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The Heavenly Ladder is physician-poet Jack Coulehan's most recent chapbook, bringing together 48 poems, many of which have been published individually in various medical journals and literary magazines. The collection is divided into four sections.
Poems in the first section, "Medicine Stone," are written in the voice of patients or in the voice of the physician who treats them. The second section, "So Many Remedies," consists of five poems inspired by physician-author Chekhov. The poems of "The Illuminated Text" section reflect a wide-ranging interest in people who lived in distant times or in distant places. The final section, "Don't Be Afraid, Gringo," stays, for the most part, closer to home and includes a number of poems addressed to, or about, family members.
In the "free love" context of the nineteen-sixties, Harriet and David Lovatt are throwbacks to a more conservative, traditional, and family-oriented decade. Their life dream is to have a big house in the country filled with children, and it seems that they will succeed. After bearing four young children, however, Harriet is feeling the strain of years of childbearing, sleeplessness, money trouble, and her parents' and in-laws' disapproval of her fecundity.
Her fifth pregnancy is not only unplanned, but also unusually painful and disruptive. Harriet's doctor prescribes sedatives but finds nothing abnormal in her situation. When Ben is born, Harriet jokes that he is like "a troll or a goblin," but no one responds well to this unusually hairy and physically vigorous baby, who in turn does not respond to anything but his own desires and fears.
As he grows older, family pets and other children seem to be in physical danger. Health care professionals do not confirm the couple's conviction that Ben is not normal, but neither do they obstruct the decision to send Ben to a private institution, a removal that leaves the family temporarily happy until Harriet visits Ben and recognizes the institution for what it is, a place where all manner of "different" children are sent to live heavily medicated, physically restrained, and foreshortened lives away from families who do not want them.
Harriet brings Ben home, where he grows up amid what remains of the Lovatts' domestic fantasy, and finds community in a gang of thuggish older boys whom Harriet suspects are involved in various criminal acts. As the story closes, Ben has left home and Harriet imagines him in another country, "searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind" (133).
Salvadorian writer and activist Claribel Alegria has composed a sequence of poems, 47 sparse love letters to her late husband Darwin "Bud" Flakoll who died in 1995. Neither sentimental nor confessional, the poems draw on the struggles of Circe, Prometheus, and Orpheus as well as themes of unfinished rites, sadness, and symbolic immortality. The translator's preface is a reminiscence of her time with the couple then living in self-imposed exile, in addition to a critical introduction to the poetry.
The short story considers the final afternoon in the lives of Jeff and Jennie Patton, a frail elderly couple, who have spent their lives as poor sharecroppers, barely able to make ends meet for themselves and their children. While neither is seriously ill, the severities of farming and aging have guided them toward a mutual pact. Today they will put on their finest clothes and then, drive down the dirt road past their neighbors toward a cliff--and death.
The simple story is gripping as readers discover what this couple is about. While they have been defeated by their tight-fisted landlord and by age, their spirits are indomitable. With charm and pathos, the couple fulfills the pledge they made to one another when no other alternative seemed appropriate.
Fridolin, a doctor, and his wife, Albertine, have been married for a few years and are the parents of a much adored little girl. In a moment of unusual frankness, they decide to confess all their temptations and adventures to one another. Albertine admits that she deeply desired a blond Dane encountered in the previous summer. Fridolin professes to welcome this news and tells of similar attractions. They promise to confide the sexual adventures of their waking and dreaming states.
But Fridolin is not at ease. The idea that his wife desired another-even in a dream-inspires a jealous energy that sends him in search of adventures that will reassure him of his own desirability and hurt if not repudiate Albertine. On the pretext of a house call, he wanders, masked and unmasked, through the decadent private clubs and cafés of night-time Vienna. He toys with the dismal daughter of a patient, an "unspoiled" prostitute, and a sophisticated matron--none of whom he actually claims, all of whom remind him of his wife, one of whom dies, he believes, in protecting him.
Uncertain if his adventure was reality or dream, he returns with tenderness to Albertine, although he has repeatedly vowed to leave her. He tells his entire story; she listens with better grace than he would have done. Then he asks what they should do. She replies that they should be grateful to have "emerged safely from these adventures" . . . "neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person's entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being." "And no dream," he responds "is altogether a dream." (p. 98-9). They begin another day.
The story begins in London as Lilia, the young widow of Charles Herriton departs for an extended tour of Italy, taking with her a companion (Caroline Abbott), who is supposed to keep her our of trouble. Lilia leaves her 8-year-old daughter Irma home with the Herritons. The Herritons are a snobbish upper middle class family ruled by an iron-willed matriarch, who has never approved of her daughter-in-law's unassuming and spontaneous nature.
The trouble begins when word arrives from the small town of Monteriano that Lilia has gotten engaged to an Italian man. Mrs. Herriton sends her son Philip to buy off the "wretched Italian" and bring Lilia home. But he arrives too late. The 32-year-old Lilia has already married Gino Carella, who is the unemployed son of a dentist and a decade younger than she is. Gino is charming and seems guileless, although he has no intention of adopting an English attitude toward marriage. Indeed, he has married Lilia for her money and expects her to become a proper Italian wife.
Later, Lilia dies in childbirth, but the baby survives. At first the Herritons intend to sever contact and not acknowledge the child. However, nudged by Miss Abbott, the unsuccessful chaperone, they decide to "save" the child from becoming an Italian. Once again, Philip goes to Italy to buy off Gino and bring the boy to England. Once again, he fails.
But this time, his aggressive sister Harriet intervenes; when all else fails, she steals the baby. Unfortunately, a mishap occurs, and the baby dies. Meanwhile, Philip has fallen in love with Miss Abbott who, in turn, has fallen for the recently remarried Gino. In the end it looks like Phillip and Miss Abbott will become "just good friends."
Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov wakes up one morning and discovers that his nose is missing. At the same time in another part of St. Petersburg, Kovalyov's barber finds the nose in his breakfast roll. However, the barber, desiring to disassociate himself from the strange incident, proceeds to toss the nose into the Neva River. A little later, Kovalyov happens to see his nose riding in an elegant carriage and wearing the uniform of a State Councillor (a higher rank than Collegiate Assessor). He demands that the nose give itself up, but is rudely rebuffed.
At first neither the police nor the newspaper offer any help, but later a police officer, who happened to observe the barber throwing an object into the river, returns the lost nose to Kovalyov. However, a new problem arises. How will he re-attach the nose to his face? For this he consults a doctor, who recommends letting nature take its course, "it's best to stay as you are, otherwise you'll only make it worse." Poor nose-less Kovalyov! He becomes the laughing stock of St. Petersburg, until one morning he wakes up and finds his nose re-attached firmly to his face.
Helen Reed, a novelist, newly widowed, moves to the University of Gloucester for a semester to teach creative writing. There she meets Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science. Their relationship is set within a web of complex professional and family connections, most of which focus on variations of adultery. Everyone has a secret. Helen learns by reading the novel-in-progress of one of her students that the student had had an affair with her husband.
Ralph, awkwardly involved with a Czech grad student who is trying to blackmail him, is regularly unfaithful to his wife, who is in turn having an affair. Another scientist is addicted to on-line child pornography. Helen and Ralph eventually become lovers, until Ralph is found to have a lump on his liver (which later turns out not to be cancer) and then betrays Helen by reading her private journals. She then returns to London and he remains with his wife.
Dr. Sacks was growing up in London during World War II and had a very traumatic experience when he was sent away from his home for protection from the bombing. He and his brother were sent to a boarding school, where they were beaten and underfed. Sack's home had been filled with a wonderful extended family of physicists, mathematicians, teachers, and chemists, in addition to his parents who were both practicing physicians. Being unusually bright and talented, Sacks responded to a wide variety of stimuli when he returned to this environment.
He became fascinated with the chemistry of metals and with the periodic table of elements. An uncle, for whom the book is named, was a manufacturer of light bulbs with tungsten filaments and encouraged him in setting up his own chemistry laboratory in the family laundry room, to do experiments. The family allowed him a great deal of freedom, which encouraged his creativity.
In writing about these experiences Sacks includes the history of the development of chemistry concepts that fascinated him. It was only much later that his interests moved on to the natural sciences and medicine. He says that his parents had been tolerant and even pleased with his early interests in chemistry but by the time he was fourteen they felt that the time for play was over. He kept a journal from the age of fourteen and took advantage of every opportunity to read broadly and experience nature, music and art.
In retrospect, however, Sacks felt that life was shallower after he left behind his passion for chemistry. He says that he dreams of chemistry at night. This description of such intense interest in the world around him and the people he read about or knew explains a great deal about his great success as a neurologist and as a remarkable story teller.
I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. So opens the first part of "Notes from Underground," in which the narrator describes his character and psychological states. He is a low ranking public official, 40 years old, who lives alone in a small room. When he received a small inheritance, he immediately quit his job and now spends his time ruminating about who he is and what his life means.
This narrator does not simply accept the laws of nature. He dislikes "the fact that two and two makes four." He realizes that he cannot break down the wall of nature "by battering my head against it," but nonetheless "I am not going to resign myself to it simply because it is a stone wall and I am not strong enough." (p. 12) He is proud of never having begun or finished anything. (p. 17) In fact, "what man needs is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead." (p. 23)
The narrator is "underground" because he has chosen not to participate, not to accomplish, not to interact, not even to justify his non-participation in "ordinary" life. Yet, he is bored, and so he chooses to occupy himself by writing these notes.
The second part is less rumination and more narrative, as the protagonist describes some seminal events in his life. When he was a young clerk, he was a loner with no friends. One day he decided to visit Simonov, an old school acquaintance, who happened at the time to be planning a dinner with some friends to honor another friend, Zverkov, who had done well in the military. The protagonist awkwardly invited himself to this dinner, despite having no money to pay for it, and later, after being thoroughly obnoxious and insulting his hosts, he followed them to a brothel, where he encountered a whore named Liza and conned her into thinking that he cared for her.
When she appeared at his apartment a few days later, he angrily told her that the "fine sentiments" were all false: "I was laughing at you!" When Liza then ran away, the narrator became agitated and tried to follow, but quickly dropped the idea. "Would I not begin to hate her, perhaps even tomorrow, just because I had kissed her feet today? Would I give her happiness? Had I not recognized that day, for the hundredth time, what I was worth?" (p. 113) At this point he breaks off, saying that he chooses not to write any further notes form underground.