Roy Wahlberg


Right from the very beginning, my writing has been heavily shaped by two major complications: that of writing in prison, and that of writing with a severe brain injury. I can generally keep those problems at bay for the size and duration of a typical poem, but an account of my development as a poet stretches far beyond that.

I have VERY limited normal memory, but compensate to a degree by what autism expert Temple Grandin calls "thinking in pictures". This can be helpful for holding a tableau vividly before my mind's eye as, like a courtroom artist, I scribble out a representation of it, and then think, "Aha–a poem!" and proudly stick a title on it, feeling like I really DID something when I'm actually just an organic mimeograph machine, doing what this particular type of machine is designed to do.

Eidetic memory may be all good and fine for a discrete, standalone poem, but there's quicksand underfoot. First is what neuropsychiatrists call "stuck in set", where my mind doesn't want to leave the scene, and forgets that there might be somewhere else he needs to go, or that anywhere else even exists. You will doubtless see that many times here: tableau after tableau, often with little or no logical segue. I literally fall and dissolve into that internal picture, and sometimes need to be called back. On the streets, people like me are nowadays given a pager or a phone programmed to sound a tone or vibrate on a regular schedule, to remind the wearer to "check his thinking" (or lack of same). For the curious, this trait is often part of the dysexecutive syndrome (DES) found in autism and dementia. (Yeah, I've got both, and more.) That's why autistics chatter on and on over topics that no one's interested in–like I've just been doing here.

Another facet of my particular form of dementia (primarily subcortical, so I get to keep most of my wit to torment you with) is literally called "the joking disease". The quips just float up and don't merely demand to be said, they make damn sure by doing it themselves–waving my hand around like a marionette. So when wisecracks appear, even if inopportune or apropos of little to nothing, don't blame me–my brain made me do it! Also note that I never said they were good quips, this lower echelon muse tending more toward the juvenile, sophomoric, and even scatological if I don't catch them.

One thing no one needs bother with is having any sort of pity for me as I stumble in confusion from disaster to disaster in an environment not about to win any awards for congeniality. The reason lies in poetry, which, as you know, can use any and all forms of emotional intensity as primary fuel. And what better than major indignation to drive the pen, both in volume (loudness AND poundage), and in powerfully evocative content (if I'm fortunate enough to sling it out with proper body English and an eye-popping spin–skills toward which I'm forever squirming and twirling).

The presence and result of that type of fuel is why I so love the poetic output of communities that know suffering, insult and indignity intimately. In regularly partaking of that particularly coarse diet, it is only natural that the writing done by those similarly provisioned speaks to me like none other.

A retired Mayo neurologist began working at this prison, in order to "give back" making his motivations unusually noble for this environment. It's usually castoffs, burnouts, addicts and the uninsurable that fill the medical personnel rolls here. The moment he saw me walking down a hallway, he began to write the first full and accurate description written of a man (me) contending with the result of decades of neglect over a completely treatable and reversible brain condition.

Thinking at first there was no longer much he could do for me, he was at least honest about my medical status–an act quite enormously rare and appreciated. He estimated that I'd lost about 30% of my brain mass while "Corrections" twiddled its thumbs and hoped I'd cooperate by dying to save the state the cost of treatment. Only too aware of what was happening with them, and thereby also to my brain, I discharged my sentiments thusly .

But back to the poetry. I'd like to share a sample of how I began in poetry, simply taking delight in the abstract play of sound, the rhythmic musical potential of language – a Gerard Manley Hopkins-esque poem of mine mercifully cropped after the second stanza.


Deciduous dream, this year's last leaf left high and dry shivering;
forest dryad, pressed bare-breast against a cold hibernal sky,
have not the rest of your sun-dappled nestmates long since
flown back home with a grateful, long-drawn spiraling sigh?

Consummate connoisseur of beauty, remaining reluctant to rest
tho heretofore having gathered and gleaned all the delectable best
of tender vegetal delight: every blushing sunrise and rubied sunset
each darting flight of bright gorget, every rainbow's pennant crest!

Okay, you get the picture. But before you comment on my primitive (art brute?) use of couplets in that fragment, allow me to explain. When I began writing, it was exclusively a cathartic exercise, done solely for myself, and meant to release pain in a little less self-destructive manner than I was previously known for and accustomed. My use of "unheroic" couplets helped me pour it out at the speed and volume I needed to keep up with what came. Plus, you could rightly SAY/ (as do I) that my brain just seemed to work that WAY.

As no less luminary than Mary Oliver has stated, "…language is a vibrant, malleable, living material. In the writing of the poem, nothing, if it is done well and works to the desired effect, is wrong." Well, if we ignore how "well" it was done (please do!), it certainly worked as a salve for ME, and THAT was the desired effect. I'd like to think that what poetry has been evolving toward is not the establishment of more rules, but ever greater freedom to write, each according to our own lights (and limitations) and what each poem asks of us.


Roy Wahlberg. Born: 11/20/1951. Life sentence: 1976 . His brain later determined to have been so ravaged by early-life disease, even hydrocephalus surgery was denied as pointless. Ultimately, though, magical "compensations" emerged from his brain deterioration and epilepsy treatment: the "Grandma Moses Effect" of late-life artistic drive, musicophilia, hypergraphia, and compulsive versification. With autism, aphasia (verbal deficits), and attention/memory scores of 5-7%, Wahlberg feels continuity of existence only while writing. To him, it is life itself.