“Oblivio Gate,” Sean Nevin
Southern Illinois Press, 2008, 978-0-8093-2877-2, $14.95
Oblivio Gate, Sean Nevin’s first book of poetry, unfolds from the experience of witnessing the loss of a loved one to the oblivion of Alzheimers. Back in 1999, John Bayley traversed this same terrain in prose memoir with his Elegy for Iris. Later, in 2000, he published a companion title, Iris and Her Friends. (Bayley refers to the small respites from the worst of Alzheimer’s as Iris’s “friends.”)
Nevin’s poems also are on familiar ground. They track the demise of Solomon, a husband, father, grandfather, Korean War veteran, home owner. The poems are simple and clear; a wise choice in dealing with such intense and isolating a subject. Mindlessness is affecting enough without lugubrious or gymnastic image systems. But the terrain is also poetically rich.
In the opening of the book there is a terrific poem about the hippocampus, the anatomical seat of memory, “a small sea horse curled in the dark coral reef of the brain”:
no bigger than a fingertip, my own
mounted sentry, stationed there
as gatekeeper to the catacombs
of memory itself. It’s deep
and alone in the explicit night-sea
of remembering where
I left my glasses, or in what
numbered spot I parked the car
But by the close of the poem, the innocent and dependable creature gives way and
constellation of jellyfish begins to pulse,
and a trillion bioluminescent algae cells
ignite, like neurons, an entire ocean around it.
Another poem called “The Mind” defines both the anatomical and the psychic deterioration:
an exposed colony
of termites, writhing
in the split log of sleep
The same poem also gives definition to memory:
Is nothing more
than a star-pocked darkness
that sidles up
like a wife with a toothy smile
who daubs a damp cloth
at your forehead,
who calls to you
down half-lit corridors
and guides you back
to the familiar wicker chair,
The incoherence of life appears as sparks from a forest fire threatening a house; and is subtly compared to the orderly workshop of Solomon, his tools succumbing to rust and spider webs. Carpenter bees, luna moths, and fire ants also lend themselves to metaphor. One notion of awesome devotion appears in the image of a poor mad dog, staked and at the end of her rope.
Nevin knows that escapades of a life have much in common with the practice of writing. Neither is sustained through petulant impulse, but through the habitual practice of the elemental; and it that scrutiny that reinforces and brings intensity and depth to Oblivio Gate.
The desolation and hopelessness gives way to poems that celebrate, “we are lucky to be alive”:
We can’t help
but stare, barefoot and silent
as neighbors in flannel pajamas
gathered at a house fire.
What was there yesterday, today
is gone, vanished before our eyes.
So we wait for someone familiar
to call out from the burning,
for Aurora to remind us of our slippers,
of the pink grapefruit lobotomized
and glistening on the breakfast table,
of the rolled newspaper
already sweating its plastic sheath
somewhere in the overgrown lawn.
(“The Gnome and I Catch Dawn”)