Dementia Blog: reading backwards

Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog (Singing Horse Press 2008)

Pam Brown turned up in my comments section recently to recommend this book. How could I not seek it out?

Like Rocky & Gawenda, it started life as a blog. Unlike R&G, it has kept many blog trappings: date and time stamps, a note of the number of comments on each post (though not the comments themselves), and every so often a list of links (‘About me’, ‘View my complete profile’ and so on, but not any actual URLs). More consequentially, the entries appear in reverse chronological order, as in an archived blog. Unlike Michael Gawenda’s blog, the one that gave birth to this book is no longer on line – at least, my googling attempts came up with zip. The book is meant to stand in its own two covers.

And it does. In just over 50 ‘blog entries’, most of them roughly one and a half pages long,we move from January 2007, when the poet’s mother is living in a dementia facility, back to the beginning of August 2006, when the poet and her family visit the mother who is still living at home with the kind of difficulty and drama familiar to anyone who has a relative with Alzheimer’s or, as they say, a related disorder. So there’s a strong narrative backbone to the book. But this isn’t a novel disguised as a blog: within the blog entries, narrative does not rule. I suppose they count as prose poems, but however you classify them they make an excellent read. They reflect the multiple roles of the writer: daughter of a woman with deepening dementia; mother of two adopted children, five and seven years old and learning to read and write; creative writing teacher variously dismayed and stimulated by her students; citizen responding to the egregiousness of Bush & Rumsfeld; poet reflecting on poetics and the work of other poets, and also – of course – doing the thing that poets do with language and experience, which includes butting those different subjects up against each other, interweaving them, sometimes fusing, even confusing them, finding meaning and hints of meaning in them.

I probably would have found it unreadable as an actual blog, suffering as I do from Internet-related shrunken attention span (IRSAS – you saw the acronym here first). It invites focus, concentration, memory, deep engagement. But, speaking as one who generally finds prose poems alienating and  reads them as not much different from bad prose, I found it completely accessible, and engaging. As usual in contemporary poetry, there’s quite a lot of obscurity, but when the subject is dementia and the loss of coherence,  references I don’t understand – whether to US sports culture or political journalism, to poetic theory or to people in the poet’s life – I feel the momentary disorientation less as a problem than as another enactment of the theme.

The first/last couple of blog entries,  were printed in Jacket 35. They are the most vivid evocation of the social life of a dementia ward I’ve yet seen, but the book is much more various than they might lead you to believe. Perhaps I can quote a couple of paragraphs from one of the early entries towards the end of the book, posted at 6:27 am Saturday, August 05, 2006 (because my WordPress theme italicises indented quotes and ignores instructions to leave words upright, I’ve bolded the words that are in itals in the original):

–Eleanor called to say that Mom had been angry at Milt, but was amazingly lucid yesterday. She knows what’s going on in Russia. I wonder what is going on in Russia.

–Is there a Dementia for Dummies?

–How would it define words like knowledge, or like wisdom. Let alone safety and comfort. At the end, comfort is our wisdom. The philosophy of consolation. The minor fictions that give us another hour before worry’s onset, if we’re lucky.

Is that creature woman coming tomorrow? Martha, that is rude; you shouldn’t say that about people. Sara is coming tomorrow.

Sangha wonders what the words cease fire mean. We watch news of rockets and bombings, see bodies taken out of ruins. Rice says there is no civil war in Iraq; there are sectarian tensions. When the reporter mutters, she allows that some of the tensions are violent.

I have never said anything overly optimistic about the situation in Iraq, says Donald Rumsfeld. You’d have to look like the dickens.

I plan to reread this.

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