“It was when spring felt real. As if/it would stick around for a while (59).”
In her fifth collection, Oblivescence, or “the act of forgetting,” accomplished poet Kelly R. Samuels takes the reader on the journey of losing a parent to Alzheimer’s disease. Through a maze of medical terms sounding like sinister foes, like anomia and alexithymia, Samuels aims to understand her mother’s condition, to ease her discomfort, although the emotional blows that occur on the journey of being a caretaker to a memory loss patient come without warning, without preparation.
Taking the reader on her caretaking odyssey, Samuels returns to several metaphorical touchpoints throughout this body of work, including Greek mythology, and anchors in the natural world. In “Image of Tau Tangles in the Brain” (57), her instinct is to decipher the medical data in natural terms: “I first see a bobolink nest—not nestled/in pasture or meadow, but floating.//Like your words seemed to do, the ends of/sentences trailing off as you searched for the right one.” She then equates the dwindling number of the birds to her mother’s decline in cognition.
To mimic the disorienting nature of the illness, Samuels uses several compelling stylistic techniques. In “What Rises To The Surface” (38), she uses erasure to emphasize scattered words in a longer, several-page text, artfully showing how a quantity of language can become a blur, with new meaning gleaned from the few words that make it through. Samuels also repeats titles for certain poems multiple times throughout the collection, such as “Overwritten (1)” and “Overwritten (2),” showing the way a person communicating with a dementia sufferer may need to say the same thing over and over, and the way the content will be taken in differently every time
In “What Remains” (47), which shows in deft detail how the mother once respectfully dealt with a stillborn fawn in her yard, in spite of the physical toll it took on her, Samuels aims to grant her mother the dignity of a life lived, and ended, well. However, prose poems such as “(Narrative Identity, or the Second Story as It’s Told)” (51) give an insight into a carer’s often harried state, helping a loved one increasingly in need of monitoring, of relief from pain. “And what of all the necklaces never worn?” One loses the chance to ask what should be done with the precious things, how a life should be wrapped up – the tasks of a child, of a daughter.
So often women feel the need to minimize their discomforts, to pretend things are better than they are. Bird metaphors are a thread connecting many of the pieces in this volume – in “The Lesser Snow Goose,” (54), Samuels appreciates the understated beauty of migrating geese, seeing in them similarities to her mother’s coping actions:
And I think of you and that other day and how you began
to shake when they called your name. And how you said
you weren’t feeling that well, which was understatement—
the lesser phrase, the making light of, what we do to appear
effortless in our journey.
To lose a cared-for person to dementia is, in itself, harrowing. Losing one’s mother – one’s original home – in this way makes the experience all the more unmooring. Images drawn by Samuels’ daughter Kate Netwal bring an added dimension to the pages, as daughter once again assists mother in documenting her lived experience.
The deep dive this collection takes into the journey of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease will resonate with those who have walked this path before. It is a no less compelling read for those who haven’t been there. The reader feels privileged to witness the intimacies shared herein, and to, in a small way, bear witness to this gradual, irreversible loss, and the way the love tangled up in it makes the knot much tougher to unravel.
Oblivescence by Kelly R. Samuels
Red Sweater Press, February 2024, paper
Jessica Manack holds degrees from Hollins University and lives with her family in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her writing has recently appeared in Maudlin House, Still: the Journal
and Litro Magazine. She is a recipient of a 2022 Curious Creators Grant. Keep up with her work