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?

"We thought we were being risky, talking about death with them, but they really opened up," Trefethen recalls. "I think we had one guy, he kinda left and went AWOL, tried to get over the fence. And the nurses were angry at us, because we didn't know it was a dangerous situation fast enough. . . . It's a locked ward, so we figured, "Where can he go?' But he was a really tall guy, and he was actually getting over the fence."

The session elicited some evocative lines.

Death. I think people will read this. But they won't do anything with it.

Initially, ASU poet Argie Manolis asked herself, "Are we going to be taking their words?"
Paolo Vescia
Initially, ASU poet Argie Manolis asked herself, "Are we going to be taking their words?"

Death is delicate. We wear it out by talking about it.

This is a lazy town. I fit in pretty good here. Not afraid of death. Death is not a mean thing. It's a lovely feeling. My image would be sewn to me.

While the other poets arrive with a bowl of spices or a bouquet of flowers, Carol Smith can barely carry the two big boxes she fills with props for each of her poetry sessions at Scottsdale Village Square.

Smith found poetry rather late in life, after decades as an elementary school teacher. When Karla Elling asked last year if she'd lead an Alzheimer's workshop, Smith worked up a full-blown curriculum.

She read books about Alzheimer's and learned that later-stage dementia patients are easily confused, antisocial and generally incapable of independent thought and creativity. But Smith decided not to treat her students that way and see how they reacted.

One day not long ago, she showed them a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of hands and a famous picture taken of Pablo Picasso in which -- real hands hidden under a table -- he poses with breadsticks for fingers.

With help from Smith, the Alzheimer's patients traced their hands, then talked about ways in which lighthouses are like reaching hands. They wound up the session with "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

Another day, Smith brought miniature furniture and asked her students what it would be like to be a chair or a window. She told them windows had always reminded her of eyes, and then asked Ilene, one of the students, "What would you see if you had an eye in the palm of your hand?"

It would see the curves in your fingers,
It would see the wrinkles in your hand
And the rings on your fingers.

It would tell you, maybe, how long you're married.

It would see the scar you got when
You were in the first grade and had permission

To go through the neighbor's yard to get to your yard
Where the lady had a bunch of cats
And the cats were turned loose
And would come into your yard
Usually if you had something in your yard
That they could eat.

No, the cat didn't scratch me.
The lady died a long time ago
And it seemed to me
They'd already written the story about it.

This from a woman who spends much of a typical day incessantly asking anyone who will listen, "Are we going to Mass today? Are we going to say the rosary? Are we going to church?"

Smith was amazed by the workshop's success. So was Kevin Mulqueen, who has spent the past eight years on Scottsdale Village Square's activities staff. Eva, an elegant woman in her mid-90s, had to be persuaded to join initially, but the sessions were wonderful for her.

"She came out of her shell totally," Mulqueen says. "Before, she was very quiet. [Afterward] she stayed up a lot more, with the other ladies in the dining room area."

He's noticed that many of the workshop participants socialize with one another now, even outside the sessions; he takes them out in a van on weekends, and they make up stories about Peggy, the nursing home's dog.

Smith framed the finished poems, and they hang in Vistas' rec room.

Today's theme is bugs. Smith's students are waiting in a cozy, quiet room, seated at a pretty white dining table with upholstered chairs covered in thick, clear, easy-to-clean plastic. Mulqueen joins the group.

Smith has been coming for several months now, and she knows her students well -- regulars like Dolores, who's dry-witted and always wears a purple visor emblazoned with her name, and Marge, who has trouble speaking but loves to conduct the group's singing sessions. There's a new face at the table today: Horace.

Before the bugs come out, Smith wants to warm up the group, which she often does by flipping through calendars (she bought them cheap, after the first of the year). Today she's brought a calendar with a camouflage theme: nature scenes with hard-to-recognize animals.

Smith insists she comes into these sessions without expectations, but she's obviously delighted when Horace looks at the picture of a wolf hiding in the woods and says, "It looks like a rabbit with wings."

When Smith flips the page to a picture of dense trees, Horace decides it looks like a curtain. Smith practically swoons; Alberto Rios' latest book of poetry is called "Curtain of Trees."

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