This is how memory works.
Listening to Mozart–Poems of Alzheimer’s by Esther Altshul Helfgott is an abstract representation—grouped lines of words/meaning. It is also, as a book, a tangible item with which to interact. Both behave as memories do; integrate to perform as memories do.
The abstract representation gives us Helfgott’s memory as thoughts, collections of thoughts, a sequence of those collections, a signal of our and her having existed and existing, themes of Helfgott’s past with Abe Schweid, and as pattern. All these memories are triggered in Helfgott’s present life when revisiting actions, places, and times of day once shared with the object of her affection.
The tangible item gives us Helfgott’s memory as black ink surfacing from the white space of a slim book. As with her recent Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems, also from Cave Moon Press, (2013), the handsome cover photo suggests we will find contemplation and creativity within.
Alzheimer’s broke Helfgott’s heart by taking her husband’s life. Listening to Mozart is an anodyne for Alzheimer’s. Reading Listening to Mozart comforts us—but not just the “us” living with loved ones with Alzheimer’s. It is familiar in its depiction of love and loss, and heartening and humorous in its depiction of renewal. Renewal sneaks up in Helfgott who does not recognize her happiness until she sees it from the outside, in photos of herself. It can be read in a single sitting, or dipped into for quick balm. When Mem Fox’s title character in Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge asks his neighbors and family, “What is memory?” he finds answers which reinvigorate Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper’s fading one. So Esther Altshul Helfgott does to her readers with her poem collection, and so one suspects the writing of the poems did for her.
Helfgott tells us Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani inspired her. We see this in the brevity and oomph of her poems. They honor Japanese short forms such as haiku and tanka. While Helfgott is not a formalist, she has stamped a particular style on this collection. All the poems are short. The longest poem finds the middle of its page. Only dashes punctuate the poems. All the capital letters begin proper nouns and “I” (with the exception of one). Capital letters would put too formal a start, and periods, too formal an end, to these memories. The poems would lose their movement. Surprisingly, Helfgott manages one, or even two turns or voltas (* below), in many: “I saw/ grandson Ray/last week/*he looks like you—/his mouth his eyes—/*I save/your microscope/for him.” Others proceed linearly: “someone/asked me—/do you cry a lot/—no/I say—the/poems/are my tears.” The poems, not fragments, so much as particles of a larger body. And so it is that the poems slip—or drop—onto the page.
Memories appear organically. Helfgott caught hers as they moved through her. The parts of the book: Pulse, Breath, and Sinew record this aspect of memory. Remembering is a physical process. We feel memory move through our bodies. Writing is a physical process too. Here, for Helfgott, it is shedding tears. She sheds ink. Helfgott said she had not intended to develop these poems. We sense poet as vessel; Abe Schweid as muse: “her thinking/inside her pen.” Helfgott describes the process, “I write you/ onto the page,” “you slip/from the nib,” “did you have to die/ for me/ to find a muse.”
Many of these poems begin with Helfgott placing herself in time or space as a scientist does in her notebook: “the Greek Restaurant,” “I’m in the gazebo,” “I’m reading/ Flannery O’Connor’s/Prayer Journal,” “Every time/ I see your writing,” “I went to shul.” These openers document what triggers memory. And it is her life. Her sweet, dead husband is everywhere—in everything she sees (watching a falling leaf) and hears (listening to Mozart), in all the places they used to go, and in her new ventures too, because she wishes to share these experiences in that way she loved, with her beloved. My favorite poem in Listening to Mozart is the last. It proves how fully this is the way Helfgott shares with us all—by exposing her loving heart.
A portion of proceeds goes to Penny Harvest, a program of the anti-poverty organization, Solid Ground.