Anyone who has experienced a loved one’s trajectory through Alzheimer’s might wonder how a book of poetry focused on that harrowing experience could be uplifting. But Coral Bracho’s It Must Be a Misunderstanding (New Directions; 135 pages), translated by Forrest Gander, is not only tender and compassionate, but leaves the reader suffused in the mystery of being. The book is dedicated to Bracho’s mother, who died in 2012 from complications of Alzheimer’s. A short book of fragmentary lyrics, it builds through its sections like a concerto, adding color and depth as it goes. The themes of Intuitions, Observations, and various “She speaks” sections weave through the book as recurring motifs. They locate the reader in the liminal space between the known, reliable self and the fraying of coherence. If you have read Gander’s earlier translations, Firefly Under the Tongue: The Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (2008), you will recognize the same luminous imagery here.
Bracho’s poetry, a combination of elegant, intuitive detail and direct phrasing, seem perfectly translated by Gander. He renders the Spanish as simply as possible, as if stepping out of the way. It’s lovely to have the Spanish and English side-by-side here, so those with even a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish can hear the music of the original, echoed in the simple but vibrant translation:
Se sabe que se sabe, y se sabe
que no se sabe.
Lo que no se sabe entra
con sus finos y aguzados arpones,
con sus marañas sigilosas, su cinico,
She knows that she knows, and she knows
that she doesn’t know.
What isn’t known shows up
with its slim, sharpened harpoons,
with its secret knots, its cynical
As the book progresses the reader becomes immersed in the reality of this woman who is losing hold on her personality. The lyrics remind us of what we take for granted, what she is losing. The “Observations,” which seem to be from the poet’s point of view, underscore the unraveling, as this one:
Always get the last word.
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The puzzle pieces
get lost but not the look
she knows to be hers.
The forms, the objects, they merge,
they crumble; but a feeling
for the ensemble remains: between moments
despite constant fractures. Like a threshold,
a hand hold.
The sequence includes an exploration of fear, the paranoia so common in those suffering from Alzheimer’s—the feeling that things are being stolen, that there are malefactors lurking, when the true theft is that of parts of the self are dissolving: “You’re a bunch of thieves / and you know it too—she shouted / in the hospital.” But there is also humor, as with the section that details an Alzheimer’s follow-up.
Who is the President of this country?
—Well, it depends…
What is this called?
—I don’t know, doctor, because I don’t use
that; only you do…
What did you used to do?
—Now you’re going to ask me
to draw a clock.
Anyone who has been through this with an aging loved one, who has witnessed the indignity of the child-like questions, the required drawing of a clock with hands at specific faces, will relate to this section. It brought back vividly the scenes of my own mother’s frustration. Once a published and respected psychoanalyst, she hated these interviews to “assess her progress.”
The thread of humor, the carefulness of observation, elevate this portrait to more than the image of a parent struggling with Alzheimer’s. The narrative becomes a questioning of what we call self, and what remains when language and meaning seep away. This theme appears and reappears both in images, and explicitly, as in this Intuition:
The last thing that holds you up
against the collapse of memory,
the last thing that breaks and unspools her,
is the search
for meaning; to recognize yourself,
and your avid, intimate alliance
with the species…
Setting these lyrics in the context of what it means to be part of a species makes the poems a moving and provocative read, so much more than a charting of decline. Who are we when we lose memory, concepts? What remains of self, what is the self? That is the core of this book.
The experience of being untethered increases as the book moves forward, until, at the end, we are left to question our own experience and what ties us to this world and the ones we love. There are so many gorgeous passages that express this, but this one, toward the end of the book, seems like a good summation:
Life slips away
with all the gestures,
with all the memories, with all its core
strength, its beauty,
which have foundered with her. Years ago
she stopped speaking.
How does she think? How does she link the diffuse, wobbly
trajectories that lead here? And you?—she asked me once—
How do you
come to know?