Life on the Line relates the experience of 228 writers who express in their work the deep connection between healing and words. Walker and Roffman have organized their anthology into eight topical chapters: Abuse, Death and Dying, Illness, Relationships, Memory, Rituals and Remedies, White Flags From Silent Camps, and a chapter of poems about the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. This hefty volume contains a very broad selection of contemporary poems, stories, and essays by both well-known and relatively unknown writers on the experience of illness and healing.


The first section, ABUSE, deals with violence, severed relationships, child abuse, and rape. The second chapter, DEATH AND DYING, demonstrates that we "share in the life of all who live / and the death of all who die" (Vivian Smallwood). This section is full of moving poems like William Stafford’s "For a Lost Child" and Susan Jacobson’s "Dork," in which a nurse takes care of a patient who shot himself in the head and who now exists in "that storage place / for the terminally alive / being handled, talked over / like a sack of potatoes."

The third chapter, ILLNESS, is the longest and most varied in Life on the Line. Its poems and stories speak of illness of all kinds and at all stages of human life. Some stories occur in hospitals, those "land(s) of shy kindnesses and embarrassing stains . . . ." (Peter Viereck, "At My Hospital Window"). Stroke, apraxia, breast cancer, blindness, tuberculosis, psoriasis, AIDS, and incontinence are, in one sense, the subjects; but in a larger sense these writings are narratives about the human condition.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal respectively with RELATIONSHIPS and MEMORY. They feature wonderfully human stories of love and forgiveness, friendship and loss, memory and gratitude. Judson Jerome, in his essay "Liking What You Do," reflects on his own history of clinical depression and concludes, "Smile. You can do that deliberately, and if you hold the smile awhile, joy often follows... You can deliberately recall happy moments, dear friends, family members you love....even to remember them has a transforming effect." The short section on RITUALS AND REMEDIES brings to the forefront healing as symbol and ceremony. It includes a wonderful poem, "The Remedies," by the native American storyteller and poet Joseph Bruchac.

The seventh chapter, WHITE FLAGS FROM SILENT CAMPS, includes works that deal explicitly with the connections between words and healing. Rosaly Roffman in "Poet as shaker and healer" writes that narrative and song are vital in medical traditions throughout the world. She continues, " . . . poetry can make anyone feel better. Craft and mystery make this so. Certainly the therapeutic value is not confined to what (the poem) has to say. The language used by the poet brings delight, just as nursery rhymes delight the child. Such delight is a form of healing."

The final chapter is a translation of several poems by the Ukranian physician-writer Liubov Sirota who lived near Chernobyl at the time of the nuclear accident. Her poems rise from the dead city: "Peace unto your remains, / unknown fellow-villager!" Yet amidst the suffering of Chernobyl, she affirms "I accept this world! / this air! / I am happy . . . . "


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Place Published

Mobile, Ala.




Sue Brannan Walker & Rosaly Demaios Roffman

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