Dementia (and its subset, Alzheimer's disease) is closer to all of us than we care to admit. Most of us have had an elderly relative who showed at least signs of it, and for anyone over 70, the Wikipedia entry on the subject can be an uneasy experience.
It's probably our least favourite way to die, given that it involves a double death - the death of the mind before that of the body.
Poetry is essentially about emotion - and the emotions around this topic run as deep as anyone would want, both for the sufferers themselves and for those who've experienced it first-hand as family members or carers.
A whole collection of poems on the disease and its impact on the victim and those close to him or her may therefore seem too much for the average reader - though it would appear to fulfil Woody Allen's quip: "I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens."
On the other hand, poetry (or most of it) is essentially about emotion - and the emotions around this topic run as deep as anyone would want, both for the sufferers themselves and for those who've experienced it first-hand as family members or carers.
So it is that Kit Kelen's new collection, Book of Mother, is almost certainly the most deeply-felt he has written in his considerable career.
Every sentence in this 123-page book is, in one way or another, about his mother's dementia.
It's certainly not an easy collection to read, partly because of its distressing content but also because for much of the time, Kelen is reflecting the disruptions of the disease in his syntax.
Words slip away; sentences are left unfinished. We are in the mind not only of the poet's mother but of the poet himself. Quite often, and this is deliberate, the precise location of the speaker is not clear. There are works which are monologues from the mother and others which are from the poet. Still others replicate the frustrating dialogues which inevitably are also part of the disease.
At first, all this can be wearing for the reader. He or she begins to wish the book were divided into convenient sections that might offer some pause or respite, but instead the series of mainly short poems draws us involuntarily further and further into the complexity and chaos of the situation, not only that of the poet's mother but also of her son.
Some may not be aesthetically "excellent" by traditional criteria, but every one contributes to the cumulative effect of the whole. This makes it a hard book for a reviewer to quote to illustrate his or her observations.
Perversely then, the most memorable poems are probably the few longer ones where the narrative seems to develop a momentum and/or rhetoric of its own. Among these would be "She", which runs to five pages, and the book's final poem, "Vale Mum", which runs to almost three.
The third stanza of "She" is typical of the Whitmanian momentum (and unorthodox syntax) Kelen develops throughout: "once bright of the dance floor spun / of the time stuck ages before I was / and sung out over the line make Monday / the mangle, remember? (as neighbour is to fence!) / far and away yet with us / she who could hear a joint being rolled a suburb away / she of preternatural olfaction / prognosticator of clouds".
A second illustration may be found (perhaps unfairly) in the closing lines of the final poem, "Vale Mum". For most readers, to read this, having read the whole book beforehand, is to be brought close to tears:
"now mum is of eternity / whatever, wherever / however that is // we are with her wishes now / soon these ashes, so the sky / over every ocean spread / what if there once were a heaven? / now that heaven's gone // and mum / I celebrate you were / you are with me / and always".
It's also instructive to think how different these lines are from those that we often see in funeral notices. The latter tend to be full of second-hand, if genuinely felt, sentiment and predictability.
Kelen's, on the other hand, show all the wildness of the disease and its disturbing impact on everyone connected to it.
His Book of Mother is hardly an easy experience but it's an informative, even a mandatory, one.
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