A poem to my mother that she will never read by Caroline Reid
This rollercoaster love poem to a mother lost through dementia takes 40 exhilarating lines to reach its main subject matter, via Google and lots of surprising and freewheeling twists. Towards the end I was triple-ticking lines and was absolutely floored by that devastating final image of grief as an empty aeroplane. Despite all the fun the author must have had arriving at its emotional core, this feels like a poem they had to write. It’s urgent, tender and packed with lust for life.
A poem to my mother that she will never read
They say the essence of childhood is curiosity plus
being happy for no reason.
I google Being Happy For No Reason.
I mis-read Big Break for Pig Break.
Reminds me of the story of the starving wolf
who broke out of the pages of a fairytale
who found happiness riding pigs bareback in the moonlight
between crumbling skyscrapers in a once silver city.
I google Bareback Pigs I get Gay Porn.
I google Gay Porn I get rock hard in seconds.
There’s a rule of thumb
Anything that’s good for your heart is good for your
They say dementia has no rule of thumb, which is lucky because
I love seeing things recontextualised.
Please, eat all the flowers I bring
And wear your handbag on your head.
I google Surrealist, mistype it as Surrealshit
and get an instruction to Stay Curious.
I google myself I get comedian Pam Ann and
Head of Marketing Save the Children Australia.
I love finding comedy
and tragedy in the same Google search. Some days
I forget a happy childhood is a thing. Some days
I long for you like I long for a place that never was
and I am tired of being curious.
I am naturally cautious.
Don’t want to be courageous.
I want to drive north on a freeway.
Listen to community radio, the good bad Spanish version of
‘Always On My Mind’.
Cry a well of tears.
Isn’t everything tragic, sweet & funny all at once?
Like the time you drove drunk on the freeway in the bus lane
Then asked the nice policewoman for a copy of your mugshot
to give to your grandson at Christmas.
You said I’m glad in one way but it’s the wrong way.
You said I need a cold when it’s hot.
I said I need a mother with dementia like I need a global pandemic.
I’m writing you this so I won’t forget.
When finally the border re-opens I arrive at dusk.
I hate the locked unit.
The nurse’s sterile station. Your life
summarised on a shelf in a lever arch file.
I hate the grey vinyl furniture.
Quiet ripe air.
I watch you sleep with your eyes open.
Shadows congeal in the quiet corners of your room.
Your arms reach for invisible things.
You’re like The Walking Dead except you’re not walking.
I hate weeping into hospital white sheets.
I google Finding The Person Inside Dementia I get a theory
of Personal Identity in the tradition of John Locke.
A person with advanced dementia is not a person.
I can’t find the sweet or funny in that.
On a bend in the Swan River near the airport
on Noongar Budja country an untidy circle of teenagers
drink cider against a backdrop of raven sky.
And black swans sleep on the obsidian river
with their heads tucked under a wing.
I play angsty jazz radio into a roar of jets.
I am wet with crazy in my good daughter devotion. I wish
stars into kisses that say yes. Wish kisses
into other kisses that hold their breath like
poets hold truth. Or Not.
Maybe you’re a single syllable dropped down a well?
A heart shot out of a gun?
A blue shoe worn on the other foot?
Between you and me? I want us
to be us without all the rest.
I also want warm socks.
It’s three degrees in this river and my words are fucking freezing.
I wish they’d stop aching like sad old teeth.
They never tell you about the aching teeth.
How exhausting it becomes to speak.
The sometimes loveliness of sitting in silence with you.
How grief is aeroplane white with too many empty seats.
after Ocean Vuong
How I did it
‘I’ve tried to write about my mother’s dementia for a long time, and it’s crept into other poems a bit, but I’ve found it difficult to face head-on. I’ve always tried to be strong, but this poem is about not being strong and saying, ‘I fucking hate this disease, and this place you’re in, this smell, what’s happening to you’ – and staying with that grief.
That’s why the poem seems so messy, though in fact it’s highly constructed. I deliberately gave it that shape because it’s a messy disease and the emotions are messy.
The poem’s in two parts. In the first part I mirror the process of googling: the fractured thoughts and images that get linked together, a bit like the thought processes in dementia. The second part is about what turned out to be my last in-person visit to my mother, before Western Australia put border restrictions in place. It’s spooky how that last line turned out to be so prescient: the idea of the colour of grief as an empty aeroplane.
I’ve done a lot of slam poetry, where the poems have to be short, but recently I’ve been reading the work of New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird and experimenting with longer pieces. They seem to match the visual art I’ve been doing: collages that involve a lot of different images. In my poetry, too, I’ve been making it more complex, with different tones and layers.
I start by journaling, then go back and pick things out, spotting where the links are. The process is both conscious and unconscious; ideas just pop into my head when I’m doing it. The tone at the start of the poem is quite playful and rude; then it became sadder as I was writing, and I suddenly remembered my mother putting a brand-new handbag on her foot, because she’d been given it when she was in the middle of putting her shoes on.
She died just before I found out I’d won the competition. Something very profound happens when you lose your mother. I’m going through the menopause too, so lots of things are coalescing for me, and I’m thinking I don’t have time to waste farting about and not being confident. I have to devote myself full-time to this art.'
CAROLINE REID divides her time between writing, making art and being an arts support worker, working with people with disabilities. Discovering spoken-word performance in 2016 changed her life and gave her confidence in her own writing; after a few years of hard work she was performing in the Sydney Opera House and was a finalist in the Australian Poetry Slam. Her poetry and prose collection SIARAD was published in 2020.
The other finalists
'A bird i catch || to eat’, Linda Collins (2nd place)
'Painting the Last Glacier’, Rosamund Taylor (3rd place)
‘Alcoholics don’t dream is not a metaphor’ Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Unpublished Poet Prize)
‘Into the hot dark heart of our world’, Regi Claire
‘Confluence’, Sara-Jane Arbury
‘The Lovers’, Pam Thompson
‘Yellowstone and what the bears mean’, Sue Burge
‘Raven’, Sarah Gibbons
‘The house in Lubec’, Barbara Marsh
‘One day, a mole and three herons’ Polly Johnson
‘And even the sky’, Claire Dyer
‘Detours on the Road to Myself’, Anna Whyatt
‘A 500-Year History of the World in the Voice of a Greenland Shark’, Isabelle Thompson
‘Her Name Is Her House’, Theresa Lola
‘Iktsuarpok’, Nora Nadjarian
‘We, the he(a)rd, do not like to share this cabbaged country’, Shey Marque
‘September Audit’, Elizabeth Coatman
‘River Ganga’s Alms’, Lahari Mahalanabish