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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Salvaging memory: Poetry as therapy

Please, I thought, when I first saw the paintings
De Kooning did when Alzheimer's had taken him
into its arms and he could do nothing
but paint, purely paint, transparent, please let me
make beauty like that, sometime, like an infant
that can only cry
and suckle, and shit, and sleep,
boneless, unaware, happy,
brush in hand no ego there he went (Alicia Ostriker, Approaching Seventy)

Going through my mother-in-law's old diaries and notebooks, those where she wrote down her favourite songs, Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrul Geeti and Adhunik, songs whose lines often vanished from her memory, those disappearances attended by heart wrenching pain and exhaustion, I found poems and pictures. My mother-in-law was a historian, her interest was in numismatics. In an old diary, one that carried the LIC (Life Insurance Corporation, India) mark on it, the tag a cruel irony when one is reading the diary of someone who is not alive anymore, I found coins glued to pages. I had never seen coins like these – she had collected them on her field trips to the Dinajpur districts in Bengal, but it was not their unfamiliarity which interested me. What intrigued me was the design in which they had been glued to the pages. Four of them in one line, four 'lines' of them, then a gap of two lines, and then the same pattern, like stanzas. If the coins had been words, they would have made a poem.

I did not know what to make of them, of the interface between dementia and this likeness of a poem. A few months later, I discovered an online collection of poems written by people with dementia. When I shared them with my sister-in-law Nilanjana Maulik, who is the Secretary General of Alzheimer's and Related Disorders Society of India and also the Director of Dementia Services (Calcutta), she told me about poetry writing exercises that she organises for patients in her care. The January 2013 newsletter of the society carries one such poem in Bangla. Titled Pujor Aayojon, it describes the preparation for puja: someone's lighting a lamp, another's stringing a garland, someone's wearing a dhoti, another is waiting for the anjali, and so on. The poem ends with a comment about 'Nilanjana-didi' scolding everyone for their 'fajlaami', inconsequential and light-hearted fun and mischief.

It is, by aesthetic measure, an unremarkable poem. With awkward rhyme endings and without any claim to metrical congruity, it details what the poet (no sophisticated distinction between poetic persona and poet) can see before him. The poem is achingly rooted in the present, a function of the 'photographic memory'. There is no before or after, a clinical carpe diem.

n his essay Climb up the Family Tree and look up the vista from there: Writing work with People with Dementia, John Killick writes, 'Because of the nature of the disease ... each piece of writing has to be preceded by a period of relationship-building, which can be time-consuming and challenging, but has a value in its own right'. Reading this in the perspective of experiences narrated to me by caregivers, I am led to linger on the childlikeness of these poems. I realise I'm not alone to make such deductions about these poems, for Killick writes – 'It is hardly surprising ... when you reflect that the child has not learned to discriminate - all sense-impressions are, as it were, grist to his/her mill - whereas the adult must filter out much of what the environment throws at them if they are to make their way in the world'. Perhaps that is why Joyce Fine and Pam Murphy, in their essay, An Alzheimer patient's response to children's literature, conclude that 'children's literature may be not only a mediator of thought but also, for Alzheimer's patients and their families, a last link for communication'.

'The term "dementia" derives from the Latin: de (out of) + mens (mind) + ia (state of), meaning to be out of or to have lost one's mind,' writes Elizabeth Herskovits in Struggling over Subjectivity: Debates about the "Self" and Alzheimer's Disease. Advocates of poetry-therapy for people with dementia, for instance, the poet Susanna Howard, believe that 'when a person hears their words, they resonate with them; even if they don't recall saying them. This resonation prompts a feeling of being heard on some level'. That is the feeling one gets when one reads the poem Lost,

I don't know really, because
I'm really
It scares me to hell
I don't know what to do—
I'm scared
It was so disgusting—I just sat there, doing
I thought I was
In an asylum I was
Ashamed that I
Sit there
These people were people who, well they are
Old age pensioners. They made me an

When updates from my sister-in-law appear on Facebook, September being World Alzheimer's Awareness Month, I think of Jeannine Savard's poem Alzheimer's

... And the strangers, not long
lost relatives from your side
or his, are real mysteries
who brought it all with them?
the past you don't remember: the last time ...

– and wonder whether wealth and poverty ought to be measured by the currency of memory. Or age. Or words. And I helplessly think of old trees, their vascular cambium, and I wonder whether they too suffer from dementia.

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