A Kansas Writer's Chilling Poetry Collection Details His Father's Alzheimer's Decline
Brian Daldorph, who teaches English at the University of Kansas, published his sixth book of poetry late last year. “Ice Age/Edad de Hielo” is both a celebration of his late father’s life and a glimpse into losing a parent to Alzheimer’s, which Daldorph did in 2012.
His publisher, Irrupciones Press, routinely publishes poetry with side-by-side English and Spanish versions. Daldorph liked this idea both because it would make his collection available to a wider audience and because it would allow him the opportunity to work with Spanish-language poet Laura Chalar, whose work he admires.
As it turned out, Daldorph and Chalar suffered losses almost simultaneously, which colored their collaboration on “Ice Age.”
“Her father died at about the same time my father died,” he says, “and that made the project even more significant to us.”
The collection’s poems impart uneasiness and tension through startling juxtapositions of heat and cold. “I think Hell must be cold,” Daldorph writes in a poem titled, simply, “Cold.” In “Shiver,” he writes of stepping out of a summer day into his father’s cold garage: “Touched/by my chill childhood/and by premonitions,/I shiver.”
He recently spoke to me about Alzheimer’s and the specific difficulties associated with caring for a loved one who suffers from it — and why the chilly imagery fits the disease.
KNIGGENDORF: The poems in your collection follow the progression of your father’s battle with Alzheimer’s very closely. They’re really like glimpses into his everyday life as the disease develops.
DALDORPH: The first half of it, I have poems about my father over the years because I wanted the collection of poems to be a celebration of him as well as being about the illness in the later years of his life.
KNIGGENDORF: Will you please read one of the poems?
KNIGGENDORF: Why do you call the collection “Ice Age”?
DALDORPH: Okay. This is called “losing it” [sic]:
All morning he looks for it,
in closets, under his bed,
in the dresser, on shelves.
He takes down each book,
shakes it, because what he’s lost
might come fluttering out.
He asks the woman in the kitchen
but she doesn’t understand what he’s looking for,
What? What? What? is all she says.
He needs to check everything again
and again, keep checking,
because how will he know what he’s lost
until he finds it
and brings it to the woman who will smile as he says,
Here it is! Here!
DALDORPH: “Ice Age” is really the key metaphor to the collection. It shows the effect of this illness on my father and the way that he gradually lost himself, the way that winter sort of takes away so much from us.
KNIGGENDORF: And you say in the forward that you started writing this when a friend was dealing with Alzheimer’s.
DALDORPH: Yes, several years before my father developed Alzheimer’s, I had a friend who also developed Alzheimer’s. That sort of turned me toward this subject because he was a close friend and I watched this decline. But then it became even more relevant when it was my father.... I saw this decline up close. And it’s very harrowing, as anybody who has seen this illness will know.
KNIGGENDORF: What did you find or learn as you worked on this collection?
DALDORPH: I did a lot of research on this because that’s kind of what I do, I’ve been trained to do. And I certainly discovered a lot of things about this illness and I’ve followed the research over the years now. Even though the illness was diagnosed over a hundred years ago, in many ways we’ve made little progress on treating it. Maybe we understand it a little bit better, but there’s still a great amount of mystery about it. And the sorts of drugs that have been developed have been pretty ineffective so far.
I think that even though so much research has been done, we still don’t understand the brain very well and all the different parts of the brain and how they work together. And to treat one part of the brain, there’s always the danger that you’re going to affect another part of the brain. It’s something that we understand better than we did, but there’s still a long, long way to go.
KNIGGENDORF: And did you learn anything about your family or yourself in writing this?
DALDORPH: This was certainly quite a struggle to get through, so I think that I saw more clearly my family, and the characters in my family, and how we respond to something like this, which in many ways changes everything. One of the challenges is trying to understand how it is affecting the person you’re trying to help — that’s one of the most important things everybody has to figure out. The medical profession can give us some help, but basically the family has to do most of the work.
KNIGGENDORF: And was there something you could do to help him?
DALDORPH: There are all the practical things. Maybe the most important thing is trying to understand what’s happening to him because he became a completely different person. You have to see how it’s affecting him and then try to help him as he is with this illness. I think that’s something we all tried to learn. But it’s hard, it’s really hard, and it changes all the time and it’s one of these awful diseases that really gets worse and worse. That’s one of the horrible challenges of it.
KNIGGENDORF: Will you take us out with another poem?
DALDORPH: Sure. This is called “triolet”
I just can’t explain to my father
why he can’t go to his mother’s house.
I just can’t explain to my father
that he lives in this house
where he’s lived for fifty years.
“It’s time to go to mother’s house
because I live there, of course.”
I just can’t explain to my father.
Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.