by Alina Stefanescu
It Must Be a Misunderstanding. by Coral Bracho
Trans. from the Spanish by Forrest Gander
New Directions, May 2022
It rained furiously for the past week. The terrain in our favorite park turned to mud. My kids said walking on this mud wasn't like being at the park—it did not feel like the same place, even though the kids recognized parts of the park (the benches, the swings)—the park was strange. And the kids were estranged from their relationship to the park, or the disappointment of expectation. "This park felt like home," the youngest one said, "but now it feels different."
Amid thunderstorms and spring rains, I imagined a day when my kids are adults and we look back together fondly at our ramblings through the park near our home, recollecting the island of ducks and delicious honeysuckle nooks. Each reminiscence rewrites a memory in collaboration with a co-rememberer.
It Must Be a Misunderstanding, a poetry collection by Coral Bracho, is dedicated to the poet's mother, Ana Terese Carpizo Saravia, who died in 2012 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. Set in a residential care facility where humans slowly lose control of their minds and bodies, the poems sketch a mother's experience as recorded and observed by her daughter over a series of visits. I found myself occupying an alternate temporality when reading this book. Bracho has explored proximity and spatial relations in the past, but this book underscores relating as a dialogic motion between language, silence, memory, signiciation, and music. It is a chronicle of a mother's "adaptive strategies" when losing memory, writes Forrest Gander, who translated it shortly after his own mother's death from Alzheimer's.[i] Humans relate in remembering, and it is a specific cruelty of Alzheimer's which annihilates the ability to reminisce, or to look back at a shared past and see ourselves together in it.
These poems embody Alzheimer's time. Since Ratik Asokan illuminates the context of Mexican literary movements in "This Body, This Rapture," I'll focus on how Coral Bracho enacts an ongoing relationship between a mother, daughter, memory, and loss in time rather than across time. The epigraph from Charles Simic's poem "Greyhound Schoolchildren"references a "fine chalk line / That divides being-here / From being-here-no-more." Simic's hyphen creates a new time by joining disparate temporalities in coexistence; the previous time doesn't usurp the present. I think this hyphenated temporality sets the tempo in this book which refuses a table of contents, or a structural paratext. Instead, the reader enters the time of the poem, and floats inside selfhood's relationship to memory, or to the loss of the "freshly-forgotten" (25).
Rooms, images and voices fold back on themselves like a mind trying to find its way through the dark. It is a book about love and dementia, and how we relate when a person no longer recognizes you or themselves. The grueling disorientation of memory loss is conveyed in an embodied poetics whose pace is slowed by punctuation, repetition, and expressions of uncertainty which question the statement before it. A single stanza asserts ("There's something / they altered") and denies itself ("but no one knows what, / no one ever knows") between voices, or memories, or dialogue tags (15).
Although the book is composed of conversations and dialogues, Bracho doesn't use quotation marks to indicate the speaker. In the rare instances where quotation marks occur, it is to designate signs or words written on objects:
On the trashcan it says:
"They tossed out something." (15)
This strategic blurring animates the world, but it does so out of grief rather than celebration. Bracho mourns shared meaning by inventing a sort of coexistence in the poems. To reminisce is to "indulge in enjoyable recollection of past events"; it is a playful mental collaboration that enables the rememberers to bond in looking back. But dementia destroys the collaborative communion of memory. It destroys a particular bond we assume exists between children and their aging parents.
The daughter recognizes parts of her mother; the mother recognizes parts of the world; but the ability to see each other fully, to meet in that seeing, to recognize one's relation to each other, is lost. The relation and context must be reestablished daily. What blooms can no longer be framed or set to vase a table. It hurts to find the self incognito, to fashion love from the lack. The memory refers to a disconnected memory as a closed room: "Like a disease whose threshold no one can cross, / she says" (11).
And so there are poems titled as impressions, as observations, and it's not always clear whether the speaker is the mother or the mother is memory or the daughter observing:
The gestures of others tell us
what we should feel; also
what we should fear. (23)
I love how Gander's well-wrought translation leans on alliteration to link feeling and fear.
But the gestures are also speaking, and what the gestures "tell us" is foregrounded by the poet. To a certain extent, those poems approach gestures as riffs, and the loss of self is shaped by the repetition of gestures and grappling with meaning, as seen in "And let's see the red face of a jaguar that turns into a cat":
She blows a kiss from a distance.
As if she were looking at herself
planting a kiss. There's someone who goes off
in a boat. (49)
A gesture is a movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. Body language, or physical movements, articulate what we know, or how we inhabit space in relation to others. Some languages, like ESL, are composed from gestures. Many manners and conventions (like opening a door for someone) speak for the self as the self wishes to be seen and expressed in the world. But what does a gesture signify when it lacks a conscious link?
For example, someone waves, and then stares at their hand, wondering why it moved through the air. Someone who loves them reads this wave across a room and interprets it as a sign of affection. Does the person who waved without knowing why have something to say that isn't a muscle memory? We are immersed in the mother's world, "that disquieting, incomprehensible / strangeness" (43) which layers images, hallucinations, and memories without chronology. The non sequitur sets the pace—nothing follows; everything meets itself again.
The daughter listens. She waits for the mother to narrate herself. We meet the black queen, a larger-than-life character in this self-mythologizing epic that keeps forgetting its own thread in the lush, delirious forest. Time devours its own roots, rendering associations dissociative. "All that time is alien," says the mother (29). "It is already time, she repeats," says the daughter (35). Images recur—the bird, the car, the bush—in an effort to make sense of them, but the words, again and again, are estranged from mooring, from meaning, from context. The thing "has no likeness" (39). If comparison permits us to make sense of the world and our relation to others, the ability to compare depends on recollection.
Forest images appear in the darkness of drawn curtains, in the facility filled with strangers whom the mother knows only by pronoun— the nurses and therapists feel like abstractions, shadows which pass through without ever having been real. "Everything happens in fits and starts" (63). Everything begins then vanishes before it can be collected and held still or analyzed to create a context.
Writing of his experience with early-onset Alzheimer's, journalist Gary O'Brien compared the disease to a fog descending slowly over the front of the mind, as if a light has gone out in the brain, leaving a disorienting, unfathomable darkness. He got lost in his own bathroom at night, unable to recognize the towels, the toothbrush, the ordinary objects which marked his ongoing relationship to life. There is no way to predict who will appear, O'Brien says, and no way to predict if he will recognize them—if the light in his mind will be on or off—no words to convey the eeriness of visual hallucinations, particularly the creatures which cross the ceiling.[ii]
Since O'Brien is able to identify these creatures as visual illusions, he can ignore them, or keep from taking them seriously. But what happens when the presence of these creatures becomes more real than that of the wife whose name he can't remember? Where is the chalk line? The "unanticipated tenants" (39) which exist in the mind of Bracho's mother include memories and visions, but there is no way to separate them. An absence of context leaves the mind with nothing to compare, no form of orientation. The daughter whose mother doesn't know her as a daughter has entered a different relationship.
In music, riffing carves out a space between a written piece and its performance. The repetition of particular chords and notes unsettles the score by allowing the relationships between the notes to evolve differently, to bloom otherwise. Fidelity takes a backseat to playfulness.
In a gorgeous essay titled "How to Riff," Emily Ogden describes riffing as a "change within sameness," a marvel of motion which goes "somewhere by continually returning to the same place."[iii] And this is the strangeness of Alzheimer's, the existence of the familiar inside an estranged context, the returning to memory chords which bloom differently, or fail to give us what we need from a parent, namely, to fulfill the expectation of a stable narrative form, a soil one can leave, a past one can revisit through reminiscing.
As the poems progress, Bracho's musical metaphors become more frequent. The mother insists on the solidity and permanence of musical notes, who seem more reliable than living humans to her. While "everything loses / the outline that keeps it / to its particular space," "Intuitions" tells us that a musical note "is something else altogether":
A note can't change.
A note is within you,
and if you sing it
wrongly, it will cringe
and everything is ruined. (67)
The poem ends by asserting that "A note is what it is." But a note alone means nothing. A note meets another one in music, in the evolving relationship between notes, and in our effort to settle these relationships into melodies or songs.
The melody "has something to say to us", Bracho continues:
Which another melody tentatively questions, and recalibrates
with new features.
Which the first one takes up
and deepens, the second expands, enriching it.
The two face off
and they harmonize. Complementing each other. (69)
Memories intrude, but there is a melodic element to their recurrence which resembles themes in a fugue. The mother attempts to place chimes—and to place is to locate—but they keep getting away from her.
I don't remember, she says, I don't remember the darkness.
It's the enigma of the circle, someone says.
But they won't let me hear. They're chimes.
They're chimes that keep returning. (91)
Bracho encourages the reader to inhabit this intensely alienated insensibility by not naming the person who speaks—they are just "someone"—it is the chimes who are named. The remembered objects have power and agency in the mind of Alzheimer's. The leaves, the chimes, the curtains…the riff and the riffle, a noun which refers to a shallow part of a stream characterized by rough water, or a quick or casual leaf or search through something. The mother cannot give up on trying to find meaning in her memories, even as each one unravels in her mouth, in the speech act of sharing her memory with others.
What does it mean to be recognizable? In music, riffing exerts a playful pressure on the idea of fidelity. When musicians riff, they admire the original but break loose from it, and wander off. Bracho riffs on words and images to create a relationship between the self that existed on paper (i.e. the score, the chord chart) and the self altered by dementia. This riffing enables us to honor a piece or a person while expanding the margins of sound and meaning. It also demarcates the riffles, or spaces or turbulent water.
The grief of losing her mother doesn't prevent the poet from calling the portrait beautiful, or from loving the image that is left. This is suggested in a later poem, where the speaker discovers a strand that connects the mother and daughter, namely:
for meaning; to recognize yourself,
and your avid, intimate alliance
with the species; to apprehend and imagine what another feels; to follow the
of language, to name
and conceive of abstractions: love,
injustice; and still to enjoy the beauty,
the music. (107)
As the intuitions alternate with observations in the second part of the book, the musicality expands. The repetition of images and phrases which felt jarring when read it through the lens of grief now grow rounder, sound more complete, gaining the shape of ongoing music, revealing the sound of a fugal form built on repetition of themes. The music becomes a form of presence which includes "the nothing that is spoken, that can be named" (125).
Memory is a site of shared meaning. It is the park I hope to visit (and later, reminisce) with my children. If we cannot agree on our relationship to the past, perhaps we can agree on its presence in the room between us. But the room of memory is fraught with ethical dilemmas.
Is it, for example, dehumanizing to depict a parent's dementia-induced decline? Bracho's careful rendering strikes me as a form of loyalty—what dementia dehumanizes, the poet seeks to keep alive. What dementia erases, the poem preserves and fondles. Bracho creates meaning through melody rather than description of a shared world. Two minds seek to meet one another again and again only to find each other in the dark, to keep meeting in the darkness.
In one of the final poems, Bracho describes the emergence of music and how it affects the mother—"the music / broke into you"—and these movements animated her: “—So gorgeous!” she exclaims, before returning to her "dark, / and already implacable, silence" (127).
Life slips away
with all the gestures,
with all the memories (131)
Bracho's image, painted with such tenderness and loyalty, leaves us with a picture of mother and daughter, their words blurring together, carving a melody from displacement.
Bracho's embodied poems inhabit her mother's memory. Here, the poet doesn't seek to transcend or correct the perspective of Alzheimer's but to live it, to keep it, to exist within it. The remaining—the physical presence in a body that has lost its map—haunts those who remain misunderstood, shaping love to fill the space of what must be a misunderstanding.
[i] Forrest Gander previously translated Bracho's book, Firefly under the Tongue (New Directions, 2008). Perhaps his decision to translate this book touches on another aspect of translation, or the sense in which Bracho can be said to translate, or attempt to bring from one language into another, a comprehensible rendering of the person suffering from dementia. See Translator's Foreword.
[ii] Paraphrased descriptions of Greg O'Brien's embodied experience with early-onset Alzheimer's come from his blog, On Pluto, online at https://www.onplutoblog.com.
[iii] Emily Ogden, "How to Riff." On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays. University of Chicago Press, 2022. p. 50.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald(Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina's poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online atwww.alinastefanescuwriter.com.