The Power of Art and Poetry in a Crisis

“Writing these poems was a real turning point for me,” our daughter Kathryn told me not long ago. “I was able to move forward with my life.” She’d written them six years after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1997. 

One poem was inspired by this watercolor of Martha’s, titled “Feeding the Ducks”: 

Other of her paintings can be seen here

Each of our kids found Martha’s condition hard to swallow, an understatement to say the least. But I suspect the news came down hardest on Kathryn, who was still in high school while her brother and sister were away in college. 

It was from the crucible of those high school and ensuing years that Kathryn’s poetry emerged. In a class during her senior year of college, she wrote nine poems all themed around her mother’s condition. Kathryn was fortunate to have such a talented and sensitive teacher: Natasha Trethewey subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and was named the nation’s 19th poet laureate.

When Kathryn sent me her poems, I couldn’t get through them. The rawness of memory was too palpable. Finally I did. And their energy and darkness and tenderness released something deep within as I cried and read them aloud. 

It was vital that I share with our children my thinking and feelings regarding their mother’s status, which I discuss further here. Yet it also was important for them to share their feelings with me. 

That’s exactly what Kathryn did in this poem, Feeding the Ducks. She provides some context to her thoughts…

Reflecting on this painting, I saw my mother in a way that I had not been able to before. Although I had hints that she was more aware of her surroundings than she was able to express, I had not really grasped that. I’d been caught up by the “fact” that she couldn’t speak. 

My insight emerged not only from this painting but also from the works of both a famous artist and a research scientist. The late Willem de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the 1980s, after five decades of accomplished work. Critics dismissed his later paintings as not of the same “caliber” as the earlier ones. His use of vivid, primary colors supposedly wasn’t “serious enough.”  

However, Dr. Pia Kontos of the University of Toronto argues that regardless of any dementia, Mr. de Kooning’s later work was as valid as his earlier, darker work. Dr. Kontos is convinced by her research that despite any loss, such persons still retain an “embodied selfhood,” and should be respected as such.

(The last two lines of this poem are drawn from a journal article by Dr. Kontos. I also use a statement of hers at the end of the first stanza in which she describes Mr. de Kooning’s later works, but here I draw on it to describe my mother’s watercolor paintings).

And here is the poem:

Feeding the Ducks
by Kathryn Maddux

Bending over her island
she peels Florida oranges, five of them,
in her magenta long-sleeved blouse
and sunflower-yellow floor-length skirt.
The painting on the back wall of the kitchen
is not your typical four-sided frame, but rather,
three sides are visible, with one not so straight-edged. 
Two-dimensional geometric triangles and rectangles
come together into an amorphous something only she
can decipher. “This work exists in a separate space, a more
contemplative arena with less drama and cleaner air.”

She looks down from her work on the orange peels
and hears the ducks coming, trying to sneak up on her,
but the eye-less one quacks, making sure his four buddies
haven’t left him. She asks them, “What would you all like to have
for a snack? I am peeling five oranges, one for each of you. Look,
here are five flowers, too, for you to stop and smell awhile.
                                                                                   One is without
petals, sorry. It’s still a nice flower, though, right? Even without petals, 
it still emanates its pungent, pollen-filled smell . . . and it still holds
its blue hue, like its sister, while the other three are a pastel
pink in color.”

—“Actually, Martha, I’d say you are right on target,” Willem pipes up
as he responds in front of her five friends. “How can the ‘flowerness’
of a flower be lost because it has no petals?”

—“I would agree with you, Mr. de Kooning, just as a duck cannot lose
its ‘duckness’ by having no eyes nor a picture frame its ‘frameness’
by having three sides.”

Putting aside the oranges, Martha picks up her brush and bright paint
to peel back layers of the popular assumption that “only the mind
relates us to the world and gives it meaning.”


Have you and your family been able to discuss your deepest feelings surrounding a crisis you’ve gone through? Would you like to share how you did that? If so, you may at #APathRevealed. Or you may email me at (subject line: My Story).

Thanks, Carlen

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