Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Poetry of Illness

Note: This essay, which first appeared on April 29, 2010, is a repost. It corrects for information that should have appeared as two separate introductory quotes.

Sometimes in sickness,
we are weak enough to enter heaven.
~ Epigraph, City Boots by Elizabeth Ward*

Is getting well ever an art
or art a way to get well?
~ "Unwanted" in Day by Day by Robert Lowell

Just as visual artists can do with paint, so can poets create with words the experience of living with, suffering through, and surviving their own or another's catastrophic illness. Cancer, AIDS, depression, Alzheimer's, paralysis—these and many other diseases and physical conditions exact an intimacy with the rising and falling of emotions thrown up against a body taking itself down: frustration and anger, defiance and abjectness, resignation and extraordinary will, despair and hope. 

Like any other art done well, poetry touches and teaches, too, when it gives us an honest, perceptive, and unique insider's view of the vulnerabilities we recognize as our own.

Poets don't become better poets because of their experience with disease or what issues from it. Often, the best write without ever referring to their illness by name and without ever populating their poems with the real-life paraphernalia that provides the means of coping with it. The medicine bottles, IVs, and bandages cluttering their (or our) kitchen tables and bathroom shelves don't have to be mentioned to be seen. The words create the visual metaphors.

Today, I'm giving you the words of a few poets whose work testifies to the grace that comes through words when words are the last things said, who show us how to sieve loss — of a breast, a limb, an eye, the mind — to be able to go on, who know how to hold onto memory when all else is gone. 

* * * * * 

The son of Maya Angelou, poet and novelist Guy Johnson was paralyzed because of an auto accident and suffered numerous spinal surgeries before regaining ability to move. Out of his experience came "The Psalm of Severed Strings"* from which these deeply felt and evocative lines are excerpted:

Yet, if spirit remains,
a human can still be seen
amidst the disobedient flesh.
And, if the will has fiber,
even wood can be made to dance.
. . . with gossamer thread
each ligament, nerve and limb is moved
to rejoin life's wild carousel.

(* I found this poem in Kim Rosen's Saved By a Poem.)

Rachel Wetzsteon, about whom I wrote here, committed suicide last December. A close reading of her poems in Sakura Park gives insight into the darkness that consorted with her. The questions that haunted are sometimes clear, the answers unknowable.

When that attempt at betterment—
Empty the mind I would not, could not—
Lasted about ten silly seconds
. . . I succumbed
Unwillingly as children creep to school
To the signed slip, the full bottle, and the
Really quite unanswerable question:
If I did recover would that "I" be
No one I knew, or the  true me back at last?
~ From "Two Remedies"

In his prize-winning My Alexandria (1993), Mark Doty, who in 2008 won a National Book Award for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, addresses death and grief through the metaphor of AIDS. (Doty's partner Wally Roberts died of the disease in 1994.) Here's an example:

Nothing was promised,
nothing sustained
or lethal offered.
I wish I'd kept the heart.
Even the emblems of our own embarrassment
become acceptable to us, after a while.
~ From "Days of 1981" from My Alexandria and in Fire to Fire

In "Fog", also from the same volumes noted above, Doty writes about HIV testing and of "seeing blood everywhere" he looks.  Peering into his garden, he remarks upon the thinning of tulip petals at their base, which he thinks no one else "would see. . . looking in" from the outside, but he then comes to "realize my garden has no outside, only is / subjectively. As blood is utterly without // an outside, can't be seen out of context, / the wrong color in alien air, no longer itself. // Though it submits to test, two, / to be exact, each done three times, // though not for me, since at their first entry / into my disembodied blood// there was nothing at home there. // For you they entered the blood garden over // and over, like knocking at a door / because you know someone's home. . . ."

In "Atlantis" from his collection Atlantis (1995), also a prize-winner, Doty theorizes: "I thought your illness a kind of solvent / dissolving the future a little at a time; // I didn't understand what's to come/ was always just a glimmer // up ahead. . . ." Loss glimmers as "the tide's begun / its clockwork turn. . . ."

The poet, essayist, translator, fiction writer, and screenplay writer Tess Gallagher published Dear Ghosts in 2006. The fact of Gallagher's breast cancer, its name unspoken, echoes below the surface of many of the poems in the collection, as in this example:

Driving to the ferry,
that reverie releasing
the unsaid, I tell my friend
it's okay. I'll be okay.
When the doctor 
said There's no cure
an arrow flew out of
the cosmos—thung!
Heart's center. Belonging
to everything. That
~ "Bull's Eye"

Fourteen years before, Gallagher published Moon Crossing Bridge (1992), elegies to her husband, the famous writer Raymond Carver, who died of cancer in 1988. Loss and grief, so profound in such lines as "My love's early death has scraped away my future", also are expressed beautifully here through the simple act of folding clothes:

I Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I'm still a woman.
I'll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I'll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there's a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it's done.
~ "I Stop Writing the Poem"

Cancer survivor Mark Nepo calls the moving poems in his Surviving Has Made Me Crazy "handle-less cups"; the poems are handle-less, he explains, because they represent what he had to learn while trying to regain his health: "that to touch and to drink are the same thing." He is now, he says, "broken open into honest living". Here are a poem entire and an excerpt from another in the collection:

When wiggling through a hole
the world looks different than
when scrubbed clean by the wiggle
and looking back.
~ "Living Through Things"

The net is more important
than the fish. It is the casting,
the waiting, the pull, not knowing
what is resisting. And the fact
that every good net has holes
is a reminder that everything
that lands in our hands
is just a borrowing.
~ From "The Sale of Our History"

Many other poets have written eloquently about those they love whom disease has claimed, among them Donald Hall, who wrote the remarkable collection Without after the death from cancer of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. (She also wrote a number of wrenchingly beautiful poems about being ill.) The depth of the loss Hall has suffered (and referenced in all that's left behind) is undeniable in this excerpt, the conclusion to his "Midwinter Letter":

Remembered happiness is agony;
so is remembered agony.
I live in a present compelled
by anniversaries and objects:
your pincushion; your white slipper;
your hooded Selectric II;
the label basil in a familiar hand;
a stain on flowery sheets.

For many of us, a poem like this "works", is as much about our own as Hall's loss, because it hits altogether too close to home.

* In her book (available on Amazon), Ward attributes the epigraph to Robert Lowell.


Kamy said...

I woke up with poetry on my mind today, and saw the link to this post on your SW page. It was illuminating, if difficult, to read the poems you selected today -- thank you for bringing them together so thoughtfully.

Nancy Duci Denofio said...

Outstanding! I can go over and over what you have written on those poets who write on death and dying, yet leave the reader in a world they too see, perhaps "from their own chair, a plant is leaning, uncared for below a plate; two girls ready for school, near a picture taken once before brownies - in the light of a bathroom window." I had to write what I see glancing to my right. Love you work, and as a poet I see as you.

Kathleen Overby said...

For some reason, I feel like I should take off my shoes-these aching, black and blue words- seem growing out of holy ground. My words, any of them, feel totally inadequate and rustic held up next to them. Still, I'm thankful.

{deep curtsy} [deep silence]

Hannah Stephenson said...

Thank you for curating these.

Donald Hall is wonderful, and I loved the others.

I'd throw Sharon Olds's "The Glass" into the mix:

Maureen said...

Thank you all for your comments. I could have added many more poets and many more examples. Feel free to add any here in the comments, as The Storialist has done. Others may want to look up the poems.

S. Etole said...

I feel their pain in your words and theirs ...

Michelle DeRusha said...

I love, love "Without" by Donald Hall. I remember reading it all in one sitting many years ago, sitting on the floor of Barnes and Noble and just weeping and weeping. I'm sure I was quite a sight, but his words and images and memories were just breathtaking.

Louise Gallagher said...

Thank you.

Billy Coffey said...

I would suppose suffering to be like anything else in its universality -- there are those who suffer, those to try to make sense of their suffering, and those who choose to turn their suffering into art. The first is human and the second is admirable. The third is what makes us a little lower than the angels.

Kerry said...

A wonderful essay. I wonder: may I ask you for the which Lowell poem you quote at the beginning? Thanks!

Maureen said...

Kerry, I discovered, as a result of your question, that some content was missing from the essay post. I have corrected that.

Peggy Rosenthal said...

Huge thnx for pulling all this together so sensitively.
Also on your topic is the book "The Healing Art" by physician and poet Rafael Campo. He sometimes "prescribes" poems for his patients!