Friday, July 17, 2009

Susan Schultz's Dementia Blog: A Portrait of Grieving


Just recently, I returned home to the Chicago-area, where I spent my youth, and marked all of the changes to Lincolnshire's suburban landscape--the farms of my youth now only lingering palimpsests beneath the McMansions and new identikit developments, the restaurants once lively with voices now shuttered and silent, whole apple orchards like Quig's now flown off to wherever Heraclitus went with his river. I can't help but feel a little pain at the loss of such landmarks, inner maps now confused by outer definitions of progress. I was reminded again how one of the great struggles of poetry has been against Time.

Susan Schultz's moving Dementia Blog, a book of poetic prose chronicling the personal crisis of her mother's rapid descent into dementia and increasing need for full-time care, is a remarkable and exemplary chapter in that struggle. But simultaneously, it is a reminder of why we still need an avant-garde practice, and how avant-garde procedures can be as homely and unheimlich as the process of grieving a mother's decline, set against the backdrop of a nation's decline.

The book, whose gorgeous and haunting image of a photograph of a married couple disappearing into the background, began as a blog, which itself began as a travelogue, then rapidly became a meditation on the crisis of care for the author's mother. That the blog itself disappeared prior to the book's publication is suggestive of the many erasures that Dementia Blog marks and grieves.

Beginning backward, as blogs do, we find ourselves in the hectic present, in medias res, and push our way forward in order to go back in time. But counter to the novelistic mode of narrative, Dementia Blog only moves backward, it cannot progress into some future. It enacts a kind of mourning that moves into melancholia, as Freud describes it, descending deeper underwater and unable to break the surface of the present.

The book, then, never becomes a memoir of loss, insofar as the position of the memoirist must always be somehow removed from the scene temporally. We are treated to the open wound of grief, without its suture.

In this way, the book, a raw transcription of a Zukofskyan "thinking with things as they exist," marks not only the boundary between the living and the dead, but also the split in poetry since the modernists. In contrast to the notion of a viable American Hybrid (pace Ron Silliman and the recent anthology by that name), which purports to harmonize the impulses of cooked and raw, mainstream and avant, the Dementia Blog's direct transcription reminds us of a fundamental difference in poetic practice and possibility between the poets of monument and the poets of process. Schultz's practice hews toward pure process, where every particular, however mundane, however wasteful, stubbornly remains.

Schultz herself broaches this question--if one wants to remember, why not reshape it as memory and writing always already reshape it? By choosing process over some memoir'd poetics, Schultz holds fast and painfully to a present which will never change, and therefore always be past. This is the poetry of grief without end. In her words,

And if writing is an aid to forgetting, then why take this down as dictation, rather than reshape it in some other form? Form that marked it as poem, as line, as refrain (since dementia is the refrain of her life, as least?) Form that demarcated the difference between this life (demented as it is) and this poem (moments of forgetting tethered into some shape)? Because dementia is where the form and the life collide, where hallucination consumes form. Dementia is absence of form, absence of form/content rift or incorporation. Dementia is (though it is not) the poem in the process (or lack thereof) of forgetting poem.


Schultz, like the bereaved subject, imitates her own mother's decline into a past which is no longer on any map. In this way, it predicts our own individual and collective disappearance.

2 comments:

Jill said...

well said.

Andi said...

I couldn't agree more. Grieving for a loved one is always better when it is shared with another person who is going through the same thing. I thought I'd also share www.deathletters.org to your readers as it might help other people who are going through the same painful ordeal.