Old Women Look Like This, by Susan M. Schultz, is a (free!) e-chapbook that came out this year from Argotist Ebooks. It was inspired by, and partially ekphrastically responds to, paintings of elderly people by Elizabeth Berdann (one of which graces the front cover) – portraits framed by openings in the shape of a suite of cards (hearts, diamonds). Each of the old people in Schultz’ poems are identified only by first name and age. “Do not refer to them as them or as they or as those people, because we could be they as they could be someone else.” Indeed – and, demographically, if you live in the US, you have a pretty good chance of being one of those people – many of whom, in this book as in real life, suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or just confusion.
While it would be an overstatement to say that Old Women Look Like This makes me want to slit my wrists to avoid growing old, let me put it this way: if I were the sort of person who liked to get drunk and drive real, real fast, this book would not be an argument for changing ways. “’Are you my mother?’ Martha asks them each, and they said no, they were not hers but someone else’s mother, sister, aunt, niece. ‘I took care of you,’ one said, ‘but I am not your mother . . ..’” Martha is 92, and she is not unlike the other women and men in the nursing home. Schultz paints their portraits to rather chilling effect, by playing off children’s books, Wallace Stevens (mashed up w/the Alzheimer’s Assoc. 2010 report), or by creating a scary, perfunctory, and breathless nursing-home soap opera. “Ronald Reagan (90) Remembers His Challenger Disaster Speech” samples and scrambles the (even-then-defamiliar) words of that president. There is an engaging variety of verse and prose forms here that tell the story of Juanita Goggins, first African-American woman elected to the South Carolina legislature, who freezes to death in the house where she lives alone.
The final poem, “Waiting Adults,” gives only initials for names (and ages, of course): “P (82) is sweet and kind and listens to Christian Radio. She misses her baby, and often cries over him.” “J (85) is well dressed and sports a mustache. He moves constantly, as if he has somewhere to go.” Perhaps the most poignant poem of the bunch is the second-to-last, “Anne of Manor Care Gables,” which depicts “the residents” as a group: “The residents are all relinquished./ . . . The residents do not recognize themselves, boxed up and memorialized beside their doors. . . ./ The residents are like children. No one says that children are like them.”
This book could be seen as a kind of coda (or sequel) to Schultz’ groundbreaking Dementia Blog, which is, in fact, the blog the author kept as her own mother slid into Alzheimer’s. Like that book, this one stares straight at you and at the “residents” at the same time, recognizing that you – and those you love – are them.
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