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This is the story of a child/young adult who had the misfortune of multiple health problems from the age of three until his death at 19. But even more than Jesse's story, this is the narrative of and by Jesse's father as he recalls the emotional rollercoaster accompanying the abbreviated span of his oldest son's life. The author kept detailed journals of his and his son's experiences with the health care professions, while also collecting the boy's artwork which appears to be Jesse's personal record of his own internal struggle.
Although not chronologically linear, the narrative allows the reader into the soul of the parents' agony, from the time of Jesse's initial diagnosis of hydrocephalus, through management of inflammatory bowel disease, and into the final chronicle of unsuccessful liver transplantations.
This little volume of poetry and photos is a narrative of the life and death of a small boy with leukemia and the connection this creates with his mother, his father, and his stepfather. The poems are created by the child’s mother (the author) during the illness and after the death of her son in his early childhood; photos are done by the author’s brother. The author creates the scenario in her brief introduction to the collection of poems and photos.
In a stuttering fashion, the reader is guided through mother’s grief as she holds her son through multiple chemotherapy sessions, reevaluations, disappointments, and finally, the terminal events. The entire poetic experience is calmly reflective, but the deep grief of mother bubbles to the surface--in a controlled manner that makes the reader feel her pain, and also accept her acceptance.
The poems themselves are compelling in their simplicity: after Sam dies, the author writes, of a note of condolence received by a friend, "Now that I have a child of my own, / a friend writes, "I understand your loss." / "No," I think, "now you understand / what I had."
The author, as she adapts to the absence of her firstborn, has a second son. She reflects on the joy that she feels, but the impossibility of replacing a first love. The event of Sam’s death is so ethereal that it cannot be dated. It is a universal experience for those left behind. And Hutner leaves the reader with this sense of timelessness with her poetry, and with her own death from breast cancer in 2002.
Ryan Knighton writes in his irreverent memoir that his sometimes comical, sometimes dangerous clumsiness—he smashed his father’s car into a boulder and nearly backed a forklift over a co-worker—registered on others as an unfortunate character trait, the carelessness of a distracted teenager. On Knighton’s eighteenth birthday, a doctor offered another explanation: retinitis pigmentosa. The diagnosis of a degenerative eye disease that causes night blindness and tunnel vision before progressing to complete blindness rescued his moral standing. This rescue and the diagnosis seemed to increase rather than moderate his youthful drive for independence along with his search for strategies to make his disability less conspicuous. He tested his independence by attending Simon Fraser University and sharing an apartment with a deaf student, and he discovered that the chaos and flowing alcohol of the local punk rock clubs made him indistinguishable from other stumbling revelers. The clubs became a place where “blindness worked” (50).
Knighton's title Cockeyed: A Memoir captures and prepares readers for his humorous, never self-protective narrative stance and approach to making blindness work. Although he sustains his irreverence as the narrative unfolds, Knighton also makes tamer concessions to his diminishing vision, such as leaning to use the distinguishing white cane that offers "artificial sight" and a "rickety kind of freedom" (68, 154). He later reconsiders his headlong pursuit of independence when he meets his sighted partner Tracy. With her he discovers an "alarming and rewarding" dependent relationship, in which his disability enables an "intimacy few are given" (183). He also quietly reflects on the meaning of blindness after a family tragedy places his disability in a larger context. Here Knighton coaxes his readers to understand blindness as both an individual and a shared incapacity. The death of a loved one, he writes, blinds us from ever seeing him again. "Seeing," moreover, "is itself touched with elegy. . . The world we see is always gone" (181).
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 slim chapbook contains eleven poems that tell the story of a mother and her alcoholic son--how she suspects and then discovers his addiction, how she vacillates between fear and denial, despair and hope. The place in between these extremes of emotion is the Hurricane Zone, and these poems--written by "Anonymous" to protect the son's identity--are hard-edged, starkly moving, and ultimately redeeming.
In "Birthday," the narrator looks back thirty-eight years to her son's arrival, "his mashed, chinless face / dented forehead /breaking its way out of me." The next several poems ("Foreshadowing," "Denial," "Shikker," "Postcard") address denial, how a parent can suspect their child is slipping into the abyss of alcohol or drugs and still wish to create a different story from the available details.
Finding help in Alanon, the narrator begins to work her program. In "Late Lilies" and "Detachment," she finds where a mother and son's boundaries begin and end: "he isn't me, / he isn't mine." In "Give Us This Day" (referring to the group's recitation of The Lord's Prayer at meeting's end) the mother, "lone Jew, lone atheist," learns detachment, that "cloud shadows of startling darkness / moving over the water are not the water."
"Ferryboat" and "Hope" reveal the narrator's painful longing to protect her son as well as her own obsession: a series of affairs early in her marriage when this son was a teenager. That memory, one both cherished and regretted, offers a thin moment of hope: "Anyone who wants to can change." But even when the son is good--able to work on a second novel--there is uncertainty and near-miss communication.
In "Hurricane Zone," the final poem, there is no easy resolution. The victory comes in addressing the topic of alcoholism straight on and making these poems available for others who may be struggling along the same journey.
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.
Baiev’s chronicle of medical life in wartime is full of incident—tragic, touching, and repeatedly traumatic: his own life was threatened repeatedly by Russians who suspected him and Chechens who resented him for treating Russians. Members of his extended family were killed and his father’s home was destroyed. He straddled other boundaries: trained in Russia, he fully appreciated how modern medicine may bring relief not available even in the hands of the most respected traditional healers, but he mentions traditional ways with the reverence of a good son of devout Muslims. His perspective is both thoughtfully nationalistic and international.
Finally coming to the States where he couldn’t at first practice the medicine he had honed to exceptional versatility under fire, he lives with a mix of gratitude for the privilege of safety and a longing for the people he served, whose suffering was his daily work for years that might for most of us have seemed nearly unlivable. Before writing the book, he struggled with his own post-traumatic stress, and continues to testify to the futility of force as a way of settling disputes. Medicine is his diplomacy as well as his gift to his own people, and the Hippocratic Oath a commitment that sustained him in the midst of ethical complexities unlike any one would be likely to face in peacetime practice.