Difficult to explain

| November 9, 2010
By Finuala Dowling

Finuala Dowling is the author of two novels and three published collections of her own poetry. Her latest collection, Difficult to Explain, draws upon the work of students attending her poetry workshops in Kalk Bay and is prefaced by A Brief Memoir of Poetry Teaching, from which the following is extracted.

I started to teach poetry in 2007, at a time when my life seemed to have reached its lowest point. Along with my siblings, I was suffering from the effects of caring for my mother as she descended inexorably into dementia. In February, after intense debates around our sense of betraying someone who had taught us everything there is to know about loyalty, we committed our confused mother to institutionalised frail care. “Will it be a kind asylum?” she asked.

Remembering my mother’s saws (‘The cupboard has to be emptied before it can be filled again’; ‘The darkest hour precedes the dawn’), I resolved to stop moping. I still had no prospect of employment, but I decided that if I put workmanlike energy out there, the universe or some more concrete institution would reimburse me.

What vehicle could I use to help me release this random energy? In January I had taught a summer school course on writing poetry. Despite all the reservations listed above, I’d had the most rewarding teaching experience. The class register was a dream, or perhaps the germ for a sitcom. Two priests, a Geology professor, a vet, a novelist, a journalist, an artist – there was an abundance of IQ, literacy and life experience. The students wrote wonderful poems and some frankly hilarious ones too. The Geology professor attempted a three-line poem at my prompting. It began with a splendid sunset, and then another image of magnitude, followed by the line: “I just can’t deal with it”. The bathos was delicious.

The Anglican priest sitting behind the poet said: “I’m definitely going to use that; maybe not immediately, but I’m going to use that line.” We laughed so much (not just at this moment, but throughout the course) that we nearly disrupted Conversational Xhosa, which was taking place next door. Remembering this positive interlude, I decided that I would offer private poetry classes.

Until January 2010, when she died, my poetry workshop Saturdays would begin with a visit to my mother in frail care. While she dozed in her bed or wheelchair, I’d read through the batch of poems in preparation. One morning the nurses said they’d noticed a new vagueness in my mother and suspected a “cerebral event”. I had to help her to eat her breakfast, but she didn’t want the soft poached egg. “It’s not your cup of tea,” I remarked. “Don’t – don’t use …” she started, but could not find the word. I finished her sentence for her: “Clichés”. Her guardianship of language was unfaltering.

I had mentioned my mother to my summer school students, partly because so much of what I know about language, poetry and voice control comes from her, and I like to cite my sources. But also, I wanted to read them a very moving poem by Jane Kenyon, called In the Nursing Home. I usually ask students to read aloud, but this was a poem I particularly wanted to read myself, and I explained why. The poem describes a woman in frail care through the metaphor of a horse. The horse is confined to a smaller and smaller pasture each night, until it is no longer possible for the poor animal to run or even make tight circles. The brief poem ends with a prayer: “Master, come with your light/halter. Come and bring her in.”

After I’d read Jane Kenyon’s poem and the class had ended, I drove home. Except that I did not. I felt strongly that I should eave the freeway at the Kendal Road exit and visit my mother, even though I was not down on the family roster for that day. As I walked into my mother’s room, I could see at once that she was in extremis. “She’s taken a turn for the worse,” said her carer, Christine. Ten minutes later, less than an hour after I had read Kenyon’s poem aloud to my class, my mother died.

Master, come with your light/halter. Come and bring her in.

‘To adventurers, as far as I’m concerned’

There is a climber on TV dangling
from a rope about to die.
He reminds me of the stranded balloonist,
parched in the desert, about to die
who reminds me of the solo yachtsman with broken arms,
4 000 kilometres from anywhere, about to die
who reminds me of the men who tried to play
Scott-of-the-Antarctic Scott-of-the-Antarctic
and who ended up hating each other and about to die.
Oh misled, unfortunate adventurers: stay home!
What would it take to make you stay at home?
There’s so much to do: Make tea! Clean out the shed!
Find your inner mountain and climb it
Find your inner sea and chart it
Find your inner arid plain and trudge across it
as we all do, daily,
harnesses in the canyon
crampons in the glacier.
Imagine how much we’d save on search and rescue
if you would only stay at home
Imagine how many we could save
if you would only cease this quest for accidental death
and talk about your feelings; or clean the shed.

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Category: Summer 2010

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