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We bring our guitars to her room.

She's delighted and asks,

When did you learn to play guitar?

even though I've had one

since high school. She repeats

this question over and over

and over, and it becomes hard

to resist the temptation to answer,

In jail. When I was riding the rails

during the Depression. Guitar?

What do you mean? What guitar?


The music gives us something

to do, but my repertoire is limited,

consisting mainly of blues songs

about leaving, jumping in the river,

putting your head on the tracks,

being down and out and depressed,

subjects that might not be the best

for a suicidal woman with dementia.

I also know some Hank Williams,

but I don't think, I'm so lonesome

I could die, or I'll never get out

of this world alive, is any better,

although Why don't you love me

like you used to do seems appropriate.


My brother strums a familiar rhythm,

my mother begins clapping her hands,

and he starts singing Folsom Prison Blues.

I give him a look to ask, What the hell

are you doing? but she doesn't connect

her prison with that prison.

When she hears he shot a man

in Reno just to watch him die,

she stops moving.  Her face puckers.

That's not very nice, she says.

No, we agree, it's not very nice.

People can be mean, she says,

and starts to cry. Yes, we say,

then I begin playing a Beatles tune

one of the early, peppy ones;

she smiles, taps her feet, and asks,

When did you learn to play guitar?


A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joe Mills has published two volumes
of poetry Somewhere During the Spin Cycle and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers.  His third collection, Love and
Other Collisions, will be released in March, 2010.

 




In my next volume, I have several poems that deal with my mother's increasing dementia.  It's a tricky subject because it's easy to sound either sentimental or callous. Originally this was a much longer poem in which I let some of its sections spin out like the verses of a folk song, but the more I tightened it, the more I felt it improved.

  



  


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