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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.
In 1997, the author’s 14-year-old son, Ike, began a puzzling, progressive degenerative illness. Slowly, this undiagnosed disease claimed Ike’s ability to walk, to study, to participate in normal adolescent activities and, finally, to reason. Going from physician to physician, seeking if not a cure than at least a working diagnosis, the author became a self-taught expert in all things neurological.
As her son’s condition worsened, she also became an expert in grief and despair. In Blue Peninsula, her first book, McKeithen relates how she became, as well, a poetry addict--reading, devouring, tearing poems out of journals, buying volumes that she could carry to office or hospital, hiding poems in her purse or pocket. Using poems or pieces of poems--sometimes she could not bear to read a final stanza, one that perhaps ended in death or unrelenting despair--she cobbled together a survival plan.
Indeed, in this small book of short, to-the-point chapters (with titles such as "Crying in the Car," Open to It," Acquiring Losses," Sifting Questions," "Naming," "Shipwreck," and "Shelving Selves"), she reveals how she used poems to grieve, to question, to celebrate, to maintain, to curse, and to endure. The story of Ike’s illness, treatment and slow decline are interwoven with these poems and the author’s often surprising commentary on how she mined the poet’s metaphors. If a poem could put suffering into words, the author suggests, she needed that poem to survive.
The author’s choice of poems and poets is far-reaching, and her interpretations of what they mean and how they helped her along the path of her son’s illness are intimate, gritty and insightful. A brief listing of poets includes Emily Dickinson (whose poem "Blue Peninsula" supplied the book’s title), Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Ackerman, Zbiginew Herbert, The Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Molly Peacock, David Whyte and many others, known and lesser known.
Poets on Prozac contains sixteen essays written by poets about their individual struggles with a variety of psychiatric disorders. The editor, physician and poet Richard Berlin, has gathered these essays in order to examine, and shatter, the long-standing notion that madness, particularly madness in poets, enhances creativity---we need only think of the myths surrounding writers such as Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas to understand how the relationship between madness and creativity might foster both fear and longing in novice writers.
In his informative and comprehensive introduction, Berlin poses these, and other, questions: "Do poets need to be mentally ill to produce great work? What is the influence of substance use/abuse? Does a person have to be 'crazy' to write good poetry? What do poets themselves define as crucial elements in their creative process?" (p. 2). He goes on to site current evidence that madness actually impedes creativity, as well as evidence that "some forms of mental illness may enhance, or at least coexist, with creativity" (pp. 4-5); he reviews the findings of researchers who have looked at "The Myth of Inspiration" and "The Myth of Very Special Talent" in creative persons (pp 6-7).
But it is in the wonderful essays themselves that we take a privileged peek into the lives, the often tortured lives, of successful poets (Berlin only considered the essays of poets who had published at least one book). Reading the essays is somewhat like eavesdropping on the therapy sessions of highly articulate and self-aware patients. Clearly Berlin has created a safe place for these writers to look again at their creative lives and how those lives intertwine with, and sometimes have been overgrown by, mental illness. All the essays, happily, come to a place of resolution; the writers find, in various degrees, that understanding or relieving their emotional distress results in the possibility of increased creativity. Along the way, they give us writing alive with metaphors, images and intelligent musings on art, poetry, life and suffering.
In the first essay, "Dark Gifts," Gwyneth Lewis writes about her depression: "I became Woman in a Dressing Gown. At my worst, the duvet on my bed looked like a body bag and I was the corpse inside it" (p. 13). Finally she concludes, "I've learned that depression is one of the most reliable guardians of my life as a poet. It's like a fuse in a house with suspect wiring" (p. 22). In his essay, Andrew Hudgins describes cortisone psychosis this way: "I was a fire station in which the alarm bells seldom stopped clanging and the firemen were exhausted and indifferent" (p. 163). In "The Desire to Think Clearly," J. D. Smith says, "Being a poet in despair does not necessarily make one a poet of despair" (p. 23). As most of the poets do, Denise Duhamel uses examples of poems within her essay to demonstrate how her illness, in this case bulimia, variously inhibited or influenced her writing. The rawness of illness shows up, again and again, in her ability to be brave and resolute in her poems: "I'm still working it out, as they say, as therapists say, as my friends say, / as I guess I'm saying now in this poem" (p. 37).
Many of the poets approach their illness histories with wry humor or pointed irony. Caterina Eppolito states that "Poetic form is an anorexic form of writing. So instead of restricting calories, I was restricting words" (p. 118). Ren Powell asks, "Maybe when it's all over I can ask my children if they think the days of dancing in the kitchen were worth the days I spent shut away in the bedroom" (p. 52). Powell, like most of the authors in this anthology, honors hard work at the craft as the measure of success, and says, "If I have any success at all as a writer it is as much despite my disorder as because of it" (p. 57). Other writers admit wondering, sometimes, if their writing success might be due to their disorders. Jesse Millner writes, "After all, wasn't it the melancholy that led me to write?" (p. 67). Most writers agree that abusing substances did not enhance but sidetracked their poetic energies, while prescribed medications often, as Jack Coulehan says, helped: "The obsessive traits softened, so I felt free to approach life in a more flexible manner. Despite this new experience of freedom, my productivity did not suffer; in fact, it increased" (p. 101).
The chemical basis for some mental disorders is acknowledged in many of the essays. In her discussion of postpartum depression, Martha Silano notes, "I'd simply woken up in a foreign country without a map, without a dictionary, with no way to understand this strange place" (p. 142). Silano, like others in this collection, found that once the chemical imbalance was corrected, something good happened to the writing---she moved from writing about her own personal experience to writing that reached beyond her fears: "Now I was writing poems with a more universal, all-encompassing vision" (p. 146). Liza Porter says it this way: "Voice comes from safety. Silence becomes words. The truth can be told" (p. 153). But the downside of medication is admitted as well. Chase Twitchell laments the loss of "metaphor-making," and compares it---in quite a fine metaphor---to someone turning "off the spigot" (p. 176). "It takes longer and requires far more doggedness than it did before medications" (p. 176). But medications also give many of these poets what Vanessa Haley names "the emotional insight and stamina to write" (p. 76). If these excellent essays are any indication, they are, and will continue to be, writing extraordinarily well.
Summary:Subitled, Invisible Wounds of War. Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery, this monograph features 27 contributing researchers. Published by the RAND Corporation, it is funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund. The study was conducted under the joint auspices of the Center for Military Health Policy Research, a RAND Health Center, and the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the National Security Research Division of the RAND Corporation.