In 2013, the English poet Sarah Hesketh spent a period of almost five months visiting residents in a residential care home for people living with dementia. She wrote about her experiences, her encounters and the lives of the people she met in this series of moving and evocative poems. The poems are poignant, funny, compassionate and shot through with wonderful insights into how difficult it is to convey the fullness of a person when language and communication begins to fail. Each of the poems is an exercise in bridging the gap between sense and confusion, language and silence, loss and the richness of humanity. The poems included in The Hard Word Box aren’t just clever and inventive. They’re also beautiful pieces of writing which linger long after reading.
The collection begins with a short essay in which Hesketh explains her process, her findings and the ethics she employed in approaching such a complex project. Her warmth and respect for the residents comes across strongly. The poems which resulted from her visits vary in length and form. Some are observational. Some read like prose poem interviews between the poet and the residents. Others contain verbatim phrases lifted from conversations with the residents. Hesketh shapes her own words around these comments so it feels as if the poem is being co-authored and the person living with dementia is being allowed to voice their thoughts instead of just being talked about.
Doreen has a good sense of humour.
Doreen can be a bit rude sometimes (BE GOOD BECAUSE WE
HAVE NO MORE) but staff help her with this.
- From “Doreen”
Playful wording and humour abounds in poems like “Phyllis’ Instructions for Sex.” Whilst other poems offer a stunning articulation of suffering, grief and loss, rendered in a way which allows the reader to empathise with the residents. “Please don’t ask us to speak/ the hard words all at once.” In other poems Hesketh uses fractured language, line breaks and jarring metaphors to explore the relationship between communication and silence, and the difficulty of voicing people who are losing their own ability to speak.
Everything is so
balled heart. Too much muscle
in the sound of thinking.
All we want is to be allowed
to be gone.
To fall from this dark like
brushed white chalk.
- From “Into the White”
The Hard Work Box is a powerful and incredibly moving testament to a long community arts engagement project. It is a ground-breaking piece of writing when it comes to exploring the relationship between the person living with dementia and the artist attempting to record their experience. There’s a collaborative element present here which is often neglected in poems and stories about dementia. It is clear from reading Hesketh’s work that listening was just as important as speaking when it came to capturing the residents in the entirety of who they are. This emphasis on a holistic present tense understanding of the person living with dementia is eloquently and compassionately expressed in her introduction.
When I first started working on ‘Where the Heart Is’ I thought my job would be like that of an archaeologist. That I would help people to recover who they had been, and explore new ways to hang on to that. Instead, I realized what was most important, was not that Maureen used to like jazz, or that Bill had once been a butcher, but that Jack tells great jokes, Phyllis likes helping others to the table- that’s who these people are now.
The Hard Word Box was published by Penned in the Margins in 2014