Book Review

For the past few years, I’ve watched my father’s steady decline as he’s suffered from an incurable disease: Alzheimer’s. Each month, each week, each day, words are erased from his brain. It’s terrifying to watch someone you love lose their grasp of language. At the same time, the space in which someone lives with Alzheimer’s—that spongy tundra of a mind where one must constantly adapt to the gaps in language and understanding that Alzheimer’s creates—is fascinating to observe. When you are a caregiver, you have to learn to walk this landscape with the person you are caring for, but it is a difficult world to understand from the outside.

Forrest Gander’s translation of acclaimed Mexican poet Coral Bracho’s poetry collection It Must Be a Misunderstanding captures this world’s unique point of view. Bracho both transforms the terror and celebrates the bravery of those living with Alzheimer’s with “tenderness, humor and grace.” We readers are immersed into the altered time of a memory care facility, witness to the surreal lives of residents as they transgress from early to late stages of Alzheimer’s, experiencing their transformation not as voyeurs, but as participants. As Gander reflects in his foreword, this setting readily offers us their new reality: “in the parallel worlds of the residents, a wall might be perceived as the stiff suit of a man, shadows might be taken for realities, light might be apprehended as traces of motion, quiet is strafed with fragments of voices, and everything exists and doesn’t exists at the same time.”

Bracho allows us to see the world through the eyes of multiple speakers whose brains, like my father’s, are slowly being erased one word at a time. As Bracho explains in “Intuitions”:

The attributes, the sounds of the words
simply go,
though the meanings remain there,
in stillness,
turning toward that opaque box
where they’re concealed.

Bracho doesn’t, however, present us with the typical story of decline we are used to seeing: one in which the inflicted are passive victims. Instead, we experience these residents’ resistance through their ability to adapt. The poems teach us their world—from their definition of what memory loss is, like in “Intuitions”:

She knows that she knows, and she knows
that she doesn’t know.
What isn’t known shows up
with its slim, sharpened harpoons

to their perceptions of the ever-changing landscape of their homes in “Observations”:

The house revolves
and each room is new
when she enters. She knows
—or pretends to know—that those
rooms are hers,
and that she’s
the hostess who must show them, again
and again, so they can be
shared, touched,
and freshly forgotten: again
and again.

We are also privy to their resistance to the tedium of doctor’s visits where one is asked again and again to do menial tasks in order to show how far the incurable disease has spread. In “Alzheimer’s Follow-up,” when asked tedious questions, such as “Who is the President of this county?” and “What did you used to do?” Bracho captures the speaker’s humor with her answers: “—Well, it depends; for some / it’s one person; for others it’s someone else” and “—Now you’re going to ask me / to draw a clock.”

While Bracho’s writing is superb, Gander—a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and award-winning translator—possesses the vocabulary needed to take on the herculean task of translating the dreamlike reality of her work. Perhaps, because of this, and because of Gander’s ability to understand the surreal reality of Alzheimer’s due to fact that he lost own mother to the disease, the poems seem to be translated with ease. As Gander writes in his foreword, despite his knowledge of this despicable disease, he was drawn to translating this work because he found Bracho’s poems “uplifting.” Indeed, Gander’s translation of Bracho’s collection has achieved this elevating quality. For even in her descriptions of Alzheimer’s end, we find she gives her speaker both agency and hope:

The last thing that holds you up
against the collapse of memory,
the last thing that breaks and unspools her,
is the search
for meaning; to recognize yourself,
and your avid, intimate alliance
with the species;
to apprehend and imagine what another feels; to follow the intonations
of language; to name
and conceive of abstractions: love,
injustice; and still to enjoy the beauty,
the music.

When I finished reading this translation, I felt I had learned something of what it must be like to live in my father’s mind: a surreal world that hasn’t been destroyed but altered. I felt, as Gander suggests, uplifted and eager to trek this new cartography with him. Thanks to Gander’s translation, this book offers us that gift: to see into this other world with wonder and curiosity.

About the Reviewer

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer and poet and former Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Her latest books include the biography Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) and her poetry collection West : Fire : Archive (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2021). Her next biography Done Dirty: Sanora Babb, the American West, and a Forgotten Literary Masterpiece will be published by the University of California Press in 2024. She’s received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and Millay Arts. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and UC Davis and is the Poetry and Translation Director at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.