Book Review

Readers of Patricia Wellingham-Jones' Don't Turn Away will be familiar with her ability to weave individual poems, complete in themselves, into a text that tells a much larger story. Don't Turn Away chronicled her experience of breast cancer from the discovery of the initial lump through a mastectomy and into readjustment and reaffirmation. End-Cycle, Wellingham-Jones' latest book, tackles an equally difficult subject, her husband Roy's journey into dementia and eventual death. As with Don't Turn Away, End-Cycle is not just a collection of poems, it is a fully formed story with problem, climax and denouement.

The author announces her theme with the first words of the first poem, the title poem:

The End-Cycle,
can be as rich
as the whirlwind
of the young life

a cup of strong coffee
on a greyed wood deck
a stack of nine flat stones

morning sun turning

Many of the poems that follow mark the trajectory of the story: "First Night," "Fall," "Those Same Fingers," "Jigsaw Mind," "New downward cycle every three weeks," "Vigil," and "Room where you died a month ago." The virtue of these poems is in their ability to capture the familiar details of the story, the small indicators signs of the seamless transition from between stages.

There is the first fall,

Today, as he tries to rise
from his crouch, his legs tremble.
His foot slips on a damp
patch of earth and he spills
like an overturned flower pot.

the small uncontrollable movements of hands in sleep that betray disturbance,

The left hand
rises to your lips
extends cupped as if holding a chalice
scrabbles at the snaps in your shirt
lies relaxed on your thigh
then taps a dance rhythm

and those outward signs that reveal the inner sea change:

A stranger glides in
    peers through your staring eyes
He wanders the house
    as if he'd never been here before.

Braided together with the poems of her husband's decline are poems that document the author's own metamorphosis. More than a book about the disease process itself or those whom it physically affects, this is a book about care giving. It is in these poems which chart the subtle shift in her emotions that Wellingham-Jones is at her best, as in describing bathing her husband

She washes down
as far as possible
Washes up
as far as possible
Then she washes

or even more fully in "Will o' the Wisp."

The essential you
surfaces every now and then
A brief flicker
like a firefly at dusk
which trapped in a jar
dims its light and dies
So you
in the murk of old age
lifts from the bog
tease me toward light
for a few precious moments

Wellingham-Jones strongest poems are those in which she lets the bare event, devoid of commentary, evoke those unnameable emotions that have been experienced by so many in her situation, as when, milling through the hospice shop of the hospital, she discovers

At the end of a rack of clothing
lurked a special rack of better things -
four of Roy's summer shorts ($3 each)
and the red plaid flannel ($4)
he wore the week he died.

One of the questions that End-Cycle raises is the relationship between therapy and art. This has been the subject of fierce discussion in the disability community. Can a poem whose primary purpose is therapeutic elicit an aesthetic response from the reader? It is in the just this arena - the effect that she wishes the poems to have on the audience - that Wellingham-Jones seems to be caught in a dilemma at times. Is the main intent of the poem one which retains its own artistic integrity or is it meant primarily as an emotional salve for a reader who may be going through similar trials herself? This not a mere academic question, but one in which choices have to be made in crafting the poem.

At times the author clearly allows the poem to follow its own course. There is nothing comforting in "Just Before Spring" in which she arrives at a sort of weary epiphany,

I now have an inkling
why many of the old die
just before spring…

All that fecund energy

gearing up of life
relentless roll of the cycles

when I'm so tired.

On the other hand, the book ends with the lines,

Your blue chair now claimed by cat,
my blue chair next to tea and book,
I weather the end of winter,
know spring will come.

While some readers may find it comforting, this reader wishes that the author had omitted the last line, it already being implicit in the nature of seasons and in the line above it. Moreover, while the reader logically knows winter follows spring, it is just the tension between that known and the fact that it is not yet a reality, that just possibly spring will not come, that keeps the poem interesting. There may indeed be readers closer to Wellingham-Jones' situation than this reviewer who are grateful for the author's explicit hopefulness. But perhaps this is the struggle between which will win out - the urge towards the therapeutic or the urge towards the artistic.

Notwithstanding the occasional preferencing of emotion over art, End-Cycle is a valuable book. In a society in which greater longevity means that many who do not themselves end their last years in dementia may become the caretakers for partners that do, the themes Wellingham-Jones explores helps to open up territory that many of us will need to travel.

End-Cycle is available from PWJ Publishing for $8, including shipping and handling.