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Patrick Clary's Dying for Beginners is a collection of vibrant poems about living (as well as dying); about family, friends, music, loss, war and love. The book's title is evocative of the countercultural insight that dying is an essential part of living. We only become fully human by coming to grips with our own mortality. This engagement with mortality emerges from love and humor, as well as from suffering and loss. Clary's poems speak to what he has discovered about himself, as a beginner to his fellow beginners.
The poet's route to discovery traverses Death Valley, where, during a spiritual retreat and vision quest, he has this epiphany: "Suddenly, I find all my wounds are turning into blessings" (p. 1). This inversion of categories is not an exotic, one-off event, but becomes a new way of looking at the world, a perspective in which life events, carefully observed and described, blossom with deeper meanings that can only be expressed by metaphor or paradox. For example, in "Days I Don't Remember," Clary reflects, "And all my roads are turning into rivers" (p. 27). Or, in "Meditation on the Pays d'Oc," he observes, "Instead of dying, I cough up a butterfly, watch it / dry its wings in the sun..." (p. 74). Or the essential quietism of "That silence moving through our lives was me" (p. 33).
The poet had his first lessons in dying when he worked as a medic during the Vietnam War, In "Orientation at Bien Hoa," he discovers, "Yes, gentlemen / This little war here / Exists only / For one reason: / To give you all the pleasure / You can handle" (p. 10). He also learns how easy it is to kill with an M 16 rifle, which can "Put eighteen holes in / Whatever you point it at / Inside of two seconds" (p. 11). Meanwhile, the human tragedy of Vietnam takes place all around him.
Clary reflects on the limits of his calling in "Three Variations", where he observes his own hands, "professionally / Tender on demand, but still uneasy / At your easy tenderness" (p. 35). The words "professionally tender on demand" evoke his work in palliative medicine, although the same words could-and should-apply to medical practice in general. But Clary recognizes that the human capacity for compassion is not inexhaustible. There will always be a tension between the work that needs to be done ("another pair of hands in the emergency room," p. 63) and our limited reserves of kindness and empathy.
The book ends with a humorous and moving short prose narrative ("Origins of the Earwax Patrol," pp. 83-86) about caring for terminally ill patients.
Edited by psychiatrist and poet Mark Bauer, this anthology collects poems about mental illness, broadly defined to include such topics as alcoholism and drug abuse, depression and melancholia, and post-traumatic experiences (with World War I's shell-shock and the Vietnam war's PTSD represented by Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, and Wilfred Owen, and Yusuf Komunyakaa, respectively). Bauer provides an introductory essay, arranges the selections chronologically rather than thematically, and, in a welcome touch at the end, offers brief biographical sketches of the authors. A Mind Apart would form a nice companion piece to Poets on Prozac, edited by Richard Berlin
The represented poets are: Thomas Hoccleve, Charles d'Orleans, William Dunbar, Alexander Barclay, Fulke Greville, Thomas Lodge, William Shakespeare, Sir Henry Wotton, Sir John Davies, Robert Burton, John Fletcher and/or Thomas Middleton, Lady Mary Wroth, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, John Milton, Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Cavendish, Thomas Traherne, James Carkesse, Anne Finch, Edward Ward, Isaac Watts, Edward Young, William Harrison, Mary Barber, Matthew Green, William Collins, Thomas Mozeen, Christopher Smart, Thomas Warton, William Cowper, Robert Fergusson, Thomas Chatterton, John Codrington Bampfylde, William Blake, Robert Bloomfield, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon (Lord Byron), Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Clare, John Keats, Thomas Haynes Bayly, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Sydney Dobell, Emily Dickinson, Henry Kendall, Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. Mary F. Robinson, Ernest Dowson, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, (John Orley) Allen Tate, Richard David Comstock, Stanley Kunitz, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, J. V. Cunningham, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Weldon Kees, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Robert Edward Duncan, Howard Nemerov, Hayden Carruth, Philip Larkin, Anthony Hecht, Richard Hugo, James Schuyler, Donald Justice, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, Wiley Clemens, Anne Sexton, Carl Wolfe Solomon, Ned O'Gorman, Stuart Z. Perkoff, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton, Jim Harrison, Les Murray, Sharon Olds, Timothy Dekin, Quincy Troupe, Thomas P. Beresford, R. L. Barth, Jane Kenyon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joseph Salemi, Aimee Grunberger, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Mark Jarman, Franz Wright, David Baker, Michael Lauchlan, Joe Bolton, Kelly Ann Malone, Brian Turner, Kevin Young, Jeff Holt, Ricky Cantor, Anne Stevenson, and several contributions that are anonymous, including some from nineteenth century popular songs and selections from two collections of poetry by people with mental illness.
Summary:The seven sections of this long poem (128 lines) take the author from admission through a bone-marrow procedure (in front of student nurses), surgical prep, post-op recovery, urinary catheterization, and finally, a melancholic post-discharge confrontation with the decay and death of the natural world in late autumn. Sissman directs a sometimes withering sarcasm against both himself and his caregivers, nevertheless controlling a temptation to overdramatize his suffering or attack the hospital environment too harshly. Keen observation and carefully clever metaphors make poetry his best defense against his own impending death from Hodgkin’s disease.
The title recalls Clotho, the Fate charged with spinning the thread of life which would someday be clipped by her sister, Atropos. The two-stanza poem describes the circumstances of illness within a hospital setting. In stanza one, with a patient unable to urinate on his own, the poet employs desert images to suggest the dryness felt by the incapacitated sufferer ("throat-filling Gobi," "dry as Arabia," sunburnt cage of bone," "shekel," "rugs," "camel," etc.).
Stanza two begins with the riddle of the sphinx, another reiteration of desert imagery, but moves quickly to modern medical intervention by substituting the cane, the third leg of the elderly, with an IV pole for liquid sustenance and the "snake-handlers fist of catheters," ridding the body of its wastes. Clotho's role has been usurped by technology's miracles, and an appeal is made for the "kind, withdrawn face trained in the arts of love."
Summary:In "A Deathplace" the speaker recounts, with seeming nonchalance, the predictable sequence of his own death. He describes the hospital he knows so well, the details of surgery (down to "the buttered catheter goes in"), the "malignant plum," and finally "the hour / when the authorities shut off the power . . ." Sissman uses the power shut-off to signify his own death, but soon the lights go up and throughout the hospital the "business of life" resumes. Part of that business is to move his body to the morgue, then to the undertaker, then "That's all."
Sissman, whose chronic illness inspired him to incorporate illness experiences into his writings, muses about where he is likely to die. Like an archaeologist he begins with a vivid description of factors and events contributing to various wings and pavilions. He knows this hospital well: its external facades with "Aeolian embrasures" and "marble piping" associated with certain patrons or patronesses such as "the Maud Wiggin Building . . . commemorat[ing] a dog-jawed Boston bitch".
Slowly the narrator moves from the hospital's exterior layerings to imagine himself, a patient on a gurney, wearing the "skimpy chiton" while being subjected to syringes, "buttered catheter[s]," and IV "lisps and drips." Just before death his blood will "go thin, go white" and finally, there will be a journey through the hallways to the morgue and then to the undertaker. "That's all." The account is prosaic, an inventory or catalogue of steps familiar to anyone who has worked in a hospital setting. As a poet, however, Sissman transforms the ordinary into vividly fresh portrayals.
The speaker in this short poem is a physician whose father's "castrated body" is "crooked in prostatic pain." From the family home in Tennessee, the dying man's wife provides daily phone reports to the son about her husband's deteriorating condition. The speaker's mind swirls with conflicting feelings: he thinks about "Dr. Death," whose efforts he has just come to understand; he thinks about the suffering experienced by his father and his mother's "terminal voice"; and he considers "how many of those little pain killers it might take."
Similarly, recollection of the Hippocratic vows intrudes to counsel against the kind of assistance his filial nature wants to provide. The internal debate about choices directs readers back to the title's imperative, "let's talk about it," suggesting, I believe, the need for social and professional discourse about quality of life, futility, and physician-assisted-suicide.
Summary:Summary: This very welcome poem concerns "twelve older men in shirt sleeves," a group of men with prostate cancer. The narrator, one of the men in this "private brotherhood" suggests the difficulty and reluctance of many men to recognize out-loud their mutual circumstances: "Ever notice how no one parks / in the Cancer Center zone." This line sets the tone; the men are vulnerable and afraid. From time to time they gather for support from one another and from the meeting's scheduled speaker. The reader has little difficulty imagining the collective angst and the grasping of hope shared by the participants leaning together in their mutual storm.
Like her earlier collection, Words Like Fate and Pain (see this database), the thread of connection among these exquisite poems is the experience of chronic suffering. However the poems vary widely in focus and content, including those that touch on the intimacies of love found and lost, family relationships, musings on the road, political events, philosophical ideas, and qualities of words themselves. All open doors to an inner life deeply examined and thoughtfully lived. The poems deal frankly not only with the experiences of various kinds of pain, but with pain remembered and feared, with the mental detachment that enables one in pain not only to endure, but even at times to be playful about the business of living life in spite of ongoing suffering.
One is aware of the speaker in these poems as not only a patient, but as a writer who loves words, a woman who enters wholeheartedly into the relationships life puts in her path, and an observer with a wry wit and sharp sense of irony. Poem titles include "Cripple Time," "Trauerarbeit," "Phantom Life," "The Mind, That Ocean," "Pain as Metaphor," "Sleeping in My Notebook," "One, With Egg Roll," and "Waltzing the Gorilla."
Summary:Each poem in this collection is preceded by brief comments both by the author/patient and by her psychiatrist. Together the poems chronicle incidents in the interior life of a woman who has lived with schizophrenia for 35 years, been hospitalized, changed doctors and medication, undergone intense feelings of isolation, and also has experienced remarkable support and love from a twin sister and a few loyal friends. The poems range in tone from matter-of-fact tellings of psychotic episodes to reflections on relationships, both personal and professional, that have been important in the course of treatment. The book is organized as a chronology that traces the trajectory of diagnosis, illness, treatment and recovery; the final section is entitled "Beginning Again." Read in sequence, they give a rich sense of the writer's life, struggles, resilience, and unusual self-awareness.