Poetry and the mind

Poetry and the mind

From the Collaboration of Aging Research Excellence (CARE) - December Newsletter 

Presented by Alzheimer’s Otago in partnership with Dunedin Public Libraries and CARE we celebrated an evening of poetry and discussion on the subject of Dementia on Thursday, December 10, 2020.


Professor Yoram Barak, Associate Professor of Psychogeriatrics at the Dunedin School of Medicine, and poet Sue Wootton explored the power of poetry on improving outcomes for dementia sufferers and their families. The evening included readings from poet Des O’Brien’s collection “How Art”: a set of poems that reflect on, and wrestle with, the day-to-day realities of Alzheimer’s which Des is l earning to live with (see his photo…). The event was very moving to all as Des’s daughter was in the audience and the impact of her father’s art on the listeners was significant. We hope this may become an annual poetry competition and reading.

One of the notable literary works that address the concept of memory loss – the novel “The Memory Police” - was introduced to the audience. The story follows a novelist on an island under the control of the Memory Police. An unknown force causes the people of the island to collectively 'forget' and lose their attachment to objects or concepts, such as hats, perfume, birds and ribbon. The Memory Police enforce the removal of these objects from the island, and of the people who continue to remember…

The disappearance of the birds from people’s memories is one of the notable chapters in the book and an emotional allegory to the losses people struggling with dementia suffer. Here is a quote from that tragic moment: “The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air… [as in many Asian cultures many people own a song bird]… Each owner seemed to be saying goodbye to his bird in his own way. Some were calling their names, others rubbing them against their cheeks, still others giving them a treat, mouth to beak. But once these little ceremonies were finished, they opened the cages and held them up to the sky. The little creatures, confused at first, fluttered for a moment around their owners, but they soon were gone, as if drawn away into the distance. When they were gone, a calm fell as though the air itself were breathing with infinite care. The owners turned for home, empty cages in hand. And that was how the birds disappeared.”

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