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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.
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).
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.
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."
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.
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 sonnet sequence, found in part III of the poetry collection, A Long Sound, opens with the narrator preparing to date her music teacher's son, a man she has had a crush on since age twelve. Now she is eighteen, "damaged goods" according to her mother, and about to embark on a date.
In the second sonnet, the narrator's date begins to ply her with alcohol, and by the third sonnet, she numbly acquiesces to his advances. Drunk and in a blackout by the fourth sonnet, she re-lives the emotional and physical pain of her recent abortion, an event her whole family "was in on."
In the fifth sonnet, she wakes in her date's immaculate Buick as he drives her home and asks imperiously if she "does this sort of thing often." The sixth sonnet is both touching and horrifying-she recalls that, in spite of the man's disdain, she was so hungry for love that she wished he would kiss her good night.
Returned to the house she "hated," she mourns the "sore night" of the abortion, a memory she cannot erase with alcohol and sex. In the final sonnet, the narrator--chided, belittled, and abused by both her mother and her date--experiences a moment of awful clarity. This is the beginning of her recovery, a revelation recognized in retrospect.