Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s

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Book Review: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s, by Esther Altshul Helfgottby Nessa McCasey, PTP, CPT, Mentor, International Academy for Poetry Therapy

 After reading and reviewing Helfgott’s previous book, Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems, last year, I was looking forward to reading her new book of poems, as Esther writes with such compassion and love through the troubles and tribulation of illness (and death). She refuses to shrink from honesty, yet there is no malice in her honesty, even here in these poems about grief. This book is the moving-forward steps that became Esther’s life even as she was still looking for Abe in her community, as if her soul wasn’t convinced that her deceased husband was truly gone from her. I consider this anecdote: There is a story about tribesmen who were guiding an archeological dig but suddenly stopped and refused to go further. The archeologist didn’t understand and was unsuccessful in making the tribesmen go any further. Then the tribesmen picked up their gear and set off once more. When asked, they responded: “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” As I read the pages of poems in Listening to Mozart, I felt myself calming down and experiencing the process of grief as if I was giving my soul time to catch up to me. I certainly hope that happened for Esther as she was writing.

Emotional loss in our fast-paced lives may indeed cause any of us to need time to rest or restore ourselves. Writing as Esther did in this regular rhythm in the form of a journal over the time of mourning her husband’s death could have become the way for herself/her soul to catch up as she processed this major life transition.  The living must take some time to leave the dead behind us. And some day, each of us shall also be left behind. It’s a necessary fact of life. To offset any cruelty about that fact, we have poetry as loveliness to sustain us.
The journey I take as I read through these poems, measured out in three sections that definitely mark a path of grief, recalls for me my own weaving in and out of the grief process. It is good to make these marks on the page and note for ourselves (and others) the path we have trod. The marks we make are our own measure of our being here, alive. We all know we shall die, but the marks we make are meaningful. Abe’s marks are in this book, as he left an imprint of himself on Esther, through their years together, through their love.

Two of my favorite poems:

I write you

onto the page

how else

to keep you with me –

memory fades your wrinkles


I miss

you less

when I write

Listening to Mozart is divided into three sections, bringing a lovely rhythm to the book: Part One: Pulse, Part Two: Breath, Part Three: Sinew. It is as if the poet is plotting out her own way back to herself through these sections. In the first section, Pulse, her grief is evident in nearly every poem.  Abe is “there” with her continually. The second section, Breath, begins with a reminder that Abe is still near her: “touch my arm / you feel his” and each poem seems to remember him but with less sadness, instead with strong memory, marking the days through the calendar’s progression. It is in this second section that Helfgott starts to make logical decisions to appreciate their life together, even while she has to let it go now. She finds compensations to sustain her:

how lucky I

am to have

this chair –

the one you used

to sit in

The final section, Part Three: Sinew, is much more coming back to herself, recognizing that Abe is there, but he’s now able to move more into the background so that Helfgott may go on herself.

I didn’t know

I was having fun

until I saw



of me and Emma –


in the park

She notes that her heart still longs at the third anniversary of 

Abe’s death, but she admits to no longer wearing the mourner’s 

The final poem in the collection reminds me that just showing up and writing is what we all need to do. The writing will take care of itself, but we must show up and write. Esther Altshul Helfgott has done that so well – she has shown up and written through Alzheimer’s and now through the mourning of her husband’s death. She has given us a gift as she did all the hard work and we get to read it.

As a poetry therapist, my professional practice is to choose the appropriate poem to use with a client. In Listening To Mozart, there are indeed individual poems useful for prompting conversation and personal writing. Additionally, this entire book would be a recommendation that I make to a client who experiences grief after long illness. Grieving is a process that takes more time than we typically are allowed, but writing through the process of grieving allows us to take stock more carefully of where we are on that journey. I would encourage my client to write in Esther’s journaling manner, a few lines each day, and see what results. Not all of us will write a poetry book, but we might be able to help ourselves be aware of gifts that come to us while we are grieving.  Simply reading the poems in this collection offers companionship for grief and learning about another’s journey through the process. I found that to be the case for myself in reading this fine collection of poems. -Nessa McCassey

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