Throughout this poem, the poet addresses a woman’s day-to-day struggles with her ever-worsening Alzheimer’s. She can’t remember her children, things she just heard or said, or even her reflection. ‘Alzheimer’s: The Wife’ is an emotional poem that should leave readers feeling a great deal of sympathy for the woman described in these lines.
Explore Alzheimer's: The Wife
‘Alzheimer’s: The Wife’ by C. K. Williams describes a woman’s experience with Alzheimer’s and a few of the things she has to deal with.
The poet starts this paragraph-like piece of poetry by describing the woman answering the telephone and forgetting who called. This isn’t unusual, and her husband tries to guess who it was. The woman doesn’t know, and the poet uses the image of a name tag to suggest that the woman has lost contact with the identities of people she cares about, like her daughters. As the piece progresses, the speaker spends a great deal of time describing the woman’s reflection and her interaction with it. He suggests that eventually, the woman is going to forget what she looks like, and the reflection is going to become a stranger itself. The poem concludes with a moving image of that same reflection crying.
You can read the full poem here.
She answers the bothersome telephone, takes the message, forgets the message, forgets who called.
when all the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom and die now in adjacent bites of time?
In the first lines of ‘Alzheimer’s: The Wife,’ the speaker begins by noting something that “She” did. From these first lines, it’s clear that the “she” he’s talking about is the woman with Alzheimer’s that the title references. So far, all readers know is that she’s sick and that she’s a wife. The first line describes something that she does, answer the telephone, and a part of her disease, that she forgets the message and who called. The telephone was “bothersome,” so as if on instinct, she answered it.
The woman’s husband’s thoughts come into the text lines, including his guess as to who called. He’s well aware that his wife may not remember what she just heard, and his patience can be interpreted through the phrasing of the rest of the poem. The wife thinks that yes, probably that’s right, but she isn’t sure. There are no name tags; they’ve been lost or switched. This is a clever and evocative way to depict someone losing their memory. Her connection to these people is waning, and how she knows them is lost.
The fourth line of the poem uses a wonderful example of imagery. The poet depicts the loss of memory as the “lonely flowers of sense and memory” blooming and then dying as time passes. Nothing is preserved or kept. As days pass, more and more are lost.
Sometimes her own face will suddenly appear with terrifying inappropriateness before her in a mirror.
If she forgets, though, and glances back again, it will still be in there, furtively watching, crying.
The fifth line focuses on the wife’s experience or the speaker’s interpretation of it. When she looks in the mirror, it’s like her face has appeared out of nowhere with “terrifying inappropriateness.” She struggles with her own reflection but knows that patience is key. She’ll eventually look away from herself. These lines suggest that the wife is starting to lose touch with her own reflection or appearance. Soon, she won’t be able to recognize herself at all. By speaking around and alluding to this future, the poet should evoke an emotional response from the reader. Trying to imagine what this woman is going through is an important part of reading this poem.
The reflection, now severed from the woman’s own experience, is described as turning away from her “embarrassed by the secrets of this awful hide-and-seek.” Finally, having escaped from its gaze, the woman might accidentally turn back, having forgotten what she just went through, and see it again. It will be there, “furtively watching, crying.” By depicting the reflection, rather than the woman, like crying, the poet is suggesting that the reflection is aware of everything the woman has lost. It’s a symbol of who she used to be and the sorrow she would feel if she could remember who she was before.
Structure and Form
‘Alzheimer’s: The Wife’ by C. K. Williams is an eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. One of the first things readers will likely notice about this poem is that the lines are quite long. As a whole, the poem resembles a paragraph more than it does a stanza. The liens are also written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, their relative similarity in length gives the poem a visual unity as a whole.
Throughout ‘Alzheimer’s: The Wife,’ Williams makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Metaphor: occurs when the poet compares two things without using “like” or “as.” For example, “the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom.”
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “One of their daughters, her husband guesses: the one with the dogs, the babies, the boy Jed?” This can be done either through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “telephone” and “takes” in line one and “daughters” and “dogs” in line two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and memorable descriptions. For example, “the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom” and “furtively watching, crying.”
The tone is sympathetic and descriptive. The speaker knows the woman, her experience and takes the time to describe it in both direct and more lyrical language. The transition between metaphors and dialogue is one of the best parts of the poem.
The speaker is someone who is close to or at least understands the subject’s experience. She’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the speaker is connected to her most intimate struggles. It’s unclear what their relationship is.
The purpose is to explore and emphasize the experience of one woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. She forgets simple things and things that one couldn’t imagine doing without, such as her children’s identities. One should find themselves connecting to this woman’s life while also wondering what could be done to help her.
The mood is sorrowful and sympathetic. The reader is likely to walk away feeling quite bad for the woman depicted in these lines. They’re also likely to find themselves considering what it would be like to be in her position, slowly losing touch with one’s life.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Alzheimer’s: The Wife’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Man with Night Sweats’ by Thom Gunn – a powerful poem about a man suffering from AIDS in solitude.
- ‘Soon’ by Vikram Seth – a deeply emotional poem that details the thoughts of a man suffering from AIDS who is confronting his impending death.
- ‘Coming Home’ by Owen Sheers – a thoughtful poem that describes the transitory nature of life. The poet explores aging, family, and the impact of change.