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In Kelly Cherry’s poem titled “Alzheimer’s,” style and tone make effective contributions to the successes the text achieves. The poem’s title immediately implies its focus, so that when line 1 refers to “a crazy old man,” we at once assume that the man is a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. Although the word “crazy” at first seems a bit shocking and may imply an unsympathetic, condescending tone, the rest of the poem will slowly evolve away from this arguably insensitive opening. Yet lines 2-3 also at first seem less than tender, as the old man’s mind is described as
. . . rattling
like the suitcase [he carries], swinging from his hand . . .
Perhaps the speaker adopts this somewhat indifferent tone to forestall charges of sentimentality. In any case, the old man at first is presented less as an object of compassion than as an odd curiosity.
In line 6, we move from the mostly external observation of the old man to a focus on the beauty of nature. Here again, though, the poet seems on guard against mawkish sentiment. Thus roses and columbine are said to “slug it out for space” and to “claw the mortar” (7), the verbs suggesting a struggle for life even between objects normally associated with mere passive beauty. Meanwhile, lines 8-10 suggest that ancient natural routines continue no matter how much human lives may change, and lines 11-13 try hard (perhaps too hard) to create a vivid image of the force and beauty of nature. The style here is perhaps too self-consciously “poetic,” calling perhaps too much attention to the speaker’s own phrasing. In any case, in line 14, the description of external nature ends and the focus shifts quietly to the old man’s house.
Beginning in line 16, we enter the old man’s mind, and the tone of the poem begins to become more intimate, more sympathetic. The emphasis on memory in lines 16-20 stresses the old man as he once was: younger, active, in control, creative, full of life. No sooner are the details of his earlier life listed, however, than they are abruptly snatched away: “There is no time for that now” (20). In lines 20-22 the speaker’s tone again becomes somewhat self-consciously poetic, especially in the pun in line 22 on “Fiddling” (alluding to violins). This is a poem that seems most effective when it is least straining for effect – when its style and its tone keep the old man himself most clearly in view and when the speaker recedes into the background. Perhaps this is why the final lines seem especially powerful. In these lines, the style is simple, clear, plain, and understated. The heavy emphasis on repetition here (as in the focus on “Other” and “more”) gives these lines a compelling rhythm. The tone of the poem itself has become “more urgent” (23).
The final lines steadily build suspense, as we wonder what the speaker means by “Other things” and “Other matters” (23-24). The concluding description of the old man’s wife, and of his yearning to recognize who she is, is tender without being saccharine, moving without seeming calculated or contrived. In this poem, the most powerful moments occur when the speaker puts herself aside and allows us to see the old man, his life, and his wife as they truly are.
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