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Equal Partners

Heymann, Jody

Last Updated: Nov-22-2009
Annotated by:
Willms, Janice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

A new graduate from medical school experiences her first seizure on the eve of beginning internship. Diagnostic workup reveals a mass in the wall of the third ventricle, which, at the time of surgery, is a vascular malformation. The narrative takes the reader through the four years of the author's struggle with her diagnosis, treatment and resultant disability, a seizure disorder.

Laced through the tale are patient vignettes, told from the vantage point of a newly sensitized doctor who is a long-term patient herself. Heymann is gently critical of many of the interactions she experienced with her physicians, attempting to chide her colleagues into being more sensitive to patient-centered concerns.

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Annotated by:
Willms, Janice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Ott opens her treatment of the cultural, social and economic evolution of tuberculosis in the U.S in the mid-nineteenth century, although she refers back to antecedent historical events. The study follows how the evolving principles of bacteriology were applied to a syndrome the medical world did not recognize as having a single etiology. Tuberculosis did not fit the epidemiologic patterns of epidemic diseases as recognized by public health specialists.

Ott focuses heavily on the economics of the illness, as well as on its changing social status. Her final chapter examines the contemporary meaning of the disease as it once again is heralded as a public health problem in the U.S.

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Cockeyed: A Memoir

Knighton, Ryan

Last Updated: Nov-21-2009
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

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).



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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In Dirty Details, Marion Deutsche Cohen writes about the unrelenting labor entailed in caring for her husband Jeffrey at home as multiple sclerosis turns his symptoms from "mere inconveniences" (11) to extraordinary demands, which can disturb her sleep as frequently as twenty times a night.  The premise of her unsparing narrative is that "we have got to spill the dirty details" (26) of such arrangements before the endurance-draining responsibilities of home care such as hers can be understood and redressed.  In a culture that favors narratives of seemingly heroic individual effort, Cohen's brutally forthright descriptions of the effects of Jeff's needs on her life can be mistaken for a self-pitying complaint, rather than an urgent, revelatory, political call to action.  Like her husband, a well-published physicist at the University of Pennsylvania when diagnosed with MS at age 36 in 1977, Cohen is an accomplished professional.  With a PhD in mathematics, Cohen teaches college students as well as publishes poetry and prose.  She and her husband also shared, with increasing asymmetry, the parenting of their four children.                 

Cohen captures the wearying routine of her days in her narrative's echoing refrain, "nights, lifting, and toilet."   The nights refer to Cohen's dangerously disrupted sleep.  Her husband's respirator can sound every half hour or so, inciting her to worry "about the psychological effects of seldom being allowed to finish my dreams" (23).  (When she asks if the machine can be fixed, she's told that it's supposed to behave that way.  By implication, so is she, despite the toll on her well-being.)  Yet she daily rallies the strength to lift her husband on and off the toilet, a feat, among others, that sometimes defied the powers of several hospital nurses working together.   Toilet also means responding to Jeffrey's regular calls to her to drop what she's doing, run upstairs, and bring him a jar.  The jar at least relieves her from lifting.  She experiences only intermittent relief, however, from finding and keeping home health aides who are able to show up reliably and behave civilly during the few hours per day they can be funded.  What results from these tests of human stamina, Cohen tells us, is not "ordinary stress" that some optimistically believe can be managed by taking stress reduction workshops, but rather "dire straits."  "Calling dire straits stress," she corrects, "undermines well spouses and makes us feel alienated and confused about where we stand" (32). 

It's that standing in the broadest sense of the word that Cohen's book most searingly addresses.  While Dirty Details contains one woman's account of caring for a disabled husband at home, the book's wider purpose is to make the labor of family caregivers visible with all its strains, conflicts, messiness, failures, anger, and, at times, humor.   As the straights become increasingly dire, though, Cohen writes about what happens to love as she moves from sustaining tenderness, candor, and their physical intimacy to diminishing her compassion for Jeff and saving herself:  a "pure survival instinct" (87).   After sixteen years in his family's care, Jeff at first reluctantly enters Inglis House, a residence that provides as much independence as possible for those who cannot live independently, where he continues to write and publish.  Cohen's professional life, social life, and beloved parenting once again flourish.  The story she is freed to write (illustrated with photographs by Anna Moon taken with Jeff's consent) lead readers away from her particular circumstances toward a comprehensive interrogation of social and medical systems that operate by leaving the most chronically ill and disabled citizens in their families' care by default.   And leave the families in dire straits.

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Limbo: A Memoir

Ansay, A.

Last Updated: Nov-21-2009
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Novelist A. Manette Ansay's beautifully crafted, emotionally complex memoir describes living with a chronic painful, debilitating condition that began mysteriously and has continued to elude both diagnosis and remedy. Without a clear inciting event or a healing resolution to frame her narrative, Ansay structures her memoir as a series of agile reflections in which scenes from the past and present dissolve into one another, mimicking the distortions of time that chronic illness issues. "Time doesn't pass," she writes. "It bleeds, blurs, washes me along" (27).

Ansay's narrative opens when, at age 36, she has returned to visit the somber rural Wisconsin town of her childhood in a body that has lost its "unselfconscious sense of movement" (10). She recounts how she insisted on beginning piano lessons when she was 7, persevering through years of pain and increasing fatigue that ultimately caused her to withdraw from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. The withdrawal ended her dedicated labor to become a performer. Instead, Ansay navigated medical systems in an urgent, but elusive search for a diagnosis.

Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Lupus could not be verified. Neither could the possibility that playing the piano with nearly manic vigor (in her teachers' view) damaged her body. Ansay's matter-of-fact description of playing Hurricane with her friends in her grandparents' apple orchard-trucks full of pesticides doused the children as they hid in the branches-suggests another still unproven etiology.

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Skunk Hour

Lowell, Robert

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Skunk Hour is the penultimate poem in Lowell’s 1959 volume of poetry, Life Studies. It is composed of 8 sestets with an internal rhyming scheme in each sestet that can only be called irregular from sestet to sestet. The poem moves slowly, beginning with a descriptive tone that is somber ("she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."), progresses to frankly pessimistic ("the season’s ill") and ultimately becomes confessional and egoistically relational ("I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, / they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . . / My mind’s not right.")

The poem opens with a series of portraits of people and phenomena that comprise the poet’s current landscape: "Nautilus Island’s hermit heiress" who is "in her dotage"; the "summer millionaire" whose nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen"; the decorator who brightens his shop but appears as hopeless as the narrator, who draws yet another contrast between appearance and reality, remarking that the decorator knows "there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry."

The fifth sestet marks a turning point and, to signal it, Lowell takes as his first line the famous "Una noche oscura" of St. John of the Cross, another dour poet/mystic: "One dark night". (In a collection of essays cited on the Internet (reference 1) Lowell writes, "Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.") This line begins the first of two consecutive sestets that are concerned with corporal love, bracketing a middle line that announces, to no reader’s surprise, "My mind’s not right."

The second of these sestets moves from a maudlin song refrain to a frankly depressive, almost suicidal pose: "I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat. . . ." and ends with "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here --", which, as James E. B. Breslin reminds us, is a quotation from Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost. (ref.1)

Enter the titular skunks: as a parenthetical predicate to the final line of the preceding sestet ("nobody’s here --"), the poet corrects the apparently psychological meaning of "nobody’s here --" to refer to physical presence, noting that in fact there is someone here, namely a family of skunks.

The final two sestets are among the most visually powerful images in poetry with the paradoxically high drama one would not expect from skunks. The hungry skunks "march on their soles up Main Street" in search of food with fiery red eyes as the poet, in response to their upward march, stands "on top / of our back steps" and takes a deep breath of the "rich air", watching the mother skunk jab her head into a cup of sour cream--a mother skunk who, in a fitting yet curiously ambiguous final line, "will not scare."

reference 1. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/skunk.htm accessed January 5, 2005.

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Notes on Emphysema

Carruth, Hayden

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

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."

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Migraine

Pastan, Linda

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

The poet describes the suffering associated with a migraine headache.

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Summary:

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.

 

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Hurricane Zone

Anonymous

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

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.

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