Understanding how a patient makes sense of chronic or disabling illness can be critical to the effective treatment of that illness. Repairing the body doesn’t necessarily repair the life. Patients must confront changes to their bodies and in how they live their lives, psychological dimensions of disease physicians and allied practitioners have appropriately tried to address more vigorously. But human beings, perhaps uniquely, not only live in the here and now but also in a larger narrative of their existence that includes their past and also projects a future. Our identity and self-esteem are not only tied up in what we see in the mirror, but in what others see, and in who we see ourselves becoming: our plans and expectations for ourselves in the context of a long and healthy life. All of this helps us tell the story of who we are. The term “biographical disruption” has been applied to the pernicious ability of disease to damage this narrative. To fully treat disease one must also treat the damaged story. There is evidence that poetry can be part of such treatment, allowing patients to creatively frame and perhaps modify their story through dialogue with themselves and with others.
Below is a poem written by a young woman afflicted with severe arthritis, reprinted from Cases Journal (Cases J. 2008; 1: 153).
Where have I gone?
Where’s the woman who weighed less than 9 stone?
Who wore a dress size 12 and didn’t need to wear shapeless clothes or jogging suits?
Who had shaped and tidy eyebrows that would complement her latest hair colour and style?
Whose painted nails, with manicured hands and feet, were perfect for holidays in the sun?
Where’s the woman who had a vocation not just a job, but who exists on benefits, a step away from poverty?
Where’s the woman who owned her own home that gave her safety and privacy, it was her pride and joy?”
Where’s the woman whose hobbies include travel, gardening, decorating, furniture restoring, sewing, reading and studying at home?
Here I am and life before my impairment has gone, the only thing I can do is hold a pen with a special grip and writing is agony.
Where has she gone?
Where has she gone?
WHERE HAVE I GONE?
Do you see me?
How can you ever know me, when all you see is my chair?
My limitations are all you see and you say they complicate your life.
Will you ever see the deep pools of love in my eyes for you?
When you half close yours with pity and turn away from me.
The beating of my heart in expectation of your closeness isquickly cooled by your fleeting hug or, worse, patting my shoulder.
I wait in anticipation remembering the taste and softness of
your kiss, you offer me a warm ‘peck’ on the cheek.
I smell your aftershave … you say I smell clean!
I remember running my fingers through your hair,
Ripping buttons off your shirt but that’s difficult when you
stand behind me pushing my chair, we can’t even hold hands anymore.
The power of my emotions makes me feel strong,
Then I catch that pitying look in your eye,
They die in my heart.
I do not speak, my smile fills my face but you will never know …
You’ll never see the real woman who is me
Who sits and is seen by the world framed by a wheelchair
Cut off emotionally just because I cannot stand or walk.
Thank you to those who take the time to listen to difficult and unclear speech, for you help us to know that if we persevere we can be understood
Thank you to those who walk with us in public places, ignoring stares and whispers from strangers, for in your friendship we find enjoyment, laughter and happiness
Thank you for never asking us to ‘hurry up’, but even more special is you don’t snatch our tasks from us or offer ‘Care’ in such a way as to make us feel that we are still children, with no control and respect
Thank you for standing beside us when we enter new experiences and try new adventures
Though our success may be outweighed by our failure, the experience will stay with us forever and there will be many occasions when we surprise ourselves and maybe even you!
Thank you for asking for our help and expertise,
As self-confidence and awareness come from being needed by you and others
Thank you for giving us respect
You acknowledge our value as experts in our fields and that we require to live with equality in society
We shouldn’t have to ask or have laws to enforce it or remind you
Thank you for assuring us that the things that make us individuals are not our medical impairments, as everyone has those and they don’t define ONE’S SELF, it’s people’s attitudes that create barriers that exclude us from you.
Treat us as we treat you.
It is now a common practice for first year medical students to take part in a ceremony honoring the donors of cadavers used in dissection for the teaching of anatomy. The manner of the students’ participation is up to them; the reading of poetry, including original poems is not uncommon.
Here is such a poem by Fiona Horgan, reprinted from Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.
Today’s session begins just as those gone by.
As my labmates begin to unfurl the gauze and commence our exploring,
instinctively, but unbeknownst to the others,
I am quick to assume my self-appointed duty of rewrapping,
carefully ensuring that her hands are not exposed.
Is this naïve, knowing that today would come
and I would have to spend my entire afternoon focused on them?
And why, after so many hours with her,
so many delicate procedures,
does looking at her hands still stir unparalleled emotion in me?
“Trace the radial artery . . .”
I only see hands that still possess the pallor of life,
nails bearing the remnants of rose-colored polish.
Did a loved one tenderly paint them?
And did they hold her hands as she faded from this life?
I search for her pulse.
“Divide the transverse carpal ligament . . .”
Isee my grandmother’s hands.
Hands that expertly smoothed wrinkled sheets.
Hands that pressed coins to buy sweets into her grandchildren’s eager palms.
Hands that wore a symbol of my grandparents’ love for 56 years.
I trace the fine lines on her palms.
“Examine the thenar muscles . . .”
I see my mother’s hands.
Hands that nurture children when they are sick.
Hands that dance along piano keys.
Hands that feed and clothe the homeless.
I smooth her wrinkled skin.
“Identify the tendons of the superficial and deep digital flexors . . .”
I look at my hands alongside hers.
They are the tool with which I will first touch my future patients.
Each time I lay my hands on those I hope to heal,
I will remember hers.
I reach out and fully grasp her hands.
(From: The 2008 Anatomy Ceremony: Voices, Letter, Poems
Yale J Biol Med. 2009 March; 82(1): 41–46)
Poet Valeria Tsygankova gave this review of Primitive Mood in the literature and arts magazine Philadelphia Stories:
“In his newest book, Primitive Mood, David Moolten picks at humanity’s darkest tendencies and deepest capacities for suffering. Like a patchwork quilt of the twentieth century, the poems in this volume handle violence and loss, questioning and disillusionment, determination and resilience. In quiet, authoritative and incantatory language, Moolten probes the fabric of culture in the West – from the Brothers Grimm to Arshile Gorky – for material that bears his project witness. What emerges is a densely woven and engaging collection of poems, delivered with rhythmic diction, and sometimes reminiscent of spoken word poetry in its rolling momentum and charged endings. With all of the darkness of war, genocide and internment that Moolten lays bare in this volume, there is also a light that enters through the “aperture” of his writing to illuminate the everyday people silhouetted against the dark backdrop of history, reworking their own suffering into beautiful stories. It is this creative power of narrative that stands against the destruction evident in human history in Primitive Mood, and which is also present in Moolten’s powerful and intelligent writing. Moolten’s language is crisp and evocative, and lends itself well to his project of storytelling and remembering.”
I think part of the problem with modern “criticism” is that much of it isn’t really criticism, not in the traditional sense. There are few critics today like T.S. Eliot (not going back too far), who wrote about poetry from the standpoint of a core philosophy he had engineered. I don’t particularly care for Eliot or his unpleasantly biased point of view. But he did have intellectual rigor when it came to criticism. We do have a few individuals, all parochial in the end of course, like Eliot, and academic, like Eliot–these are the drawbacks of such criticism. Helen Vendler comes to mind for one.
Unfortunately, even here one finds a kind of “kingmaker” apparatus, where the critic anoints those poets deemed worthy of “serious” consideration in our time. Less attention is paid to poetry in general, and the qualities that make it poetry, or (less often) great poetry.
Most of what passes for critique,however, is the “book report” capsule review one finds in literary journals and newspapers. Here, I fear, it is difficult to disentangle true criticism from the commercial process. Newspapers and magazines as published instruments have a natural incentive to favor books they can praise since these are books people might buy. Poetry is desperately undervalued in our culture and it’s the poets who are desperate. Desperate to be heard and desperate to be read. The poetry world is very small, insular and incestuous. Most of those who read verse also write it. Is it a great surprise that few are willing to be fully candid in their reviews? It’s far more expedient to be circumspect and political. It’s also easier, since the evaluative criteria are of course subjective, and few critics write from a core philosophy they can articulate, never mind defend. Knowing who your friends are becomes the one constant. Worse, those who resist this tendency often write with such scathing arrogance that their example hardly begs others to write negative reviews and join them on the “dark side.”
Clearly there is bad poetry being written. Every book contains some, or nearly every book. Some books, even by good poets, are nearly all bad. We all know about the complacency that afflicts the “major” poet in mid to late career, and the Emperor’s New Clothes effect, with regard to his/her work. The same applies to the latest fad offering from the latest “iconoclastic” hotshot. Unfortunately we have become so accustomed to our little world of vanity and desperation that we can’t tolerate the truth, only occasional ad hominem rants. Here’s to more integrity, intelligence, and rigor in criticism, but I’m not holding my breath.
(In response to Travis Nichols, The Poetry Foundation, Should Poetry Critics Go Negative?)
This will play right into Obama’s hands. Humanitarian, compassionate. They’ll use this
to, to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community, the both
light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in, in this country. It’s made-to-order
for him. That’s why he couldn’t wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there.
A man carries on in the ruins, carries an old woman
Clear of the broken stone, everything broken,
The world indescribable simply because it’s smashed
Beyond recognition. We talk
Of magnitude–well, on the scale of misery this weighs
More than everyone’s imagination. The world comes
Down to this, comes down like building blocks,
The camera closing in
Until you only see his face.
We keep expecting that other aftershock
We hope will cause the right stone to break
And with a softer resonance as from a body
Trembling joyfully, all by itself,
Because a black president
Is more an event than a man, belongs
To the simple facts we gather together
And call a world.
We stand poised, greased and waiting
To leap headfirst into the waters
Of change, which are warm like the Caribbean
Though we know the help will be tepid,
Less than close to enough because of pictures
Like this, the people in them who didn’t choose to be,
Who lack the luxury to decide whether they care
For the color scheme.
But still they visit
The television that is our president,
Always alone or in groups still small enough
To distinguish those in them
Which is how survival happens, even triumph.
So he appears wretched and still humbly, oddly proud
Carrying his wounded neighbor
Like something essential, bond receipts, a television,
A pail of food, or water
As in that painting by Lois Mailou Jones
She called The Water Carriers,
Too few pipes after all, too little cultivation
On the little voodoo island
That bears the brunt of our curses
Because it freed itself. Jones carried herself
Like water, entered contests anonymous
As water so they wouldn’t know
She was black.
Her painting doesn’t show you
The river, not even the little bit by her side,
Just a bright hat and a face that resembles hers
And ours. Some day there will be people like that
On Haiti, people whose misfortune will move
All of us like the earth. Everyone will act
Indifferent as a river, which can’t tell its own
Smooth stones from a hand or a mouth.
Sarah J. Sloat grew up in New Jersey and has lived in China, Kansas, and Italy. For the past 16 years she has resided in Frankfurt, Germany, where she works as an editor for a news agency. Her poems have appeared in West Branch, Juked, Yemassee, Front Porch, and Barrelhouse, among other journals. In The Voice Of A Minor Saint, published by Tilt Press, is her first chapbook or book-length publication, white and saddle stitched with attractive cover art by Emmanuel Polanco.
The title, shared by a poem in the book, came across as witty self-reference from a writer who sees herself as still emerging and thus less considered, but perhaps still speaking in a voice as yet uncompromised by the temptations which accompany establishment. Sloat also suggests that one tends to find sacraments among the mundane and overlooked, so that the poet with accurate vision commits her artistic life to dwelling on them:
I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.
My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.
On approach, I notice how
objects grow and contours blear.
That’s what comes of nearness.
I have an ear for the specific…”
(from “In the Voice of a Minor Saint”)
True to this faith in minor things, much of Sloat’s verse concentrates on moments not charged by love or death. She doesn’t confront us with the inner workings of affliction, the aftermath of passion; she gives us bad hair days:
yourself: at least the trees
put up their parasols; at least
the orchards you wear as hair
surrender those damn apples.
Nonetheless one is drawn in by the insinuations, the suburban street that leads finally to mortal decline. The sedulously observed trifle becomes a door to the abyss in everyday predicaments:
World, I forgive the lack of focus.
I know the knob of sun will turn;
even here, I trust clarity
to honor our appointment.
While Sloat discovers her inspiration in the ordinary, the poem that results is rarely ordinary. Her poems thrive on repetitive examination the way one might turn an object over in one’s hands and expose different facets. Despite this approach, her work is seldom wordy, conjuring like an origami maker a great deal from the plain with a few twists of phrase:
In the folds where I am rolled,
some mornings I have seen the Andes,
strands of wax, and in the stitches
once I made out a line of ants
carrying their minute burdens.
Everything that appears possible
can be turned into something impossible.
The greater traumas reside in her verse too, subtly implicit, in the underbrush or around a curve, though still available. Take for instance the sly and masterful “God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline,” where through a kind of abstract metonym the manmade becomes trope for the man, who is in need of absolution. Here the volatile, the tactile in an unpopulated scene leads by the trail of that nauseating vapor back to a past contaminated by the residue of burning. The scent of gasoline is urgency itself, the threat of conflagration, a flash of self-immolation. Here is the oxidized, polluted world the car has created. Here is napalm:
…God pity the vapors lifting
through the pores of the soil,
loitering near the pumps,
soot that films hair and coats,
that beds in collars,
dark groom of velocity…
Mostly though, Sloat’s poetry avoids indictment, focuses less on relationships and more on self-awareness in time and place. When she puts aside the magnifying glass and picks up the mirror, the effect she achieves remains that of the reserved witness, of testimony distilled until subjective response becomes solemn, persuasive as facts:
I weary of the season, whitewash
and blind arrows
The sun has come to steal my outline,
come to sort me,
stretch me along its javelin.
Succumb, it says when
already the heat is lurching south
in one long exhalation.
(From “Summer’s End”)
Sloat relies more on her supple voice and impressionistic shifts in image and line structure than on traditional prosody. Nevertheless she titrates into this collection occasional poems that exploit more formal techniques without any trace of discord. I would judge both ghazals she includes in the chapbook’s twenty-two poems as worthy representatives of her fine idiosyncrasies as a writer and of ghazals in general, my limitation to English (and rusty Spanish) notwithstanding.
As with any volume, there are stronger poems and weaker ones. On occasion, Sloat pursues the banal and doesn’t find much more. But overall, I found In the Voice of a Minor Saint to be compelling and taut. Its sequence consistently uncovers natural synergies. Nothing here feels out of place or jarring in tone or theme. Sloat abstains from approaches that tend to provide for easy access, seldom relying on narrative, and preferring vestal meditation to jocular monologue, and so for the most part her ideas refuse to yield nutmeat to a cursory skim. Yet in the end the work is highly readable, a simple though hardly trivial measure of quality. These are poems one wishes to finish, and the same can be said for the book as well.
Kid’s bangs blending with tall grass, we watched
Them cross the lot, some stumbling already, brush
Aside the door, entering a place that wanted
No part of us. What went on in there?
We wondered and wished we could know and better
Than know. The red slab swung wide then slammed,
And like the little match girl’s lit up reverie
We glimpsed them, wide backs inert as stone, each bent
Like Rodin’s Thinker, mesmerized by a glass.
We giggled like girls with our Vienna voices,
Like bells at an even greater distance
And Sibby shifted on his groaning high chair
And shouted wide mouthed and generous as a man
Could afford to be with adversaries that small.
What went on in there? The fact was we had
The facts, and they made no sense like the sounds
From a piano when you bang on it
Because you’ve heard the music pour and hate
That you can’t make it. Once in the lull before
The factories emptied he played baseball cards
By our rules, matching color or team,
Winner take all, Sibby like a human
Cerberus, one thick-necked dog face enough.
The only time he let us in the place
Hadn’t opened, a barren marvel, the mopped
Still spotted floor light flung itself across,
The damp bar filling the room like that table
In the butcher shop where they divvied up
What we would never have recognized
In the soft white paper our mothers brought home.
That was the summer he flew to Saigon,
The summer at a clam bake in Maine
I sipped my father’s beer, because he let me
And because I wanted to more than anything,
Took the bitter plunge, just so I could say I did.