What can we learn about the experience of dementia and about ways of being human when a poet describes her forgetting? My mother, the poet Shirley Kaufman, died in 2016 at the age of 93. She had dementia for many years. By her mid-80s, many of her poems probed the experience of forgetting, including questions about the nature of self, memory, and thought, and the location of the past and the future. Her experience of forgetting revealed in her ninth and last collection, the widely acclaimed Ezekiel's Wheels (2009), serves as my entry point for an exploration of the self as it becomes dislocated in time yet remains attuned to and consciously aware of that dislocation. That dual quality of my mother's experience is the central, ironic tension explored in this essay. An intimate ethnography, this essay connects my mother's late-life poetry with my own experience, both as a daughter who watched her mother's state of mind unfold and as an anthropologist with extensive experience studying aging, late-life identity, illness, and the culture of medicine. Through the insights of my mother's poetic language I show how dementia can expose ironic features of selfhood, communication, and life itself that are worth our discernment. My hope is that my analysis may focus our gaze on the inherent tension in this form of life and teach us something new about identity, memory, and what is shared among us, those with and without the condition we call dementia.


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pp. 549-568
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