Book Review: Forgetting Home (Anna Evans)

Reviewed by Therése Halscheid

The idea to create a poetry anthology about Alzheimer's began with a direct experience. Writer/Editor Anna Evans walked through the door of a residential home for older adults with memory loss, and she came out changed. Thus, our world now has Forgetting Home (Barefoot Muse Press, 2014).

Evan's hope for her anthology aims at supporting readers who have lost loved ones, as well as bringing understanding to caregivers faced with such challenges, while also upholding respect for those who suffer from the disease. This is a growing mission that many are now sensitive to. As Evans writes in her Introduction: "While many of the poems may move us to the point of sadness, I believe all of them display the human spirit at its fiercest and most indomitable. The characters in these poems are people first."

For those who wish for a way to describe Alzheimer's, for those needing a framework through which to process mental decline — this collection has found a way to navigate the incomprehensible. It's sectional titles shed light on phases associated with dementia. The first section, appropriately called "The Beginning," includes poems that reveal the first signs of transgression. Subsequent sections probe more deeply, the more obvious stages such as "Reverse Parenting," "Food for Thought," "Forgetting Home," "Assisted Living," "The Un-naming." Reading, rereading these titles, I began to sense this body of work as a human body undergoing the aging process: the process of forgetting, the rewinding of a life, the return to infancy.

The opening poem, Maryann Corbett's "Long-Term Memory," is poignant. It captures baffling moments. The writer creates a startling scene that shows how victims of dementia weave in and out of time frames. Her poem depicts an elderly man (a loved one) who is showing signs of mental decline. The writer's poetic details enable us to see how he shifts out of present tense to briefly enter the past. He reverts to former days of his youth when he had to keep his job, needed it to marry, and then his confusion heightens as he claims he must leave now, tonight….For readers who have not yet witnessed the sudden vacillations of those with dementia, this written scene is far from being fictive. It catapults me into the past, back to my own father who, during his first year of brain damage, would suddenly be missing. Sometimes we would find him sitting in his Volkswagen, insisting he was late for work. I recall my mother coaxing him into the house, dreaming up things a parent might say, phrases like: but first you need to have some lunch.

Certain poems in this section depict early signs of organic dementia, a stage that frequently begins with the loss of short-term memory. Penny Harter's poem "Arthur's Wife" does that well. In Harter's poem we bear witness to a wife who struggles to remember the current year, who claims: I don't know what is the matter with me. George Harding's poem "Damn Alzheimer's" opens with We should have seen the signs…. He then describes an outfit of odd socks and a frayed shirt collar. In fact every poem in this section wears signs of dementia. Jean L. Kreiling's "Hardly There" captures the vague look of Alzheimer victims. Eyes in a far-off stare, as if in a long-ago somewhere she writes.

Evans titles her second section Reverse Parenting, a term that says so very much in only two words. Here, we read poems of a daughter cueing her mother to undress prior to an X-ray; we find poignant words about role reversals, such as Wendy Chin-Tanner's opening line: as if childhood had not / died….

The section Food for Thought opens with a poem "Potatoes" by Ethna McKiernan, where the speaker's well father is weeping as he peels dinner potatoes. I am affected by the line: He pierces their white hearts with a fork, as well as lines that follow:

How could he have known, when he made
that vow fifty-seven years ago,
how suddenly and readily she'd leave him …
for that thin stranger
called Alzheimer …

McKiernan's is a deeply felt piece, one that serves to vivify the caregiver who is overwhelmed by it all, who needs to learn how to straddle two worlds — the real and illusory. For me, the caregiver on the page is emblematic of so many who quietly care for their loved ones, who endure their shocking, shifting worlds. We see the role of caretaker in other poems such as Mark Thalman's "Caretaker." We witness delusions in "Hunger" by Pam Baggott, where a diminished victim has turned her meal into objects of the sky: cream as clouds, mashed potatoes as the white moon.

I was also drawn to the poem "The Smallest Orchid, Puerto Rico, 2009" by Kelly Scarff, and liked it for the analogous relationship between a mother who is unable to walk and that of a small pink orchid stretching her cupped body upward / toward the rain.

The last section of Evan's anthology is titled "The Un-naming" and in it are poems that address a loss of words. Tammy Paolino's poem "Crumbs" captures this well, as her great-aunt shakes her head: Bowl, she tries, pressing, pressing, her eyes/ questioning mine. Lois Marie Harrod's poem "Picking Things out of the Air" opens with her fathering remembering less: he sometimes picked words out / of the air like disembodied gloves… .

There is Judith H. Montgomery's poem "Another Prayer" which asks: If in the beginning was the Word then what of ending — stutter? then silence?

Among the many pieces that give voice to the mind's loss of language, there is a little poem that stands out for me. It is Forrest A. Hainline's three-line haiku:

You know you love me
But you can't recall my name
So we just hold hands

Perhaps I am drawn to it because the poem replicates a personal memory, of my father dying in his hospital bed—a father who had been with brain damage for thirty years, whose mind had pretty much erased the names for things. A father without teeth even, who was blind, had been in a geriatric chair so long his feet were curled. And in this scene there is my mother by his side, her hand cupped over his, to the end.

There are several other poems that capture the debilitating and unpredictable nature of Alzheimer's. So many I cannot name them all. But I can say that each gives voice to different aspects of dementia. And I can add there are so many types of dementia, a definition cannot be absolute. And yet, this is the power of Forgetting Home. It provides that kind of triumph throughout. It speaks for those who have been stunned into silence: be it an observer, a relative or spouse, co-worker or friend. It speaks of victims for whom language is leaving.

It is true that we cannot see a wounded mind, as we can a physical wound. And we cannot see the feelings of the heart, only the face that wears its emotions. Forgetting Home is an anthology that probes our inner worlds, and lifts them onto paper. Seeing these worlds in the open certainly helps caregivers realize they are not alone, and assists in elevating compassion for those with the disease.


Therése Halscheid's new book of poems Frozen Latitudes is forthcoming this Fall (Press 53). Other collections include Uncommon Geography, which received a Finalist Award for the Paterson Poetry Book Prize; Without Home, Powertalk and a chapbook award Greatest Hits. A recipient of fellowships from NJ State Council on the Arts and the Dodge Foundation, her poetry and essays have appeared in such magazines as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Crab Orchard Review, Sou'wester. She teaches for Atlantic Cape Community College, NJ, and visits schools in varied settings including a stay with an Eskimo tribe in northern Alaska. Taking a contemplative approach to writing, she lives simply as a house-sitter while traveling widely to write.