The Hard Word Box: Sarah Hesketh, Penned in the Margins
In her introduction to this collection, Sarah Hesketh quotes a care worker’s words: “When you tell this story, make sure you tell it right,” and adds that the staff member at the home in Preston was “initially confused about what a poet might be doing in a dementia care home”. As well she might be. Hesketh admits: “I had absolutely no idea how I could ever respond to her request.”
But she has tried. The Hard Word Box represents the fruits of Hesketh’s 20-week stint at a secure residential care home, as part of an artist-in-residence programme with Age Concern.
The result includes a number of found poems, in part derived from the care plans drawn up for residents. ‘Ron’ begins, and continues, like this:
Ron’s sister is very important to him.
Ron likes to be dressed smartly at all times, with a hankie in his pocket.
Ron likes people to talk to him quietly and slowly so he can understand them.
Ron enjoys both tea and coffee with sugar and has a good appetite.
In ‘Doreen’ the calm language of the care plan is interrupted by the resident: “Doreen loves [HORRIBLE HORRIBLE HORRIBLE HORRIBLE] gardening, and was always happy when spending time in the garden. / Doreen likes [I DIDN’T COME BACK. YOU CAME BACK] Collie dogs [YOU AND THAT WOMAN] and looking at pictures of them.”
The opening poem, 'Service User Belongings on Admission', is just that, a list of belongings, including knickers, cardigans, floral dessing gown, television chair, and three packs of Kit Kat.
‘Hide and Seek’ contains a poignant beauty: “This old man / he can see / cloudy face/ grazed eyes / is his father / and they’ve just been / playing / at a game / all this time / and now it’s over.” The shortness of the lines suggests gaps, a struggle for breath, and a struggle for understanding, too. And anyone who has regularly visited a care home will recognise a person like Mollie:
Mollie wants to go home to her mum.
Please, she says, will you help me? I need to get to the bus.
She bullies the lock on every door.
There is something terrible about her feet.
“No. Not now, Mollie – you have your dinner first.”
“No. Not just now Mollie – we’re waiting for the rain to stop.”
(‘All The Reasons Why Mollie Can’t Go Home’)
The stanzas have a rhythm and repetition to them that reflect a seemingly endless pattern of behaviour. Two poems, ‘Left Brain’ and ‘Right Brain’, attempt to depict the disintegration of memory in fragmented language that is nevertheless poetic.
‘The Hard Words’ imagines the residents talking back at the poet: “If you hear music when we grunt / you haven’t understood exactly / what it is we needed to say.” The desolate yet beautiful ‘Into The White’ suggests the poet has understood:
All we want is to be allowed
To be gone.
To fall from this dark like
brushed white chalk.
Both of my parents had dementia, in quite different ways. For my father, it was a frightening thing that quickly overwhelmed him. In my mother’s case it had several stages; at the end it left her without any concerns, and able to enjoy her last few months in a care home, her outgoing personality surviving triumphant.
Many poems about dementia concern loved ones. In The Hard Word Box's mix of found poetry, prose transcripts of conversations that are fascinating and engrossing in their own right, and poetic insights, Hesketh as a detached observer has avoided sentimentality and sent back a despatch from the social care frontline - and at the same time produced a work that extends the boundaries of poetic investigation into a subject that is likely to affect nearly every one of us.