Review: The Poet Who Forgot by Catherine Cole

poet_who_forgot.jpg Catherine Cole
University of Western Australia Press, 272 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

The Poet Who Forgot is about a great many things -- although on one level, it is not really about anything in particular. Rather, it is the author's musings about topics as diverse as love and memory, loneliness and travel, Australia and its national identity. More fundamentally, it is about AD Hope, one of Australia's most famous and prolific poets, but it becomes clear from the opening pages that one thing The Poet Who Forgot is not is an biography. It is, I think, more accurately described as a tribute -- a loving tribute by a gifted writer and poet, who clearly had much affection for Mr Hope, and he for her.

AD Hope sadly passed away in 2000 at age 93, after suffering from dementia for many years. As a poet he won many awards, was known for his acerbic and occasionally crushing literary reviews, and in time became one of Australia's best-known poets. His mental decline in his later years was all the more regrettable, not just because a brilliant poet was lost to the literary world, but because, as Ms Cole points out, writers rely on their memory to write. Writing, particularly poetry, is far more rich and vivid and satisfying when behind the written word lurks the author's own experiences. For writers, dementia is especially cruel.

At its core, The Poet Who Forgot is about a relationship, between a mentor and an apprentice, between experience and youth. A relationship which Ms Cole could scarcely have foreseen when, as an undergraduate student, she wrote to AD Hope, expressing her admiration. That letter was a catalyst for a lasting friendship, which the book explores in the form of a series of letters between the two. If the book was only a series of letters, it would surely be of interest only to AD Hope's most diehard of fans. But Ms Cole skilfully guides the reader through an emotional and often funny journey, augmenting the letters with poetry and her thoughts on a range of diverse topics. This is stream of consciousness writing at its best. Even a reader who is not a fan of poetry, and has never heard of AD Hope, can still enjoy The Poet Who Forgot.

That is not to say that the book is not hard going in places -- when Ms Cole and Mr Hope are apologising to each other for tardy replies, when arranging when they will next meet, or during Ms Cole's ongoing treatise about the activities of her cat. If the letters have been edited for publication, it is not evident. Perhaps the author's goal was to show the mundaneness of her relationship with a famous poet. A brush with fame, after all, is not what this book is about. When rereading the letters, Ms Cole says, she was "surprised" by their "ordinariness".

AD Hope's struggle with dementia is not fully explored -- I suspect that Ms Cole intended for the reader to remember AD Hope as he was, rather than what he became -- a wise choice. While The Poet Who Forgot covers a number of themes, it's discussion of memories and the lamentable act of forgetting are the ones that come to mind most readily, and are the most interesting. Ms Cole quotes historian Paula Hamilton as suggesting that the past is continually refashioned through memory. Even if AD Hope was the "poet who forgot", books such as Ms Cole's will ensure he is remembered.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 2, 2008 1:46 PM.

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