, the writing and the caring, long enough that we can find beauty in the broken things: a mother’s cracked voice singing a hymn the daughter has never heard, or the way her hands still stitch an invisible needle through cloth that no one else can see.

Wherever you are in your journey as a daughter or as a son, I offer you this writing prompt to explore things those things “perfectly imperfect” in your own relationship with your elders, whether in the present, as Annette is, or in memory, as I am: Mom died in January 2017. One note: this will work best if you delay reading Part Three of the exercise until you have completed Parts 1 and 2.

  1. Find an object in nature, that is something that is not made by human hands: a leaf, a broken piece of bark, a shell, a rock, for example, or if you are able to write outside, a tree or a boulder, It is important that you can get close enough to experience it through most of the senses. If you are not able to find a natural object, at least choose an object that is not an objet d’art; in other words, for this activity a bent fork is better than a painting.
  2. Describe your object as fully as you can using some or all of these questions and any of your own.
    • Describe it through the senses—what is its color, shape, texture, smell, etc.? Be judicious in tasting!
    • Where did it come from? What is its natural habitat?
    • How did it get where you found it?
    • What is its use? Have you used it? Do you know someone else who has used it?
    • Do you know what drew it to you?

STOP AND WRITE!!

 

 

(Vincent Van Gogh–Two Cut Sunflowers)

  1. How does this object remind you of your mother or your father? (You can choose which.) If it doesn’t, that’s ok too—the negative space is rich for writing.

You might choose to use the poem and its title below (“Portrait of My X as a X”) as a model, or you may not. You don’t have to write a poem. You may find it more fruitful to write more directly about your parent in prose, referring to the object as a way to add metaphor and texture. There is no wrong way to do it—write whatever is coming up for you in relation to this object. I would love to see your work posted in the comments. You can click on one of the links above to find out more about the programs Annette and I offer through the Alzheimer’s Association. Information about my other workshops and retreats can be found here –or contact me.

Portrait of My Mother as a Dried Sunflower

The round shape of you
no longer round,
bent in on yourself
as if you are trying to find your way
back to the place you began.
You smell of dust
and still that scent
of only you.
I cannot see what you were
in what I have before me,
though in dreams you still stand
tallest in the field.
Every day a little
more of you
is gone. You are
beautiful.
You are so beautiful.
At the center,
a constellation of seeds
never planted.
(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

Note: this is third in a  a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia and The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love, Her WordsOn the Value of Literary Communities and The Blessing (The Real Story: Part 2).

For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

 

The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love

You Never Were

the mother I wanted at the time
I had you. Always I was
swallowing down the longing
rising for the mother
come and gone. The one

whose cool hand nested
in a tangle of my curls. The one
whose hair was blueblack
crow, caught midflight.
Once gravity had settled you

to ground, and I away
from you, I hungered
for the mother whose shovel
shouldered through red clay
to bring up bulbs I’d plant,

still clinging southern soil, in my
midwestern garden. Today it is
the mother who remembers
this I want, even as I hover
over you, my fingers

feathering the dark threads
woven through your grey.
I would cling
to whatever does not change
if I could find it.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

I wrote my first poem about my mother when I was sixteen. Becky, her sister, had a year earlier fallen into a coma and was not expected to live (although she did, and lived well, for nearly thirty more years.) In my poem, my mother was crying. She was mopping the floor of the daycare center she ran in the converted garage adjacent to our house, and she was crying. I had sat with this image and with my helplessness to soothe her for a year, and then I wrote the poem.

My next poems for my mother came some twenty years later, after I had emerged from a decade-long silence in my writing. These poems, many of which found their way into my first book, Divining, imagined my mother’s childhood growing up in a very rural Eastern Kentucky. I left a thin sheaf of them on the guest bed after a visit home. My mother called me, “Did you know you left some papers?”

“Yes,” I said. “I left them for you.”

It is an overstatement to say I learned to love my mother through writing about her. I already loved her, though it was sometimes an itchy, get this sweater-off-of-me sort of love. Mostly, we loved each other through things. Plants from her garden, leftovers in Cool Whip bowls, thrift store paintings and pottery that I cherished first because she gave them to me.

And the poems, too, were a sort of thing. When I think of them now, I imagine myself rubbing my hand tenderly over the words, careful not to smudge the ink. This girl who became my mother, here on my page! Later I wrote about the young mother who emerged from that girl. Always present, somewhat distant in her constant doing, a door I passed through.

I was shaken to discover that my mother had been hurt by these careful, tender poems of self-discovery. At the time she seemed touched by them. Her mouth had not made its compressed line of disapproval that I learned to watch for. The poems had seemed only to make her a little bashful.

By then, it was too late to ask her why. She was in the dementia unit of a nursing home, and now it was her writing that we, her children, found left for us, dated and numbered, 500+ pages of a sort of memoir in letters from nine years earlier, written first to our dead father—a grief memoir from the year after his death—but deeper in the pile, letters written directly to us.

Love, Larnie I called it, for how she signed her pages, enlisting a group of friends to help me type it all up to present as a gift to my siblings and niece. Too, sections of the memoir began to show up in the poems that I was already beginning to write about my mother’s decline:

IV. from “The Body / Above It”

She can’t remember why she’s there, or where
there is—some days it is the hospital
where she’d not let my father die. The chair
beside his bed became her own—she would
not have him wake alone to dark and those
red blinking lights. Small mercy, I suppose,
that she’s forgotten, now, his death at home.
We cleared their desk and found the words she wrote:
I see him in his chair cocooned in white—
the bedspread I crocheted. It seemed to me
he winked and smiled his little crooked smile.
I caught a wisp of his own scent as he
floated by and thought, no matter his poor
feet don’t work, he won’t need them anymore.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

It is less of an overstatement to say that I learned—am continuing to learn, even after her death—to love the mother who spiraled through dementia through writing about her. Poetry is first the act of paying attention. And as a caregiver for my mother, I was a connoisseur. I could spot a UTI by the lean of her body in the wheelchair, the need to be lifted to the toilet by her forehead’s scrunch combined with tapping feet. I could enter her world through just a few garbled words of a story, recognizing, for example, when I was not me, but Becky:

My Mother Briefly Reunites With Her Dead Sister Becky in the Body of Me and Tells Us

Life is small,
but it isn’t.
You are so pretty, your hair
worn now like mine.
I love you.

( Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

or when there was a younger version of me in attendance to whom she had something to say:

from “My Mother Makes Her Amends”

She tells me now, pushing out each word
to make the first full sentences
I’ve heard from her in months,
eyes locked on mine to be sure
I hear her this time:
….

The light from her eyes
blinds me. I feel the rush
of time spooled backwards,
the elemental pull
of infant in her arms. The necessity
of tenderness makes mothers of us all.

( Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

I was with my mother in her nursing home almost daily, and much of what occurred there showed up on the page. Clearly, writing poems is not the only way to stay present enough to provide good care. But for me, the “practice of poetry”—the attentiveness to detail, the interest in (and acceptance of) both what is there and what lies beneath, the awareness of the self in relationship to the other, the ability to be both in the moment and an observer of that self and other that dwells there—was, at first, the only training I had.

In my imagination of those early poems about my mother, my hand soothes the page in a way that it could not the long-gone girl. Later, as I used my hands, my breath, my body to comfort my mother, I imagined she was both herself and her own lost words:

Self-Portrait as Ellipsis

I live at the cliff edge
of story, the pause
between language
and the hand’s blind reach.
In the photograph
I am the vee of light
between the shadows
two bodies make.
I am the words
you might have said.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

 

Photograph by Zohreh Zand

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.”  Other posts in this series currently available include: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s DementiaHer Words, The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as CaregiversOn the Value of Literary Communities and The Blessing (The Real Story: Part 2).

For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

 

Too Personal: On Writing About My Mother’s Dementia

Too Personal

like the underside
of a cat’s tongue, like
someone else’s bathwater,
like bedsheets still warm, like
a spit-wet thumb flicking sleep
from the corner of your mother’s
eye, like an old hymn hummed
beneath curdled breath, like
ragged stitches pulled from
a wound. These poems are
too personal.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

My greatest fear in releasing Palindrome, poems and prose about my mother’s dementia, is that no one would want to read a book this personal, a cat’s cradle woven between my mother’s life and my own.

My second greatest fear—that these personal poems might contain a universality too painful for anyone left holding dementia’s tangled skein.

“No more mother-in-nursing-home poems!” one writer friend cried out at the end of a weeklong conference of workshops and readings, though thankfully not specifically in response to my own, then unpublished book: “I can write those myself!”

And later, after its publication, a colleague influential in the local literary scene picked Palindrome up from my booth at a book fair to scan the blurbs on its back cover. “I can’t read this,” he said, practically dropping it back on the table. “It hits too close to home.”

And yet, this is what I do. I live my life and I write about it, uncovering its layers of meaning first through the act of paying attention, then through the words on the page, and finally through consideration of how the individual poems and prose pieces come together to make something new, something that is from my life, but that is not my life. Something that came through me, but that is not only mine.

I didn’t set out to write a book about being the caretaking daughter of a mother with dementia. I didn’t set out to be that daughter. But being both writer and daughter, when my mother’s dementia was what was given me, caring and writing is all that I knew to do. Had it come earlier in my life, things might have been different. But from the caring standpoint, I had been edging ever closer, playing minor roles in attending two friends in their final months and experiencing somewhat of a role reversal with my mother after my father died “suddenly” during a long illness and I helped her transition into her new life as widow and city dweller.

Writing and caring is what I did then, too. But this, the caring for and writing about my mother with dementia, required something both more and less of me: that is, it required both a new level of intimacy and a necessary distance.

The intimacy is, I think, obvious. My mother’s dementia unfettered me from certain physical and emotional boundaries between us and also from concern about what she might think of these poems about her:

My Mother Has Stopped Telling Me She Loves Me

Look at us now.
My mother finally bound
to her wheelchair (that’s how
they like it in the nursing home.)
She thinks she is walking,
one foot and then the other,
her lumbering four-wheeled
body follows and behind her
trails Miss Push-Me-Pull-Me—
that’s what she muttered at me yesterday,
a sudden spark that flew my meddling hands
down from the handles of her chair.
And even when we sit together,
fingers entwined, she pushes back away,
I pull her toward me,
memorize her face,
the folds beside her eyes,
the lips that purse now
for a kiss, a dab of oatmeal
in one corner. I say,
I love you, Mom
and then she’s off again;
we dangle one side and the other
of the teeter-totter air.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

The distance is perhaps less observable. Let me name it first in metaphor. Though I am a meditation dropout, one concept that has always stayed with me is the awareness of the slight pause between inhaling and exhaling. Yes, breath is one continuous, mostly involuntary, movement. Yes, there exists a slight gap within that movement through which awareness can enter.

For me, writing is that gap. And by writing, I don’t just mean the act of putting words onto paper or screen, but the act of noticing what is, while knowing that words will someday be what I make of it. For the poems and prose that became Palindrome, the noticing and word-making occurred within smaller and smaller gaps. The poems and prose were written within the present tense of my mother’s spiral into dementia. And with that, a different kind of distance became necessary in order to not let the poems disintegrate into a kind of wail. I began for the first time in my life as a poet writing in form, first in syllabics (the limiting of syllables within lines and within the poem itself (I am especially fond of the 7×7, seven syllables within a seven line poem) and later in sonnets and palindromes (a poem which reads the same backward as forward.) These formal constructs gave me the necessary emotional distance to make poems from content in which I might have otherwise have drowned.

I first knew that I was capable of creating the book which became Palindrome when I wrote the sonnet sequence which is at the heart of its final section (the sequence itself was written two years before the book came out.) As writer, the pairing of the intimacy of the subject and the formality of craft created a balanced container for the work. As daughter, I also believe that the attentiveness I gave to the words supported the attentiveness I gave to my mother. I will write about the complimentary nature of caring and writing in a future post (read here.)

But what of those fears, that despite the craft, the subject itself limits my work? Fear, too, has its role, not to stop us, but to spur us to go deeper into our courage and our craft, asking always, and with new intensity, is this poem true, is it good enough. I offer this on the subject of the intersection of life and words:

Of What We Make Our Poems

Ink, of course, and flecks of skin
on paper remind us who we
are is hatched from who we were,
this film of self now covering
who we will be. Locks of our
mothers’ hair; whiskers plucked,
roots intact, from our fathers’ chins.

And too, our poems are like
our houses. They want more of
us than we had planned to give
them—this one begs for a new
room, a door where we’d framed a
window; another pushes against
rafters, opens us to sky.

No matter what we say, our
poems are not our children.
They quicken outside our bodies,
run from us before they speak.
One poet I knew made his
of river rock and the black
longing between stars. I’ll make

my poems of silence stitched with words.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Tangle, Dos Madres Press, 2015)

Collage © Sara Pearce

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts:   The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love,  The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers,  Her Words On the Value of Literary Communities and The Blessing (The Real Story, Part 2.)

For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

 

 

For As Long As We Can: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

On July 16, 2016, I was honored to lead my first Cincinnati Poet Laureate Creative Writing Experience with fellow family caregivers of persons with dementia. Writing our Lives as Caregivers was offered in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati and co-led by Annette Januzzi Wick. This poem is a weaving together of snippets of our writing from the day . Innumerable residents of Cincinnati are caring for loved ones with dementia —mothers, fathers, husbands, wives. Their experiences of tenderness and loss are all too often untold.

For As Long As We Can: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

There is much more hurting than healing
in our lives right now.
An incredible sadness.
Robbed of all this time,
many years, with my mother.
I let go of the colorful gal I once knew;
now her words cut through me like a machete,
leave a hemorrhage like no other.
All this before I even sit down.

I want so desperately to believe
God has a miracle for my dad,
for my beautiful Gina, in beautiful Bermuda—
how I would love to take her again,
away from the tiny world she knows
—and the bitterness of that impossibility.

I hold to every word, to every syllable,
to every streak of black
remaining in Mom’s soft white hair.
I know I am still her baby girl.
I cling to my old memories.
I don’t want it to change, but it does.

But then, a conversation—mother and daughter.
Mom hunched her shoulders
and walked in a silly way, making me laugh.
She doesn’t need that jacket on,
but she’ll wear it anyway,
singing “76 Trombones” and I join in.
It takes her a moment to connect
my place in her room
with my place in her life.
I know she is in there.
She looked in my eyes; I let her love me.
Mom was back,
but not for long.

The touch of your hand—unnerving,
unbounded by time.
At Mirror Lake in Eden Park
the air had cleared,
the colors of sunset filled the western sky.
Tiny blue gills swirled alone in lazy Van Gogh circles.
Heads together, giggling like conspirators
and wishing for more.
I am still comforted by your touch.

Moments—come and gone—
that would not have been
had we not been present.
Engulfing moments unborn, unknown by us.
A salve to put on the wounds part—
the baggage of the day
and my beat-up body,
the parts that broke,
under the pressure of loneliness.
I breathe deep until the next time;
I sink into the car
and think about doing it again tomorrow.

The contrast—the leaving,
the spent memories so different,
so contrary, so final.
Or maybe not final,
maybe this too will change.
I hold her strength, yet I cannot find her.
The joy we had, the hope
and promise of things to come.
I want to believe.
I cling to these prayerful words:
Relax, you are safe.
I will be here for you—not forever,
but for as long as I can.

From participants in Writing Our Lives as Caregivers with Pauletta Hansel, Cincinnati Poet Laureate, and Annette Januzzi Wick at the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati

Please visit my website for more information about my work as Poet Laureate. A Cincinnati Poet Laureate Facebook Group where members can announce activities of interest and learn about others is available here.