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Book Excerpt: Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

Notes from the Dementia WardFor those who haven’t seen Finuala Dowling‘s meditation on her new collection of poetry, Notes from the Dementia Ward (co-published by Kwela and Snailpress), it’s worth clicking over to.

The book “does not depart from my favoured tragic-comic pitch,” she writes – and the selection we bring you here doesn’t contradict this.

The collection takes for its central theme the poet’s mother’s descent into mental frailty – no, in fact, that won’t do, only one word will do, and the required word Dowling produces with the relief, one imagines, of pulling out an easy sliver, mixed with the despair that follows upon realising that it only broke off: “dementia”.

Here are four poems:

* * * * * * * *

Brief fling in the dementia ward

My mother has a brief flirtation
with Mr Otto, a rare male in Frail Care.
He has the look of a Slavic conductor
– sweeping, side-parted silver locks
offset his visible nappy line.

‘How odd,’ Ma says of Mr Otto,
‘to meet the love of one’s life in a kitchen’
and to him, within hearing of the nurses:
‘Your place or mine?’

But then, just as quickly, she forgets him
and Mr Otto wanders the passageways again,
asking if anyone has seen his wife;
it’s not like Mrs Otto to be home so late.


How to use a porcupine as an alibi

Sunday nights are spiritual occasions for my brother
he goes to church and comes home late and drunk
I mean, sometimes drunk.

One Monday morning following these wassails,
I noticed that the gate in the back yard was broken –
a chunk of masonry still clung to the wood.

And I said: ‘Richard, did you break the gate last night?’
He did not answer me at first but only imperviously observed:
‘On my way home I met a porcupine with shining eyes.
It looked at me aggressively in the dark.’

There was a pause while the word ‘porcupine’
nosed its snuffling, feral way
into Monday morning’s conversation.

Then I said: ‘So are you saying that the porcupine broke the gate?’

I thought if I could get an admission from him,
we’d be one step closer to fixing the gate.

But we were way, way out now,
beyond the pale and gateless.

‘I looked him in the eye,’ he said (about the porcupine),
‘and I thought: if you shoot me, I’ll shoot you.’

My brother does not have a gun.

Way, way out, boundless,
beyond the pale and gateless.

This is the true story
of a standoff between man and beast in suburbia.

This is the true story
of how a half-blind, slow-moving rodent
caused a big-set, full-grown man to shoot our bolt.

This is the true story of the word ‘porcupine’
and its triumph over the word ‘gate’.

This is the true story of how to use a porcupine as an alibi
when explaining a broken gate to a poet.


Kalk Bay evening

Driving dull and automatic to the cash machine
I have an epiphany at a traffic light.

Outside the recycling depot, under the money tree,
a homeless couple selects cardboard for the night.

A Kelvinator fridge box would be the real prize –
a double bed – but they take what they can find.

Green is a long time coming so I watch them stroll
along the promenade to the pinky-blue horizon.

June is usually cold and frequently wet, but not this night, no:
harbour lights race along the calm water towards the lovers.

He brings the cardboard and the bag of drink;
she shoulders the dirty eiderdown.

I think of suburban couples settling down this night
in drip-dry sheets, with the blue light of the TV winking

sexlessly across the edge-to-edge carpet at the bed
with its matching pillow slips and resentments.


Looking up

The moment before you died
you looked up,
the way all children look up: hopefully.

You were expecting us to come
but we didn’t come.

You see –
the economy has been growing at 3.2% per year,
many of our shopping malls have parking for over 1 000 cars.
Things have been looking up;
we’ve had a lot of new stuff to look after.

Of course, when we read how you’d died,
you had three hundred thousand mothers,
you had four hundred thousand fathers.

Yet it’s true that the moment before you died,
you looked up, and no one came.

* * * * * * * *

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