Jennifer Londry’s handsome new poetry collection, After The Words, feels like a play consisting of vignettes, and readers are given much room for their own imagining. The setting is a care home, where the occupants – including the poet’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother – wander the halls, their voices and faculties fading in and out. Can poetry be made of this terrain? Of course. And it’s important that it is.
Londry, a Kingston, Ontario writer, has been busy. She published her first book of poetry – with the provocative title Life and Death in Cheap Motels – just last year. She was also busy keeping company with her ailing mother, and thus spent much time at “Providence Manor,” experiencing firsthand the decline of that woman and others plagued with dementia.
But who was this woman in the years before she became ill? In “Lost Letters,” Londry eloquently writes: “A good daughter, read all of her letters\pieced together the torn edges the frayed\details\of what happened between watermarks\and age spots.” This type of poetry is a kind of therapy: hard to write, easy to relate to.
In some ways form emulates content here. The poems swerve and surprise; we cannot guess what will be next. The Foreword offers a short medical history of dementia-related diseases, beginning with “Kuru,” in Papua New Guinea, 1957: “they understand the shadows that come\with the eating of their dead.” The poems that follow in the next three sections leapfrog through personal histories. Pieces like “Dusty Road” allude to hardship (walking four miles to school), and the fact that “higher education wasn’t an option” for the author’s mother, who was “Smart as a whip in the hands of a good horse/trainer”.
Londry’s adept at physical description. She writes “her skin is the colour\of a bad luck opal” (from “Her Rag Doll”), and describes a ponytail as “a worn-out teeter-totter” (from “When a Jar is Empty”). It’s the descriptors here that make the difference: skin the colour of an opal would be strong in its own right, but a “bad luck opal” is far more effective, and a “worn-out” teeter-totter truly hits the mark.
The poet writes perceptive lines I savour like hard candy on the tongue. Again focusing on her mother, Londry writes: “She lives in a time slower than you expected”. Time’s skewed for both patient and visitor in the wrenching days before death, and “The present is a series of flashcards, a kick\in the shin of being.” Using “flashcards” to represent the surrealism of the experience is an unusual and excellent choice.
My favourite piece is “Dilaudid [\] Opium Den,” a virtuoso involving line after line of heartbreak, beautifully rendered, ie: “here is the last river or road\to explore for bad luck” and, two stanza later: “Bones like leukemia.”
Cheers to Londry and Hagios Books for giving voice to those who are losing their own. “She can’t repeat anymore – ,” the poet writes, “all the good words forgotten”. Here, then, are Londry’s “good words” and memorial.
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