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This anthology of 38 autobiographical works by women with HIV/AIDS is edited by two women who are HIV positive. The introduction summarizes how the editors solicited writing or other expressions from HIV-positive women in order to publicly recognize the stories of women living with HIV/AIDS. Although most of the works are from Canada and the USA (including some from native populations), 12 other countries are also represented, including many African and European countries. Most of the pieces are prose, but poetry, art and photography are also included.
The pieces are very diverse and reflect multiple perspectives: activist, feminist, mother, teenager, drug addict, prostitute, lesbian, heterosexual, victim of abuse, etc. The stories are personal, introspective, direct and specific. Yet, throughout the anthology, universal themes of loneliness, isolation, hope, love and love lost recur.
DeSalvo, a writer and biographer, relates her experiences with adult onset asthma. Because her symptom complex centers on coughing, rather than wheezing, there is a delay in diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Nine months after her symptoms begin, she reads an article about asthma and sees a pulmonologist who confirms the diagnosis.
The author details the many ways that her life has changed, the medications and precautions she must take, and mourns the loss of her earlier easy-breathing life. She is helped by a saint-like husband, open access to medical care and medication, and a compulsive avoidance of triggering agents.
As a writer interested in writers' lives, the author examines the effect that asthma had on the writing and lives of Marcel Proust, John Updike, Djuna Barnes, Olive Schreiner, Michael Ryan, and Elizabeth Bishop. Due to her own traumatic childhood (including being fondled in the bath) and her readings, the author concludes that "asthma is caused by terror, by trauma, by abuse (of a child, of the environment), by deprivation" and specifically that "asthma is a breathing disorder that is caused by abuse and that it is probably a manifestation of post-traumatic stress."
The title and first line, "My Beautiful Grandmother / died ugly," set the tone for contrasts that continue throughout the poem: health and illness, beauty and ugliness, youth and age, life and death, staying and leaving. The poem initially describes the grandmother as aged, ready to die, anorexic and in such pain that she required six years of morphine. The needles used to inject medication, which left her arms bruised "black and blue" are contrasted with her previous embroidery needles, which she had used to stitch "pink cornucopias / on square after square of white cotton."
The grandmother was ready to die for a long time, to a place and time apart--to the mountains and to her spirited youth, when she was "dashing" and her "mind was as quick / as the stitch of a sparrow's wing." The poem continues with the compression of time yet marking the effects of time: old love letters to the grandmother crumble "like stale bread" in the hands of the granddaughter. The poem concludes with a short stanza alluding to difficulties that the granddaughter experienced leaving the Georgia town where her "beautiful grandmother stayed."
This outstanding anthology of poems, stories, excerpts and essays by African-American writers is prefaced by a poem ("Aunt Sue’s Stories" by Langston Hughes), a foreword, two essays and an introduction. The book is then divided into three sections: Section I, Illness and Health-Seeking Behavior; Section II, Aging; and Section III, Loss and Grief.
Each section begins with an introduction which clarifies the choice of the section’s theme and briefly describes each piece. At the conclusion of each section is a list of ten to fifteen questions which "are intended for personal reflection and group discussion." Brief autobiographical information for each of the thirty-one authors is presented in Appendix 1.
As Secundy notes in the introduction, a divide exists between the health care worker and patient, which is particularly prominent when color and economic status are different between them. Secundy, as an educator in the medical humanities, selected pieces that reveal "the significance of color and social distinctions" when African-Americans face illness or enter the health care system.
The selections chronicle struggle and survival, illness and loss, humiliation and pride, triumph and sorrow. These pieces speak to all of us, as Edmund Pellegrino states in his essay, "Ethnicity and Healing": "[p]aradoxically, as we learn more about the uniqueness of African-American culture, we are drawn closer to the common humanity we share with the subjects of these stories and poems."
This volume is divided into four parts, each containing powerful and fairly short poems--rarely longer than one page and often less than 30 lines--that share the author's experience of disability. The four sections unfold the struggle of coming-to-terms with disability organically, beginning with the body and concluding with the will to survive and transcend the physical.
Section One considers the role of fate or luck (The Short Song of What Befalls--see this database, "Words Like Fate and Pain"), the burden of chronic pain ("Night Shift," Pointing to the Place of the Pain--see this database, "Slow Freight"), the desire to escape physical limitations ("Not Down Here," "What Comes Next"), and the difficulty of adjusting to an altered self image ("What Happened to You?" "Protect Yourself From This").
The sections that follow offer poems that attempt to understand disability intellectually and viscerally ("Levels of Being," "Loving the Clay,"), to look beyond the suffering self to the suffering of others ("Beginning to Write," "The Word 'Class' Should Not Appear in the Poem"), and finally to love and accept what's given ("What Keeps Me Here," "Dreaming the Tree of Life").
This long poem is divided into 48 segments, each a meditation on the narrator's struggle to live with emphysema. Some sections consist of only one line (10: "How alone can you get?"), others are more lengthy; for example, section 37 is a primer on inhalers, "puffers, " how to use them and what happens if you don't.
Every observation in this poem is from a literate poet's point of view, one here focused on emphysema, and so the breath, the body, and the daily rituals of living become primary. The whole world breathes--even the computer, which "sighs" when it is turned off (section 34)--but the poet cannot catch his breath. Reading the poem, even silently, the reader becomes short of breath too, physically aware of the patient's limitations.
In section 24, Carruth laments that he cannot even negotiate the 500 yards up hill to his son's house; in section 29, he writes that even the dog seems "reproachful" when his owner is unable "to play" and throw the blue ball. The accumulated limitations of these taken-for-granted actions makes the author both "pissed and sorry" for the dog, for the man, for the world.
In spite of the physical rebellion of the lungs, the narrator continues to smoke, as many patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) do, adding another dimension to this poem. Even facing death, the patient's addiction to tobacco is overwhelming; in section 11, the narrator says, "Now I am dying. Now I am afraid. Please give me a cigarette." In section 45, Carruth laments this "nonsense of misery."
Banishing Verona concerns a 22-year-old house painter living in London. One soon realizes that Zeke Cafarelli is not normal. He has had a nervous breakdown a few years earlier; collects clocks--he has nine at the beginning of the novel and adds two more by novel's end--which he takes apart and restores; he has basic questions about interpersonal relations that, were it not for his illness, mentioned once, briefly and vaguely (24), one would describe as childlike naiveté.
For example, he wonders why people lie. Or, why is it so easy to identify vegetables (his parents are greengrocers) but not people each time one encounters them in even slightly different settings? Several times the author describes Zeke's mother or father (whom Zeke calls Gwen and Don, respectively) while their son is trying to confirm their identity as his parents.
Quite early in the narrative, like a dea ex machina, Verona MacIntyre enters Zeke's life. Or perhaps Venus on the half shell would be a more specific identification of the dea, since Verona is pregnant, and soon becomes as naked as Venus in the famous painting by Botticelli, to whose paintings Zeke is likened with his angelic appearance and lustrous hair. The two become oceanic--if not star-crossed--lovers-at-first-sight since Verona has to traipse off to Boston to help bail her sociopathic brother out of yet another financial and amorous mess of his own making. Despite the appearances of Jigger (Verona and Henry's grandfather in the persona of a long letter to Verona), and Toby (a mutual lover-friend of Verona and Henry), and Maurice (Gwen's lover), the plot does not seem unwieldy.
Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy living in France with his stay at home mother and Air France pilot father. Such an apparently normal family description is the merest tissue of appearances. The father is probably an alcoholic and unfaithful; the son is "accident-prone" (a nearly fatal episode of SIDS at two weeks of age, a near fatal electrocution at age 6 after falling on the tracks of the métro in Lyon; salmonella, tetanus, botulism, meningitis, etc. [or, as Louis is fond of saying, "blah, blah, blah."]) and the mother has issues that only emerge as one becomes more deeply involved in what is a mystery story.
Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Janet Lewis’s superb The Trial of Søren Qvist, one knows the ending early on (page 16 in Louis Drax), but not the details. The why and the how are the stuff of the novelist’s art in all three books.
With premonition of more danger, Louis goes on a family picnic (see below for the author’s biographical basis for this tale) and winds up at the bottom of a ravine, dead. Drowned and dead. A few hours later, in the morgue, he is found to be alive. Comatose and in a persistent vegetative state but alive. He is therefore transferred to the care of a neurologist specializing in comatose patients at the Clinique de l’Horizon (formerly l’Hôpital des Incurables).
It is here that the mystery unfolds. The questions are: How did Louis end up at the bottom of the ravine? Did his father, now missing, push him as his distraught mother alleges? What role does the clearly neurotic mother play in this tragedy? And who exactly is Louis Drax? Lastly, how do the mysterious letters allegedly from him, written while still in a coma, come to be?
This chapbook of 26 poems traces the author's interactions with her mother, a woman lost in the morass of Alzheimer's disease. In the first poem, "The Loss" (1), the author takes us into her mother's home--a disorganized mess of stained thrift shop clothes folded and refolded into piles. The daughter tricks her mother into moving in with her "for a trial" which becomes permanent.
In the last poem, "At Least This" (26), the poet stoops "to pull the diaper / up around my mother's / waist, my temple / near her breasts." As the daughter leans into this task, the mother caresses her hair, embraces her. This hug, beautifully and simply portrayed, is the poet's fragile reward for all the struggles, mercies and difficult moments examined in the poems between.
These poems are both beautiful and unfailingly honest, addressing with humor and charity the difficulties of caring for a parent with this disease. In one poem, "The Battle" (5), the mother slathers herself with Vaseline. In another poem, "The Bath" (7), the mother lies in the bathtub, her flaccid skin smoothed by water's illusion, her body suddenly as lovely as Bonnard's painting of a woman bathing. "This is the mother I battled / when young: the mother / who beat my defiance; / the one I hit back," the poet writes in "A Late Blessing" (6), and in another poem, "Intellectual Opiate" (10), she speaks of her mother's love for words she no longer understands.
But these poems are more than poignant narratives about a daughter's relationship with a once-difficult, now dependent mother. They address the "seeds of her disease" (11), exposing the flaws of this relationship without dishonor or blame. In these poems, Slatkin's mother appears vibrant and whole, not ravaged by disease. Rarely have the difficulties and possibilities of Alzheimer's disease been presented in poetry with such insight and respect.