Criticism & Features




Oblivio Gate, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008

Sean Nevin teaches at Arizona State University, where he directs the Young Writers Program and is assistant director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. He is editor of 22 Across: A Review of Young Writers, and his poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the NEA. Oblivio Gate won the First Book Award in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

The tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease is one of the touching centers of this book, but it is only a part of a series of experiences that connect the speaker to sickness, hospital visits and patient care. Indeed, the reminders of one’s mortality and vulnerability are everywhere and everyday. The title poem suggests that dementia and memory loss, this “Oblivio gate,” is one of the frightening passages before death, and that the fear this knowledge instills is the burden of those who witness and observe. Those who experience also suffer but in different ways. How did you navigate this difficult subject and manage to infuse originality in a much-discussed subject matter as Alzheimer’s? In terms of shaping it into poetry, what did you try to avoid and what was hard to stay away from?

It was not my original intent to write a book with Alzheimer’s disease as a central theme, in fact I resisted it almost every step of the way. I began by exploring how the brain perceives the self, relationships and the world around us. That led to a closer look at language, how words and their meanings will sometimes morph, unravel and decode altogether during the course of a neurological disease. In a strange way, I think that resistance to an illness-themed book played a critical role in the navigation of the difficult subject matter. It was written and conceived poem by poem and over the span of many years. The book has characters and a lose chronology but that did not emerge until much later in the process of putting the manuscript together. The book found itself and I was along for the ride. The memory poems rose to the top and seemed to gravitate toward each other, it was only then that I cut several other poems in the manuscript and began to write in the direction of the obsession. I can take a hint.

I was keenly aware of the many poetic landmines that come with Alzheimer’s themed poetry and I proceeded gingerly through the minefields of sentimentality, overly dark clichéd images and the exploitation of those suffering, including by this time, my own family. I did not want to capitalize on the voyeuristic victimization of the ill. That said, it is the artist that must not flinch or look away. Alzheimer’s is a much-discussed issue for good reason, nearly twenty-six million people worldwide are afflicted with the disease and that number is expected to quadruple by the year 2050. We must discuss it. Charles Simic says “everything in the world, profane or sacred, needs to be reexamined repeatedly in the light of one’s own experience.” Of course there is nothing new under the sun, but it is the poet’s job to explore all of it and, as Uncle Ezra instructs, “make it new.”

The carpenter bees that keep coming back throughout the book are intriguing, but more so two other objects that make more than one appearance: the garden gnome and the cherry Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Perhaps all three work together as the memorable images of the speaker’s youth, when his self-awareness intensifies and his place in the world becomes somewhat clearer. This was an interesting tension in the book: what is remembered and what is forgotten, what is kept and what is given up, given away or lost. Certainly the memories that a poet writes about are choices, recovery as deliberate decision. There are so many painful memories in this book and few moments of respite (like in that lovely poem “Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths”). What were some of the ways you tried to give the reader breathing room and space within the pages of this devastating book? Did the perspective of a younger speaker help the process of writing about age and dying?

Often with Alzheimer’s disease, automobiles, homes, old music and random childhood memories are the last to go in a long line of subtractions. This strange kind of time travel back to one’s youth is often centered on a few objects. Like any poetic obsession worth its weight in fathers, these poems are riddled with hallucinatory metaphors and images that work as a kind of recursive stitching throughout the larger narrative to sustain an internal tension between poems. Each time I wrote a poem that I though was off-topic, I eventually saw memory right there welling up below the surface. The last poem to enter the collection was “Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna moths.” I had the table of contents done and was glad to be writing about something else for a change. A few weeks later I read the poem and realized of course it belongs in the book, it is essential. What was I thinking?

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In addition to considering the reader, I as author needed moments of respite and relief in writing these poems. I wanted to be sure I was writing a book I would want to read. This idea of providing breathing room for the reader was important to me as I committed to the project. I wrote in several voices including a youthful voice, Solomon’s (the main character) and his wife’s voice as well. She is eventually left to cope alone. It was liberating and helped me tell a more complete story in addition to easily introducing moments of levity. Even in the devastation of the disease one finds moments of humor, joy and beauty that appear, usually when we need them most. I hope to have captured some of these moments in the book as well. The garden gnome poems give the reader permission to laugh and “Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna moths” is a love sonnet. Oblivio Gate reveals not only what is lost, but also what is found, what is pure, and even what is funny in our fleeting lives.

In the final section of Oblivio Gate, a dozen or so “self-portraits” offer an elusive and expansive vision of who this speaker is. This inhabitant of “the widow house” certainly has the rare ability (or burden) to empathize and project. From “Self-Portrait as Scavenger Gull” to “Self-Portrait as Disaster” the persona wanders through disorientation and desolation, instability and uncertainty, “fragmented and beautiful” inside this house of grief, and each portrait is “a kind of mourning.” Why did you decide to close the book with this series of “self-portraits”? If this section ushers you out of this book, what ushers you into the next one?

How to find closure after such illness and loss is beyond me, but those left behind continue on in life. I needed closure for the book, for the characters left behind, for myself and the click of a jar was not going to cut it. The book’s earlier sections demonstrate a lot of restraint in both content and form. The two long lyric poems have trifurcated lines; there are several sonnets and other crafted shorter poems that make up the collection. The final section of the book is sprawling and furious, ecstatic and bereft at once. It is an incantation, a prayer, a kind of exuberant mourning and reclamation of the wreckage of ones life. “Self-Portraits from the Widow House” provides closure the way dynamite gives closure to a burning oil rig. Kaboom.

(Author Photo: J. Esposito)