In 1997, the author’s 14-year-old son, Ike, began a puzzling, progressive degenerative illness. Slowly, this undiagnosed disease claimed Ike’s ability to walk, to study, to participate in normal adolescent activities and, finally, to reason. Going from physician to physician, seeking if not a cure than at least a working diagnosis, the author became a self-taught expert in all things neurological.

As her son’s condition worsened, she also became an expert in grief and despair. In Blue Peninsula, her first book, McKeithen relates how she became, as well, a poetry addict--reading, devouring, tearing poems out of journals, buying volumes that she could carry to office or hospital, hiding poems in her purse or pocket. Using poems or pieces of poems--sometimes she could not bear to read a final stanza, one that perhaps ended in death or unrelenting despair--she cobbled together a survival plan.

Indeed, in this small book of short, to-the-point chapters (with titles such as "Crying in the Car," Open to It," Acquiring Losses," Sifting Questions," "Naming," "Shipwreck," and "Shelving Selves"), she reveals how she used poems to grieve, to question, to celebrate, to maintain, to curse, and to endure. The story of Ike’s illness, treatment and slow decline are interwoven with these poems and the author’s often surprising commentary on how she mined the poet’s metaphors. If a poem could put suffering into words, the author suggests, she needed that poem to survive.

The author’s choice of poems and poets is far-reaching, and her interpretations of what they mean and how they helped her along the path of her son’s illness are intimate, gritty and insightful. A brief listing of poets includes Emily Dickinson (whose poem "Blue Peninsula" supplied the book’s title), Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Ackerman, Zbiginew Herbert, The Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Molly Peacock, David Whyte and many others, known and lesser known.


Although the author suggests that the reader might begin with the Preface and first chapter to obtain some background story, then dip randomly into the book here and there, reading beginning to end allows the reader to follow Ike’s progressive illness as well as the up and down course of his mother’s adaptation to this family-shared suffering. The author’s prose is often as lyrical and metaphoric as the poems she examines, and this book contributes much to the study of medical humanities.

The Preface alone is a wonderful endorsement of why and how poetry helps us heal; another essential chapter is "Sensory Illness" (194). Using Billy Collins’s poem "Introduction to Poetry," McKeithen says, in three spare pages, how one might dissect an illness as one dissects a poem--"tortures a confession out of it," in Collins’s words--trying to listen closely to determine "who is it, the author of this illness?" (197).

Not academic (although it certainly could be used as a valuable text), this book maps grief, suffering, and survival in a way that is specific, personal and accessible.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count