Critical Mass

Small Press Spotlight: Rachel Hadas

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry, Paul Dry Books, 2011.

Rachel Hadas is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark. She is the author of many books, including The River of Forgetfulness, Laws, Indelible, and Half-Way Down the Hall: New & Selected Poems. She co-edited the anthology The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present.

In the prologue you write: “Some of the chapters in this book were written in response to my need to record a conversation, a dream, a walk, or yet another doctor’s appointment. I rediscovered what every writing teacher knows, that writing what you remember helps you to remember more.” The second sentence is particularly haunting in light of the fact that your husband’s neurodegenerative disease has compromised his ability to speak, interact or remember. Why was it important for you to remember–to trace the story of your husband’s condition to those first signs and symptoms, medical examinations, ambiguous diagnoses, early treatments? And why was 2009 the appropriate stopping point?

The two questions posed in the first paragraph are among the most challenging for me.  Why was it important to remember, to trace etc.?  I hardly know, but I can try to tease out several related reasons.  Writing helps me to understand anything and everything I experience, and the murkiness of this incredibly slowly developing disease needed to be illumined by whatever means I could find. Also the matter of agency.  I could not make the disease go away or even obtain a clear diagnosis.  What could I do?  Write.  Also, the day to day loneliness, desolation, and frustration not only the years between George's diagnosis (late 2004/ early 2005) and institutionalization (January 2008) but going back (with 20-20 hindsight) at least to 2000, probably earlier, meant that writing, like reading, became my most dependable resources; George wasn't talking to me any more.

And why close the book in 2009?  Good question.  I emphatically did not want to keep the narrative going as long as the disease (and George's life) last, which could be many more years. I felt we had reached a stopping place – an oasis, as I write, if not the end point.  No doubt there will be many more corners to turn, but George is safe in a place he and I are both accustomed to.  He is mute; no more conversations.  His current residence may well not be his last stop, but he won't be coming home.  The turmoil of 2004-2007 will not recur. His illness will always leave footprints on my work, but it is no longer my sole focus.

Your identity as a highly regarded poet and a professor of classic literature nourished the writing of this memoir. You stated, “the books I was reading helped to capture and express the isolation I felt.” And you included in Strange Relation relevant references and passages from Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Auden, Larkin, Merrill, Dickinson, Frost (among others), and also your own poems written in response to the anxieties and uncertainties of this long, still-continuing journey. How did your approach to teaching and attempts at writing change after you “came to understand tragedy as I never had before: from the inside”? Did this affect your relationship to poetry (reading and writing it), even when it wasn’t necessarily connected to your personal turmoil?

How did my approach to teaching and attempts at writing change after I “came to understand tragedy as I never had before”?  Interesting question. My feelings about certain texts  like tragedies or some poems were sharpened, heightened, or changed, but I think now that one purpose of my ongoing writing about the illness in 2005-2007 was to provide a vent so that my response to this overwhelming ongoing situation didn't also overwhelm my classes, which would have been confusing and unfair for the students.  As I say in my book, even on the day I learned George had been ejected from the first facility in September 2008, which happened to be the first day of classes at Rutgers, I built a wall down the middle of my brain and taught my class. (My wonderful Rutgers colleagues helped make all this possible, by the way.)  In my own writing I could of course privately focus on the trauma and turmoil and fear.

The value of support groups is an important and positive component of the book. The poem “Broken Date, Ledge, Bare Floor” hints at your reluctance to relate your situation to friends who were well-meaning but not very helpful: “I break my dinner date./ It suddenly feels unbearable to narrate/ the horrid history. Nuanced sympathy,/ gentle wisdom–I wave both of them away.” Were support groups a perfect complement to the poems you called your “most faithful friends” because they “didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep; they didn’t avoid me; they didn’t ask unanswerable questions”? What’s your current relationship with support groups?

I like your comparison of support groups to poems – a comparison which hadn't occurred to me – and I agree with it, with some qualifications. Like poems, support group friends didn't avoid me.  Even more than poems, in some ways, they GOT it – they understood what I was going through in a way that even sympathetic friends could not.  In some ways, though, the poems I was reading knew me, understood me, better than the often non-bookish people I met in support groups. So I guess I'm agreeing with your point about complementarity!

I joined Well Spouse in 2005-2006, was elected to the national board of this non-profit in 2009, and have been co-facilitating a monthly WS support group in my neighborhood since 2007.  I plan to step down from this leadership role  in the local group later this year but to remain a member of the group.  I don't know if I'll run for reelection to the Board.  I certainly intend to keep publicizing Well Spouse.  At our upcoming national conference in Atlanta in October 2011, I'll be running a workshop featuring recommended reading – the return of the repressed English teacher?!

After attending a national conference in frontotemporal dementia in September 2006, I became a charter member of a NYC group for families and caregivers (not just spouses) of people with FTD in January 2007. I was the first person in this group to institutionalize my spouse; not the last. I still go whenever I can.

In February 2009, a few months after George moved to his current residence, I and another wife started an in-house spousal support group which meets once a month.  So long as George continues to live at this facility, this group is my first priority among support groups.  These groups all overlap in their purpose and nature but serve distinct groups, and I have not found them redundant. They can be time-consuming but they really appeal to the teacher and just the schmoozer in me, and I've made a lot of friends.

When you employ literary allusions as metaphors (or similes), there is a safety (for the reader) in approaching the intensity of the tragedy in Strange Relation, like when you bring up the distance between Odysseus and Penelope, or the descent into incoherence of King Lear. But sometimes you present a scene completely naked of these literary texts and present them as intimate and vulnerable revelations. Chapter 14, for example, “A Kind of Goodbye.” The scene is a tender one, with Erica “the cushiony orange cat” standing by as you kiss your husband’s bare, tanned knee. You wrote: “These are the moments I think my heart will break…Memories of the life before are like tiny bubbles on the grayish surface of a vas and tideless inland sea round and round which he and I are drifting. Or not a sea: a muddy river, ever so sluggishly bearing him away.” How did you determine what parts of the memoir deserved to be left unhinged to a specific literary reference? You end that chapter however with a poem inspired by that gorgeous and melancholy simile. What does the poem offer that the prose doesn’t?

Interesting you mention end of Chapter 14.  That chapter originally had no poem at the end of  it.  In another iteration, the poem “The Boat,” which finishes the chapter now was followed by a section quoting Rutgers student comments (very insightful!) on “The Boat,” which I had taught a few years ago in my colleague John Straus's 102-102 class, where I guest lecture each spring.  Perhaps my editors' and my final decision to eliminate this prose ending but include the poem isn't satisfactory.  At any rate, many of my decisions are fairly intuitive, but as I became a better editor of my own work, I tended to lean toward tightness.  However, the poem offers a totally trope-governed take on our situation, as well as the sustainingly obsessive recursiveness of the villanelle form.  For more on tropes and how they helped me, see Chapter 8, “Similes.”

The chapters that take place after George is institutionalized are particularly difficult to read, especially with phrases such as “what I had lost was a shared past and a shared future.” And that final chapter ends with a seemingly uneventful birthday party in George’s honor, but the last paragraph ends on a more ominous note. Can you give us an update on George and maybe on what you have learned about frontotemporal demential (FTD) since completing the book?    

George will turn 68 in May 2011.  He remains in good health, enjoys walking, feeds himself, can brush his own teeth if you put a toothbrush in his hand, can dress himself with help. He understands some (not much, I think) of what is said to him.  He cannot speak at all except for sometimes a sketchy “yes” or “no” in response to a question.  The writing sample on p. 161 of the memoir would not be a possibility now.  He does not read, write, play the piano, or watch TV.

At his residence, he enjoys pet therapy ( friendly visiting pooches and trainers)  and ballroom dancing.  When I visit, we listen to CD's in his room and sometimes I read him poetry.  Weather permitting, we take short walks.  I now visit once a week.  I am frequently asked if he recognizes me. It's hard to tell, but I think he knows I am someone special and trusted.

His disease continues to be slow-moving, but it's moving.  Our neurologist gives him “more than one or two years but less than 10,” an approximate prognosis, to be sure.  Only time will tell.  I do very much hope he can stay at his present residence and not move to a nursing home; skilled nursing is certainly not a necessity at all yet. Again, only time will tell.

Knowledge of frontotemporal dementias is a work in progress – even the name of the very helpful organization dedicated to these diseases has recently changed.  The organization is now called The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration and I would refer everyone who wishes to learn more about these diseases to this site.  I am also happy to hear from people: