Book Review

Anna M. Evans, Forgetting Home: Poems About Alzheimer’s, Bare Foot Muse Press, 2013

by Lisa Marie Brodsky

Many people have written about the unscrupulous and depreciating illness of Alzheimer’s, myself included. Its mystery and sadness lends itself well to a spiralling sense of gloom. While the ultimate end of Alzheimer’s sufferers is a sad one, Anna M. Evans gathers together poets from around the world for the anthology, Forgetting Home, and the experience of Alzheimer’s - as patient, loved one, assisted living staff member - is now reshaped into words that lend themselves to the most potent and accessible of reflections, characters, and experiences.

Forgetting Home is an evocative poetry anthology that reminds us of something so easily forgotten: one’s identity. Divided into seven sections that chronicle the decline from cognitive stability to Alzheimer’s “reverse parenting,” each identity is a unique character who quickly becomes a part of your family.

Alzheimer’s can be easily dismissed as a clinical and cold lost cause. In “Studies,” Erin Murphy pairs medical statistics with life’s cold, hard truth.

“Four million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.

You have one father.

The neurons in the victims’ brains
         contain protein filaments called tangles.

He points to his head and says,
     I’m not okay in here.

These people are no statistic, but fathers, mothers, grandparents, spouses, and friends.

In “De-mentia” poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell notes, “it takes knowing who you are / before you start forgetting / what you’ve come here for.” That knowing begins to disappear as Alzheimer’s sweeps through the brain. Language is deeply affected, which makes for some clever and heart-breaking poems. As the backward life of dementia settles like a scrim, words randomly tumble out in meaningless or meaningful ways.

as if childhood had not
died as
if the intervening
years had
not passed by you
giggling she
is peeking at
you through
the widening
lacuna signaling ship
to shore unmoored
but restored to
your private
time her face the
face of your waking
hours mother’s
milk gone
sour if you let it
be again
as it was between
you then what
would happen to
what happened
to what was
real or
true what
would you do?
(“Alzheimer’s,” Chin-Tanner)

Language is used most frequently as an aspect to bend and spin, as in Paul Lake’s “The Ballroom of Heaven:”

Then cause and effect was suddenly
Suspended. He got lost in a crossword
As in a cul-de-sac. Was flummoxed by phones
As if after Babel. His tongue got
All tangled, his words turned to blab.

Ungar writes that they have “Beckett conversations” and Herring writes how her mother “need[s] something long white cotton for my nose,” otherwise known as a tissue. The Alzheimer’s patient picks “words out of the air like disembodied gloves” (“Picking Things Out of the Air,” Harrod). Language becomes as unsteady as their legs.

Alzheimer’s disease symbolizes many things to these poets: a “thin a suitor who has never lost a single lover’s hand he’s played” (“Potatoes,” McKiernan). LeHew in “What the Heart Knows” writes of how the disease “blossoms the way a branch grows toward the light” and how it becomes a “long-ago somewhere” (“Hardly There,” Kreiling).

As mentioned, Alzheimer’s is a horrifying thief of one’s identity. This anthology does not sit in self-pity, but rather soaks up the rich moments of one’s identity, such as during a party in Haven Manor in the poem “The Common Room” by Kate Bernadette Benedict:

The Elks have sent their rollicking oompah band

and stocked a cooler with cokes and cream sodas.
The old ladies have been buttoned into dresses

with white felt poodles fastened to the skirts
and the old men wear cheap straw bowlers.

As common as it is for memory to fade, we gain the advantage of meeting these people in their past - in the vintage Rolls, an Errol Flynn mustache; in the tender recollections of husbands and daughters, the little idiosyncrasies that make us who we are: “This is the mother who taught me well, / to love literature and art, / who can’t remember my children’s names / but knows ‘Adlestrop’ by heart” (“Mother Care,” Osborn).  

Forgetting Home
presents all facets of this debilitating illness to the reader - not by an overindulgence of pity and cliche, but by examining the tenderness between two spouses loving each other, the affectionate way a staff member leads his resident down the hall to the tune of “The Bowery,” and stripping sentimentality away to expose the very real truth of anger and betrayal felt by both family and Alzheimer’s sufferer:

Still a husband, he has no wife.
She has been sucked into a vortex, a funeral
that whirls about him each day
(“The Caregiver,” Thalman)

Though they can easily fade to ghosts, Forgetting Home leaves each person’s indelible print on our minds. Cognition and rationale may be lost, but these poems maintain the memory of the forgotten self. As Alzheimer’s strips memory away, the poets in Forgetting Home give memory back as an evocative and tangible gift. This book can be a balm to a bereaved soul or a what-to-expect for the expectant. In either case, its raw truth will pull you down the hall to their rooms and beg you to sit at their feet, to hear their life stories.

Lisa Marie Brodsky is the Wisconsin Director of the Alzheimer's Poetry Project and author of We Nod Our Dark Heads (Parallel Press, 2008). In May of 2014 her poem about the Alzheimer's Poetry Project will be featured in the anthology, Dementia Arts: Celebrating Creativity in Elder Care (Health Professions Press). Also forthcoming in 2014, her first full-length poetry collection, Motherlung, will be published by Salmon Publishing. Brodsky's poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has been published in the North American Review, Born Magazine, The Atlanta Review, Circle Magazine, The Southern Ocean Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and Verse Wisconsin, among others. She appeared on Higher Ground with Jonathan Overby and Radio Literature on WORT radio. Brodsky received her M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Evansville, WI, with her husband and three stepchildren.