This question held poet Liz Breslin in its grip for the several years it took to write the poems that appear in her first – terrific – collection. The book’s title, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, encompasses the themes woven through the poems. On the one hand there is a beloved grandmother’s illness, and her gradual loss of memory and language through Alzheimer’s disease. On (or in) the other hand, there is a spoon, and all the nourishment implied by spoons and spooning: physical, emotional and spiritual.
Breslin’s collection probes the bonds between memory, language and identity. It explores a resonating question: What happens to the present and the future if we forget the past?
“What kind of life exists without language?”, asks neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air. In awe of the integral link between language and identity, Kalanithi wrote:
The most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language.”
Breslin shares Kalanithi’s reverence for language and its creative power. So, what happens when the tight integration between language, memory and self begins to unravel? In Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, Breslin follows the threads. The poems loop and tangle, puzzle, riddle and tease. They put old things in new ways; the work is fresh and polished, with an often startling clarity. There is a focus on patterns and on holes in the patterns, reflecting the way Alzheimer’s disease disrupts the coherent connections of language, memory and self.
The poems are full of sensory pleasures: visual, auditory, tactile and visceral. Breslin delights in the sound and taste of language. She understands the function of the poetic line, and how to work that elastic rein on the poem’s energy. The writing is often exuberant or playful, but can also be quiet and gentle. It is always at base thoughtful, a combination that gives the poems legs, heart and brain. They move, and they move the reader.
‘Poet’ means ‘maker’. This is what makes Alzheimer’s and a Spoon so illuminating and so necessary. This is not a reductive account of Alzheimer’s disease. It is a creative account of loss – the loss caused by illness, the losses involved in war, the losses caused by migration and resettlement. Explored through the lens of poetry, loss becomes find.
Breslin weaves her findings into a rich creative account that restores continuity – and therefore meaning – to a story riddled with silence; that celebrates even as, at times, it mourns. The four final words in the collection say it beautifully:
and they all lived”
Two poems from the collection (hear Liz read them below):
Fear no more
kind to touch
all things must
come to dust
The last time I saw you I spoon fed you pureed veg, thought someone should write a cookbook for dementia carers, fish pie in layers, maybe, I wondered if I could, but what do I know? I knew at the time it would be the last time. There’d been this running joke that you’d outlast us all.
The last time I saw you they’d planned me a party and we were marking time but I didn’t know. I let go your hand and went shopping in Olney. It’s usually easy to distract me with shoes.
The last time I saw you I couldn’t have driven the miles down the A5, the hedged country roads. I only remember your hair in its frizzbob, your nails all coloured up, you would’ve thought frivolity. It isn’t all that funny.
And at the going down of the sun and when those who are thirsty come with whirlwinds and chariots and bangs and whimpers, and when the birthday cake and urban Frisbee are over, if the dead are judged according to what is recorded, let it be said, let it be said, you were far shinier than any forged metal and part of me is sitting there, spoon in hand, my other on your paper arm, still. Steel in your eyes, mine crying. Just one more, just one more.
You can hear Liz read these 2 poems on SoundCloud through these links:
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
Alzheimer’s and a Spoon by Liz Breslin is published by Otago University Press. It is being launched in Dunedin at the University Book Shop, on Wednesday 12 July at 5.30 pm; and Rhyme and Reason Brewery in Wanaka on 13 July at 6 pm. All are welcome.
Read Liz Breslin on her motivations and inspirations for writing Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, and listen to her read two more poems from the collection here.