Kit Kelen, Book of Mother (Puncher and Wattmann 2022)
Dementia is becoming a major theme of story-telling in the 21st century. I can think of four excellent movies without even trying, the most recent being Everybody’s Oma, which I’ve seen at the Sydney Film Festival since reading Book of Mother. In poetry, Hawaiian poet Susan M Schultz’s Dementia Blog (2008), among other things, vividly evokes the social life of a dementia ward.
The Book of Mother is a substantial addition to this writing. The back cover blurb describes it well – it reads, in part:
This book is an intimate encounter with dementia as lived experience. Words are an important way into the world and when we begin to lose them we find ourselves with fewer tools and fewer familiar signs to go by. Phrases lost and tip-of-the-tongue half-forgettings – loose threads like these belong to the everyday business of knowing who we are. They are also the nuts and bolts of Kit Kelen’s poetry. A long play record of memory and its tricks, one comes to and from Book of Mother with always some questions about who is talking to whom, about when we are where, about whether we wake or dream.
There are a number of poems about lost keys – emblematic of dementia’s multitude of minor frustrations, for both sufferer and carers/relatives – whose titles are almost enough: ‘the keys are gone again’, ‘no one else has put them anywhere mum’, ‘you have hidden them’.
At least three poems had me in tears. ‘everything will be taken from us’ is a lament that speaks to the grief that accompanies the gradual loss of a loved one to dementia. ‘she’, the longest poem in the book, celebrates the poet’s mother as an individual and as an archetype of all mothers. It begins:
she who had supernatural powers who knew what Christmas wanted what naughtiness was and was not she who said wait till your father gets home she who was a step before could spell every word there was and we could add things up together
‘vale mum’, the final poem, is an elegy that includes this wonderful image:
like lost at the Easter show and a voice comes over the air says this is how it is from now your mother – all mother – is gone
For me, the power of the book comes from the cumulative effect of poems where the language feels as if it’s falling apart, in counterpoint to a number of poems in which a very young person’s language is coming together. That is, along with poems that document his mother’s decline, Kelen gives us poems about his own dawning grasp of the world through language as a small child closely connected to his mother. That may sound like an imposed schematic, but it reads as organic: being confronted with the present situation, the mind naturally goes to the past. As a reader, I found the transition between the two kinds of poem disorientating in a way that adds charge to both.
I love this book. If I was to recommend a single poem, it would be ‘everything will be taken from us’. Sadly, it’s too long for me to quote here with a good conscience, and I can’t find it online, but if you happen on the book in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, turn to page 75, and read this one, aloud if possible. It won’t take long, and it may inspire you to buy the whole book.
Meanwhile, here’s ‘in a waiting room’, a short poem that may give you a sense of the book’s shape-shiftiness:
This poem may take a little puzzling before it yields itself to the reader, but it’s not at heart a puzzle to be solved.
The title and first four lines are clear enough.
to make you happy for your own good because we love you because I can't explain
We are in a waiting room, where someone is responding to a question, something like, ‘Why have you brought me here?’ Read in the context of this book, the lines could be spoken by the carer for a person with dementia or to a child. That is, it could be a poem about the poet’s mother, or one about a childhood memory. Or, perhaps more interestingly, it could be both. Either way, the lines give four different answers to the same question – the questioner, whether it’s a child who is unsatisfied with each successive answer, or the adult with dementia who doesn’t remember the previous answer, keeps on asking.
The next line maintains the ambiguity:
won't remember your hand was held
Anyone who has lived with or cared for someone with dementia will recognise the experience this neatly evokes. No matter how many visitors they’ve had, no matter how much hand-holding, they will still say none ever comes to see them, no one ever holds their hand. But equally the owner of the hand could be a child – in this book, the poet himself in memory – whose adult memory doesn’t include a hand being held. The omission of a pronoun at the start of the line is worth noting. Even though syntactically the line can’t be read other than, ‘[You] won’t remember’, by not giving us the ‘You’, the poem increases the shifting-sands feel.
Though I generally treasure clarity in writing, and see ambiguity as something to be avoided, it’s the double possibilities in these lines that I love. It could be either thing, which means that the two things are similar, which – in this context – suggests that when you relate to a person with dementia, your own hold on reality can begin to shift, or memories may surface of times when you were similarly dependent, confused or failing to understand. The poem takes the reader gently into that border state.
Then, there’s this:
in yellow light dinosaurs confer smoke clouds them or at cards
After a moment’s pause (or, to be truthful, a couple of days), I read this as a description of the waiting room. Perhaps it’s wallpaper, or a painting – of dinosaurs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, playing cards? A google of “dinosaurs playing poker” comes up with plenty of images. It’s not hard to imagine one in a doctor’s waiting room. To repeat myself, though, the pleasure here isn’t in having solved a puzzle or deciphered a cryptic set of words to settle on a clear meaning. It’s in the state of mind before the image is understood. I suppose it’s analogous to the couple of minutes when you savour a weird dream before understanding that it’s just a rehash of something banal that happened the day before. More to the point, it’s like when you have a memory in the form of a striking image, and it takes a while to make sense of it by remembering its context.
here elephants trumpet about giraffe pokes in a head
The weirdness continues. Perhaps it’s another painting on the wall. This could be a waiting room for either a child or a person with dementia. If a child, these are the details of the waiting room that stand out as interesting, and return as memories when you’re an adult poet. If a person with dementia, they are the disturbing and disorientating features of the environment.
stood by the fire too close to beginning
The first two lines here give the reason the person (whose hand may or not have been held) is in the waiting room. They have stood too close to a fire. Then the phrase ‘too close’ does double work, introducing the third line: he stood too close to the fire, and he was also too close to his own beginning, that is to say, too young. And with that line, the poem’s main ambiguity is resolved. This is a childhood memory.
peg in the board where everyone fits that was my Day at the Zoo
Oh, the elephants and giraffe weren’t in a painting after all. They were part of a board game, Day at the Zoo. This last couplet has an air of finality, like the ending of a child’s composition. Almost smugly, the mystery of the images is cleared up. The memory is reclaimed in full. The ‘your’ becomes ‘my’. Read in the context of the whole book, there’s also a sense of relief: in this case, the weirdness, the things that aren’t understood, have been resolved.
Then you turn to the next poem, ‘forget a thing and it’s gone’, and we’re back to dealing with dementia.
In an earlier version of this blog, I tried to capture things that happened with language with Mollie, who was living with us and with dementia. This extraordinary book does that with wonderful compassion and love, as well as wit, precision and, I guess the word is delight.