Books·How I Wrote It

How writing helped Lynn Crosbie deal with her father's dementia

The poet explored her father's illness — and how her family handled it — in her collection The Corpses of the Future.
Lynn Crosbie is the author of The Corpses of the Future, a poetry collection. (Lynn Crosbie/House of Anansi Press)

Lynn Crosbie is a teacher, poet and the author of the award-winning memoir Life Is About Losing Everything. She gets personal again in her latest poetry collection. In 2013, her father fell down the stairs, which started a long journey of navigating dementia. During this time, Crosbie took notes and wrote poems, which became The Corpses of the Future.

In her own words, Crosbie walks through how she wrote such a personal book.

Writing through grief

"I was full-on emotional when I wrote this. I was still very much trying to understand what happened to my father. He hadn't been that well, but he was still himself. Then he fell down a flight of stairs, then he was really sick, then I came to see him and his head had been shaved and he had staples in his head and he was screaming about fires and he was blind. It was absolutely terrifying. I was still reeling. All of our lives had changed so dramatically. So when I wrote the first poem, I cried and I just closed the computer and thought 'Ok, that's a poem.' Then I wrote another one. Same thing. I cried, closed the computer; I don't think that changed for the whole book. I never looked back at them. I thought, 'I'll just keep going forward.'

"I didn't want to confront it again. It was too hard. All the things we'll never be able to do together. It's all the 'never agains' that break your heart. This is somebody who loved to read, who watched movies all the time, liked sports a lot. He made things, beautiful gardens and little works of art, and had a lot of friends. All of it is gone."

Cover shock

"My mom is a really good photographer and she had taken a picture that I wanted to use for the cover. It was of my dad when he was really sick and he had fallen and hurt his head. He's staring into the camera with this big bruise on his head, wearing his hospital gown. He looks so defiant. It's a beautiful, frightening picture. But I couldn't decide if that is how he would want to be seen because he's quite modest. In the end I used a picture that I took. Still, I look at the picture and I didn't realize how utterly unnerving, if not upsetting, it would be to see my dad's face just staring out at me like that in a very public realm. I'm used to him being my dad in a private realm. There has been all this talk about my candour as a writer but I'm actually a very private person."

The language of poetry and dementia

"When one experiences trauma, one's memory sort of constellates. It breaks apart into all these shining stars and black space. And that, to me, seems so much more suitable to poetry than the piecing together of narrative. You don't have that other energy or way of thinking when you've experienced trauma.

"There's a symbolic language of dementia. There are ways of understanding what people are saying. It's not just gibberish. It's just a different way of talking. I compare it to poetry. Poetry is a symbolic language. It's not telling the truth straight. You have to be trained to read poetry and you have to learn to understand what one is talking about in a poem. Dementia is like that.

"When you think about it, it doesn't matter how far gone someone is, they are still them. There are still ways of reaching them. I would just say to anyone, 'Just go visit.' Go visit and find that person you love because they are still there."

Lynn Crosbie's comments have been edited and condensed.

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