In our latest Quatrain Questions interview, Su Croll explains the art of grieving in Cold Metal Stairs.
1. A search for memory lives at the centre of Cold Metal Stairs. What did your father’s illness, and your own experience of remembering him teach you about the nature of memory?
Memory is at the core of personality. Maybe a person is, at the heart of it all, a summation of memories.
In observing one of the diseases of forgetting, Alzheimer’s or Lewy Body Dementia, which is what my father had, it is possible to watch the very erosion of personality. You must begin to grieve your loved ones while they are still alive. Something of them dies off, a little at a time. They forget how to perform ordinary tasks, forget what day it is, forget the names of things. They forget themselves.
The fading memories of those afflicted with dementia are also like a shuffled deck of cards, putting events out of order. In the poem “My mother’s voice”, I recount how my father began to wander. When questioned about what he was doing, he said he was going to work, though work, as I write in the poem, “work was thousands of miles away. Work was/years behind him.”
2. This collection reflects an experience that is extremely raw and personal but still followed the regular publication process; what impact (if any) did editing and revising these poems have on your own grieving process?
Can making art be a form of grieving? The living make art, have always made art to commemorate the dead.
Yet, I could not, did not write poems about my father in the early days of grieving his death. I wrote diary and notebook entries but no poems for eighteen months. Then I remembered an anecdote about how my father was diagnosed when he was unable to draw a clock face. I thought of that impossible to draw clock as a compass pointing to the illness we still couldn’t fully believe in. And I thought of the strangeness of a clock having a “face”, which was the beginning of my thinking again in images and metaphoric language. The remembered anecdote of the clock and the compass became the poem “Hands and face”.
Then it was several years of writing and re-writing, editing and submitting what had become a manuscript. By the time Turnstone Press accepted Cold Metal Stairs, it was nearly six years since my father’s death. I therefore had some emotional distance to the actual events, and was able to treat them as material. Yet the material I was working with
and the experience I was trying to capture was that of my own grieving self.
Interestingly, seeing the poems in their final form as a printed book, reconnected me with the emotions that I had put away in the process of writing.
3. Having lived through it yourself and relived it through writing, what insight would you share with other families who are living with dementia?
Perhaps I would ask a reader to consider that we share the same story and, at times, the same emotions of sadness, guilt, and rage at the disease.
I don’t know that I have insight so much as I present these poems as a version of my lived experience and invite readers to see their own experiences—the similarities and differences—and understand that they are not alone with their sorrow.
4. What do you see as the next step for your poetry?
I am currently editing a novel, but beyond the immediate future, I have another poetry project in mind. It is too new in its conceptualization to say much about it at this time.