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Book takes poetic look at Alzheimer's Disease

April 15, 2009

Sean Nevin didn’t’ set out to write a book of poems about Alzheimer’s Disease – and really, he didn’t.

Though his newly published book, “Oblivio Gate,” is a collection of tender poems about an Alzheimer’s patient, it also is a look at memory, and how it works, the self, family and relationships.

“I began exploring how the senses are essential to memory, how we mis-remember, and how something can become true through the flawed filter of memory,” Nevin said.

“Oblivio Gate,” which won the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry-First Book Award, explores the mental and emotional struggles of Solomon, a Korean War veteran battling the onslaught of Alzheimer's disease.

“As I was writing the poems, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my uncle developed a brain tumor, and it made me look at memory and the self in a different way,” Nevin said.

Nevin, who is assistant director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and director of the Young Writers Program in ASU’s Office of the Vice President for Education Partnerships. said his uncle began to get his words mixed up, saying “baseball” when he meant “pork chops,” for example. “I saw this happening in my grandfather as well.

“What a thing for a writer to recognize, the slippage between word and world. I started thinking about the slow loss of self and relationships and language, that slow unraveling of everything we’ve done in our lives. It actually stopped me from writing about memory for a couple of years.”

Though Nevin tried to not write poems about memory, they kept coming.”

At a writer’s retreat in Maine, for example, Nevin thought he had finally changed course with a poem titled “Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths.”

But when his wife read it she said, “This is such a great poem for the book!” and, he said, “Of course she was right.”

Nevin said he hopes his poems can be read without the overarching theme of Alzheimer’s, which, he said, “was the lens through which I saw the world.

“I hope they can be read on their own. They are about self, relationship, love and loss. You don’t have to have lost someone to Alzheimer’s to have them resonate.”

The cover art includes a self-portrait by William Utermohlen, an American artist who lived in London, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995. Utermohlen painted self-portraits until his death in an effort to understand what was happening to him.

Nevin took the title from the Latin word oblivio, which is “loosely translated as a profound confusion,” he said. “The term was used in the early study of dementia.”

Although “Oblivio Gate” isn’t the book that Nevin set out to write, he says it is the book he had to write and it has already opened many doors for him.

Several of his poems were read at the conclusion of a “Speaking of Faith” segment on National Public Radio about Alzheimer’s, and now appear on the program’s Web site.

He has received several Pushcart nominations for his poems, and is scheduled to give a number of readings around the country, including one on May 7 at 7 p.m. at Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, with poet Jim Natal.

“We will both be reading from our new books and from a new anthology in which we are both published called ‘Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer's Disease,’” Nevin said.

Nevin also has won the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for his poems and a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has been invited to give a reading in May at the Tor House in Carmel, Calif., and his book is a finalist for the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year, with winners to be announced in May.

After a tumultuous year – Nevin became a father for the first time, had his book published, took his new job at the Piper Center and helped plan the center’s annual writing conference – he is now ready to think about new poems.

“I have to fight for writing time,” Nevin said. “I’m very productive at residencies. I’m hoping this summer will be a fruitful one.”

He jots down thoughts in a notebook for use in his poems, and he admits that Amelia, who is now 10 months old, has made her way into her father’s creative process.

“I do have some new poems coming, and she is in many of them.”