Tag Archives: Michael Gawenda

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.

A man a dog a blog: Rocky & Gawenda

Michael Gawenda, Rocky & Gawenda: The story of a man & his mutt (MUP 2009)

Rocky & Gawenda began life as a blog on the Crikey website. The transition from blog to book is a subject that niggles at the ambition bone of at least some of us bloggers and there’s much to be learned from examples like this.

Rocky & Gawenda is a no-frills conversion: a foreword by a friend and former colleague of the author is followed by the entries from the blog’s first five months – February to June 2009, to be precise – stripped of dates, comments and occasional time-sensitive bits and pieces. Then a postscript by another former colleague gives some back story. From a very quick comparison between book and blog, it seems that little has been changed in the posts themselves beyond a quick copy edit (the dog Rocky now yelps on the man Gawenda’s lap whereas on the blog he whelped, though the copy edit wasn’t all that thorough, as my very quick look showed me Rocky lying prone1 on his back more than once, ‘Giuseppe’ misspelled twice, and the blog’s image ‘Rocky pre–separation anxiety’ re-captioned ‘Post-separation anxiety Rocky’ on page 54). The book, then, is the blog repackaged with minimal fuss.

What is it like to read a blog in book form? A blog entry is a thing of the moment. It invites comment, elaboration, argument from readers. It may be passionate, incisive or profound, but it makes no claim to be the writer’s final words on a subject. There’s no overarching structure to a blog: frivolity can follow hard on the heels of passionate discourse; you can tell the same anecdote a number of times, expecting readers to have forgotten the previous tellings as surely as you have. These things feel completely natural when fed to you by RSS. Encountered in a book, especially with dates removed, they can be disorientating.

These considerations probably account for my rocky start with Rocky & Gawenda. It’s probably also true that the blogger takes a little time to hit his stride. But once Gawenda’s persona had gelled in my mind and I’d understood that the book is a captured blog – something like a mix of diary entries, short essays and memoirs –  the book was a delight.

Michael Gawenda is in the first years of retirement after a career in journalism that culminated in his being editor of the Melbourne Age. He hasn’t quite relinquished the mindset of the driven, dedicated journalist, but in his blog, and this book, he allows his mind and his typing hands to relax away from the disciplines of his trade and explore other ways of writing:

This ‘Rocky and Gawenda’ serial – for that’s how I have come to regard it – which has a beginning but, as far as I know, has no middle or end, is written with no readers in mind. After forty years in journalism, that is a relief and a liberation.

Every morning very early he sets out in his T-shirt and Essendon cap with his ‘mutt’ Rocky and walks on the beach and through the suburbs of St Kilda and Elwood. Rocky’s company allows him to live in the moment, to notice the sky, the sea, the weather, people, dogs. It also allows his mind to wander. A rumination on Kevin Rudd’s way of speaking is interrupted by Rocky chasing after some black swans. An argument about the limiting effects of identity politics is waylaid by a memory of using a heated hacksaw blade as a hair curler. A childhood reminiscence is told three times. We don’t mind. The joy of the book is in its enactment of a mind set free, a benign and fruitful version of retirement.

Michael Gawenda was born in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Austria after the Second World War and came to Australia when very young; he spent his childhood in the Jewish community of St Kilda and then in culturally diverse working-class Fitzroy, was mentored by a bundist friend of his father, aspired to a kind of Easy Rider creativity in his young adulthood, became a journalist and rose to the top of his profession, married and had two children with whom he regrets spending less time than he would wish. All of this I  have gleaned from the book – which incidentally includes a couple of affectionate blog posts from his son and daughter – so you have some small idea of the interesting and emotionally engaging ground that’s covered.

The book ends suddenly, for no apparent reason other than that the requisite number of pages had been filled. The blog, I checked, continued for another five months or so, then it too finished. The post for 17 September 2009, before proceeding to a story from a Displaced Persons’ camp,  intimated that the end of the blog was nigh, and went on:

The writing has taken me in a new and unexpected direction, where memory and imagination meet. I am not sure where this will go, this mixture of memory and imagination, where `facts’ and fictions are intertwined. The `house of facts’ as a friend described them, will remain, but within the house, my imagination will be let loose.

That sounds as if the blog/this book was a bridge. Gawenda intimates that he has wanted to write at some length about Melbourne’s postwar Jewish community. His sketches of those times – a misery-producing children’s camp, pickles and kosher sausages, argumentative old men – are perhaps the most engaging parts of this book. Perhaps that’s where the bridge has taken him.  I look forward to reading whatever lies on the far shore.

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1 I have a theory that this misuse of ‘prone’ stems from Stokely Carmichael’s famous reflection on sexism in the Black Liberation movement. When asked what position women had in the SNCC, he reportedly said, ‘Prone,’ and the word was flipped over onto its back for a whole generation.