Stephen Claughton’s latest short collection focuses on his dearest mother’s journey into the forgetfulness of dementia that changed her physical and mental state but also opened up different, unexpected horizons. Her son tries to help her by mentioning people she knew and things that happened in her past, but the deterioration of her memory seems unstoppable. At a certain point he offers her a 3-D clock, that is, a digital dementia day-clock; it shows her the day of the week and the period of the day. When he goes to visit her again, she has already disposed of it with the excuse that ‘it’s worse than one that ticks.’ She prefers staying in the dark, the son remarks, but it is a darkness that she chooses, a kind of ‘unawareness’, as if she were too tired to be engaged in any kind of conversation or activity.
In his previous pamphlet, The War with Hannibal (2019, Salzburg Poetry), Claughton revisits his boyhood and family memories, evoking school days and the legacy of his father and grandfather. The male side of the family heritage is delineated in well-paced lines and harmonious sounds that convey a sense of balance and understated wit. In the poems, keen observations and irony coalesce with unexpected final twists that surprise the reader. A similar attitude is developed in The 3-D Clock, with special attention being paid to his mother’s condition and his caring for her. Deep compassion and an uncertain acceptance of her status characterise his love for her as he tries to understand the different world she is now living in. He is at her side even if he sometimes feels puzzled and does not understand what is going on in her mind.
At a certain point in the story, words fail her and so the world of language that keeps things together and makes sense of life and of reality collapses:
Even the words of ordinary,
everyday things are beginning to fail you now
like old labels that come unstuck
and get muddled beyond recall.
I do my best to help you,
as together we puzzle out
what exactly it is you mean.
Your periphrases, though accurate enough,
are somehow beside the point.
“The thing that holds water,” you say,
I lamely render as “jug”,
only to find it was “radiator’ you meant. (‘Anomia’)
She goes back to Welsh, her mother tongue, ‘a refuge from the English/of teachers and bullies’, a language that her son does not understand and that therefore widens the gap between them. However, he likes ‘to think that in Welsh/you’re making sense’, accepting the change in the hope that it might be helpful. As his mother likes listening to radio programmes, he buys her a digital radio, but it is too complicated for her so he has to tape over most of the buttons and leave only the on/off one exposed. He shows her pictures on his phone of her old home in an attempt to revive her memory, but nothing really works; she slips further into her forgetfulness until she mistakes him for someone else or looks at him as if he is a stranger. She was a teacher in her youth and adulthood, committed to her work and always in charge, but now she is ‘beyond rescue’.
Not being recognised by his mother seems to make the author question his own identity in some way and opens a hole that feels like failure. However, her ending is described as peaceful even though he grieves deeply for her:
Even after I knew you’d gone,
it was hard to believe you weren’t there –
your hand still warm in mine,
despite the room’s mortuary chill.
(‘Opening the Window the Night You Died’)
The scene that is described is moving, sincere and powerful; it conveys despair as well as profound affection despite his mother seeming absent to him well before her actual death. The poems in the collection are remarkably consistent in theme and tone, revealing in evocative and precise lines Claughton’s intense and tender affection for his mother, whose illness affected their relationship in the last years of her life. However, dementia did not spoil their rapport; on the contrary, it became stronger and more significant during his efforts to accept her condition and during his attempts to help her. She had wanted to avoid a funeral, but a simple one is arranged with ‘only the family there’ and “Nimrod” playing with a ‘glitch at the close’, and his last thought is about how she would have hated it. The poems are a remarkable testimony to the link between mother and son that transcends illnesses and incomprehension.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 24th August 2022