Book Review

Therése Halscheid is already the author of several books of poetry: Powertalk, Without Home, Uncommon Geography and, most recently, a chapbook awarded by Pudding House Publications, whose series is titled, Greatest Hits. In each of these works, she has included a few poems that deal with her relationship with her father and his increasing journey into dementia. In her the manuscript for her new book, Last Movements, however, this relationship takes center stage.

While books such as Patricia Wellingham-Jones’ End Cycle have focused on the process of dementia from the point of view of a spouse and caregiver, Last Movements looks at it from the eyes of daughter, a viewpoint in which her own development as a teenager shadows her father's de-velopment.

Halscheid opens her collection with a short prose piece, “My Father’s Sweater.” This is an interesting and refreshing move for a single-author poetry book, and it accomplishes two things. The vignette itself lays the context for the poems that follow, and it allows the poet to give her work a bit of a different look by appearing to avoid the three section format poetry books inevitably fall into. The remaining sections of the book are “First Movements,” “Story in Several Voices,” and “Final Movements,” respectively.

“First Movements,” which describes the onset of the poet’s father’s dementia, begins with a poem describing an enigmatic but common experience of people just about to learn that they have a terminal condition. Her father is visited by his own deceased mother in a dream:

something heaven sent
which surfaced upon the foretelling waters…
it was there,
played out in waves
coming, coming as it has always been
the way of prophesy to act out
an awful knowing

The poems in this section focus less on the process of dementia itself than on the parallel disintegrations of father and daughter:

I am only fourteen. But you can tell I look old
as if life is ending. Notice how the limbs droop so
willow-like over the trash, see how the cans
are all packed with food, know I am starving myself, I am
that full of my father

She sees him, as she describes in “Unsoundness of Mind , almost a figure from an Old English epic:

shape shifting into monsters, he was there
with a horrid look, wearing fierce or faraway eyes –
and that noise from him, the sounds
there are no spellings for

and she herself became

speechless about that
which could not be formed
into sentences

Halscheid has cast this section as a tragedy and the word “tragic” itself is used frequently – perhaps a bit too frequently. The poems become almost unbearably intense, making the reader long for a bit of a mental break. Luckily, the poet has learned a thing or two from Shakespeare and does break up this intense mood with “Exposure.” While hardly as upbeat as a Shakespearean jester, this piece does include such phrases as “happy birthday to you,” “smile,” and “a camera snaps.” Moreover, like the bard's, Halscheid's style shifts into prose – in this case a prose poem – and this also creates a needed break in the mood.

In the third section of the book, the poet makes another interesting move. Called “Story in Several Voices” these poems shift out of the poet's own mind, mood and experience, to picture her father’s plight from several other view points, some human such as that of her uncle, and some non-human: the voices of his chair, the air in his room, his wife's rosary and a white sock,

They stitched your name
down the white length of me
and that meant
the end of waking –
that stopped all the lovely
sounding of leaves,
the touching green of the grass.

C h a r l e s
it said simply.

Such poems allow the poet to temporarily divorce herself from her own persona, and bring the poems around to focus on her father again, ostensibly, at least, looking at his plight from a variety of angles.

True to its title, the fourth section deals with the poet’s father’s final days and ultimate death. Ironically, it is in a poem called “Dreamscape” that the poet gives one of the most realistic expressions to what those who have wives and fathers in hospice must experience in common:

…even near death
you are managing
the impossible, long air
through your body, breathing
and no one knows what to do
not the coroner
nor anyone else

With the final poem, “Making a Path to CHARLES,” Halscheid bookends the collection by switching back to prose. In what is arguably the most effective piece of the entire book, the voice is that of her father:

After death was light. After light, a long way back to remembering with nothing before me but floating rubble – pieces of truth to trip over – and I was to form from this, a road.

I was to match shapes of scenes, fitting together the light and dark colors of incidents like a puzzle to solve that I had not wanted…

In the context of recent books, a comparison of Last Movements with Wellingham-Jones' End Cycle is probably inevitable because both deal with the dementia of a loved family member. But such a comparison is unfortunate because, unlike End Cycle , Last Movements is not primarily a narrative about caregiving. Instead, it stands in the tradition of strong feminist writers who had problematic relationships with their fathers - Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and Louise Glück, and it is readers of these poets who are most likely to appreciate Last Movements. While less overtly abrasive than a writer like Olds, Halscheid’s relationship with her father, as expressed in her poem, is a complex one. In the second to the last poem, “Aerial View,” the poet has her father say, “Admit my life destroyed you.” This is a strong tonic for any daughter, yet she hears her father telling her, that with his death he sees:

me easing
into a clarity
I had not known
in thirty years

a realm
of being once more
of sound mind
out of my ill body
long before the last breath.

Last Movements is not a "feel good" book. Readers looking for an uplifting tale of coping with dementia or even a cathartic read with a peaceful resolution will need to keep on looking, and, while, unfortunately, this may eliminate some readers who might be initially drawn to the book by its title, Last Movements will have its audience. The audience will include those with an interest in the difficulties of communication embodied in Halscheid's encounter with dementia and, more broadly those, like poets, who wrestle with how to communicate in words that which seems uncommunicable. It will also include those readers of Plath, Sexton, Olds and Glück who say with Halscheid,

There was still the taste
of the word caught in my mouth

the sound of father,
f a t h e r