DEMENTIA BLOG by Susan M. Schultz
(Singing Horse Press, San Diego, CA, 2008)
Susan M. Schultz’s Dementia Blog is uncomfortably moving, and successful on its own terms and ultimately on mine as a poetry reader. Among such terms is how the project’s book form illustrates how blogging can be generative for creative writing, as well as how the subsequent book form becomes more than just a hard copy print-out of a blog. But, first, Schultz’s “A Fore and After Word” offers a convenient description of the project so let me post (pun intended of course) it here:
I kept a travel blog over the summer of 2006 for family and friends. We did this and we did that filled up the month of July, when we were (as they say) “abroad.” As August began, we arrived in Northern Virginia, where my mother lives. She was still at home then, but lived there with difficulty, as her dementia had progressed (if progress it was) until she could not care for herself, but refused to (could not) admit that fact. The blog turned serious and became a prose poetic project. Dementia destroys the self, but that destruction is oddly, horribly, poetic. My mother was crossing paths with my children (5 and 7), who were developing maturity and independence even as she was losing it. But the processes were not utterly dissimilar, those of loss and gain. So I began to record what I saw. What had seemed awkward about the blog, the way in which it’s written forward but read backwards, suddenly made sense as a form in which to work on the process of memory and forgetting. Whatever is confusing about reading the story backwards is intended by the form. The confusions offered by the form are similar (or at least apt metaphors) to the confusions of dementia.
There is also a political content to this blog. During the time it was written, the Bush administration was pushing us closer to the abyss. The administration’s uses of the language seemed, to this reader, demented. The split between reader and author, between the person who suffers (or causes to suffer) and the person who reads about it, forms a significant part of my “plot.”
I dedicate this blog to my mother’s many friends, to my family and to everyone for whom dementia is a family and/or national event. Their losses of memory cause us to lose our loved ones; our loss of memory may cause us to lose our nation.
The project may have begun as a journal but poetry clearly took over the words—it’s easy to see that Schultz didn’t need to embellish observations to nonetheless come up with resonant results like this below, where the first “She” refers to Schultz’s mother and “Sangha” to her son:
She was as surprised to see us on the second day as on the first. Knowledge is the memory you’ve done this at least once before. Sangha sings: Har-ry Pot-ter’s com-ing to town!
Not mentioned—that is, cited as part of the author’s intention—in the Fore/After Word is an ars poetica layer that deepens the meanings in—possibilities of—language:
Poetry is the language that calls attention to itself. Our sight words for today are
Of course, Dementia Blog inevitably includes memories since living inevitably evokes the past. But the almost matter-of-fact telling suffices for lingering effect:
The boy (was he 10, 12?) attached himself to me at Bal Mandir. He smiled, he followed. He was like a cat that rubs you as if to say “I’m not feral.” We toured the orphanage, met the women who cared for the children, gave them combs and lotions. They smiled, and we. The boy held to me, without touching, walked the corridors with me. Then he was gone. I turned toward a room packed with babies, and we were gone, out the front door of a cold former palace. In the car I wept. What’s the matter? Ramesh asked Bryant. By the waters of.
The juxtaposition of the political with the personal is uniquely effective—using dementia as a doorway into addressing the dysfunctional politics of the several years pre-Obama is one of those ideas that makes you (or me) think, “I wish I thought of that!” Except that here—and it’s one of the reasons Dementia Blog is so powerful—the concept isn’t an imagined idea, but one that arose organically from actual experience. (Not to say that imagination can't be powerfully generative, although when it is I think it's when what started out as imagined may become felt as lived.) This post fully replicated below is one of the most powerful in presenting dissonances and dissolutions as one loses one’s mind, as one witnesses a beloved mother lose her mind, as a country reels from war, and as one remembers, too, the illogical world often inhabited by orphans (Schultz’s children are adopted):
Thursday, December 07, 2006
--She says my life sounds fragmentary. I say fragments must be set down to see where their edges meet. He says he “throws his eye” at the books I sent. I say in English we do not throw our eyes, we cast them. Whiz of the line, kerplunk. Your glance is a hooked fish; you will draw him back in. He and you will drown in fullest air.
--They wrote of seams, of writing as a rough sewing. Canvas or skin, brush stroke scar.
--Sangha asks how to spell “broomstick.” He speaks of walking through magic walls, writes that Harry loves “Hermione,” that he wants to walk to the “castle,” that he feels how little boys feel who have “magic” powers. The “cupboard” was his orphanage.
--Use the word “and” to mean as many things as it can, then move on to “or.”
--Operation Forward Together. Operation Desert Storm. Operation Just Cause. Operation Enduring Freedom. And in my theater: Operation (Cult of) Overwork, Operation Disseminated Gossip, Operation Betrayal Guesswork, Operation Control Freak, Operation Drama Queen/King.
--Emma calls to say mom has pneumonia in her lower left lung.
--Radhika makes her own connect-the-dots pictures. Which come first, lines or dots? In a desert country, there are dots for cities, very few river lines. Anbar Province: 11 Americans killed yesterday by IEDs that can pierce a tank’s skin. This is an elephant! And this discarded metal. Open it up and see all the people.
--To avoid fragments, join together mother’s pneumonia with the IEDs in Anbar with the operations that leave orphans in cupboards with the boy who would fly from them on his broomstick with the fish who makes his progress back to sea, away from the rod and line, line that leads us to the page-end, ragged edge where we find (this other morning exercise) haole privilege on-line with the metaphor of the back-of-the-bus turned on its head, where the haole sits at the back and forward together those who are not haole assume the front seat position in this geometry. I have heard those words in those subject/object positions, yes, but what of other sentences, those that refuse closure, open to offer me a middle seat? I will not let go this contested beauty. For each sentence admit the possibility of another, and another. If you are the guilty settler of one sentence, change your noun and verb. The adjectives will follow.
Posted by Susan at 11:37 AM 0 comments
I was also taken by the above post because I thought that the entirety of Part II, while a good rounding up of the fragments in Part I, also can work on its own. And that Part I’s fragments are also raw material for what became Part II is actually a good poem-in-progress exercise. That is, if Part II is to be taken as effective on its own, then the parts of Part I can be viewed as source-material. Perhaps I belabor this point admiringly because my very first published book, Black Lightning, was a compilation of poem-in-progress pieces on the poems of 14 poets. But anyway, let this paragraph attest to the multiplicities of readings possible for various parts of Dementia Blog.
As well, at the end of each blog post is a typical line replicated from the blog format, i.e.
“posted by Susan at 7:58 PM 0 comments”
I found myself quite moved here by the reference to “0 comments”. In a 134-page book of blog posts (mostly 1- to 2-page long), most of the posts end with “0 comments.” This is a project where one learns and feels, even empathizes. But often, one doesn’t “comment.” It’s not, or not just, because words sometimes fail. It’s that when it comes to the senseless, politically or personally, it’s insane to engage through conversation—there may be no one listening on the other side, or whoever might be listening may be a dubious presence.
Also effective is the occasional insertion of the blog format’s presenting of a listing of most recent posts. For example, below also works a poem: it could be entitled “Dementia”
November 19, 2006 Nothing left except loss of ...
November 12, 2006 -- What I do not say to her: th...
November 11, 2006 -- Houses are square, with pitc...
October 15, 2006 -- No Imperial Mints in Chiswic...
September 30, 2006 -- The lyric in wartime. If...
September 25, 2006 -- The former President lost h...
September 22, 2006 -- The words bear weight, bu...
Let me end with another excerpt—the ending to a post dated Aug. 14, 2006—which may also capture the sense of a closed world that dementia creates:
No leader of the Khmer Rouge has faced a court of law.
--Email from Karen: Mom slept.
posted by Susan at 12:09 PM 0 comments
The front cover of the book presents a photo of Schultz’s parents. The back cover features that same photograph amidst a larger collage of family photos. The text between the covers fully justify why, on the back cover, the photograph is upside-down. Which is to say, in this book, Susan M. Schultz the poet is writing at the top of her game.
Eileen Tabios does not allow her books to be reviewed in Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to Fred Muratori's review of her I Take Thee, English, For My Beloved in AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW. She feels lucky to have received reviews of her books and, one day, while wondering what to do with all these reviews, answered her own question with her newest book THE BLIND CHATELAINE'S KEYS: HER BIOGRAPHY THROUGH YOUR POETICS which recycles reviews and engagements of her poems into a biography--a biography because, as Ted Berrigan once noted, "there is a self inside almost all of the poems”.