Dying Poets Society

Is there beauty in Alzheimerís disease? Yes, say ASU poets who work with dementia patients. But can you be a poet and not know it?

On Trefethen's second and third visits, James still seemed affected by his revelation. But by the fifth week, he was slipping.

James died soon after.

Dan Salontai, a 24-year-old first-year master's student, was one of the youngest of the teacher-poets who participated in the workshops this past year. He admits the sessions depressed him, and he didn't have much to say to the old people, letting the other poets take the lead. Some of the patients' behavior made him uncomfortable -- like the old woman who suddenly planted a big kiss on his cheek, and the patient who asked him to find her money.

ASU poet Trish Murphy: "Can you talk to other people and hear poetry that isn’t even there, when they speak? Yes! That’s how people fall in love — or have one-night stands."
Paolo Vescia
ASU poet Trish Murphy: "Can you talk to other people and hear poetry that isn’t even there, when they speak? Yes! That’s how people fall in love — or have one-night stands."
The ASU poets found half a dozen harmonicas — all polished, all in key — in Herman Sponcel’s top drawer. No one at the nursing home had known he could play.
Paolo Vescia
The ASU poets found half a dozen harmonicas — all polished, all in key — in Herman Sponcel’s top drawer. No one at the nursing home had known he could play.

But Salontai says it was worthwhile. He saw what Trefethen saw, memories surfacing and bringing pleasure with them. He remembers Herman Sponcel, a Clairbridge resident who recalled suddenly that he could play the harmonica. None of the staff knew, even though the poets found half a dozen harmonicas -- all polished, all in key -- in his top drawer.

No poetry came out of the sessions with Herman, but he had a fabulous time playing and singing gospel for the poets.

"Supposedly [the staff] heard him play after that a few times, which is pretty cool," Salontai says. "The poetry -- that's great and everything, and it's good if you get their thoughts down and stuff like that, but I think stuff like [Herman's experience] is more important."

His favorite part of the workshop was watching the group have a good time. "You got the feeling that they were enjoying themselves and having fun. It wasn't necessarily about anything else, other than the fact that they were having fun."


Argie Manolis enters the dim cool of LaVillita nursing home in central Phoenix on a hot April Tuesday. In the locked ward, men and women in street clothes and bedroom slippers shuffle quietly between their own rooms and a large sitting area. And there, they sit. Oldies play on the radio; no one speaks, a few residents doze. Attendants mop the linoleum around their feet.

Manolis sets up her materials -- a metal mixing bowl filled with the contents of her spice rack at home -- in the adjacent kitchen. She arranges the jars on the table, then waits.

This is the second year she's taught these poetry workshops, and Manolis has learned to be patient.

"I did not, to be honest, want to do the Alzheimer's thing at all," she says later. "I was totally turned off by the idea. I thought -- I mean, this is terrible to say, but, "What's the point?'"

Karla Elling begged, and Manolis agreed to give it a try. She loved the idea of community outreach. For years, Manolis' grandfather -- a butcher by training -- created an oral history of the family's hometown, Akron, Ohio, as a hobby. Manolis wanted to give something back, too.

But she worried about her students' oblivion to the task at hand: "Are we going to be taking their words?" she asked herself.

The first several sessions were awful; Manolis tried to quit, but Elling pushed her to continue. After a few weeks, Manolis got over the sadness of the nursing home and let go of her expectations. These students were not going to learn, Manolis realized. "So what that leaves me with is that I spend an hour of quality time with them. And I almost think that it doesn't matter what we do."

Manolis doesn't care whether she walks away with poetry. But she usually does.

She brings flowers or old photographs, something to serve as a conversation piece. The spices work well today. A slender, brown-haired woman approaches the table and sits down.

Manolis greets Ella by name. She remembers the woman from previous sessions. Ella doesn't appear to remember her. Unfazed, Manolis starts a conversation.

"Did you used to cook, Ella?"

"Stuff that doesn't take too long," the woman answers, then, without looking at Manolis, begins sprinkling spices on the table, like she's making a sand painting. The aroma of the spices barely masks the smell of bleach in the air.

A man named Frederick sits and watches Ella for a while. He admits that sometimes he gets her confused with Bob Hope. (Ella looks nothing like Bob Hope, but Frederick does bear a striking resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)

"My memory is bad. They might have told you that," he says, leaning over like it's a secret. Frederick picks up the jar of nutmeg. "Is this something to stop you from smoking?" He insists he can't smell, but when Manolis waves coriander under his nose, Frederick's head snaps back.

"Phew! I'm a pretty good actor, aren't I?" he asks, twinkling. He motions to another man, Lyle, who has joined the group.

"Now, he's a good smeller."

Lyle's wearing a Kauai Yacht Club polo shirt and has fading green tattoos on his big forearms. He and Manolis start talking about mosquitoes and flies. Later, Manolis transcribes her notes and finds a poem, which she calls "Garlic":

A fellow in Yuma told me a secret
about garlic. He said it leaves a taste in your mouth,
in your skin. So strong, it keeps the flies away.

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