Under a Spell Place by Paula Jennings
I went to the launch of this pamphlet on Sunday, in the Word Power Bookshop in Edinburgh. I love that shop – it has so many of the books you can’t find anywhere else, and they put on an awful lot of poetry events so I feel very much at home there. And they host the Radical Book Fair in the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith, which has events like the launch of Kathleen Jamie’s new collection The Bonniest Companie, talks by Jay Griffiths and Andy Wightman, films and writing workshops. An event not to miss!
However, I really want to say something about Paula Jennings work. For several years she has worked with people suffering from dementia and become interested in the surprising insights and creative communication that can arise out of it. In particular she worked alongside a woman named as Jean, who seemed to have lost most of her language skills, and, on the surface, to be quite incoherent. And yet, with deeper acquaintance, Paula Jennings found strong ideas and opinions, and this pamphlet is a way she has found to make Jean’s words more accessible to a wider readership.
I was intrigued by this, and also ready to be upset, as my mother has vascular dementia, and her losses of skills, knowledge and continuous memory are considerable. I recognised what Paula Jennings had to say about the conflation of past and present, and about the strange connections between widely different subjects – the sort of leaps and connections we make in dreams, or between sleep and waking – and the way Jean seems to hold down her fugitive ideas like a tent in a gale, with any rocks of words she can lay her hands on (in my poem Away with the Fairies, which is inspired by, but not about, my mother, the woman uses the phrase ‘the whole concern’ in the same way).
So far, so worthy. But the poems do not feel ‘worthy’. Paula Jennings has worked with Jean’s words just enough to give them structure and build up resonances. She does not over-interpret, or explain, or impose a poet’s or carer’s viewpoint. Jean’s personality, her humour, her affections and her priorities are allowed to make their own way in what emerge as powerful, insightful and moving poems.Some of the poems are addressed to a toy dog, which Jean spoke to in order to express ideas which might have proved difficult to articulate directly:
Yes, you’ve got to speak to ladies very nicely.
Yes, you’ve got to eat.
No, you’ve got to drink.
We’ve got to get your nose wiped
but we don’t know whether you’re there
or who you are.
There are memories of hill-walking and observations about birds and animals seen from the garden. There are occasional moments of self-awareness or recognition. This pamphlet, which is published by Happenstance might be a difficult read, but its integrity and sensitivity give its subject a dignity that is much needed.
I was delighted to hear that Under a Spell Place is to form part of the research material used in developing care for dementia sufferers in Scotland.