Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 22, October 2012)

Kristin Prevallet
Ballad of a Broken String:
Poetry and the Teaching of Discognitive Communication

i. Overmind:

image of a neuron

That overmind seems like a cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, contained in a definite space. It is like a closed sea- plant, jelly-fish or anemone.
Into that overmind, thoughts pass and are visible like fish swimming under clear water.


Neurons: branch and synapse

 connect patterns

 and fragments of information

  consolidated into memories


then retreating,




 Brings to mind a unique underwater system.

Or like music

 and the music of language triggers

 connections, firing into

 patterns recognized and then

 submerging again

 back into


ii. Talking language as music:

My grandmother was raised in a St. Louis slum where she met an inspiring man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps into a life of wealth and prosperity. Not wanting to be associated with immigrants, she changed the pronunciation of his last name so it sounded less French. She was always well-dressed, with a tight upper lip, and a rather severe sense of humor. When she laughed it was always with a glare in her eye.

In old age she was transformed by dementia and like Oliver Sach’s patient Vera B who used language purely associatively and would suddenly break into song —

my grandmother, who had shown no interest in music during her life, suddenly started singing. She underwent a total personality change, became uninhibited, smiled all the time, and laughed with total abandon.

The musical or artistic powers that may be released in front temporal dementia or other forms of brain damage do not come out of the blue; they are, one must presume, potentials or propensities that are already present but inhibited—and undeveloped

—Oliver Sachs

Because I am a poet and am therefore loose with language and free association, my grandmother and I had a couple of terrific conversations in the strange musical language she had developed — a language that scared and offended other members of my family and seemed to raise the ire of the nurses.

I thought to myself: If only they understood poetry and the pleasure of free association — they wouldn’t be so afraid.

About a decade later I received a grant to bring poetry to a nontraditional audience, and decided to work with Gary Glazner and the Alzheimer Poetry Project. We walked into a room in a nursing home with twenty 2nd and 3rd stage Alzheimer patients, all in their own worlds. Some were singing, some were talking, some were far, far away.

Gary stood in the middle of the room and started reciting Longfellow’s The Arrow and the Song.

I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, form beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

He then started clapping to the rhythm of the poem as he read, and he repeated this over and over until everyone in the room was clapping.

Following his lead, I turned to a random page in the anthology of classic poems and dramatized the cadenced rhythm in the nursery rhyme “The Owl and the Pussy Cat.” (Of course, one spritely gentleman could not refrain from making an innuendo.)

The vibe in the room changed. Suddenly everyone had a poem that they wanted to recite. Those who spoke other languages began reciting them in their languages. Even a woman who had clearly disappeared into her broken synapses became present on and off throughout the hour. She was there just for a couple seconds at a time —but the nurses said that this was the most response they had seen in her since she had arrived.

It must be that music — and the rhythmic structures of poetry — works like a bridge even when the synapses are broken.

Those diagnosed with mental dis-cognition haven’t lost their memory — they have lost the threads that access it. This means that elderly people who have difficulty with their memory still respond to the repetitions and rhymes of verses or songs learned at some point in their lives, especially those that are associated with an kinesthetic or aural memory.

And this opens up channels of speaking.

Alternate transmissions of

“non-normal” conversation

(whatever that is)


communicating. In the silences&




I have heard those words in those subject/object positions, yes, but what of other sentences, those that refuse closure, open to offer me a middle seat? I will not let go this contested beauty. For each sentence admit the possibility of another, and another. If you are the guilty settler of one sentence, change your noun and verb. The adjectives will follow.

—Susan Schultz, Dimentia Blog

In the popular press there is one article after another about studies showing us how to avoid mental decline. Drink coffee, do crossword puzzles, avoid excessive daydreaming.

But how about articles on how to communicate with people already disappeared into their broken synapses?

Fear of losing language as a tool for effective communication hinders us from dealing with people who have lost their cognitive abilities.

Free association is scary.

But I wonder if it can be taught so that we can learn to talk with (not fear, ignore, or becoming aggravated) our elderly in their altered cognitive states?

Divided, we learn where our selves end and the world begins.
Self-taught, we love what we can make our own and hate what remains other.

—Anne Carson

Our minds create borders around what we think we know and when we come up against that edge — when we are challenged to hear, speak, or see differently — we might have the tendency to recoil or become anxious.

The spiked barriers the mind puts up unless a worldview is confirmed: William James calls this “habit.”

He writes about how music, poetry, and art have the ability to “take us out of our minds.” Meaning, outside of the border we put around ourselves. Enabling us to experience a new way of thinking while at the same time preserving the worldview that keeps us safe.


An Epiphany:

conveys the mental experience of being taken

“outside of ourselves.”

An epiphany can be a sense of clarity as the mind condenses

and synthesizes the infinitely emerging meanings of language

with the patterns of music already forged in our minds.

To describe it we can only use metaphor: something was “triggered”

deep inside of me; or I was “stopped in my tracks” or “I felt suddenly moved.”

But what is it exactly?

In traditional stories and myths it is the sensation of beholding a deity; or the

sudden realization of a connection between the past and the present.

But ultimately it is the shock of recognition

that something abstract has become

emotionally real. And that in spite of

experiencing this shock, you’re still alive.

An epiphany does not “manifest” out of the blue.

A thread is being followed, a group of synapses is clustering. To have a revelation,

a course needs to be set; a die cast; a neural network firing.

Or, to say it bluntly, it’s a moment when we get over our big bad selves in order to

sit back and hear another person speaking instead of the incessant chatter—so often

critical of anything that doesn’t conform to our worldview — that reverberates our

heads most of the time.

Push aside “I don’t understand this therefore I hate it.”

Certain kinds of music and poetry — the kind that leaves the making of meaning

up to the reader — sets the course for our minds to be able to fluidly associate and

know we are communicating:

The first vibration is only an ignition. The image
I hold of you by the sea I hold dearly. For a long time,
  Until dying I — that’s sad. Now learning so much and time
  Is almost up. The water streams, move the pots. Then
  sleep or flow on, instead.


Like hearing language that is unhinged from productive communication and understanding that it’s not threatening.

Being with that uncertainty. As it unfolds into a person we once knew.

Whose speech is unrecognizable and yet still needs to be heard.

vi. Interview with my Grandmother

—Let me introduce you to my radio. Over here my.

What do you call that when. Doll face?

—Her hair is so pretty. A coo of plentitude.


—And what do you call that? Bears perhaps.

—I saw one once, across the river.

—Oh my. (Singing)

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the bar.

—When I have crossed the bar my love when I have crossed the bar.

(laughs). (laughter.) (everyone laughing.)

Works Cited

Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton UP, 2000.

Glazner, Gary. The Alzheimer Poetry Project.

H.D. Notes on Thought and Vision. City Lights, 2001.

Schultz, Susan. Dimentia Blog. Singing Horse Press, 2008.