Editor's note: “Cold Metal Stairs” by Su Croll is a finalist in the Woman Writer category of the 2020 High Plains Book Awards.
The poems in Su Croll’s “Cold Metal Stairs” tell the story of a daughter watching her father slip into the vortex of dementia. It is a frightening descent that, for the poet, cannot be stopped but must be imagined. This is the profound wisdom at the core of this collection: as human beings we are always caught — both terribly and magically — in the spin of memory and imagination.
The speaker of these poems tries to imagine the experiences her father can no longer recount, just as he can no longer make sense of the hands of a clock. To capture what dementia must feel like for him, she pushes our little pieces of language into contradiction: “It was today and today and today,” she writes, forcing the past tense into a cruel eternal present. His is a condition she continually monitors and tries to describe even if words are not up to the task. Every visit churns up anxiety about his decline, but also the problem of how to say what is happening. “I was afraid of who he had become or unbecome.” The disease destroys the brain and undoes the self.
The story of these poems is the attempt to come to terms with a parent’s dementia, but the real subject is memory: how it shapes who we are and how we make sense of our world. To lose it is to lose oneself. The speaker is always conscious of her own faulty memories, of “getting it right,” and finds words are not reliable enough, nor powerful enough, to navigate these dark chasms of human existence.
And yet memory can burst free of frustration, confusion, and even, it appears, dementia. One of the most powerful moments in the book is when the father, who can no longer speak, hears Mario Lanza and suddenly begins singing the Lord’s Prayer. “His throat remembered singing/words he could not say.”
There is sadness and pain in this little volume, but also love, hope, and, ironically, consolation in the memories of love after a great loss.
Danell Jones is a writer, teacher, and scholar. Her new book “The Whimsical Muse: Poetic Play for Busy Creatives” will be forthcoming this fall.
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