My mother is disappearing. Diagnosed with dementia six years ago, in recent months her confusion has redoubled, her memories leaving and arriving as unpredictably as fish to the surface of a pond. If she goes out of her house for a walk, she can’t always find her way back. If she wakes up after a nap, she might think a new day has started and begin making breakfast. She knows there’s a number you call in an emergency, but usually can’t recall what that number is. She has forgotten much of our family and most of her friends. She has only once forgotten me, her only child, and then only briefly—but it’s a sign of what’s to come.
I should be precise: my mother’s conscious mind is disappearing, not her body or her unconscious mind—the mind of dreams and reflexes; the mind our conscious mind tries futilely to claim dominion over. For now her body is very much present, and for her age, thriving. When I take walks with her, I hardly have to slow my pace. When she accompanies my two year old daughter to story time at the local library, she sits on the library carpet with the kids and young parents, then pulls herself up to standing at the end, to the amazement of all present. This is not how I have come to understand death’s arrival, especially here in our death-averse society, where we whisk away bodies and scrub rooms clean, buffeting ourselves from the reality of what’s happened with expressions like “passed away” or “gone to a better place.” My father died of cancer when I was eleven, his mind sharp up until the final weeks. The day he died, surrounded by family in our living room, I stood by his body and held his hand, still not quite cold. Soon after, the paramedics took him away and I never saw my father’s body again. My mother has been dying for years but her body is, for now, undiminished.
And my body, too, persists, though my conscious mind doesn’t understand quite how. While it worries over prescriptions and home healthcare workers and nursing homes, my subconscious is drumming up lines of poems, or the sentences that I’ve cobbled into this essay. I sometimes find myself with a pen in my hand, with no memory of picking it up. And my conscious mind asks the obvious questions: Why? And why now? Why persist with poems and stories and all this fancy language in the face of unavoidable loss? They’re questions I’ve asked myself often over the years, with no final answer arriving beyond the knowledge that not once in my life has my devotion to writing been a conscious choice. All I did was read, innocently at first, oblivious to what I was getting myself into.
There was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
There was Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water”:
But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
There was John Newlove’s “Driving”:
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.
There was Armand Garnet Ruffo’s “Mirror”:
In the end
There is no escape
(Did I say there was?)
It is always me.
No matter what I do
the way I look:
What is inside is inside looking out.
There was Muriel Rukeyser’s “Islands”:
O for God’s sake
they are connected
They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile
Some are cliffs
The bathers think
islands are separate like them
I read these poems in my late teens and my life was forever transformed. But the change was no more calculated than pulling my hand back from a hot stove or a pin prick. Like a spinal reflex, my body and instinctual mind decided my life for me before the words had fully arrived in my brain. On some intuited level, I’ve known all this since I was a teenager and felt both unmoored and affirmed by these writers’ words. But it’s taken me twenty years, and my mother’s disappearance, to begin to understand the why of what happened. And happens. Why great poems confirm my life so fully, so unescapably, that I feel powerless to do anything but persist in reading and writing and promoting them.
One of my favourite literary puzzles is the short block of text: one paragraph, no line breaks. I love these creatures because no one knows what to do with them: are they prose poems? Flash fiction? Micro-essays? On first glance, the answer can only be Yes, maybe? to all three. Often reading the whole piece through doesn’t help much (if it wasn’t for a “Fiction” label on the back of her books, Lydia Davis’ stories could easily be stocked in three or four different sections of the bookstore). It doesn’t matter, of course, how they’re classified—the words are the words. But thinking about what makes something “poetic” lets you pry open the genre and spy its inner workings. Here’s the Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms defining a prose poem, and in so doing trying to tease out what, beyond its shape, makes a poem a poem:
The principle characteristics [of a prose poem] are those that would insure unity even in brevity and poetic quality even without the line breaks of free verse: high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity and compactness.
Pattern, rhythm, metaphor, repetition, intensity, density. These, to me, are the tools not of the conscious mind, but of the body and the unconscious mind. The lung-breathing, heart-beating, foot-pacing body. The muttering subconscious. The leaping, associative logic of the dreaming mind. Another way to put this: poetic language is poetic language because you feel like it’s poetic language. You know it when your body feels it.
Dennis Lee, in an essay entitled “Body Music: Notes on Rhythm in Poetry,” calls this sensation Kinesthetic Intuition, or “Kintuition.” (Look, he wrote Alligator Pie, let him have some fun with it.) As corny as the name is, the idea feels incredibly accurate to me. Our bodies contain rhythms our conscious minds do not actively recognize. In reading a poem, our bodies are alert to these kindred rhythms before our brains register them. Lee expands on his idea of “Kintuition” by saying:
Body music is the mind of poetry. Its rhythms think who we are, and what the world is… [it] is one alternative to the impasse of modern reason – to the inability of technical thought to know the world, except by shrinking it to its own value-free categories. [Body music] thinks beneath the impasse, within the impasse, beyond the impasse.
The body knows things before the conscious mind, but also beneath it, within it, beyond it.
Former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky reaches similar conclusions in his book Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry. He writes on the significance of the monotonous chants we enter into when alone and under duress: “keys keys keys keys keys” or “why why why why why.” In a conversation with Phoebe Wang in What The Poets Are Doing, Russell Thornton points to Shakespeare’s similarly repetitive lines—“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” from Macbeth and “Never, never, never, never, never” from King Lear—as personal favourites, noting that they “achieve… a near-miraculous uncluttered and extraordinarily subtle diction.” Pinsky refers to these types of chants as proto-poems whose “rhythm is like an other, attending to me”—a song we sing to ourselves, from within ourselves, to comfort ourselves. Pinsky says these proto-poems “sharpen and dislocate a feeling, calling it up but transforming it, maybe blunting it a little…”
In this way the process Pinsky describes mirrors one theorized for the utility of dreams: that we dream in adjacencies in order to help our conscious minds navigate trauma. If you lived through a traumatic event like a fire, you might dream of being washed away by a tidal wave: an adjacent trauma that you can more readily engage with, blunting somewhat your extreme feeling and helping you ready your conscious, waking mind to deal with trauma itself. Subconscious metaphor machines. Proto-poems of the instinctual mind.
In harnessing the adjacent rhythms and images that rise up—unbidden, driven by necessity—from the unconscious mind, Pinsky suggests poetic language doesn’t tell a reader how to think or feel, but invokes feeling, the feeling “brought into being by the voice. Incantation rather than the presentation of telling.” The connections a poem makes are “present implicitly in the cadences and syntax of language: a somatic ghost.”
Here we are again, feeling poetic language before we think it. In mirroring our bodies’ natural rhythms and movements, poetic language lets us press up closer to our fundamental biological relationships with ourselves and those around us. And in so doing it makes us feel more fully human, and less alone. This is something we all know intuitively. Poetry, after all, is the neglected art form we rush to in times of social dislocation: loss, illness, pandemic, war. Think of Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During The War,” which was widely shared online in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The ideas in that poem could be, and have been, communicated many times over in unpoetic prose. But the rhythmic repetitions in Kaminsky’s poem open us up to those ideas more intimately and more inescapably: “we // protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough… in the house of money / in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money, / our great country of money, we (forgive us) // lived happily during the war.”
Acute moments of disorientation are when we need a companion, not a treatise. Someone who does not simply tell us about something, but sits beside us in the silence that follows— breathing, alive. This is what those early, beloved poems did for me. Following my father’s death, in the disorientation of my teenage years, poems became my companions. The rhythms and associative movements of the poets’ bodies and subconscious minds, captured on the page, reached out and met mine: in how I read the poems, how I spoke them, how I sewed together the metaphorical leaps the poems made with the thread of my own life, until I found myself shaking hands with that poet, or embracing them, or even merging into one shared body, one set of lungs, one voice.
“If the poem is any damn good at all,” Muriel Rukeyser argued in 1978 (two years after publishing “Islands,” one of the poems that would go on to change my life), “it invites you to bring your whole life to that moment, and we are good poets inasmuch as we bring that invitation to you, and you are good readers inasmuch as you bring your whole life to the reading of the poem. And the process is the same for both of us. In that way, we are exactly alike.”
In the last few years we’ve experienced the heaping of one dislocation upon another—the pandemic, the deepening political divide, environmental collapse, war. All of us have felt, at times, alone or abandoned, even when surrounded by people. I hope that poetry, and poetic language, have been a companion for you during this time. I hope poetry has helped you feel more present in your daily life, and less isolated. I hope—though I doubt your conscious mind would frame it this way—that when you’ve read you’ve felt the somatic ghost presence of another body rising up from the page to greet your own.
My conscious mind didn’t choose to open this essay writing about my mother’s dementia (it dreads the idea—how it longs for a few hours, even, of thinking of anything else!), but my body insisted. And in placing my mother here amidst my thoughts on poetic language—why it most fundamentally matters to me, why it sustains me—I am reminded, with profound gratitude, of what my conscious mind resists acknowledging, projecting and panicking and racing ahead as it is wont to do: my mother has not disappeared. She is still here with me in all the most essential ways, even if she sometimes forgets who I am. I can hold her in my arms. I can laugh with her about the littlest things. We can walk through her neighbourhood and sing the songs of her childhood, or we can sit together in silence, listening to the music of our breathing.
A version of this essay was delivered on November 5th, 2021 at the Fraser Valley Literary Festival.
Rob Taylor is the author of Strangers (Biblioasis, 2021) and three other poetry collections. He is also the editor of What the Poets are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions, 2018), and the guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (Biblioasis, 2019). roblucastaylor.com
Throughout April, Rob Taylor has been interviewing poets for Read Local BC’s National Poetry Month celebrations.
Check them out: