In the title poem of Wells, Jenna Butler describes her grandmother’s habit of leaving herself reminders on Post-It notes: “take off parking brake” and “mozzarella, not good for fondue.” On her wrist she has written the words for different vegetables, and “under the cuff, faintly, and where you thought I might not see, my name.” In these quiet gestures Butler depicts the pain of Alzheimer’s disease, as her grandmother tries to cling to her memory and her voice. The poems in Wells are all written in the second person, and, by addressing the grandmother who eventually will no longer recognize her, Butler creates not an elegy but an intimate dialogue. She not only speaks to her grandmother but also speaks for her, turning fragments of memory and family lore into a winding narrative of Muriel Butler’s life, from childhood to old age.
This is a life distilled to vivid details: the brother swarmed by hornets in a barley field, the father whose skin shines with the scars of chemical burns from WWI. The book is saturated with scents: quince, musky hawthorn, the rusty smell of the coal shed. The title Wells comes from the name of the town where Butler’s grandmother grew up—Wells-next-the-Sea, England—and place is central to these poems, recreated in the flight of a tern, in the clams on the beach “like chipped teeth.”
There is a tidy organization to the collection: there are eight prose poems in the book, each comprised of six numbered parts. Most of these parts have their own narrative arc, and could also stand alone. Yet within this ordered symmetry the poems themselves are fluid. The speaker and her apostrophe are constant, so that, when read together, the poems and their parts blur into a continuous stream of memory and story. There are also moments when the speaker blurs with her addressee—when, in offering her grandmother back her own memories, the speaker seems to live them herself, replete with taste and scent and touch.
The sensuousness of these pieces further emphasizes loss. Despite the continuity of the poems, this is not a biography; there is much more to Muriel Butler’s life than her granddaughter can ever know or recreate. In the spaces between the verses, we get a sense of the deep loss of the grandmother’s mind, “this body going on without you.” The structure of the collection matches this erasure; many of the sections are simply one or two lines, alone on the page. This spaciousness evokes the forgetting that comes both with this painful disease and with the translation of memories from one generation to the next. As part of an inherited family history these stories are in a way the granddaughter’s own, but they are also inevitably distant and fragmented.
In her Author’s Notes, Butler writes that her book is not just her story or her grandmother’s, but that of everyone who has lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s. “It is not just the loss of the ones we care for,” she ventures, “but the loss of ourselves in them, seeing our own lives erased from memory until we are left doubting, in a deep place, the truth of our own existence.” In this rich book of poems Butler both affirms this truth and resists it, creating images and stories that are genuine and soulful.
Jennifer Delisle is a writer, editor and academic in Edmonton. She has published widely in magazines and journals, and is a member of Room Magazine’s editorial collective. She is also the author of The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-migration. www.jenniferdelisle.ca.