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end of a weeklong conference of workshops and readings, though thankfully not specifically in response to my own, then unpublished book: “I can write those myself!”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.)

Dos Madres Press’ publication of Palindrome was funded in part by the Ohio Arts Council. For readings from Palindrome and other work, please check here.

 

 

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A Tangle of Words

I am happy to share my online interview about my newest book of poems, Tangle, from the Dos Madres Press website. While visiting the site, check out all the wonderful books they publish! Artist Elizabeth Hughes Murphy designs each book with her painterly eye. Editor Robert Murphy is a remarkable poet who publishes the books he wants to read. Many thanks to them!book Tangle cover

The Self Not Mine but Ours*: An Exploration of Persona Poetry

        *From A.R. Ammons’ “Poetics”

I have long been drawn to the persona poem. As a young woman writer, I used a character as a loose mask (in Latin, personae) through which to speak truths I was otherwise reluctant to say—or know. (I even named her “the lady.”) More recently, I have taken on the voices of ancestors in order to explore their—and my—stories in a more intimate way. (For this is the paradox of persona poetry, there is both the distance of a dramatic character, and the intimacy of the lyric I.) Persona poetry has also stretched my voice into new places, and has occasionally jolted me out of my habitual gravitas.

Some writers/teachers declare that the “I” of a poem is always a persona. I acknowledge the truth of that, and would argue that any dramatic character within a poem is, to some degree, also the poet. But in this exploration, Persona Poetry means poems in which the poet has chosen to take on the voice of another—sometimes even the “other” in the sense of taking on a POV that is alien and perhaps abhorrent to the writer. In this, persona poetry, even when drawn from personal or societal history, has as much relation to fiction as nonfiction, as the writer is required to embody a person other than his or herself. For this exploration, I have drawn together some examples of my own work and that of other Appalachian writers falling loosely into one or more of these categories:

Family/Memoir: Sometimes these poems include snippets of conversations that may have actually occurred. Sometimes they are in the voice of a family member whose story has never been given prominence. Often it is some exploration of relationship between the “I” of the poem and that of the self. My poem, “My Grandmother Speaks from Beyond” (Tangle, Dos Madres Press, 2015) is an example of this.

My Grandmother Speaks from Beyond

for Pauline Carmen Hansel, died 1932

Girl, don’t speak for me, you only know
what you can see and it’s not much, that picture
took when scant was left, just bony arms
around the baby, eyes too big for my head;
I never would have worn that shade of red
they painted on my dress after the fact
of me was buried in the ground.
Your daddy’s little suit was white, not blue;
we didn’t know what he would be the day
I bought the cloth. I know that picture’s all
you’ve got, and half my name, Pauline, given
to you as if it might be something of me
they could hold. I’m gone and all my stories
with me—you’ll not know what knit me to
the man whose name your daddy carried like
a curse or promise never to be him.
You had enough without me, and your daddy
made it up somehow for all he lacked
for lack of me. Just let me go; those poems
you write (the books you read, do they not teach
you how to rhyme?)—they are all yours,
nothing of mine.

History/Social Commentary: Frank X Walker has written several books of poems in the voice of another or many “others.” As individual poems and as a whole, they offer a view of history that both widens and contradicts more traditional tellings. (“Unghosts” those whose voices have not been heard, to borrow a word from Walker’s latest title.)  Poems by Frank X Walker and links to his book can be found here and here. Poet Michael Henson views our current predicaments through the lens of The Bible in his book, The True Story of the Resurrection. See his poem, “Lot’s Wife”. My poem, “Housekeeping, August 1899,” also from Tangle, is another example:

Housekeeping, August 1899

Cincinnati newspapers tell of a woodworker who drank carbolic acid and, not trusting its effects, shot himself too. In his pocket was this letter: “Living with my wife was unbearable. She was too pretty to work and would not attend to the duties of the household.”

It’s not as if I spent my days
at the mirror; only the once
he found me, rag in hand,
outside the darkened window
caught up, not in of the curve
of my own cheek (he was the one
forever staring at the round parts of me)
but in how the light of an evening
seems to shine out from under
all that green, like it’s caught
there in the bushes. I know
that’s just fancy talk,
he told me so, it don’t
put meat on the table,
five o’clock sharp, no matter
if the four o’clocks
have just begun to bloom
or the hummingbirds decide
to sit a spell
in the sheer blue air around them.
I have the wandering eye
for wonder. Mama said
I was just born that way— a butterfly
would stop my snuffling
quicker than a teat.
Too bad neither worked
on him, all that carrying on
about the chores he knew
I’d surely get to
one day or the next.
I can’t say I’m sorry
that he’s gone—some men
are too particular
to keep.

Eavesdropping: The late Jo Carson was the master of eavesdropping—all the more amazing because she was about half deaf! Her book, Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet: Selections from the People Pieces is, thankfully, still available. Each poem is a dramatic monologue crafted from individual and composite voices. Read one of her more famous “people pieces” here.

Writing A Persona Poem of Your Own

Keep in mind that persona poems are usually dramatic monologues and thus the consistency of voice is key to the poem’s success. In some, the voice is fairly close to the poet’s, though the message may not be. (In Walker’s poem, “One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead,” for example.) Other speakers have very distinctive and separate voices. The speaker is addressing someone—you, another person from their time and place, a general audience, themselves in soliloquy. You might also think of this as a letter from your chosen persona. I began each of my persona poems with a situation, and let my “character” respond to that situation. “Housekeeping” began with coming across a newspaper article, as I mention in the epigraph. “My Grandmother Speaks…” was written in response to a family photograph. Some possible sources of persona poems for you:

Response Poems: In using The Bible as his primary text, Mike Henson’s poem seems to fit within the Jewish tradition of midrash. With the root meaning of “to study” or “to investigate,” midrash stories help to both fill in gaps and draw forward the essential lessons within sacred texts.  For response poems, the texts do not need to be sacred: take any “peopled” poem or piece of fiction and write in the voice of a lesser character.

Their Words: Speak in the voice of a family member, living or dead. Your poem may begin with words you’ve heard family members say (eavesdropping), or may be the re-imagining of a family story in the voice of someone other than yourself. You may be lucky enough to have letters or other family documents to draw from.

Ekphrastic as Persona: Mixing our root languages here (ekphrasis means description in Greek),  this is simply a suggestion to use a photograph, portrait or other visual piece of art as an invitation to write in the voice of the person depicted (or perhaps in the voice of the photographer, or other character outside the frame.)

The Public I/Eye: Speak in the voice of an actual or imaginary person caught up in a pivotal political and/or cultural moment. Whether working with current events or history, this one may take a little research. Here is a link to a really interesting interview with Frank X Walker on the creation of Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.

 

Writing Image-based poems

Often we are drawn to write poetry because of an intense emotion or the need to explore our thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, person, memory… Rather than beginning with the abstract thought or feeling (anger, loneliness, it was fun, I miss him) try beginning with a concrete image that brings that internal emotion into the external world. By concrete image, I don’t mean only what we can see, though that too, but also what we can touch, taste, hear, or smell. I have heard it said that smell is the sense most connected with memory (and maybe that’s why realtors try to have cookies baking in houses they want to sell!) but other senses can also bring you back to previous times. The summer that song was always on the radio. The nubby couch in your first apartment. The French onion dip that was served at every party you attended in your twenties! Sometimes an image will move you to tears or joy before you are even conscious of the reason. Here are a few of short poems of mine that attempt to let the image do the emotional work. Read them and try one or both of the prompts offered below.

Longing

This morning’s dog,
the no-color of the lake
he circles in his snuffling search
for what he knows has been
before him, will come again
once he is gone. Mist rises,
freezes as it falls.
© Pauletta Hansel 2014
My Father’s Ghost

here, in the stretched shoulders
of this sweater requisitioned from his study closet
even before his death—my parents’ house
that late December cold
for my blood, my father’s
not yet thinned by drugs
and their diseases. Now
his bookshelves line my study walls,
my shoulders, where his shoulders were,
hunch over books
not his; he had small
use for poetry,
except for mine.
I scrawl notes along the margins
as if my hand were his.

Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011

Becoming My Mother

In dreams I wear your feet, twisted as roots,
each step a wrenching up from earth.

The morning hands that reach to smooth
the years around my eyes are more yours than mine.

When I was five your friends would ask where
I got my curly hair, knowing I’d say,

my mother made it, as you made our
matching dresses, rickrack at the collar and the hem.

Now the skin around our collarbones is
rumpled, its fabric loose against our frames.

Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011

Prompt 1.

With this prompt, you are working with image as metaphor. Take an abstract emotion (longing, love, joy) and brainstorm images that bring it to life. They can be memories from your own life, or drawn from things you have seen (heard, smelt, etc.) Try: “If (abstraction) were a taste it would be…. If a smell it would be….” Also look at Lisel Mueller’s wonderful, “Imaginary Paintings.

Prompt 2

Make a list of people in your life for whom you have strong emotions. Next to their names brainstorm specific sensorial experiences (images) associated with them. Examples:

Daddy             Bookshelf, easy chair, back of head in the car

Granny           Grease jar, chickens, hummingbirds at her trailer porch

Then start a poem with that image and see where it takes you! You may find yourself moving into metaphor here as well.