Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas

When someone dies, the survivors are expected to grieve. But what happens when your spouse of many years doesn't die, instead retreating into himself, suffering from early onset dementia? There are no books telling how to handle losing a spouse without actually losing his physical presence. And so faced with this terrible reality, Rachel Hadas, a poet and English professor at Rutgers University, has written a memoir of her own painful experience, weaving the literature and poetry that spoke to her and helped her face this familial tragedy throughout her thoughtful narrative.

Hadas' husband George, a composer and professor at Columbia, was always a quiet, introspective man and so his gradual slide into silence was subtle and unnoticed at first. It is hard for anyone to say just when the disease first found a hold in him but it eventually became clear over time that something was amiss. But this is not really the story of George's mental diminishment as much as it is the story of how Hadas must first adjust to him turning into a different person than the one she's lived with and loved so long and then to the reality of having to put George in a dementia facility. Hadas reflects on the changes in George and the changes in her own life. She illustrates her feelings, certain and conflicted both, through poetry and literary allusions and examples.

Deconstructing her own poetry, as well others', there starts to be an academic, instructive feel to the writing. And in some cases this exploration of the origins of her poems followed by the poems themselves becomes almost repetitious. For a class or for a group of people examining the genesis or inspiration for poetry, learning to correctly interpret text, this would be helpful and fascinating; for the casual reader, it is sometimes too reminiscent of school and detracts from the deep and genuine feeling with which Hadas is writing. The writing overall is contemplative and heartfelt and Hadas' pain over losing George is obvious but occasionally overshadowed by the didactic bits.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

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