Poetry is a supremely sensory art, both in the imagining and in the writing. What happens when the poet faces illness? How is the poetry affected by alterations of the body and mind.
Danielle Ofri examines the poetry of several writers afflicted by physical illness—poets of great renown as well as those who are still “emerging voices,” in order to explore the interplay between creativity and corporeal vulnerability.
When I think about the definition of poetry, I have an image of the vast chaotic world being funneled through a narrow filter that is the poet. What comes out on the other side is an economy of observation about that chaos.
Whether the critical essence of that filter is the mind of the poet, or the soul of the poet, or the spleen of the poet, is to some degree irrelevant, since none of these parts can function alone, and the sum total is that living, breathing body. It takes no great leap of logic to expect that assaults of any sort to that body would alter the output. It is in the details of this truism, however, that one might begin to mine the fascinating and perhaps intrinsic connections between “physicality” and creativity.
We in the medical profession maintain our noses squarely on the physical grindstone. Despite the fact that psychiatric illness is considered part of general medicine, we still maintain a palpable orientation to the corporeal. Diseases are discrete alterations of body systems. What hasn’t already been reduced to molecular genetics surely will be; it’s just a matter of time.
“Side effects” of diseases and medications are typically measured in the same corporeal constructs. Examining the effects of illness on something as non-corporeal as poetry, however, might subvert the system.
My personal interest in this realm stems from the stapling together of the medical and literary sides of my life. When I first started editing the Bellevue Literary Review— some years into my medical practice—it was a discrete dappling into the literary world. As the BLR achieved a degree of permanence, however, it sought a distinct presence in my medical life.
It wasn’t just that there were copies of the BLR intermingling with medical journals on my desk, or that I’d proofread fiction manuscripts between cases of arthritis and diabetes, or that a beeping pager could be the emergency room or the printer. It was more that the mindset of reading literature and analyzing patient’s medical complaints could no longer be completely compartmentalized. I’d find myself correcting mixed metaphors in a patient’s chart, and then bemoaning the lack of evidence supporting the climax of a short story. Not to mention handing out poems to curious patients, harried interns, and puzzled hospital administrators, while fielding urgent medical queries from hypochondriacal, generally uninsured, writers.
I became intrigued by the question of how poets and their poetry are affected by illness. There is no shortage of analyses on how mental illness has influenced poets, but there is comparatively little written about the effects of physical illness. I was curious to understand how writers—whether literary giants, contemporary classics, or emerging voices—utilize their poetic coping skills in the face of bodily revolt.
The ways in which the body can fail are staggeringly and terrifyingly diverse. I’ve chosen to begin with that workhorse sense that might be considered the sine qua non for those who put pen to paper—sight. And where better to start than at the waning of the period during which our society collectively opened its eyes—the Renaissance.
Blindness: John Milton and Jorge Luis Borges
John Milton became completely blind in both eyes by 1652. The causes of his visual loss are generally attributed to glaucoma, although theories of craniopharyngioma, retinal detachment, and “incessant labours at the printing press” abound. Milton was already a well-established poet, essayist, and all-around rabble-rouser by this time, but he hadn’t yet written “Paradise Lost” or “Paradise Regained.”
Milton is the classic case of the artist whose creativity is postulated to have been stimulated by handicap and hardship (see the Gulag writers for the apotheosis of this theory). In particular, blindness is often felt to confer more potent powers of observation. Beginning perhaps with Tiresias, the blind soothsayer who warns Oedipus of his future, the cutting off of external visual stimuli carries with it the powerful poetic suggestion that internal visual imagery can now be unleashed in all its wild creativity.
Jorge Luis Borges—himself blinded several centuries later by a paternally-inherited eye defect—famously said of his idol Milton: “He sacrificed his sight, and then he remembered his first desire, that of being a poet.” The implication is that the blindness served a greater good, that there is an intrinsic strengthening of poetic abilities by having one of the senses severed, that the world might never have been blessed by Milton’s apocalyptic masterpieces had not the poet’s eyes failed him.
Literary analysis, like conspiracy theory, is brimming with attempts to construe logical causation out of random events. The temptation to find order and purpose in a sequence of occurrences is undeniably appealing, and probably innate, but it can often lead to questionable associations that take on lives of their own because they “feel” so logical.
Borges certainly isn’t the only one who felt that Milton’s blindness was part and parcel of his genius, perhaps even a divine gift that was a necessary birthing pain for Milton’s greatest writings. Milton apparently composed “Paradise Lost” at night, then dictated his words in the morning to his wife, or an assistant, or his daughters, or his friends. Over the course of several years, he dictated this roughly 12,000-line epic poem to his—at least outwardly—tolerant scribes. One might imagine that Milton had to conjure up his images in an especially visceral fashion to make up for his inability to “see” the images before him. (Though it could be argued that since Milton did once possess the sense of sight, his memories and imaginations would have a visual accuracy that those blind from birth would lack.). One famous excerpt from Book Nine, in which Adam expresses his love for Eve, offers the very non-visual, but potently physical, image of giving up yet another rib. Certainly there are parts of loveliness:
“How can I live without thee, how forgo
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly joined,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee
Would never from my heart; no, no! I feel
The link of nature draw me: flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.” (9.896-916)[i]
In contrast to Borges, T.S. Eliot felt that Milton’s blindness actually impaired his poetic abilities. In fact, he felt that all of Milton’s five senses were “withered” by his voluminous book learning at an early age. Thus, the lost of sight merely placed final the death knell on his creativity. Without being able to use his eyes to visualize scenes, Milton had to rely on his other, already-blunted, senses, resulting in a poem that lacked well-developed imagery.
Hail holy light, of spring of Heaven first-born,
Or of the Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam[ii]ed? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternity, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate!
Or hear’st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? Before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising World of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless Infinite!
. The Hallmark-like phrases such as “eternal coeternal beam” and “bright effluence of bright essence” would likely merit Milton a rejection from even the smallest circulation literary magazines today.
The truth is that Borges and Eliot were both right, to some degree, about Milton. His epic poems are so gargantuan that, like the blind men feeling the elephant, it depends where one touches. There are certainly flashes of brilliances and there are definitely sections that drag achingly. Whether his blindness contributed to either or both of these ends of the poetic spectrum is difficult to determine, since we could never know how the Paradise epics would have sounded if Milton possessed full visual powers when they were written. However, we do have some insight into Milton’s perceptions of the meaning of his blindness. In 1655, when Milton was 47 years-old and fully blind he wrote his famous sonnet, titled—conveniently enough—“On His Blindness.”
When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one talent which is death to hide, Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide; “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His stateIs kingly; thousands at his bidding speed, And post o’er land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.”[iii] The sonnet suggests that Milton’s first conclusion about blindness is that his poetic abilities are destroyed; that he can’t write without being able to see. Consistent with his world view, he interprets his affliction from a religious perspective, concerned that he might be a failure in God’s eyes if he didn’t write poetry now, since he was convinced that it was God’s destiny for him to be a poet. The blindness might even have been a challenge from God to test his faith. (His political opponents, however, speculated that his blindness was a punishment from God for supporting Oliver Cromwell’s Republicans who eventually executed King Charles I.) Milton finally concludes that it’s not his poetry, nor any other labors, that will grant him God’s favor. Salvation is a gift by God for those who keep the faith. Therefore, it seems that he can accept his blindness and whatever other obstacles are placed in his path, because as long as he can “bear his yoke,” he will be saved. Perhaps it was this conclusion that freed him up after three years of blindness (and grief from his wife’s and child’s deaths) to begin writing in earnest again. It was roughly in this year that he embarked upon the decade-long endeavor that resulted in “Paradise Lost.”
Like Milton, Jorge Luis Borges lost his vision in mid-life, though the process was more protracted. Borges underwent his first operation for cataracts at age 28, and his vision progressively deteriorated over the next three decades. Like Milton, Borges also wrote in all genres, with poetry becoming increasingly important as he grew older (and blinder). Borges in fact started out as a poet, though he was later quite embarrassed by the “riot of sham local color” and the sentimental views of Buenos Aires that his three books of poetry from the 1920s contained. He spent the middle years of his career writing that fiction and political articles that brought him serious critical attention. He returned to poetry later in life, publishing nine—far more memorable— books of poetry between 1960 and1985.
Because of the genetic nature of the blindness in his family, visual loss exerted a variety of influences on Borges. Borges always expected to be a writer, carrying on the tradition that his father apparently didn’t succeed at, in part because of his own visual problems. These problems grew so severe that the elder Borges relocated the family to Paris and then Geneva in search of better ophthalmologic treatments. The outbreak of World War I, however, prevented further travel, so the Borges family was forced to remain in Geneva. Thus, thanks to his father’s blindness, Jorge Luis Borges spent four critical years of late adolescence in Europe, learned French and German, and apparently had his first (failed) sexual encounter with a Swiss prostitute—all of which heavily influenced his writings.
Before blindness took its toll on Borges, however, there was another medical incident that profoundly affected his writing. Shortly after his father died, Borges scratched his forehead on a freshly painted stairwell casement on Christmas Eve of 1938. The wound became infected, and the infection spun out of control. Septicemia ensued, and Borges spent five weeks critically ill, hallucinating in bed while his blood pressure hovered dangerously low.
After recovering, Borges was concerned that his sickness might have robbed him of his creativity, that the lost weeks might have permanently affected his brain and soul. However, in his writings that followed (mainly stories and essays) he blended elements of fable, fantasy, and irony, none of which had played much of a role in his earlier writings. The first piece he published after his illness, “Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote,” was a piece in the rubric of literary criticism. Borges created a modern-day, fictional, French writer who “recreated” Quixote in the original 16th century Spanish. In this manner, Borges was able to blend fiction with fact, both satirizing and illuminating literary criticism, while weaving in issues about contemporary writing and the philosophy of translations. One might be tempted to make a parallel between the mixing of literary forms and the mixing of sensory experiences during prolonged illness and hallucination.
Borges underwent eight ocular surgeries during the course of his life, none of which were ultimately successful. He continued to write short stories and essays through the 1950s, but at this point, his vision became a serious handicap. He found that it was easier to revise verses of poetry in his head than long passages of prose, and thus turned predominantly to poetry in the last third of his life. His first collection of poetry, El Hacedor (The Maker) was published in 1960 (later re-titled Dreamtigers in English). It contained the poem Ars Poetica, which many feel is Borges “manifesto” about poetry.
Jorge Luis Borges
To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.
To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep.
To see in the day or in the year a symbol
of mankind’s days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,
To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.
[AU: could cut after this stanza if you need space…]
At times in the afternoon a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.
They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.
It is also like an endless river
That passes and remains, a mirror for one same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And another, like an endless river.[iv]
The fourth stanza has particular significance for Borges’ life. He talks of poetry returning like “the dawn and sunset,” which might be an illusion to the prominence of poetry early and late in his life. He also refers to “a sad gold.” While this might simply be a reference to the sunset, or to the poignancy of poetry, it might also refer to the specific nature of his limited visual abilities. As a child in Buenos Aires, Borges had a particular fondness for tigers, and was known to spend hours at the zoo, staring at these creatures. Late in life he commented on the connection between the tiger and his vision: “I used to stop for a long time in front of the tiger’s cage to see him pacing back and forth. I liked his natural beauty, his black stripes and his golden stripes. And now that I am blind, one single color remains for me, and it is precisely the color of the tiger, the color yellow.”[v] The “sad gold” of Ars Poetica, might be this color of the tiger, the last dim vestige of Borges’ visual perception.
In an obvious homage to Milton, Borges wrote his own sonnet entitled, “On His Blindness.” Penned late in life (1985), the poem talks about the penumbra that he has been stranded in, due to his loss of vision. He admits that he misses the sighted world, but Borges concludes—however sentimental it might seem—that blindness has given him the gift of poetry.
ON HIS BLINDNESS
After the years it surrounds to me
an obstinate luminous fog
that it reduces the things to a thing
without form nor color. To one it almost devises.
The vast elementary night and the day
people plenty is that fog
of doubtful and faithful light that it does not decline
and that watches in the dawn. I would want
to see a face sometimes. I ignore
the unexplored encyclopedia, the enjoyment
of the books that my hand recognizes,
the high the gold birds and moons.
To the others they have left the universe:
to my penumbra, the habit of the verse.[vi]
Cancer: Jane Kenyon
Perhaps the most famous pair of contemporary poets who have faced illness and incorporated illness into their art, is Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall. When they married in 1972, Hall was concerned with the 23-year age difference between them (they’d met while he was her writing professor). Apparently he consulted actuarial charts and concluded, sadly, that he would leave Kenyon as a widower for a quarter-century.
The science of life-expectancy—however accurate it is for populations as a whole—offers frighteningly little solidity for individuals. In 1989, Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 61. Though the cancer was removed surgically, it recurred in 1992, accompanied by metastases to the liver. Normally, metastatic cancer of any type, but particularly with involvement of the liver, is an ominous prognosis. In Hall’s case, he was given a 30% five-year survival rate, meaning that 70% of patients with his condition are dead within five years. As of this writing, a decade and a half after the grim pronouncement, Hall remains an active presence in the world of poetry, and recently served as the US Poet Laureate.
In 1994, two years after Hall’s liver metastases were uncovered, Kenyon was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). ALL is typically a pediatric disease, and is the poster-child for oncological advancement. In the normally dismal world of cancer treatment, a startling 80% of children with ALL are completely cured with current chemotherapy regimens. However, the poster fades noticeably as patients age. Although most adults achieve some degree of remission with treatment, less than half are actually cured. ALL otherwise offers a brutal and inexorable course. Regrettably, Jane Kenyon fell into the latter category and was dead within 15 months of her diagnosis, at the age of 47.
Jane Kenyon’s kamagrawiki full oeuvre of poetry was published in 1995[vii]. This includes the contents of her five published collections, her translations of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, and a handful of “uncollected poems” that hadn’t appeared elsewhere. The poems are chaptered in their original collections, and these are arranged chronologically in the book. As might be imagined, there are only a scant few poems that were written during the time she had cancer. (Her leukemia plays a much more potent role in Donald Hall’s poetry). Kenyon’s poems that do touch upon her illness tend to offer brief, but sometimes chillingly insightful hints about how one moves through a life that has been viciously redirected.
I walked alone in the chill of dawn
while my mind leapt, as the teachers
of detachment say, like a drunken
monkey. Then a gray shape, an owl,
passed overhead. An owl is not
like a crow. A crow makes convivial
chuckings as it flies,
but the owl flew well beyond me
before I heard it coming, and when it
settled, the bough did not sway.[viii]
What strikes me most about the poem “Prognosis” is the image of walking alone in the chill of dawn. Many patients tell me that one of the hardest aspects of living through an illness is that one must do it alone. No matter how many devoted family members are at the bedside, no matter how many dedicated doctors and nurses are there, no matter how many social services and support groups are available, the patient must ultimately proceed through the illness alone. Nobody can live that life for them (as much as a parent might wish to do for an ill child). Nobody can feel the pain, face the fear, incorporate the loss, absorb the anxiety, ponder the future, contemplate the death, or eat the hospital food for them. Illness, especially terminal illness, is existential loneliness wrought real.
What It’s Like
And once, for no special reason,
I rode in the back of the pickup,
leaning against the cab.
Everything familiar was receding
the motel, Huldah Currier’s
house, and the two stately maples….
Mr. Perkins was having a barn sale,
and cars from New Jersey and Ohio
were parked along the sandy shoulder
of Route 4. Whatever I saw
I had already passed….
(This must be what life is like
at the moment of leaving it.)[ix]
And there is occasionally happiness, even during serious illness. The first stanza and a half of the aptly tight poem, “Happiness,” give a rhythmic sense of the unpredictability of emotion.
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
Although leukemia was the most serious illness that Kenyon faced in her lifetime, it was depression—and occasionally mania—that plagued her for the greatest length of time. Her most recognized poem dealing with depression—“Having it out with Melancholy”—is a five-page poem that is filled with potent images of the pain of this illness. A few are excerpted here.
When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linens in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore….
I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours—the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls….
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I am awake, I am still with thee.[xi]
Chronic Disease: Paul West and Joan Seliger Sydney
Paul West reminds me more of my own patients, struggling for years with a variety of chronic illnesses—in his case, diabetes, migraines, heart disease and cerebro-vascular disease. Illness isn’t one thing for West, like cancer or multiple sclerosis; it is more of a general state of being. He has been a prolific and eclectic writer (25 works of fiction, 16 works of nonfiction, four collections of poetry at last count.) In 1995 he published a memoir of life with ongoing, multiple afflictions, entitled A Stroke of Genius.
But it was in 2004 that his illness, in essence, became one thing. A major stroke left him with (according to the press release) “only four hours of lucidity a day.” The rest of the time he experienced “aphasic gibberish” and was unable to decipher a clock or do basic math. Somehow, in these four-hour windows, over the course of two years, he managed to produce a book of formally structured poetry. Tea with Osiris[xii] is a set of 53 untitled, rhymed, fourteen-lined sonnets. (Fourteen is apparently the number of pieces the Egyptian king Osiris was chopped into by his brother Seth—after Seth had already asphyxiated Osiris in a sealed coffin. Luckily, Osiris’s sister/wife Isis was able to retrieve the segments from the Nile and reassemble Osiris into the God of the Underworld).
West is predominantly a prose writer, and his poetry has a prose-y feel to it. There is a slyly maniacal tone to his writing, a sense of a frenetic word-meister, but then an oddly powerful image will suddenly ground the poem. Many of the poems related to medical issues and procedures. There are no less than five that deal rather bluntly with the intricacies of the Foley urine catheter, and another handful about kidney stones, and a few about body orifices in general. The characters of Osiris and Seth wend their way through a number of the poems, with particular focus of the chopping and slicing of body parts. Poem 26 (the poems are only numbered, not titled) is representative.
Breakfastless, nervous as a newt
he begins the word Versed without
sensing a pun there on the brink
of never-never. Let us say (or think)
All he gets out
is the first syllable and he doubt-
fully wakes up. “You didn’t do it,”
sez he, “you chickened out. I gotta
pee, see, I just gotta, I gotta go.”
Between his legs he senses a rube Gold-
berg contraption, something between
a curtain rod and a turkey baster,
rigid, gross, all penetrant pilaster
turning his mons pubis arsenical green.[xiii]
This poem caught my attention, because every time I’ve used the short-acting sedative Versed (pronounced Ver-sed) on my patients, I wonder why the pharmaceutical company had never considered the obvious poetic pun. When my patients were appropriately sedated for whichever procedure was about to commence, I couldn’t help but think of them as “well-versed.”
West’s other poems about the Foley catheter are a bit more graphic (and scatological), but I have to admit that the image of catheter as part curtain-rod and part turkey-baster just about nails it on the head. Two points for accuracy. Bonus point for humor.
Poem 10 is the most self-reflective (and tells us so in the first line). It begins with the usual raucous verbal riffs and rhyming contortions. But the final sentence is a poignant homage to the ravages of disease and age, with particular emphasis on literary abilities. This is closest West comes to describing for us what it must be like to try to write while the mind, brain, and body are constantly under attack. Once again, the essential aloneness of illness comes to the forefront.
How does he see himself? (Eschewing
mirrors of course). As a monster
of platitudes: an old bitch sowing
platitudes, lack-luster punster
with whimper not bang,
ego rain-sodden from
Rangoon, around the neck a Cang
from ancient China, from Brumm-
agem an ancient tin thumbstall,
between his toes enough Plasticine
to keep a thousand children sane.
An outline of a man, outrigger
alive there on catamaran,
agent of record for many moons.[xiv]
The most interesting and enigmatic poem in the collection is Poem 37. After pages and pages of fetid brains, charred suet, tepid torsions, violent hams, humiliated schlongs, meat cleavers, sphinx’s farts, poisoned menses, Ravel’s sperm, and wave-hopping fakirs, it is somewhat of a relief to stumble on lyricism, even if the lyricism eventually turns to chancres and boils. The question of whether we are sustained by sweet melancholy or by nightmares is “settled” by the odd image of a “crosspatch lion’s work to which all the answers are horses’ names.” I’m assuming that West himself is the crosspatch, the local grouch, and that he is making reference to the havoc that cerebrovascular disease has wrought upon his brain. For what could be worse for a writer than to have his or her circuits rerouted, metaphors unhinged, virtuosity upended?
“If our sweetest songs are those
that tell of saddest thoughts,” sez Osiris,
“then our saddest songs are those
that tell of sweetest thoughts.” Who’s
asking? I am. It doesn’t balance.
somehow it, doesn’t add up. Dalliance
is verbosity. ’Twould be better
if we thought of something neater:
Our nightmares are what sustain us.
Blood and gore staidly restrain us.
Chancres and boils enlighten us.
The family next door are all dames
attempting a crosspatch lion’s work
to which all the answers are horses’ names.[xv]
Many poets, like Hall, Kenyon, and West, were writers before they were patients. They spent their lives transforming their thoughts, feelings, and observations into poetry (and prose), and years perfecting their craft. When illness became part of their lives, illness was naturally incorporated into their poetry. Lucille Clifton wrote about her renal failure and dialysis, Hayden Carruth about his emphysema, Paul Monette about his HIV, to name but a few. But there is a crop of new writers whose illness has brought them to writing. These people were not poets or authors in their “prior” existence, but when illness plowed into their lives, they picked up the pen. Or, they were fledging writers, but illness galvanized their efforts.
Approaching poetry as a catharsis to harrowing events is a common response, understandable—even logical. It guarantees earnest, heartfelt writing, but not necessarily consistently great poetry.
Joan Seliger Sydney was a newly-married, high-school English teacher, when a first episode of neuritis jolted her life. A course of prednisone calmed the symptoms and for the next decade she lived a “normal” life, including raising four children. Ten years later, halfway through her doctoral dissertation, a recurrence of her symptoms confirmed multiple sclerosis. Over the next eight years she managed to keep her diagnosis of MS a secret from her children and co-workers, but began writing poetry as a “way to control an external world that had disappointed me.” Only when her symptoms recurred with a vengeance, did her now-teenaged children learn of her diagnosis. It took another four years to tell her Holocaust-survivor mother.
During these years of secrecy, writing was Sydney’s major outlet for honest discourse. Her poetry, as well as a prose memoir, is collected in her first book, Body of Diminishing Motion.[xvi] It is published by LaurelBooks, CavanKerry Press’s “Literature of Illness” imprint.
The poems precede the prose memoir, but I found it more illustrative to read the memoir first. While art should stand on its own merits and be able to be appreciated solely for art’s sake, the reality is that context makes an indelible difference. Perhaps the author (or publisher) wanted the reader to approach the poems in an “unbiased” manner, but this is impossible, given that the book is packaged and marketed as being about her MS.
The language in this collection is fairly straightforward, whether the poems are dealing with constant shadow of her mother’s escape from Hitler or the direct effects of what Sidney calls “my body’s civil war.” The most illustrative poem, “Legs,” is fairly prose-like. It isn’t necessarily the most richly appointed poem in the collection, or the most daring. But in its plain wording, it brings the reader front-and-center to losses, indignities, and occasional bittersweet joy in that civil war.
Once I draped you over a desk’s edge,
inadvertently letting my freshman
composition class note the distance
between miniskirt and panty.
But now you force me
to grocery-shop out of town
so that no one I know will notice
my blue and white parking pendant.
Most obvious imperfection,
blight on my daily life,
you dangle from your gel-cushioned throne,
daring me to bear weight.
Legs! How we have suffered
each other these thirty-four years.
When did we get so distant, so standoffish?
accepting with only a spasm whatever comes?
And yet you surprise me still
each morning at the pool,
churning waves with your flutter
kick of muscles hip to toe.
At times you even sidle up
in the locker room, letting me
pat you dry. Or slip into the proper
panty leg without crisscross,
while my helpers, suddenly unnecessary
clap and cheer. O, my
melancholy babies, come to me
and we will rock around the clock.[xvii]
Surgery: Alex Lemon
Alex Lemon is a “new voice” introduced by Tin House Press. His debut book, Mosquito[xviii], chronicles his experience with neurosurgery, recovery, and “return” to life. While we don’t ever learn the reason for Lemon’s surgery—we do ascertain that he lost an eye from it—we can only hope that this young man had a benign, not a malignant, condition. The fact that he continues to teach, write, and edit, and that a memoir has been written suggests this—though doesn’t necessarily confirm it.
His poetry, however, is far from benign. Much of it is meaty language, with thick, swarthy verbs. The images are boldly drawn, seeming to count on a degree of shock value layered atop pictures that usually powerful enough on their one. This can be illustrated by the poem “After,” which appears in the first section of the book, the part that deals most directly with Lemon’s surgery. It is not exactly clear to me what this poem is about, but it probably describes post-operative sensations.
Open my mouth & watch the mouse-trapped shake,
splayed before dogs—I am
peeled from the butcher’s midnight eyes.
Persistent scalpel—I will thorn soft
these ill-illuminated pleasures.
The mouth whips. The mouth
whips itself clean with wind.
I knife your words into trees & repeat them backwards
to feel, thieve ear to breast
like a cheat. Today I hunger
for the smallest sheen, hunger for leaves backboning
a chain-link fence.
A shattered-foot ballerina, I cross
lipped, slopping my ruby hooves. Birthing children
piece by piece. I live by fortune
cookies, blizzards & scars.[xix]
The poem certainly offers a raw and disorientation sensation, which accurately portrays how many patients feel after surgery. But neologistic verb phrases (“I will thorn soft,” “I knife your words,” “thieve ear to breast,” “leaves backboning,”) generally strike a discordant note for me. I appreciate the poet’s earnestness, the struggle to find (invent) the most perfect, illustrative, muscular verbs, but they call such brassy attention to themselves that they risk undercutting the image they’ve been corralled for. My reaction is not to be awestruck, but rather to want to say, “Relax. Take it easy. Snuggle up with a cup of tea and Strunk & White.”
Luckily, there are also poems in this collection that are more relaxed, even lyrical. In “The Best Part,” the less self-conscious writing provides the images with an organic power that is far more affecting than any of the more “potent” images of the previous poem.
The Best Part
The best part of brain surgery isn’t the shining
staples that keep it all in, the ways
fingers and tongues will find the scar.
It’s not wheelchair rides through maple leaves,
sunlight warming a bruise as I fumble
peeling an orange. Nor is it the gentle tug
of a nurse reminding muscles—bend, stretch
and flex. The sweetest ingredient—
the best part is the cutting. Hollow space
that longs to be filled with what little I have.
The first bite, cold fruit. Bedridden, I weigh
my glass eye in a wrinkle-mapped hand.[xx]
Whether the writer is a world-renown poet, or a just an “ordinary” person, whether a poem turns out to be a genre-defining classic or an awkward journal entry, it is clear that major illness profoundly affects poetry. For some writers, there is nothing but—once illness pervades their lives, illness pervades their poetry. Or once illness arrives, they are driven to poetry with bone-rattling urgency. For others, illness is simply one other of the bizarre laws of nature that their creative art has to contend with.
It is impossible to tease out the precise effects of illness on poetry, because it is impossible to conduct a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. We can never know exactly how Borges might have written poetry at the age of 80 if sighted, because such a scenario never existed. We could never predict with accuracy how West might have written 14-line rhyming sonnets if he had only the effects of aging and life experience on a raucously creative mind to contend with.
For all the reductionist scientific advances in medicine, illness is still profoundly illogical. Despite its complexity, the human body is primed to work perfectly and our reliance on this effortless functioning is our primordial defense mechanism for survival. When the body breaks down, we are literally rendered speechless. Poetry is one of the ways that we can reclaim our voice. The loosened and limitless reigns of poetry make it particularly susceptible to, and reflective of, the warp and weave of illness.
[i] Milton, J. The Poetical Works of John Milton: Volume 2: Paradise lost … Paradise regained. Samson Agonistes, ed. D Masson (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1890), 400-401
[ii] Ibid, 228-229.
[iii] Milton, J. The Poetical Works of John Milton: Volume 30 from Volumes 28-30 of Aldine edition of the British poets (London: Bell and Daldy, 1866) 212.
[iv] Borges, JL. Dreamtigers. (Austin: U of Texas Press, 1964) 89.
[v] Borges, JL. Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-1983. Ed. R Alifano (New York: Grove/Atlantic,1984) 25. (poem pg 140)
[vi] Borges, JL. On His Blindness. Poetry Magazine, 164, (1994): 71.
[vii] Kenyon, J. Collected Poems. (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2005). Poems reprinted with permission of the estate of Jane Kenyon.
[viii] Ibid, 286.
[ix] Ibid. 301.
[x] Ibid. 271.
[xi] Ibid 231-236.
[xii] West, P. Tea with Osiris. (St. Paul: Lumen Books, 2006). Poems reprinted with permission.
[xiii] Ibid 59.
[xiv] Ibid 27.
[xv] Ibid 87.
[xvi] Sidney, JS. Body of Diminishing Motion. (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2004). Poem reprinted with permission.
[xvii] Ibid 62.
[xviii] Lemon, A. Mosquito. (Portland: Tin House Books, 2006). Poems reprinted with permission.
[xix] Ibid 7-8.
[xx] Ibid 6.