At a loss for words after a stroke
In his New York Times column “About New York,” Jim Dwyer writes about Marie Ponsot (a former poetry editor for Commonweal): “After Stroke, a Poet Hunts for the Language Lost.” Her experience will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen a loved one go through temporary or permanent aphasia. But since language is Ponsot’s specialty, she is especially sensitive to the changes in her abilities — and especially eloquent in describing what it feels like, her impairment notwithstanding. A brief sample:
What, she asked, have I lost?
Of course she could not answer. “You can’t say what you don’t know,” Ms. Ponsot, 89, said last week. “So I thought, let me go back to the earliest thing I ever knew by heart.”
It was not a poem, but the Lord’s Prayer, which she had learned as a child in Queens. “I thought, Oh yeah, I’ll do it, Our Father,” she said. She did not get past the first phrase.
…She remembered that the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila had written a meditation on the prayer. An image came to her of a page from the Roman missal; she could, she said, see the page’s border, but not the words. Then it arrived whole, in Latin: Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. She tried to translate the Latin to English, to reverse-engineer her memory, like a computer hacking itself. “It was getting sticky, until all of a sudden it popped into my head,” she said. “In English.”
The NYT has some links for you if you’d like to read more about Ponsot. So do I, of course: see this blog post from last year (when she received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), and be sure to read Lawrence Joseph’s review of Easy, her most recent collection of poems: “Between Silence and Sound.” Finally, PBS’s Newshour did a piece on Ponsot last year, when Easy was published, which you can watch on their Web site. They also have footage of her reading from her poems.
One of the poems in Easy, “Imagining Starry,” begins this way:
The place of language is the place between me
And the world of presences I have lost
—Complex country, not flat….