Falling Lessons: Erasure One
He lives in the garden without maps.
To See the World as He May Have
Claire Hellar interviews poet Beth Copeland
This poem is an erasure of your previous work “Falling Lessons.” What led you toward erasure? What resonated with you in the process of crafting this in relation to the poem’s theme of loss?
I used erasure to reflect the memory loss that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease. As you know, “Falling Lessons” is a much longer poem with a more detailed narrative than the poem that was used in the film. I wrote a series of three erasures. The first one, “Falling Lessons: Erasure One,” condenses the narrative considerably. It was an interesting experiment for me to discover how much I could delete from the original and still maintain a narrative thread. Most of the exposition of the original poem is removed, but the story is still implied.
There’s a stripped nature to this poem, an emphasis on imagery that packs a raw, vivid punch, almost a surrealism. What did you discover or what surprised you about your own work as you crafted this poem? Did you intend for this to be elegaic, and to have an emphasis on images rather than narrative structure?
When I worked on the erasure, I stripped the poem to images that I thought were most essential and most vivid. There’s a surrealistic quality to the poem because the images are there without much exposition. I was surprised that the basic storyline was still intact in the scaffolding from the original poem. The poem was written while my father was still alive, but there is definitely an elegiac quality to it. I was anticipating his death and watching him slowly decline and disappear into the fog of dementia. By removing most of the narrative structure, I was trying to see the world as he may have seen it, as a series of images that appeared without much cognition or context.
There’s a fascinating contrast between the opening and closing stanzas: the poem begins with an image of brightness, of sun, and of quietude as the father walks on flat ground, and ends with a flurry of falling images as the narrator falls into darkness/a funnel. What did you want to say with this? How would you describe the father and the narrator’s experiences of loss?
The funnel symbolizes what happens when a loved one has Alzheimer’s. Communication gradually tapers to a few words, a facial expression, or a touch. The falling reflects my father’s frequent falls and his declining mental abilities—he had a Ph.D. from Yale Divinity School, had served as a missionary in Japan, spoke, read, and wrote Japanese fluently, had been a seminary professor, and had published several books—but eventually he became unable to read or to even speak. The falling also reflects my fear of failure as I attempted to be a loving daughter and my fear of becoming a victim of the same cruel disease.
You have said in an interview with Writer’s Digest that you are working on a collection about the loss (in one way or another) of your parents. Tell us a little about this collection. How far are you in the process? What has been challenging, and rewarding?
I hope to complete the collection in six months or so. It’s been a difficult manuscript to work on because of the sorrow associated with the subject. Both of my parents spent the last years of their lives with dementia. My mother did not have Alzheimer’s, but she had short-term memory loss and had to move to assisted living. Of course, I felt a tremendous sense of loss as I watched my parents become forgetful and unable to take care of themselves, but I also was fortunate to find some redemption. I saw a childlike, sweet, mischievous side of my father that I had never seen before, which helped me bond with him in a new way. I was able to care for my mother—driving her to doctor visits and so forth—who had spent her life taking care of others, and that role reversal was gratifying for me. The most difficult part of the writing is reining in my emotions so that my feelings don’t get in the way of the poems.
What were your initial reactions to the video from filmmaker Anh Vu? What details surprised or pleased you? In what ways do you feel the video form may illuminate or limit poetry and text-based work?
In a telephone conversation with Anh, I learned that her grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, so I knew she understood the impact of that disease on family members. I was confident that she would make a film that would be respectful of my father and of my relationship with him. Her film beautifully and accurately portrays the gradual decline of the father’s cognition, his independence, and his ability to communicate with his daughter. I was especially struck by the image of him sitting alone in front of a lake or ocean. The film conveys both his loneliness and her grief.
I was surprised by the visceral reaction I had when I saw the film. It had been several years since my father died, so I didn’t think I would have such an emotional response. As I watched the father and daughter on the screen, tears streamed down my face. Anh Vu’s film gave life to my experience in a way that the poem couldn’t do by itself. I could see, hear, and feel all the emotions I had felt when my father was alive. I thank her for giving me an opportunity to have that catharsis and for creating such a poignant, beautiful film to honor him. I’m grateful that Motionpoems made this experience possible for me.
Claire Hellar grew up on a tropical island, works in marketing, and paints her apartments teal. Her work has been published in Linebreak, Cellpoems, Blue Fifth Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and elsewhere.