Michael Boccardo Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
Your poems pay attention to what we might have overlooked both outside and inside ourselves. That said, I've read "Self-Portrait without Epiphany" many times, and alongside the other two poems we're publishing this month, it reads as ars poetica. Your observations in all of these poems reveal truths of what we might miss if we don't pay attention, even if what we see is something we might have created.
In the last few years of my life that has become very true. Both of my parents turned 75 last year. My mother has dementia, and my father battles his own health problems that come with age. Suddenly being thrust into the role of caregiver is a sobering experience, particularly with my mother. She and I have always been close and to watch parts of her gradually fade is heartbreaking. Like most people who live with Alzheimer’s, she has her good days and bad, but I try to be extra attentive during those moments when she’s more alert: laughing and putting forth a considerable amount of interest while we’re playing a game. It’s almost like a snapshot in my mind—the color of her sweater, how the weather is behaving, the off-the-cuff remark I wouldn’t be expecting her to say (one symptom of memory loss is the lack of a filter). Accepting the fact that my time with both parents is limited has forced me to be more cognizant of these moments and how fragile they are, so I frame them with as much detail as possible.
Your poems definitely work like snapshots! I love the metaphor of doors in "Alzeihmer's." This is a brilliant way to capture how the brain closes off certain memories with this disease, and at the same time makes us very aware of the fragility of memory. I'd love to hear more about how this metaphor arose for you.
At the time of writing “Alzheimer’s” I had no idea what direction the poem was headed, other than utilizing the art of painting as the framework. The doors just started appearing and seemed to work in a way that reflects how this illness progresses. My mother’s long-term memory has been fairly strong, but as of late has shown signs of declining. Her short-term memory, on the other hand, is extremely poor. In many ways the doors to past memories, those she shared with my brother and I, or with my father, are the ones I wish I could open for her again. Unfortunately, once the doors that lead back to her childhood are locked, she’s the only key than can open them. Without her ability to access those memories, there’s no way to retrieve them ever again. The hardest part is witnessing the struggle on her face when she is attempting to recall the past, an incident that should be within easy reach, and yet she can’t quite push through that door and step into the middle of that memory.
"Down the hall, she drifts, rustling / through rooms like something scattered." The verbs you use in these lines echo what this disease is like for an observer: the person is drifting and their memory is so scattered.
The line came almost immediately because observing my mother at times is like watching someone leave remnants of themselves throughout the house. I usually visit once a week and have noticed she’s reached the point where certain memories cross over into others, and in a few cases, become completely fictitious once joined together. On one hand it’s difficult to comprehend, but on the other I’m trying to understand why these fragments are splicing into a “new” memory. Often, one of us (my father or I) will be talking about an event on the news or a television show and she’s quick to agree that she already knew about it or states that she saw it the other week. By agreeing with everyone else’s observations I think it’s her way of trying to pretend that nothing is wrong.
Wow. I'm thinking of the way she arranges her days in the poem. But it's not how she arranges her days—it’s how her mind arranges them.
Exactly! Several months ago she was fixated on a sighting of deer in the backyard. She continued to relay the sighting every time I saw her, but the story would always vary slightly. At first, she was inside the house when she saw them from the patio window. The next time, she walked outside, but they fled the moment they heard her approach. Finally, the story transformed into her actually approaching the deer and being able to touch and stroke their fur. The best way to handle the situation was to simply express interest or amazement each time and engage her with questions as though we were ignorant of the whole scenario, but never deny what she believed to be the truth.
In what ways has this experience made you think differently about the ways our minds work?
Oh, it has completely changed it. The mind is such a delicate instrument and we too often take it for granted. When you know or live with anyone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s and it’s so close to your own world, it alters your outlook. For most of us, if something slips our mind, we tend to blame it on fatigue, being overworked, or simply trying to balance too many situations in our life. For me, there exists that genuine, underlying fear of: “Will this happen to me? Am I going to end up like Mom?” Memory is truly fascinating in how it works, the ways it can manipulate fact and fiction, and alter particular details that reshape the whole landscape of our perception. People meeting my mother for the first time never had the opportunity to know the kind of person she was before her memory loss, and that is repeatedly the hardest realization for me to accept.
Right! The person completely changes because their mind does.
Yes! And when they have those rare moments of clarity, than can almost play with your own mind. You think, “Are they coming back? Is this the start of recovery?” Though this is ultimately not true, that’s the faith you cling to, that one day they will return to the person you remembered them to be.
I love how at the end of this poem you/the speaker act as a guardian of memory, "hinges of lilac & rust, swinging / freely."
Oh, thank you so much! Though the subject matter is dark, I wanted to insert those contrasting colors. Lilac is such a vibrant and rich color, full of hope, while rust represents, of course, the corrosion of memory. I’ve read different advice on how to communicate with Alzheimer’s patients, and one recommendation was to avoid saying, “Oh, you remember when…” or “Don’t forget about…” Recently, I assembled a photo album specifically for my mother, but labeled the pictures with everyone’s names and their relation to her. It was one way of incorporating past memories without using those phrases. There’s no silver lining with this disease, at least not yet, so I try to do as much as I can to make moments stand out for her. Simply because I know they will likely diminish or disappear altogether in as little as a few hours, and sometimes, a few minutes.
That's a wonderful idea, the photo album, and a way to ease frustration for her.
I’m hoping to add more photographs for her in the near future. The irony of the album, though, is that whenever she does pick it up, it’s as though she’s flipping through the pages for the first time. That’s the other mystifying faces of this illness. Because the mind erases, it’s almost like the person reverts back to childhood, discovering a moment for the first time and redefining that sense of joy.
Which is heartbreaking. You want them to feel joy, but you also want them to remember.
Yes, and as the caregiver it’s difficult not to let that frustration show. Every day is a work in progress, whether in person or over the phone, and many of my recent poems have developed into a kind of therapy. I can’t understand why this illness is happening, why it happens to anyone. But if I can make some sense of how to get through it, challenge my perception of it, through my poems, I consider that an achievement.
As a matter of fact, this interview is good therapy, too!
Your poems also observe how our minds work: we know the truth of things, but sometimes we want them to be different. In your poem "Should Myth Be All I Need," the speaker wants to revise a moment and wonders, "Is it too late for this / world to return what’s already been taken, / what will be taken again?"
This poems was especially difficult to write because it dealt with multiple aspects concerning my parents. Due to religious beliefs, my father chose not to attend my wedding. However, my mother did. It took a while to accept that only one parent would witness my future husband and I getting married in front of friends and family. As for my mother, I knew the occasion would only linger in her mind for a couple of days, if I was lucky. What I wanted most was to see my mother and father dance together. Growing up, I rarely saw either of them express much affection toward each other beyond a quick kiss goodbye when my father left for work. There was no hand hold, no “I love you”, and my wedding was an opportunity to see that side I never witnessed in my youth. I went so far as to tell my father that he didn’t even have to be a part of the ceremony if that was his choice, but to at least enjoy the reception afterwards. He declined, but I could tell it was with a measure of regret. My husband and I have been married for two years now, and I still imagine how the scenario would play out if he gathered my mother up into his arms and swept her out onto the dance floor.
And even if it did happen in this way, the speaker says, "what lies repaired inside them waits for / the name of the next sorrow."
Although those displays of affection were nonexistent, I knew there was love. Because of my mother’s illness, I notice now my father reaching out to hold my mother’s hand, or placing his palm against her back when they walk together. It’s gratifying to see, but bittersweet considering the circumstances. By making those amends, my father is trying to “repair” the wrongs, but “the name of the next sorrow” is indicative of waiting for that other proverbial shoe about to fall. This poem also speaks to another of those snapshots I mentioned earlier, even if it is fictitious.
We need these snapshots, these observations. They reveal real life for us. And real life is much more complex than we sometimes let on.
That's very true. And I held on to my resentment for a while. My relationship with my father was never a close one, and I didn't want his refusal to cause a broader rift in our relationship, especially not with my mother needing the kind of care we wanted to provide. This poem was a way for me to let go of that resentment, and in a small way, obtain that moment between my parents that I harbored throughout much of my life.
In an interview published by the Antioch Review, Elizabeth Bishop says, “People seem to think that doing something like writing a poem makes one happier in life. It doesn’t solve anything.” She goes on to say, “Perhaps it does at least give one the satisfaction of having done a thing well or having put in a good day’s work.” However, I’m stuck on that second sentence and have been mulling it over for a while. I’m interested to know what you think about this in regards to how poetry works for you, both in reading and writing.
Sometimes poetry feels like a love/hate relationship to me. When the images are flowing and it feels as though the poem is writing itself, it can be the best date ever, and you're one step away from marriage and picking out a China pattern. Then there are those moments where you spend a few hours toiling away at a poem and have accomplished only a shift in line breaks, or the adjustment of a comma from the beginning of one line to another as evidence of your hard work.
I don't think that writing a poem is going to solve a problem, but if nothing else, it definitely helps me try to understand emotions or situations that I couldn't decipher under other circumstances.
Many, if not all, of the poems I've written recently have dealt with my mother and her living with Alzheimer's. After each poem, I always tell myself "I must write about something else. This will be the last poem dealing with memory or my mother." Well, that doesn't always work out. If I begin another poem where memory or my mother enters the scene, there’s a reason that it’s happening, and that just means I must figure out why those themes are so important to me in that particular poem, why do I need to understand them in this capacity. I’ve attempted to resist this notion, but I’ve just accepted it as part of the writing process.
I think poetry, more than anything, is a way to help us understand the world. Because it is pretty damn hard to understand most of the time. Your poems reflect this very much, Michael. Poetry is a way of working through, of figuring out.
You said it! I can barely comprehend much of what is going on in the world today, how some people live with the results of their actions. Although the issues in my poetry are tough to voice at times, it's most certainly an escape, a way to focus on what I can do to understand the motivations behind specific actions.
And it's not escapism as one would escape into fantasy, but into a way of being human.
Yes, because we are all on this adventure together. Being human and coming face to face with the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful parts of it are how I think we lean on one another. I know my mother isn't, and won't be, the last person living with Alzheimer's. To hear stories, experiences, and read some startling and heartbreaking poems by other writers helps me realize I'm not traveling down this rocky path alone.
Yes. Being alone is not what any human being needs. We're in this together. Thank you, Michael.
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