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Unlike his late father, Jonathan Gillman learned to play piano at a late age, but was able to turn that shared, unspoken language into a way to connect with his dad during the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Gillman has now put words behind those moments into his new book of poetry, My Father, Humming. (Photo by Rita Christopher/Valley Courier
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Jonathan Gillman: Letting the Poems Tell the Story
Gillman Chronicles a Son's Response to Decline and Loss
People have made movies about Alzheimer's disease, written novels about it, and discussed treatment in medical journals. Now Jonathan Gillman has told the story of his father's descent into Alzheimer's in poetry in his new book, My Father, Humming. The book is poetry, but it reads like a narrative, enfolding the reader in the story as Gillman chronicles his father's illness and its inevitable end. Gillman will give a reading from his work at the Gallery of Cummings & Good in Chester on Friday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. Graphic artist Peter Good designed the cover for the volume of poetry. There is an accompanying CD, on which Gillman reads 43 of the 50 poems in the book. Gillman's father, Leonard, who died in 2009, was a noted mathematician, a winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a professor at the universities of Rochester and Texas. But Leonard Gillman was something else: a classically trained pianist, who had won a fellowship to the Julliard School of Music before he turned his attention to mathematics. He continued to give concerts throughout his life, sometimes at meetings of mathematical organizations to which he belonged. As his father fell into the later stages of Alzheimer's, music became a way for Jonathan Gillman to attempt to reach the man he once knew. "Music is a theme through much of the book-a thread that ties everything together," he says. The title of the book, as well as one of its poems, grew from a visit Gillman paid to his ailing father. Unlike his father, Gillman had not learned piano as a child but had taken it up as an adult. He played the great composers, but in his own fashion. "I played the same notes [Bach and Beethoven] I heard as a child, but I make very different music. I play them much more slowly, at a different tempo than they are supposed to be played," he noted. By this time, his father could no longer speak, but he nonetheless expressed his displeasure at his son's interpretations by beginning to choke. "Not some feeble choking, but the 'This is it, I am going to die variety.' My first thought was to stop and go help him, but the nurse was there and there was nothing else to do so I kept playing and he kept choking. I heard the rattle in his throat," Gillman recalls. But then something else happened. The choking stopped and Gillman heard another kind of noise, softly at first. "He was humming along with me and he kept humming and I kept playing-the two of us making music together-until the end of the piece," he says. The moment, Gillman recalls, was one of deep, unspoken, connection between him and his father. Gillman, who is head of the theater department and the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and directs its Looking In Theatre, has written short stories, plays, and novels, but had not attempted poetry since his college days. He began My Father, Humming as a series of journal entries not simply to chronicle his father's decline, but to understand his own reactions to it. "I had to go inside, examine myself and wrench the words out of me. It was like scraping down to the bone," he says. After some eight months, he showed the work to his wife Pam Nomura, herself a poet. She urged him to pursue the project, but Gillman noted, her suggestions often came in the form of tough love. "She felt, rightfully so, that it needed a lot of work and was very specific saying where," Gillman says. "So I went off and worked on that and came back to her with a lot of changes nine months later." Gillman says that reading the poems, as he practiced for the CD, brought back the same raw emotions. At the readings themselves, he notes, he has to keep his own feelings in check. "When I'm actually reading, whether in the studio or at a reading, I have to maintain some kind of control or I won't be able to proceed. I try to create the reality of the situation, but I can't let myself feel the same way," he says. The advantage of the CD, according to Gillman, is that it is a way to experience poetry for people who feel that they never understand the poems on the written page. Still, he adds, he always strives for simplicity of expression in his writing. "I almost didn't want the book advertised as poetry, though it is. These poems are telling a story about basic human connections, parent to child, heart to heart, person to music, people to each other," he says. Although he was writing about Alzheimer's, Gillman observed that theme expressed in his poems is far more universal. "The book deals with something many of us are facing-decline and loss, whether through Alzheimer's, cancer, or just the passage of time," he says. "There sometimes isn't a lot of support out there for people. This book provides that support." In fact, according to Gillman, the CD seems to be doing just that. "Apparently my voice comes across as warm and reassuring. As another poet said to me, it feels as if I'm having an important, private conversation with the listener about topics we all care deeply about," Gilman notes. For Gillman, live readings, like the one he will do at the gallery at Cummings & Good on Feb. 15, are a special treat. The audience, he noted, becomes part of the dramatic process. "With a poetry reading, everyone is sharing the same experience, though perhaps individually responding somewhat differently," he says. When the whole process works well, he says, a poetry reading can be like one of his favorite sports, windsurfing. "You're out there on the board. Hold the sail right, you catch the wind and you go. That's when you take the audience with you. It's about connecting to this much larger and stronger force that you help the audience to connect to also." Jonathan Gillman reading from My Father, Humming Friday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. Gallery at Cummings & Good 3 North Main Street, Chester Admission is free and open to the public For more information on My Father, Humming, visit ww.myfatherhumming.com.