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When Poetry Goes Beyond Memory (and Alzheimer’s)


In his new documentary, First Cousin Once Removed, Alan Berliner portrays poet Edwin Honig’s devastating memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s.

“Trees are ambassadors of time”, says Edwin Honig while contemplating the lush treetop that fills his window. Sitting in an old armchair, completely still, old Honig surprises us with an unusual lucidity for an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Memory loss does not seem to affect his profound poetic instinct.

In his most recent documentary, First Cousin Once Removed, three-time Emmy award winner documentarian Alan Berliner portrays his cousin’s ––poet and translator Edwin Honig’s–– last years. Via encounters with the poet, interviews with family members and archive images, Berliner is able to piece together this moving film about the value of memory.

Berliner’s visits to his cousin and mentor’s home always begin with the same question: Do you know who I am? From one day to the next, the poet can no longer remember anything about the previous visit. Smiling, Honig acknowledges his complete ignorance about the most trivial things, like what day it is or who the president is. Forgetting other details becomes more dramatic; his mother, his brother and his younger self appear before him as unknown faces in the photographs Berliner places before him. The past has disappeared to sink Honig in a fissured present. When Berliner asks him how he feels about not being able to remember, the poet answers:

The mind is empty, but it continues to work.

Without any tie to his past, he contemplates the immobility of the days and the unstoppable dissolution of his identity.

Honig was an internationally acclaimed poet and distinguished translator, having translated into English the poetry of Federico García Lorca and Fernando Pessoa, among others. As recognition for his work, he was knighted by the King of Spain and the President of Portugal, and his students still remember his supreme classes at Harvard University.

But, what does all that matter to someone who cannot remember? Honig smiles ironically upon seeing himself reciting for the camera. That’s you, says Berliner.

The director looks into the consequences of memory loss. Images of trains, crumbling bridges and strident lightning volts poetically vertebrate the film ­­––Honig has lost the bridge that transported him to his past, the path that could give him the clues to reassemble his present and compose a future of redemption. His brother’s premature death, for which his father always blamed him, seems to be one of the memories Honig still holds. Nonetheless, isolated in his diaphanous memory, that small splinter does not seem to help him emancipate himself from pain. His memory has almost completely forgotten him, but not the remorse that irreversibly marked the progression of his days.

Berliner poses one final question:

-Imagine you’re in a film and millions of people are watching, what would you tell them?

-Just remember how to forget.

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