Poetry of Illness 2


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.