The Left Bank of the Rideau
by Mary Lee Bragg
In Crossing Arts Ottawa South poet Susan McMaster chooses to address her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s in the same way that she has addressed women’s issues, world peace and her own personal evolution: through poetry. Her book Crossing Arcs: Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me (Black Moss Press, 2009) is unique in combining McMaster’s poems about the experience with direct commentary from the person who is the subject of the poems.
McMaster began writing poems about her mother, Betty Page, when she began to show signs of a changed relationship with the world seven years ago. The poems took on new urgency when Page was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Crossing Arcs follows mother and daughter as they work through the effects of the disease on Page herself, McMaster, and their family.
True to her beliefs, McMaster felt she could not ethically publish poetry about another person without that person’s permission. Obtaining such permission from a person with no short-term memory poses an obvious problem, so she has returned “again and again and again” to her mother with explanations of the work and asked “again and again and again” for permission and comments.
Betty Page always said yes.
As McMaster developed the manuscript of this book, she read the poems aloud to her mother and recorded her reactions and comments. The result is a deeply moving account of what the disease feels like, as well as what it looks and sounds like.
Betty Page and Susan McMaster have a history of collaborative projects including the millennium peace project Convergence, in which McMaster gathered poems and Page co-ordinated production of packages, with poems wrapped in art paper, to deliver to members of Parliament. The poems were subsequently published in the anthology Convergence: Poems for Peace.
In Crossing Arcs Betty Page emerges as an intelligent and vibrant individual. Her responses to the poems are printed on the same page, and frequently illuminate the work and the personalities involved. The title poem deals with the sense of life’s arc – as the poet ages, her mother falls into a kind of childhood. Page comments, “It’s a good time to write poems about this, because there are so many old people around. It’ll give them a feeling that they’re not alone.”
Another poem about the frustrations of repetition and inaction concludes:
These trailing threads of words
that loop back into themselves
or fray into a question –
this is not my mother.
It’s some kind of joke,
I don’t think it’s funny.
I don’t want to play.
Page’s blunt reply, directly beside the text, is “I remember feeling the same frustration with the whole thing, the idiocy.”
The words “I remember” bring the reader up short, as does “idiocy”. The sense of frustration is palpable.
Later, McMaster describes coping with the disease as “Arguing with the Tide”, to which her mother offers this advice: “I had to get angry. There’s anger and fear, one or the other, and I choose anger. Anger is what keeps you alive.”
Page refuses to wallow in anger or fear, and finds the positive aspect to her condition: “One good thing – I love reading. I read a book a day. And then I finish the book and close it, and say to myself, I wonder what that was all about? So I read it again. Means I can read every book five times.”
By the book’s end, McMaster is facing the possibility that the disease may be hereditary, and writes a “Letter to Myself” beginning “If this happens to me / I will kill myself.” On the facing page, her mother comments “Sometimes I think, why can’t I just take a pill and forget all this? Nothing more I can do or say or change. And then I go and rearrange the flowers, and have a cup of tea . . .” Even in this extreme situation, the mother cares for her child.
Black Moss editor Marty Gervais includes a series of photographs of Betty Page and Susan McMaster which add to the book’s appeal, bringing both authors before us in the flesh. Ottawa poet Ronnie R. Brown, winner of the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry award, considers this to be McMaster’s “best book yet.” As a tribute to her first and most important artistic mentor, it is the triumphant expression of human determination.
Crossing Arcs is published by Black Moss Press.
Author Note: Mary Lee Bragg is less afraid of Alzheimer’s after reading this book.