Alzheimer’s and a Spoon by Liz Breslin.
Dunedin: OUP (2017).
Pb, 76pp. RRP: $25.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is Liz Breslin’s first poetry collection and a fine one it is. If, like me, you are scared by the prospect of developing this unkind disease, there is an element of comfort in the honour given to a sufferer in this work.
What or who are you when memory, language – and consequently, identity – is eaten up? Breslin shows us that through another’s memories, empathy and respect, a deep acknowledgement of your history and personality, you continue to contribute and live. You remain significant. We join the poet in outstaring Alzheimer’s. We do it with honesty, with frustration, confusion, sadness, horror, with respect and playfulness. The combined effect on the reader is a feeling of deep humanity towards and between both poet and sufferer.
The fifty poems in the collection lead us through the definition of the disease and via a beloved grandmother through the manifestations of it, reactions to it, until at the end we reach “The Land of the Lost Last Lines” which concludes: ‘This is a land of endings. No stop signs/ because we are them. Nothing grows.// Other worlds are dangerous. Words/ untethered, yelling GO GO GO’ (p 73). Alzheimer’s is being both lost and locked; it is contrary.
Many poems make reference to the title. We are stirred, we dip into reality, thoughts and ideas, we taste what Alzheimer’s is like. We recognise spoon-feeding even when the words are lost. In the title poem we learn: ‘They are escaping, the words/ fed to other minds. Mush/ precise, off the end of a metal/ round thing with a handle// right into your smile hole … and others’ smile// holes speak for me…’ (p 72).
‘…one old lady, numb, swallowing’ (“#stainlesssteelkudos”, p 70).
‘Open up, open up. One// for me and one for you’ (“Spoon Theory”, p 65).
I sense the overall spirit of the book in the lines: ‘when life gives you spoons, demand a refund, an enquiry/ when life gives you spoons, scoop the innards, carve a heart’ (“When Life Gives You Spoons”, p 32). Heart is clearly carved and evoked.
The reality is that Alzheimer’s is a tangling, unravelling, riddling disease. Yet the poet introduces a dose of playfulness to the frightening strangeness of it. “Riddle me this” (p 25) asks: ‘what flies but is always tethered’, another poem of the same name (p 46) states: ‘it is a fortress, it is a cavern’. Here is an analogy to the flag – free flying but tethered – and the closed handbag, and as the disease progresses, in “Riddle me These” (p 52), there are now too many riddles. Words for things have been lost, including ‘the pink mobile sticks/ on the ends of your feet’.
Playfulness is expressed in the way poems are presented on the page, in unexpected tangled forms, or in the form of a ransom note, contributing further analogies! Unexpected combinations of realms, as in a poem which melds the Nicene Creed with dietary advice for Alzheimer’s patients, provide a good balance of light into a dark subject in “The Lifestyle Creed”. The cleverness and humour of this poem are a perfect tonic. It commences:
‘We believe in brain boosters/ Vegetables the Almighty makers/ of low cognitive decline/ of all that is seen and unseen’, and concludes: ‘We believe in rich glory in caffeine boosts/ We acknowledge The antioxidants in chocolate/ we look for the resurrection of good cholesterol/ and the life of the world to come// Amen’ (p 58).
Breslin shows her skill through a range of poetic forms and features. “The Promise” (p 62) is a beautifully thoughtful sestina. “Magoraphobia” (p 64) – a villanelle – borrows from Denis Glover and in a spooky onomatopoeic way introduces us to words such as ‘badbeaked’, ‘eyedy bead’. “Re: Your $$$ Inheritance” (p 68) appears to be a play on the scam that is dementia. There are many gems in this collection and I cannot pick a favourite poem.
At the back of the book, “Things you may want to know” – we do! – and the poet’s ‘Acknowledgements’ make excellent reading and complement the poetry collection in a no-nonsense, interesting format. The poet writes: ‘I can’t thank my babcia (grandmother) or ask her forgiveness for sharing her private life. I hope, I have always hoped, to make her proud’ (p 76). I’m pretty sure this hope has been realised.
The book’s cover is a bright selection of babcia’s treasures. It is beautifully edited and presented.
It may sound strange to say that this first collection, with its creative contrariness, its mimicking of the dilemma that is Alzheimer’s, is actually something of a celebration. Liz Breslin is to be congratulated on her accomplishment.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.
Published in takahē 91, December, 2017.