‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
‘So long lives this and this gives life to thee.’
We are in Manhattan in the mid-town east side. A day care centre for people who have Alzheimer’s. It’s a poetry reading and poetry making project led by Gary Glazner of The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. There are about fifteen older New Yorkers sitting around in a kind of a circle. Outside its snowing, flakes drifting down but not settling. We had started with Blake. Call and response:
“Tiger, Tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night..’
“What do you think a tiger would look like?”
“I would say it would look like a tiger”
“A beautiful striped tiger”
Then Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter. We beat the rhythm. The group throw in: “It’s like a heart beat, a horse galloping, a car with a flat tyre.
We make up a poem about snow: “What would snow taste like? What does it feel like? What would you say to snow?”
“I’d say: ‘Come back in summer’ ”
It’s a comfortable feeling being in this group. One by one everyone contributes. Everyone is given space and time.
One man has a pronounced accent. “Where are you from?”
He is given time to give a thoughtful ‘in the process of arriving from many points and considerations’ reflection on the qualities of snow.
“Thank you for listening to me”, he says when he has finished speaking.
The poem, this new reflection on snow, that holds so many sensory and childhood memories, glued together with Manhattan wit, is read back to the group. Half way through the poem comes the line ‘The possibility of snow in Lithuania”
“Excuse me” , the man interrupts, “Did you really mean to say Lithuania?’
“Yes” says Gary. “It’s in the poem”. The man smiles.
The session closes with Wordsworth’s Daffodils. And then the bubble burst. An almost imperceptible ‘pop’. The poetry space has contained this focused possibility; people sharing some kind of common purpose. Somehow there is an understanding that there are no rules. There is nothing to get right and nothing to get wrong. No possibility for confusion.
Maybe it’s the need to be ‘doing’-to keep momentum, to be on the move. Something in the group becomes palpably more anxious. People are worrying about how they will get back to their homes. Staff get agitated as people attempt to drift unaided to the restroom. The balance of control has shifted. A new power relationship has reasserted itself.
And I am left wondering. Why did it stop? Why this boundary? Why can’t Wordsworth wander into the washroom with that woman and her care-giver? Isn’t that where we need to put poetry: into the bloodstream of our human interactions?