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Poet, writer, teacher

Poetry News March 2017

Who’s there?  

A chance call at a home for people with dementia sparked Greta Stoddart’s radio piece to be broadcast this April

A few years ago I found myself holding a tray of fairy cakes on the steps of a large stone building in the middle of a village in Devon. I’d pass this building many times a day but I never really knew what it was. Some sort of retirement home. I’d been told they’d welcome the unsold cakes from our charity sale. Inside, there was a smell of cooking, urine, disinfectant. Three old people slumped in chairs, deeply asleep. A woman was singing. A man sat in a corner chewing on a large gardening glove. Another was being fed by a small spoon. I was very struck by all this – by the change in inhibitions, the sense of internment, the care.

When I left the building with my empty tray I slipped back into my life. Then one day – out of nowhere – the experience rushed back to me and I wanted to make something of it.

So for a year I visited the Home, which specialised in people with dementia. It was an extraordinary place for many reasons.

I felt that a kind of existential drama was being played out: if you’re no more than the sum of your memories what does it mean if you don’t have any? Or if they’re so cluttered and confused you don’t even know in which room you’re sitting? Or decade. And was this resident truly a ‘shell’ as her sister kept insisting she was?

Having lost your memories doesn’t simply mean that you’re constantly living in the present but that the present almost ceases to exist. Nothing props it up. There’s no context. I imagine this as being held in a kind of perpetual bewilderment at being: “Every morning I forget how it is” (‘Poem’, Charles Simic).

Another thing that struck me was the idea of behaviour. How we must appear to others. The people in the Home were once like you and me – adhering to and validating a very limited set of behaviours – but now that they’ve strayed, through no will of their own, from that narrow path we feel uncomfortable; it’s something we might prefer to turn our backs on. What does that say about us?

I remember that painting by Masaccio where Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. The anguish on their faces reminds me of some I saw in the Home. Where are we? What have we done? Why can’t we go home?

There were many voices inside the Home; not just the real voices of the carers and residents but those inside me reacting and responding, as well as those coming from inside the residents, especially those who sat saying nothing.

I soon realised that the many different experiences – and realities – of people living with, or close to, dementia would need to be expressed in something other than a poem, or series of poems.

At first there was a resistance to any kind of structure but then it began to spin its own interweaving form; a mind holding together memories, thoughts, feelings and facts. A mind containing different voices; a home containing different minds.

I was lucky enough to get an Arts Council England grant, which meant I could work with sound composer Jon Nicholls. I’d always perceived the piece, Who’s there?, as heard and that, as well as different sounds and music, the voices themselves would have their own texture – internalised or choric, staggered or streaming. And I wanted these treated parts to play against real recorded interviews. I was trying to achieve, through sound and words, how it might feel to inhabit a shifting and unstable reality.

When I sat with actors at a rehearsal studio to record the piece it felt very natural to me and I realised that the two paths I’d followed in my life up to now – theatre and poetry – had come together without me even realising it.

Nearly everyone is affected by dementia one way or another (“It’s part of our success at living longer”, as one doctor said) yet it’s nearly always reported in a fearful or negative way. The phrase ‘care home abuse’ has become a paradox so ordinary we don’t even think about what it entails.

And yet most care homes are places of profound care, staffed by people working on a low wage, who genuinely want to care for others – taking that one to the toilet, holding that one in tears. Yes, the Home was a place of suffering but also, and perhaps more importantly, of great care and kindness. Just as memories of entire lives were disappearing by the minute small gestures of love were constantly being offered to replace, or absolve, the loss.

I felt it was important to show this.

No matter how much you care for a dementia patient they will, at times, feel profoundly isolated, unmoored as they are from the great barrage of memories that is the life they’ve lived; spending their days drifting on the remaining time they have left. Which is something you could say for all of us. This is something I kept feeling; how this condition leads us to consider what it means to be alive and think and remember; to have a mind, and a self, simply because these are the very things that appear to have vanished.

An abridged version of Who’s there? will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Echo Chamber on 16 April at 16.30 and repeated 22 April at 23.30