An annual event in Calgary and Banff, WordFest is a six-day extravaganza of all things related to writing, drawing writers and readers from all over the world together for workshops, readings and other events. In 2012, WordFest runs from October 9-14. You can check out their website for more information and the very exciting festival line-up.
Every year, prior to the festival, they put out a call for volunteer readers, who read and review the many books that are considered for inclusion in the event. I was able to squish a small contribution into my schedule:
In Jenna Butler’s Wells, a fictional biography takes the form of a long poem broken into chapters, the fragments of memory and story attributed to a woman with dementia. The poet-narrator is the observer, the family member who struggles with the loss of her grandmother, and pieces together the snippets of family history and sentiments as her loved one fades before her very eyes.
Memory is a strange thing, coloured with time and perspective, and rendered irrevocably changed by disease. Butler toys with the way certain remembrances stand out more vividly than others, the way that stories can be altered by the teller. Her poem is tender, sensitive, and brimming with the bright images of her grandmother’s childhood: her family home in England, her parents (her mother, who never quite fit into the mold of housewife that her peers bought into, and her father, left troubled and scarred by the war), her brothers, her uncle. The narrative turns on the seasons and the tides, and is rich with descriptions of the barley and hay fields, native birds by the seashore, the distinctive scents of the coal shed, Father’s tobacco, and flowers in the garden:
His favourite was none of these. At the bottom of the garden, half
hidden amongst the nettles, rose rhubarb-like plumes of green
flowers. Mignonette, he named them, tapping the stems with a stick.
The scent, piercingly sweet and sudden, threatened to break open
A moving, gentle tribute to the poet’s grandmother, Wells is especially poignant for anyone who has watched a loved one succumb to dementia or Alzheimer’s, anyone who is forced to contend with the confusion and fear that the diseases cause in sufferers. There is a broader appeal as well: Butler’s work is also a poem about storytelling and history, the way that stories are manipulated by the way we think and how much time has passed. The beautiful, evocative imagery draws the reader in, pulls the collection of thoughts together and paints the picture of a whole life ultimately splintered by illness.