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Sunday, 31 March 2013

Fact: an introduction to the poem poems of Glenn Ingersoll


Self-referential poetry is the surest sign you've run out of ideas. – Robyn Smith, 13 Words that Should Never Appear in Poetry

The expressions ‘confessional poetry’ and ‘self-referential poetry’ tend to get a bit mixed up and it’s easy to see why. Who is the ‘self’ that’s being referenced? Is it the poem or the poet? For the purpose of this article ‘self-referential’ means poetry written about poetry.

There are those who look down on poetry about poetry—no matter what you do there’ll always be someone ready to dismiss it—and yet poets have been writing about their craft since at least 1848 when Keats penned ‘On the Sonnet’ and probably much earlier. I’ve never understood why some are so opposed to this topic because if there’s one thing poets have the hardest time doing it’s defining poetry; we write about love all the time (which we don’t understand) so why not poetry (which we also don’t understand)? I’ve heard some wonderful attempts at defining poetry (and some very poetic ones at that) but the more you hear the further you actually get from actually grasping what poetry is and, for me at least, the more fascinating it gets. Me, I don’t know how poetry works. I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve got a feel for it but I don’t understand why when I try to write I end up with something artificial and yet there are other times, whilst watching TV for example, when a poem, often almost fully-formed, will pop into my head. I’m just grateful they do and know to jump when the ideas come lest I lose them but I really don’t understand the process. I couldn’t explain it very well any more than I could explain what being in love is although I’m pretty sure I’ve known when I was and when it was just infatuation. So, is it any surprise that I’d find myself writing about poetry? I think it’s the most natural thing under the sun and judging by the number of poets who’ve written artes poeticae (from Horace and Aristotle on) I’m far from being alone.

There are three main questions:

  • What is a poem?
  • How do you write a poem?
  • What do you do with a poem?

That third one’s a good one too. As far as I’m concerned all my poems are perfect. Whatever’s missing on the page is in my head so, of course, they’re perfect. They only stop being perfect after a few years and I’ve forgotten all the stuff in my head that stopped me seeing how imperfect they really were. The hardest thing for any writer is getting rid of all that stuff in their head and looking at their work objectively. In fact it’s not hard; it’s virtually impossible.

EdnaThe Northern Irish critic Edna Longley says that every poem worth its salt is in part about poetry. Sounds cool but what does she mean? If I said that every piece of music is about music would that make any more sense? Probably not. For me you can’t ignore the medium. I can’t see the lines on the page or the stave but I know they’re there. I know that poetry and music are artificial constructs; people made them; they devised a set of rules and played by them. Maths and physics dictate the rules for music—they’re much easier to quantify—but poetry’s a slippery bugger. The rules aren’t so easy to express but there’s obviously a process of encoding and decoding going on. I’ve written dozens of poems about poetry like this one:


This is the skin
of a poem.

Its heart still sits
inside of me.

This holds true for
every poem.

No poem is a
complete poem.

All poems are

Poems are flat.
Poetry’s not.

I suggest a
number ten blade.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

This is a good example of the self-referential poem. It’s metaphorical, symbolical, metafictive, requires the involvement of the reader. This was certainly not me running out of ideas. This is me trying to explain poetry. Poems have height and width—they sit on the page; they’re two-dimensional; they need you to look under the skin, to cut into them but even when you do you’ll still not find the heart of the poem. I’ve spoken before about iceberg poems—most of the poem stays with the poet and only a fraction ends up on the page. Beauty is only skin deep and maybe the same applies to meaning. Superficial meaning jumps off the page and it’s easy to read a poem, especially a short poem, and go: Is that it?

Which brings me—eventually—to the poetry of Glenn Ingersoll or, specifically, the poem poems of Glenn Ingersoll. In an old blog post he defines the poem poem as follows:

[A]t some point the poet will refer to the poem as though it were a creature, or physical object, the poem itself will take on metaphorical qualities.

He’s just published a small—literally—book of fifty poem poems entitled Fact and he sent me a copy to have a look at. The blurb says:

The poems are philosophical, humorous, and often conscious of themselves. The book is small enough to slip into a pocket, handy for those moments stolen for contemplation or distraction.

I told my friend Vito Pasquale that I was working on this article and he dutifully went away and looked up Glenn online. I wasn’t surprised to find that he enjoyed what he came across because Vito’s another of us—I feel like we’re a clique but I bet there are thousands of us—who enjoys writing and reading poems about poetry. The poem from Glenn’s collection that jumped out at him was this one:

The poem is absolutely
quiet. You might've heard
little scratches as it
moved away from the
pen. But it got here,
the place it made for,
when the pen let it go.

about which he said:

The poem that starts. . . '[The] poem is absolutely quiet' has a nice, nice, nice image in it of the words receding from the pen. Never pictured that before myself and now that I have, I wish I had. I'm not sure he planted that vision in my head as perfectly as he might have though. I might have left out that whole first sentence. 

I actually like the opening sentence because the poem is quiet now. All poetry reaches this state of quietude but to get to it some noise has to be made, be it the clattering of plastic keys or the scratching of a pen or pencil on paper. Of course, as is the case with many poems of this ilk, Glenn anthropomorphises the poem; it becomes a thing apart from its creator capable of scrabbling across a page; it has Robert_Duncanits own intent. Any writer will acknowledge this duality. Novelists talk about characters taking control of the story and they mean it; we all accept the fact we’re only ever partly in control of the writing process. When I get an idea for a poem something inside me tells me to get it onto a page, be it literal or electronic… or, perhaps, ‘let it’ is a better expression, let it onto the page because that’s where it wants to be, what Robert Duncan called, in his poem ‘Poetry, a Natural Thing’, an “inner persistence / toward the source”. This is why I struggle with poetry as a vocal thing because my first urge is to write the poem, not recite it.

One of the problems with poetry of this ilk is that it doesn’t usually amount to much on its own; the same can be said for concrete poems and pwoermds, haiku and Ginsberg’s American sentences. Here’s one of the book’s shorter poems:


Read this poem again.

On this surface this appears trivial, a throwaway line and yet there’s intent here. The first thing I noted is that because the poem is called ‘Instruction’ I did read the poem again. Okay it must have taken me all of a second to do so but that’s not the point. Poetry needs to be read again. A lot of prose doesn’t—good prose does—and many people read poems as if they were chopped-up prose even though they know they’re poems. They don’t read them like poems because they don’t know how to read poems, so they read them the only way they know how and move on. There are about 1700 words in this collection which most people could read in five minutes and then what? Will they read the poems again? Or will they just sniff and go: “Not much there to write home about” or, as Glenn puts it in this poem:

Yours is the first
gaze to touch upon
the alien landscape
of the poem. But, as
though your landing
craft were out of whack,
you swoop over without
raising the ancient
dust, leaving no suggestion
of your passage.

On its own ‘Instruction’ is not a great poem, I grant you, but as a part of this collection it has its place because as you read through this wee book the effect it has on you is cumulative. The same goes for “Yours is the first gaze” although, being longer and having an actual narrative, it does stand better on its own. I think this is an excellent metaphor, a poem as an alien landscape. I know when I first encountered the unique typography employed by E E Cummings this is exactly how I felt: How on earth do I read this? And I probably did skip over it and go searching for something more traditional and familiar. For others though any poem is an alien thing. It’s like Glenn says in the very next poem in the book:

This poem is easy to understand
when read in the language in which
it was written
by one for whom reading
is a familiar and comfortable occupation.
The poem makes no other claims.

In what ‘language’ is a poem written? English is the obvious answer and there’s not a word in it that any average reader won’t be able to understand so why, when you arrange them thusly, do they feel like a foreign language or an alien tongue? The tiny poem ‘Instruction’ is the perfect example here. A five-year-old could read that poem and follow its instruction and yet there will be grown men who read it and go: “I don’t get it.” And they will mean that.

Haiku is a popular form of poetry. This puzzles me a little because I don’t find good haiku especially easy to understand. Sure, it’s easy to read, but they demand attention, more attention that I expect the average reader gives them. A number of the poems in this collection are written in that same spirit like this one:

This poem makes no effort
to stir the emotions, hopes
rather, that they will settle,
as, at the bottom of the cup,
there is the fine powder
from the teabag, the
tea cooling.

How do you read a haiku? Not an easy question to answer briefly but here’s a start:

The central point about haiku is that they present in brief compass the record of an illuminating moment or perception, a satori, and do so in a way that encourages readers to share deeply as many aspects of that experience as they can open themselves to. Good haiku need to be read slowly and repeatedly, and despite their brevity will not be easily exhausted. Reading them is in itself something of an art. – Gary Eaton, 'A Note on Haiku', The Cambridge Quarterly, Volume 38, Number 4, p. 328

This isn’t a haiku but I think a similar approach is the right one. There is danger reading tiny poems like this that you treat them purely as intellectual exercises, puzzles to be worked out and, yes, that is one way to read them but that’s only a superficial reading. You really need that No 10 blade. (The No.10 blade, by the way, with a curved cutting edge is one of the more traditional blade shapes and is used generally for making small incisions in skin and muscle.)

I thought I’d ask Glenn a few questions about this book and about poem poems in general.

JIM: When I first got this book in the post my first thought was, God, it’s so small! I’ll never be able to read it—I did, in fact, have to use a magnifying glass—whereas my wife’s initial reaction was, “It’s precious!” Mind you she would’ve needed to use a magnifying glass too. Why produce a book so small?

AndrewGLENN: I asked Andrew Topel, who runs Avantacular Press, if he could share some thoughts on the design of Fact. Andrew wrote back:

When I read the poems, they seemed to me that they needed an intimate environment to be set down in, so the small format was decided right off the bat. At the same time, I was toying with an idea of publishing a book that fit in a miniature suitcase, as I shared with you at one point, so this also had me thinking small.

I had some input into the design, but I wanted Andrew to make the project his own. Andrew is a visual artist. Two of his own poems are included in the newly published The Last Vispo Anthology from Fantagraphics Books.

JIM: Why’s the collection called Fact?

GLENN: Very few of the poems are titled. The poems being so brief I thought titles would burden them. What they were saying was what they were about. On the other hand when I thought about gathering them into a book I knew a title was needed. I title my notebooks and had used “Fact” as the title for the notebook in which the series got started. (The previous two notebooks are titled “Art” and “e”; with “Fact” the three notebooks’ titles read Art-e-Fact.) That’s the truth of it. But once I’d settled on Fact it seemed to fit. The poems did not to think of themselves as fiction.

I will add that I used to be a huge fan of the rock band New Order and their music was released by Factory Records, which at least once appeared on an album cover abbreviated “fact.” (Note the period; I used a period in the title of the book, too, until at some point it fell away.)

JIM: I have to say I'd never thought about these as examples of nonfiction poetry. I guess it depends on how you define 'fiction'. I think it's an interesting point and perhaps a good way to approach this kind of poetry. They're probably closer to philosophical texts—we are after all examining the nature of poetry—than entertainments.

For all that poetry about poetry—or poem poems as you call them—are generally looked down on. In his poem 'Decision for Self-Love' for example the poet Landis Everson wrote

Sometimes you write poetry about poetry.
You can’t help yourself.
Your fingers stray down there where there is
still feeling.

suggesting that poems about poetry are nothing but a masturbatory dead end and yet I suspect few poets will have been able to resist the urge to write one or two. How do you feel about this? Is it okay to do it as long as you don’t talk about it?

GLENN: It’s okay to do whatever. Subject matter taboos are silly. In the lines you quote Landis Everson is writing about his feelings. Feelings of shame and lack of self-worth, perhaps? He is looking for the place “where there is still feeling,” which sounds rather alienated. “Learning to love yourself,” if we’re to take Whitney Houston at her word, “is the greatest love of all.”

Poem poems are poems that speak for themselves. They may have their own feelings of doubt and shame, but it is of their own bodies they are dubious or ashamed, not someone else’s. The poem is a metaphor, just as a word is a metaphor for meaning, a sentence a metaphor for thought. The poem poem stands in for the reader. The poem is being spoken and heard by the reader in her own voice.

JIM: Poetry, certainly from the twentieth century onwards, has become an amorphous term and few I would imagine—certainly not after someone came out with, "It's a poem because I say it is"—are now comfortable trying to define poetry. Do you think this is one of the reasons you're drawn to poem poems, you're trying to either define or at least identify what poetry's becoming?

GLENN: I define Poetry as “Art made using language as the material.” This is, of course, laughably broad. Are you laughing?

JIM: Actually, no, it’s a good starting, point although I think it’s a bit too broad. What you’ve been saying so far does remind me of this poem of mine:

Body of Work

This is a naked poem
          so try not to stare.

There are no meanings
          for the words to hide behind.

Just let your eye brush

          over them and don't ogle;
          I know that it's hard.

You can't touch them and
          they're not allowed to touch you.

Think of it as art

Friday, 2nd October 2009

For me poem poems are about stripping away everything bar the process: I am reading a poem; what am I doing? Of course novelists use language as their raw material as do songwriters and even t-shirt designers and a distinctive feature of modern art is the fact that many artists incorporate language into their art, as in the case of Tracey Emin’s neon art, but putting that aside for the moment…


GLENN: Recently I wrote a sort of gigantic poem poem in prose called Autobiography of a Book. The book’s life is what takes place in the language of which it is made. It is alive so long as it is being read and if it lives on beyond that it is in memory.

JIM: Now that reminds me of the Bishop Berkeley's famous maxim: "esse est percipi" (to be is to be perceived) which was the inspiration for Beckett’s film Film and what I take from that is that a poem—indeed any literary work—only truly exists in the mind of its reader.

GLENN: While struggling over a poem that didn’t work once, I got the feeling I wasn’t trying to make something, I was trying to free something that was trapped. Sometimes I see the page as a covering that has to be scraped away in order to release the poem inside it.

JIM: No, I get that, which is why I've never sat down to write a sonnet or a sestina. I see them as artificial constructs. My poems have structure but that structure evolves as a part of the writing process. I don't force the words into a (what would be for them) unnatural shape.

In the editorial to his short-lived webzine Poetry about Poetry, Tim Love lists five possible reasons why some editors, readers and even poets are wary of poetry about poetry. Your thoughts?

GLENN: I understand that many readers wish words were invisible, that their meanings would instantaneously and without ambiguity translate to their minds the important stuff—the story, the scene, the conflict. That sounds like a philosophy of prose. Poetry wants you to notice the way it’s being said as well as what it’s saying. Poem poems show you that language, like the rest of us, is in a struggle for meaning. Per Mr Love, that struggle is universal.

Very interesting stuff. Personally I liked this collection. I didn’t like its physical size but I suspect most people with a decent pair of eyes will have no problems with it. As a body of work it’s thought-provoking and deals with many aspects of the nature of poetry. I talked at the start of this article about how poems appear mysteriously and here’s this wry observation from Glenn:

This poem was
genetically encoded
in my DNA and
is being revealed through
the inevitable progression
of a system of chemical
reactions. Having written
it I can see I couldn't
help it and am content
to disclaim any
responsibility. It grew
out of me like a thumbnail,
and now I am cutting
it off.

This makes so much sense to me as a fellow poet. I’ve always resisted the urge to think of my poems as my babies—which doesn’t mean I’ve not on occasion given them their own voice—but I can relate to them as a by-product of the poetic process. I write to work things out and once they’ve been worked out I’ve no further need of the poem that was produced in the process. I suppose there’ll be people who collect their nail clippings in a jar. I collect my poems in a big red folder. Same difference.

Fact costs a mere $5, postage included, if you live in the States. It won’t be for everyone but if you enjoyed any of the above then you should think about it. I liked it. To help you make your mind you can read some of the poems from Fact online:


GlennGlenn Ingersoll lives in Berkeley, California having moved there in 1991 to finish his undergraduate studies at the University of California. His work has been published in Exquisite Corpse, The Quarterly, Phoebe, and Columbia Poetry Review, among other places. In 1993, he won the Charles B. Wood Memorial Award from Carolina Quarterly. His chapbook City Walks (Broken Boulder Press) was published in the spring of 1999 and can be downloaded from them as a pdf here. It’s a little different from Fact.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Lunar Poems for New Religions

Lunar Poems for New Religions

[T]he word “spirituality” [is] not a noun, it’s not a something. It’s not even a nothing. Or a preposition, a relational plank bridging a this and a that. It’s more like a verb, an action, a doing. It’s something done. Yet what’s done is the act of asking a question. [...] “[S]pirituality” is an interrogative. It’s a placeholder for a series of productive but unanswerable questions, just as the term “art” is. Where is art? Not where you think... In a similar way, “spirituality” initiates an inquiry: What is the religious? When is the religious? Where is the religious? – Thomas Tweed, ‘John Cage’,, 22nd November 2011

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. – Isa 40:26

If you are a regular reader of my blog the name Stephen Nelson might ring a bell. We had a conversation back in 2011 about concrete and visual poetry, two subjects I knew very little about at the time and still know little about; I’ve dropped the ‘very’ so it wasn’t a complete waste of his time. Stephen’s just published a collection of poems and he asked if I’d like a review copy. I accepted against my better judgement because I felt ill-equipped to judge the merits of a book of concrete and/or visual poems but I was willing to give it my best shot. A couple of weeks later the book arrived from his publisher, Knives Forks and Spoons Press, and I found myself facing a block of stream-of-consciousness writing some forty pages long that filled half the book. The rest was made up primarily of concrete poems and prose poems, another form I’m not well-versed in. What the hell had I let myself in for? At the time there was only one review online on the One Night Stanzas site in which Claire Askew writes:

It’s only January, but I’ll be shocked if I find a more original, enjoyable collection to top it this year. I’m calling my Top Poetry Read of 2013, folks!

“Okay,” says I, “if she thinks it’s so damn good let’s put our reservations to the side and see what’s what.” The collection’s broken into two parts, ‘The Moon from my Windowless Heart’ and ‘Crescent’ and I’m going to spend most of my time on just one poem.


The Moon from my Windowless Heart

The first part consists of only two poems, ‘Song’ which you can read on Claire’s site here and ‘Look Up!’, a three and a half thousand word tirade. Both are written in Scots which I’ve no problems with personally being Scottish although if you’ve met me you’ll have noticed I don’t even have a slight Scottish accent. Non-Scots will struggle which is a shame because there’s plenty to struggle with here without writing in a (what will be for most people) foreign dialect. But I support his decision. Would Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ be half as effective as it is if it had been presented in Standard English? I doubt it. Scots talk with an accent—my daughter does and my siblings (I’m just weird). As Stephen’s poem is set in Scotland and has a Scottish narrator, it’s appropriate if for that reason only, but Scots is also one of the voices of the downtrodden masses, the plebs, the common people. His narrator’s concerns are universal; a bloke from the east end of London or the Bronx could easily relate to what’s being saying here.

HowlIn the late seventies I used to correspond with a poet from Bristol if memory serves right. He was a HUGE Ginsberg fan and very kindly sent me a copy of Howl and Other Poems which I hated and barely got by the second page. We disagreed on just about everything to do with poetry and the letters dried up after a few weeks. I mention this because my first thought about the second poem in Stephen’s collection was that it’s a Scottish ‘Howl’; they’re actually just about the same length if you include the footnote to ‘Howl’. Claire also noted the obvious similarities with poetry by the Beats and so I asked Stephen who told me:

Ginsberg and ‘Howl’ were influences, but also d.a. levy's long poems. I was reading both poets as inspiration and the Beat feel is intentional. I love both these poets.

This meant I’d need to get over myself and look at ‘Howl’ again. Much to my surprise I found out it’s not an especially complex poem once you boil it down.

In the first line of the first section, the speaker tells us that he has been a witness to the destruction of "the best minds" of his generation. The rest of the section is a detailed description of these people – specifically, who they were and what they did. He doesn't tell us what destroyed them quite yet, though we get plenty of hints. Most lines begin with the word "who" followed by a verb. These are people "who did this, who did that," etc. We quickly learn that these "best minds" were not doctors, lawyers, and scientists. They were not people whom most middle-class folks in the 1950s would have identified with the best America had to offer. And that's exactly Ginsberg's point. According to the speaker, they are drug users, drop outs, world travellers, bums, musicians, political dissidents, and, yes, poets.

If the key word of the first section was "who," the second section asks "What?" As in, what destroyed the best minds of his generation? Ginsberg provides the answer immediately: Moloch. In the Hebrew Bible, Moloch was an idolatrous god to whom children were sacrificed by placing them in fire. In other words, not a friendly god. […] For Ginsberg, Moloch is associated with war, government, capitalism, and mainstream culture, all of which might be summed up by one of the poem's most important concepts: the "machine" or "machinery." Moloch is an inhuman monster that kills youth and love.

The third section is addressed to Carl Solomon, Ginsberg's close friend from the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. The speaker refers to this psychiatric hospital by the shorter and more evocative fictional name of "Rockland." He reaffirms his solidarity with Solomon over and over again by repeating the phrase "I'm with you in Rockland." The central question of this section is "Where?" The speaker uses this question to explore Solomon's existence within the walls of the institute. The poem ends with the image from the speaker's dreams, in which Solomon is walking from New York to the speaker's "cottage" (in Berkeley, California), where they will reunite. –

What complicates matters is the fact that Ginsberg hadn’t written his poem with a mass audience in mind and a great many of the things he references will go over a casual reader’s head and even more so now almost sixty years have passed and it’s no longer contemporary. It’s a poem that needs to be studied before it can be fully appreciated. Ferlinghetti initially rejected the poem when it was offered to him but changed his mind after its first reading. Surely if it was such an important piece Uhura_and_Kirk_kisshe would’ve seen it there and then. All firsts are significant because they’re firsts but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily great art. The Star Trek episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ which contains the (arguably) first interracial kiss on TV is nothing to write home about but it won’t be forgotten because of that kiss and I think of ‘Howl’ in much the same respect. Yes, it challenged freedom of speech and good on it for that but, that aside, it’s an esoteric work aimed at a tiny audience. Had it not gained notoriety because of the trial I wonder if it would be as well-regarded as it’s become? Who knows?

Stephen’s poem ‘Look Up!’ won’t cause a ruckus. Little shocks people these days. In 1955 homosexuality was something people hid—just think of the film stars who went to great lengths to keep their true nature secret—but now gays are a part of the mainstream. Not that that’s the focus of Stephen’s poem; his poem is about drugs but then again who bats their eye these days when they hear about kids taking drugs? It’s almost regarded as a rite of passage and, again, in that regard I’m also a bit weird because (prescription drugs aside and my experiences with them were quite enough, thank you very much) I’ve never used any recreational drug bar alcohol and I pretty much gave up drinking that in my twenties.

Anyway I sat down and read his poem. Then I read it again. After a third read I e-mailed Stephen and asked for a softcopy which he sent me and I spent two full days annotating the poem. That done I decided to try a write a summary of it which I did and passed to Stephen to see how well I’d done. I’ll let you know his response later but for the moment I’m going to stick with my reading since it’s as valid as anyone else’s. That’s the problem when you write a poem that’s open to interpretation; you really can’t whinge when someone comes along and imposes their own structure on the piece. I’ve a tendency to read things literally. I wanted to know who was talking, where they were talking, what they were doing when talking and over what timeframe events took place. This is what I came up with:

The poem features a first-person narrator, a male, an adult, Scottish and, judging from the accent (the poem’s written in dialect) living in the central belt near Glasgow. Over the course of the poem we learn little about the man: his parents are still alive and he becomes (or has already become) a disappointment to them due to his lifestyle choices; he has children but it doesn't sound as if he’s a wife. He has at least one friend who’s a girl and who he sleeps with but I don't think she's his girlfriend in the traditional sense. He's not homeless, can drive, has access to a car and certainly has enough money to be able to afford to buy breakfast at a drive-thru. He never mentions a job but since he's more than empathetic with the socially deprived about him—perhaps, although he's not living rough, he's still technically homeless—it's likely he's currently unemployed. He has problems with drink and drugs and it’s probably fair to say that at the start of the poem he’s spiritually empty.

I was brought up in a religious household and studied the Bible for many years. Okay, the Bible’s not a poem despite the fact it does contain some poetry and a lot of people struggle with how to read it. Some take it literally—if it says God created the heaven and the earth in six days then it must be six literal days—but science has pretty much disproved that so when the Bible talk about days it must mean a longer time period. Think of the expression, “in my day”—what day was that that? I’ve lived for almost 20,000 days—which particular one was my day? Some things in the Bible are literal—King David was a flesh and blood man—and some things are not, e.g. the cast of Jesus’s parables. How do you decide? Common sense really. And the same goes for poetry. When Stephen’s narrator says:

Ah made masel a fry up –
bacon, eggs, mushrooms –
ah ate dinner, tranced-out autonaut,
ah smoked & watched Eastenders,

I take that literally. When he talks about leaving his body and floating above the earth, well I’m going to go with symbolic, metaphorical or hallucinatory. The picture of the man above was collated from the handful of facts that are peppered throughout the poem. They may not be important to some people but they made a real difference to me.

Part I

The poem opens with the man looking out at a tall government building. Stephen lives in Hamilton so I imagined this to be the South Lanarkshire Council Headquarters on Almada Street—it fits the description—but it isn’t important.


He's in spiritual crisis although it's secular things that have his attention at the moment, a government that can't be trusted and the consequences of their (and presumably previous governments') poor decisions:

Av been perched at this windae fur
a while noo starin oot at yon monolith
ae local government wi us aw teeterin
oan the edge ae the abyss aboot
tae plunge heid first thru chaos and calamity,
the next bunch ae jerk-offs
showerin us wi silver tongued deceits,

[ae = of]

Ginsberg claimed Part II of ‘Howl’ was inspired by a peyote-induced vision of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco which appeared to him as a monstrous face. Stephen’s narrator doesn’t see a face (at least not here) but he does see the moon which is a significant and recurring image throughout this book:

(Ah saw the full moon once
reflected in its dark glass,
like a picture taken in outer space
beamed back and shimmerin
on a screen grainy vision ae beyond)

What’s he doing looking at this building? He’s…

contemplatin the nature ae spiritual
LUMINOSITY against a background
ae social deprivation drug induced mayhem
& blood bleached alcoholism –
Here & now! I mean here & fuckin now!

If you’re not familiar with how Scots talk then you should know that when you’re reading this poem treat the block capitals the same way as would do in an e-mail or a comment; these words need to be emphasised; seriously just imagine Billy Connolly reading this and you’ll not go far wrong. The expression “blood bleached” puzzled me initially until I confirmed what I suspected that alcohol starves red blood cells of oxygen[1]. I also found the use of the world ‘LUMINOSITY’ an unusual choice—we tend to think of spiritual enlightenment—but since astronomers use the term luminosity to measures the total amount of energy emitted by a star or other astronomical object it’s obviously a more poetic choice given that so much emphasis is placed on stellar phenomena in the poem. The full moon on a clear night measure between 0.27 and 1 lux.

He's fascinated by the counterculture movement of the 1960s:

Granted av always hid these swirlin sun eyes gazin
back oan the 60s a dream machine vision
ae evolutionary leap up, leap up!

[hid = had]

psychedelic glassesand clearly views those who followed Dr Timothy Leary in a sympathetic light—he’s been reading up on the subject—although it looks like he has more in common with the followers than the leaders; in the second half of the poem he draws parallels with the rave culture of the 1980s.

He's evidently assimilated a great deal of information about eastern mysticism because he uses many expressions above and beyond those that have slipped into popular culture. For example, I thought Stephen was simply being poetic when he used the term ‘dream machine’ but was surprised to discover that such a thing actually existed and was in fact a stroboscopic flicker device. When he talks about the Millbrook happenings he shows he's familiar with the protocol for these gatherings.

girls in green saris loungin on the lawn
like yellow haired dakinis waitin tae greet
every star seekin psychonaut filtered thru
the heavy iron gates

He also understands why the fifties were a time ripe for social change; following the end of the World War II people were living in fear and looking for answers:

atom bomb mushroom cloud or
magic Acid mind expansion,
take yer pick!

Despite his obvious preoccupation with the sixties our narrator’s not blind to the fact that there were casualties of this cultural revolution along the way and “picks”—which I took to be a play on ‘guitar pick’—a number of famous musicians—the likes of Peter Green, Syd Barrett, Skip Spence and Roky Erickson—all of whose careers suffered because of abuse of LSD; all the four above are believed to have suffered from schizophrenia and here we have another commonality with Ginsberg’s poem because although it was dedicated to a schizophrenic, Carl Solomon, Ginsberg later claimed that at the core of ‘Howl’ were his unresolved emotions about his schizophrenic mother. Also when the narrator uses the repeated phrase “Ah'll take ma pick” this reminded me of the same technique used by Ginsberg where he uses a similar phrase of solidarity, “I'm with you in Rockland.”


Despite an awareness of the damage drugs can do apparently Stephen’s narrator isn’t put off. From this point on he talks about his experiences under the influence of alcohol and at least two kinds of hallucinogens, psilocybin and ecstasy. He begins with an experience he's had whilst in bed—and probably not a one-off from the past because he uses the present tense—when under the influence of rum and so-called magic mushrooms. Predictably he draws on his readings to explain what he's experienced and so many of the metaphors and images reference eastern religions plus there are a number of references to stellar bodies—the sun, stars, comets—throughout the whole piece but the moon especially features. Whilst high he hears—or imagines he hears—a woman's voice saying his name:

Well, can ye imagine?
Who the fuck is that? God? God's maw?
It occurs tae me that the voice lulls back
tae an awesome silence deep well of
loneliest love. It's a female voice –
familiar yet unrecognised

Is he having some kind of spiritual awakening? He describes this a little later as “the night of storms”:

No' always so fur alang wi the voice comes
the night of storms, fierce howlin winds
rammin lamposts, trees, coilin then unleashed
on civil man, tucked up in bed as ah was,
no-pity gales fae the darkest caverns of the earth.

[fae = from]

This, of course, reminded me of the experience of Elijah recorded in 1 Kings 19:11-13:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Our narrator now frames two important questions. He wonders…

drugs ir able tae precipitate such deep spiritual
experience ae a sort once conjured
by yer prophets & yer shamans


             & whither such experience is relevant or admissible
in an age gon saft oan science (suck oan science!)
material reductionism

The sixties were a time ripe for change. As Stephen notes so often "enlightenment goes hand in hand / wi social reformation"; if there was ever a time change is needed, as he put it right at the start of the poem, it’s:

Here & now! I mean here & fuckin now!

He moves on from such lofty topics to more immediate concerns, i.e. his love life:

Such things that happen!
Such things as fallin in love.
A huge gaitherin ae desire in the belly
fur a beautiful girl sweet henna hair
fallin ower delicate shooders & staunin
next tae her wis a charge a bolt
a sudden dance drawn deeper & deeper
intae her laugh her eyes – ye know the score!

It looks like he's fallen for a married woman—he says “she hid [i.e. had] a man”—but hasn't had the nerve to pursue things as aggressively as he might have. He remembers finding himself at another girl's house where they end up in bed:

So that wan night, drunk at a friends,
up aw night in torments ae hell,
ah danced wi her shade
& lay wi her ghost
& screamed a scream
ower streets & rooftops,
smotherin it, suppressin it,
a silent scream,
an inner roar,

DiagrammaChakraKundaliniHere he experiences what he describes as a kundalini awakening[2]. One of the physical effects can be extreme sexual desire (although it can apparently go the other way too). In practical terms, one of the most commonly reported Kundalini experiences is the feeling of an electric current running along the spine and Stephen describes something very similar. You can read a good description here.

In the morning he orders burgers from a drive-thu. The girl's voice over the intercom reminds him of the voice he’d heard during his trip. When he'd awoken that morning he'd seen a face before him but not the girl he'd been with—we don’t even know whose bed he woke up in—so perhaps the face belonged to the married woman although even if it was she probably symbolises something greater.

He goes about his day as usual—no mention of a job—but all he's really waiting for is the night when he'll be free to take a further trip.

          moved through the day
a pale, distracted ghost (bread fae the
bread shop, remember?), waitin
fur the phantom night,

Once home, has a fry-up for tea (typical Scottish cuisine), watches Eastenders and thinks about his recent experiences whilst under the influence. Presumably he takes some drugs—he mentions having a smoke but he doesn’t say what of—puts on some music and describes this second trip where the voice has now become a “PRESENCE”:

a lover, a touch ae the maddest love,
ma mind playin oot sich tender
mallow beauty . . .
("Feel so close to you!")
Yet meltin intae somethin,
an invisible love,
a sweeter union!

[sich = such]

I tracked down two dozen songs with the words ‘feel so close to you’ in them. That’s when I gave up and asked Stephen, not that it’s especially important—the sentiment is the same in them all— what the song was. He told me:

[T]he lyric is the first line, or perhaps a mishearing of the first line of the song ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’ by Foreigner, that old power ballad.

Because I read the thing literally—and because he specifically talks about “spring loaded bounce pop”—that one wasn’t on my list.

The love he talked about earlier becomes more abstract and he imagines he's left his body. He flies over some of the places that were focal points to the drug culture lifestyle of the past—places like, the Libre artistic community, Taylor Camp and swinging London—and the present—sites like Tipi valley and Glastonbury. Again he starts to think about the rise of drug cults around the world

Part II

Although this part opens with another—albeit much shorter—recollection of what I’m taking to be a third trip (this time including an out-of-body experience and a nod to past life regression) the main emphasis in this part of the poem is on refocusing his life:

Nae cults fur me, awash & awake
tae primal life force myelination,
fierce upsurge ae full charge neuron

Perhaps he's starting to see signs in himself of an "emergin mental illness".

He looks at the rave culture of the nineties.

new drug fur a
new youth –
squeezed oot by greed &
vain materialism!

He can see definite parallels between the rise of various New Age cults in the sixties—specifically Acid cults—and the spiritual aspects of rave culture.[3] There are obviously highs…

The pu ae this,
the pulse ae this,
catching the tail ae the
comet & fleein wae it!
Weekend dance orgies
fuelled by sonic banks
stacked high against
autumnal skies;

and lows…

Tae end up . . .
hingin fae the ceilin by
yer nerves, swingin fae the
fittins by yer
nerves, wrecked, a wreck,
lyin in yer bed aw week,
gouchin, fleein, then
quickly deflated, flat,
flattened wi fear,
chitterin wi fear
fur the nerves yiv fried & the
organs yiv pulped,
no able tae walk or talk,
except when ye talk
yer maw mad wi worry,
yer da's pride ripped right
oot 'im . . .

[pu = pull, gouchin = hanging out, chitterin = shivering]

This section ends with him burned out after overdoing it. He’s bedridden for a week and when he does get up he’s happy simply to lie in a bath all day long. His parents are beside themselves.

What he then describes I took to be withdrawal symptoms:

Ah lie in bed, takin this, sufferin this,
sick auric fusion, total wrench ae
free will consciousness –
seized upon,

He compares it to being "perched oan a sick, black mountain" and being possessed by "a scarlet queen". In the midst of all this the quiet voice returns but the message is clearer this time: "I am the Lord's”. His family nurse him back to health and he starts to think more clearly about where drugs fit into modern society—Dr Leary's legacy is clearly still alive and kicking—but more importantly his own life:

The tease ae drink, the lure ae
drugs, a silent pool, a quick escape,
slow temptation . . .

He then describes a planned spiritual pilgrimage across Scotland highlighting many of the places of significance to Christians, places like Iona (St Columba) and Dunfermline (Saint Margaret of Scotland):

Ah'll visit Dumfries, Whithorn, Stranraer!
Girvan, Arran, Cumbrae!
Ah'll sleep by the roadside,
Ah'll beg for ma bread,[4]
jesus-the-lamb-of-godAh’ll follow the LAMB.
Oan ma road wi
ma voice!
Ma vast calm!
Ma loss in Thee!
Ma hair,
Ma lips,
Ma eyes.
Ma cleansin!

It looks like he’s found religion but not a new religion, in fact a very old one which is perhaps why the poem ends with a chant to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament who, of course, Ginsberg namechecks in ‘Howl’ too. I very much doubt he’s suggesting that he’s answered the door to a couple of Witnesses and been converted:

Ma road,
Ma light,
Ma voice.
A vast calm!
A silversong dream devotion:

This is what Stephen had to say when he read my interpretation of his poem:

Perhaps the attempt to pin down the narrator is a little too literal. Many of the details are oblique autobiographical references or simply generalisations about contemporaries who were involved in the drug scene. The references to various trips are general and oblique and shouldn't be taken as literal trips. Also a lot of what the narrator experiences, like the voices and guided thoughts, aren't part of a drug trip but more like spiritual breakdown associated with kundalini. These aren't linear in the poem, but flit in and out like thoughts or images in the mind. It's about the movement of mind as random and chaotic rather than anything directly linear or narrative.

As for the end, yes, it's Christian, but also interfaith, both. There's an openness and non-duality, but from a Christian bedrock. The path of salvation is Christian (for the narrator) but not exclusive in general.

Fair enough. The problem with any work that’s ‘open to interpretation’ is that no one can say your interpretation’s wrong, not even the author. Perhaps he wasn’t clear enough. Perhaps it would help if I understood stuff like kundalini. The poem as a whole has a great deal of energy and I could imagine, as with ‘Howl’, a public reading of it could be most entertaining. My main problem with it—and the same goes for ‘Howl’—is that it contains too many esoteric and cryptic references. To new_age_symbolunderstand both of these works you have to study them. In my opinion Ginsberg’s is weak in that it contains too many autobiographical and now dated elements (Gregory Stephenson for one disagrees with me here); Stephen’s is weak—again, in my opinion (and I’m sure there will be others who’ll disagree with me)—in that it contains too many obscure terms like kundalini, the Age of Aquarius, Helios, dakini, psychonaut, light-being, Tantrika, om, trans-dimensionality, new frequencies, karma, astral projection, bluestone healer, ghat, ashram, guru, shaman, trance dance, levitation, bardo, lifeforce, vision quest, bodhisattva, Krishna…Do you have to understand all of these terms to get the gist? No, and that will be enough for most. They’ll just let the psychobabble for want of a better expression wash over their heads in exactly the same way Star Trek fans buy the technobabble without batting an eye; it’s all window dressing. Did the hippies back in the sixties understand all these terms? Unlikely. The vast majority were in it for the drugs and the sex or am I being just a wee bit too cynical?



Clearly I’ve not left myself much space to do this part of the book justice, so I’m not going to try to. It’s made up of three different styles of poetry. The first are the kind of concrete poems regular readers of Stephen’s blog will be already familiar with and either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. The first one in the book is:

mo( )on

To be honest I find it very hard to get excited over pieces like this. I think I get it but I don’t get a lot out of it although I suspect that me being a bit “left-brained” as Stephen described me. (Actually every test I’ve taken has put my squarely in the middle.) Most of the others are longer, several over a page long. Many touch on themes covered in ‘Look Up!’ like this one:


The second lot are prose poems. All consist of short blocks of text maybe six or seven lines long, sometimes in two or three… Is it paragraphs or stanzas with prose poems?... constructed mostly from sentence fragments. The one I liked the most was this one:

Choose The Moment

Soft chambers and bellows for a flame. A voice in the corner of the room. Laughing. I expand to include you. We miss the man who plays the organ – he failed to arrive this morning. Variations in colour, tone and atmosphere as we move between each room. One man dominates the ceremony. I give him place because I love him. We expand to include you.

There may be an unavoidable dilemma. Trickery in the garden. The shadow of your days unaccounted for. Let me present my son, he has just returned from South East Asia. The subtlety of my gesture confounds you.

The rooms are full of trophies and mementoes. Windowless. A barrage of history. Children drag me off – they want to sing for me. Immutable connections. I am new here. What melds us.

The third type of poem are just, well, poems and there are two of these, ‘So High, So Hung Up’ and ‘Whit a Man Wants’. As with ‘Look Up!’ these are written in dialect and, to my mind, really belong in the first section which is something Stephen says he did consider:

You're perhaps right about the two Scots poems belonging in the first half. I wrestled with this a little but decided they should be towards the end of the book as echoes of Part 1.

The first one I’d read before in an interview for Salt; Lunar Poems for New Religions was shortlisted for the Crashaw Prize and they did a piece on him.

Looking at the book as a whole Stephen says:

[I]f you take the theme of spiritual emergence in ‘The Moon from my Windowless Heart’, ‘Crescent’ teases this out in terms of the lunar cycle, giving not quite variations but extensions of the experience in visual and sonic and concrete form. If ‘The Moon from my Windowless Heart’ is a disjointed narrative of breakdown and new birth, ‘Crescent’ is the follow up, the resulting integration and building of a spiritual life. Claire Askew was spot on about the timing of these poems being essential as stages of the moon, but also stages of spiritual growth and emergence.




Overall I’m not quite sure what to make of this collection. Eclectic is as good a word as any. Personally I would’ve preferred him to stick to the one style throughout—the dialect poems are quite enough on their own to make into a decent chapbook—but that’s me. These were the poems I enjoyed the most and, yes, I did actually enjoy ‘Look Up!’ in my way although probably not in the way Stephen would’ve liked me to enjoy it. He said to me:

I'm of the opinion that you don't have to understand a poem to be moved by it, indeed the way it moves you is more important than understanding. I find easily understood poems a bit boring sometimes. Unusual or complex language and structure are just more enjoyable. I particularly like the flow of spontaneous writing, where meaning is perhaps subordinate to energy. I did feel the structure of LOOK UP! was quite straight forward however – Part 1 LSD in the 60s, Part 2 Ecstasy in the 90s, weave a personal spiritual experience and reflections around that with a suggestion of the disjointedness of breakdown and recovery.

With some avant-garde poetries, it's the spirit that's important, and ‘Howl’ had a HUGE spirit, which affected the spirit of the age and still affects how we see things today. It's shamanic poetry. Drugs, shamanism, spirituality work the same way. No one really understands what's going on but they alter things and thereby change how we see the world and how we live our lives. ‘Howl’ did this and I wanted my long poem to reflect that dynamic a little.

And that’s where I come unstuck because I’ve no interest in drugs or shamanism and freely admit to not having a spiritual bone in my body. That said one of the reasons we read is so we don’t have to experience things personally, we can read about the experiences of others. In that respect ‘Look Up!’ was interesting and I don’t feel like I’ve wasted the last week wallowing in his world.


nelson-headshotStephen Nelson was born in Motherwell, Scotland in 1970, to the King of Belgium and his wife, a member of the Swedish Royal Family. He was educated in a monastery in Bhutan where he quickly learned the simultaneous arts of telepathy and levitation. He gave it all up for poetry, however, and now lives in a tower block somewhere in South Lanarkshire, having denounced his royal heritage and all its attendant privileges. His interests include the sun, rain, snow, grass, beaches, islands, mountains. At present he doesn’t own a bicycle, although that may change in the near future as he is intent on losing a bit of weight. He enjoys being an Anglican.

(Not sure you should take all the above seriously, folks. Someone’s tongue was definitely in their cheek when they wrote it.)

Let me leave you with a wee video of Stephen reading 'Look Up!' (part one)


[1] See Harold S. Ballard, M.D, ‘The Hematological Complications of Alcoholism’, Alcohol, Health & Research World, pp. 42-52

[2] The website The Biology of Kundalini is quite helpful here.

[3] See Nicholas Saunders, ‘The spiritual aspect of rave culture’, The Guardian, 22nd July 1995

[4] Couldn’t help but think of Psalm 37:25 here, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” Presumably he’s yet to attain righteousness. Again, I’m probably being too literal.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Six books on Alzheimer’s and a poem

Alzheimer’s is the cleverest thief, because she not only steals from you, but she steals the very thing you need to remember what’s been stolen ― Jarod Kintz, This Book Has No Title


‘Journey into Alzheimer’s’ by Ruth Blackford

To the best of my knowledge I don’t have Alzheimer’s although, if what I’ve read is anything to go by, none of us can say nay with any degree of certainty because it takes a while for any symptoms to manifest and even then the only way to know for sure is to cut your head open and look to see if there are any tangles and plaques in there. I do have difficulty remembering stuff. I’m in my fifties and most people my age will have started to notice that their brains aren’t quite as sharp as they once were. If I was to look on the bleak side I might be tempted to think I was suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) but since there’s no way to test for it conclusively, either, I’m not desperate to label what I have. But I do forget things quickly. If ‘forget’ is the right word and I’m not sure it is. There’s a negative connotation to forgetting. I don’t so much forget as let go of stuff once I’m done with it. I couldn’t tell you my daughter’s address or my wife’s mobile number. I know where to find both of them so I don’t need to remember them but it still puzzles me that I can’t remember them.

My ‘bad’ memory is nothing new. I’ve always had a ‘bad’ memory. For certain things. I was talking to my wife about this a wee while back—and I can remember talking to my wife so I clearly don’t forget everything. I was telling her about a boy I went to school with, Neil McC. We were in Primary One together and we left secondary school on the same day so I knew him for eleven years. We were friends, good friends for a while, but this is all I can remember about him apart from his looks: he was born on May 15th (the same date as my kid brother which is the only reason that stuck); he was into Genesis (while Gabriel was still in the band—I can picture him showing me The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway in his bedroom) and Wishbone Ash; he lived on the ninth floor of the first block of flats you reached walking into town; he was with me when we found the fossilised ‘brain’ in the mud on the way to school (it was actually a sponge); he emigrated to Australia and his mother—who was a thin, tall, very polite woman—moved after that to a flat above the corner shop. And that’s it. Eleven years and that’s it. I couldn’t tell you if he was in the football team or the rugby team. I don’t know what subjects he took. I’ve no idea if he ever had a girlfriend at school although I don’t think so; very few of us had proper girlfriends at school.

Clearly I knew much more about him over the years but I’ve not felt attached to those things and I’ve let them go.

The subject of memory loss fascinates me though. There are things I wish I could remember more about and feel a real sense of loss over. I feel I’ve been negligent, not taken care of my memories. And that’s the thing when we’re kids, we can’t imagine getting old, losing our hair, our teeth, our figures, our memories; we’re cocky, we eat what we like, drink what we like, stay up as late as we like and never imagine there’ll be any consequences and then we hit fifty and find we have to watch our salt and sugar and fat and wheat and caffeine and milk—seriously, why did eating get so complicated? Use it or you’ll lose it, so they say. I neglected my memories and they faded away. Now I need memory aids to crack open the doors. If this flat burned to the ground and I was just me how much would be lost forever I wonder?

So I’ve been reading a lot about Alzheimer’s recently. I’m calling it research. I’ve been trying to write about memories for a while now—unsuccessfully I should add—and I was hoping one or more of these books might give me an in or an angle or something. So this isn’t a proper review, just a few observations. I chose five books originally and then ordered a sixth. There’s a lot of stuff out there directly (quite rightly) at carers: it’s a soul-destroying job having to look after a loved one with dementia and they need all the pointers and support they can get. I was more interested in what sufferers had to say.


Still Alice by Lisa Genova

still-aliceThis was a New York Times bestseller. I tend to shy away from bestsellers but I was pleased enough with the purchase. This is a novel and a very well-researched one at that. It focuses wisely on the early and middle stages and all credit to the author because the world she presents is realistic and believable. There’s not a great deal of plot and certainly no subplots. We simply follow this woman as she not-nearly-as-slowly-as-she-would-have-liked slips away. It can’t help but be tragic but the author doesn’t milk it although it does feel a little contrived at times: you know when the woman, Alice, describes the process of eating ice cream at the start of the book there’ll be a scene towards the end where she makes a mess of it; you know when she has a sister who died called Anne and a daughter called Anna they’re going to get mixed up in her head. The most heart-breaking thing is when Alice’s Blackberry, which she’s carried around with her as an extension to her memory, gets damaged; you can’t see the damage to her brain but you can see the damage to her phone. We know right from the start what the future holds for Alice. It doesn’t matter that she’s a plucky individual who’s not going to lie down to this easily because she’s got no choice; this was never going to be a fair fight.

If you know nothing about Alzheimer’s and want a quick overview then this is as good a place as any to start which is why I did; it was an easy read and far more enjoyable than a textbook with a title like Introduction to Alzheimer’s Disease. Shame it was written in the third person.


The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic by David Shenk

The ForgettingThis is an extremely well-constructed and well-written book. It treads the line between history book and memoir carefully but with something of the novelist’s panache. It should probably get labelled ‘Popular Science’ as it’s really not a textbook in the proper sense. There are several strands to this book which could have been presented as chapters in their own right but the constant interweaving of these stories—the history of Alzheimer’s from its initial discovery to now, the course of the disease, the life of Emerson, a conference in 1999—is beautifully done. It’s also a surprisingly frank book. It’s honest about the disease, yes, as you would expect, but it is also honest about those looking for a cure and the politics involved, who gets the grants and why and in that respect it shows up the major flaws in scientific research at the end of the twentieth century (the book came out in 2001) but there’s no reason to assume that things have changed much in the interim. Of course the book isn’t as up-to-date as it could be and there have been new discoveries since it was written but it is still well worth reading for its humanity. More than anything else I’ve read this author manages to put Alzheimer’s in perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the tragedy of it and not look properly at it. The book also discusses some frankly philosophical issues like the nature of memory and the fact that virtually all our memories are actually memories of memories: the things that get remembered are the things that get remembered. Loads of interesting anecdotes along the way. The one that jumped out at me was the debate that raged in the artistic community about the worthiness of the paintings de Kooning made after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Somehow his art—which was getting a little stale at this point—was granted a second wind, the last thing one would’ve expected. If the book is a little weak it’s on personal accounts—these tend to be relegated to quotes in-between chapters—but this is a minor gripe; there’re other books out there to fill that gap and I’ll come to them. Another valid ‘criticism’ I suppose is that the book is very American in its perspective. The writer drew on what was familiar to him. There are no doubt plenty of examples out there on the other continents that he could’ve used but it didn’t bother me.


Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's by Andrea Gillies

KeeperThis book upset me. The first two books didn’t upset me but this one did. The first two were good but I read them dispassionately. Keeper, on the other hand, got to me and it’s all credit to the author’s brutal honesty, not only about her mother-in-law’s condition and… I’m going to use the word ‘antics’ but it’s really far too jolly a word for what Nancy gets up to. Reading about how the disease affects people in a textbook is one thing but hearing someone describe the painfully slow decline of a loved one is something else. Have you ever watched a time-lapse film showing a piece of fruit decay? Well, that’s what this book was like. Months and months of a mind seizing up reduced to a couple of hundred pages. The tendency when faced with the ravages of extreme age is to look away. The author acknowledges this and tries to understand it; we all do it so it must be natural but to what end? And yet we’re not so squeamish when it comes to car crashes. Funny things us humans and by ‘funny’ I mean perverse. Normally we reign in that perversity but when we lose control it all spills out. Alzheimer’s is a very personal disease—no two cases will follow the same pattern—but it’s possible to outline the basic course of the disease and the author does slip in a fair amount about the nature and history of the disease and the progress that’s being made in treating it all of which is covered better elsewhere but that’s not what this book is all about. This book takes statistics and symptoms and charts and tables, gives them a name, a face, a past, a family and a personality, lights the blue touch paper and steps well back. If you’re only going to read one book on the subject then this wouldn’t be a bad choice. It was also nice that they were based in the UK and could talk about the problems they had with local councils and the NHS which despite being a national treasure is far from perfect.


Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer's by Thomas DeBaggio

Losing My MindThomas DeBaggio was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 1997; he was 57. He died in 2011. He wrote two books talking about his condition, Losing my Mind, published in 2002 and When it gets Dark published a year later. This was the first book about Alzheimer’s written by an actual sufferer; the novel I read was written from the perspective of a sufferer but the author didn’t have the disease and so it was a more polished and structured book than this, although not a bad book and clearly, as I’ve already said, well-researched. This book is the real deal and a much harder read. It’s not a hard read in the sense of it being an upsetting book; it focuses on his experiences whilst in the early stages of the disease and it’s only in the last few pages where, for example, he calls for his mother at night after having a nightmare that you see what the future’s going to be like and there’re other books that describe that vividly, albeit from a carer’s point of view. No, this is a book describing a man coming to terms with losing himself. What makes it a hard read is that he’s chosen to write the book in a style that emulates how his mind is working/not working. There is a rough chronology to the work but his jumps about from here to there and so it takes a while before you start to build up a picture of this man and his life. He’s not lived the most exciting of lives but his time as a journalist during the sixties and seventies was interesting. He inserts quotes from journals to explain the factual elements but strangely enough chose a lot of things that didn’t rehash what I’d read elsewhere and I was grateful for that. Some of the entries are just one or two lines long, things like “There is death working away in my body. I live there in the company of fears,” “What am I doing here?” and, for me the most powerful quote in the whole book, “Alzheimer’s has taught me that sometimes it is wise to look in the same place many times for the things you desire.” Pages and pages of these could quickly become maudlin but there are just enough of them and their brevity and poignancy jump out at you.

The author has made a real effort to be open and honest. That you’re left at the end of the book wondering about many of the things he’s mentioned is probably the nearest he was ever going to get to communicating how he must feel; the arbitrariness of the disease’s course definitely comes across.


Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch by John Bayley

IrisHaving seen the film adaptation, albeit a while ago, I was surprised to find I enjoyed this book as much as I did. Bayley has a nice conversational style and this is very much a memoir and not a biography although, of course, the book is full of biographical details. It is also a far from objective assessment of his wife and her achievements; he’s happy to leave others to do that. No, this is a record of a flawed man’s love for a flawed woman. His love, though, was not flawed and it was certainly not blinkered (from the very start he was well aware of her limitations) but it was total; he was devoted to her from the beginning. So if you’re looking to learn more about Iris Murdoch’s body of work or wanting to learn more about Alzheimer’s this really isn’t the book for you and it never pretends to be, in fact, as regards her dementia, in a single sentence he skips a whole eighteen months of the disease which I thought was a lost opportunity. Although the book is called Iris it could just as easily—more so in fact—have been called John because he really is the central figure here; this is his story even more than it’s his wife’s and so I suppose that might be another reason for it to disappoint, but all of it comes down to the expectation of the reader as opposed to the intention of the author. I’ve no doubt that he achieved what he set out to do and was pleased with the results. Oh, and I know my edition was promoting the film but did we really need a photo of Judi Dench on the cover; a subtitle ‘Now a major motion picture starring Judi Dench’ would’ve been quite sufficient.


When It Gets Dark: An Enlightened Reflection on Life with Alzheimer's by Thomas DeBaggio

When It Gets DarkHaving got a lot out of his first book I decided to order this one. I read the two books in the order in which they were written and because of this I find myself biased in favour of the first book but mainly because I read it first. The books cover the same ground. Both are in fact autobiographies but not of anyone especially famous—unless you’re into herbs, then DeBaggio’s name is well known—but of an ordinary, decent bloke who just happened to get some bad news from his doctor one day.

DeBaggio’s life is actually quite interesting—he grew up in interesting times—and as such listening to him talk about his life and his deaf cat isn’t unpleasant, although having no interest in gardening whatsoever, the long passages talking about the joy of dirt didn’t do much for me. Where his first book is “better” than this one is in its structure. In When it Gets Dark he utilises a chronological structure and so he doesn’t really get into the affect Alzheimer’s has on his life until about a hundred and fifty pages in, which is fine unless you’ve read the first book and keep remembering bits and bobs. The first book doesn’t follow a chronological structure and so it takes one longer to get to know the guy behind the words but it also presents—this was his intention—a more realistic impression of what a life with Alzheimer’s is like, at least in the early stages. It’s a harder read but a better one.

In both books he inserts his day-to-day thoughts into the flow of the text, little aphoristic statements, observations, poetical notes. What comes clear quite quickly is that the language with which he has to communicate his losses is rather clichéd: fading, crumbling, slipping. This is not his fault. Go to any funeral and you’ll see the same happen. People don’t know what to say and so they fall back on well-worn expressions: I’m sorry for your loss, He was a good man, He’s in a better place now.

That said DeBaggio does his damndest to present a brutally honest picture of his mental state despite the fact his text has had all the typos fixed and that does mask the effort that must’ve gone into this work; an appendix with an uncorrected page would’ve been appropriate. Although written later than the first book this second one doesn’t reveal a great deal more; he hasn’t moved on that far. I would recommend buying Losing my Mind rather than this one and certainly not both.


There’s not one single book in the list that covers everything. If you are looking to learn more about Alzheimer’s I’d recommend these three:

  • The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic
  • Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer's
  • Keeper: One House, Three Generations, and a Journey into Alzheimer's

The_Man_Who_Mistook_His_Wife_for_a_Hat_coverI bought all three for pennies on I’m not sure how useful they’re going to be in my writing but we’ll have to see what sticks and what my subconscious can make use of. While I was waiting on the second DeBaggio book coming I also read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks. The book underlined just how little we still know about the human brain and how it works. What’s clear is that it doesn’t lie down without putting up a fight.

I’ve very little experience of dementia. My mother was a wee bit doty towards the end and it might’ve been the early signs of dementia but she died of pneumonia before we had to worry about that. Carrie’s mother in the States is in the middle stages but I’ve not seen her since she got bad and so most of what I hear is second-hand. The only thing I’ve written on the subject is this short poem from 1983. I was taken to visit an old woman who’d just been admitted into a nursing home and whose short-term was shot. It was a terribly upsetting visit and despite the fact it’s been thirty years since I was there the experience has stayed with me. The old woman kept searching for her keys in her purse so she could go home. We’d explain to her that the nurses had them and why she’d been admitted and she’d calm down and then a few seconds later the memory of what we’d just said would slip away—you could literally see the awareness vanish from her face—and she’d begin her pointless task again. We were there for maybe an hour in which the same five minutes was replayed over and over again. Heart-breaking.


Sympathy and Apathy
sat side by side in
the old folks' home,
neither knowing what
they were doing there.
Not really.

(For Elizabeth Gray (91))

4 September 1983

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