The narrator describes his chronic illness of two or more years duration. He likens his former good health to "an island / going out of sight behind you." His days are filled with visits to the doctor, medicine, and a loss of interest in "wanting to make love . . . . " He describes going through stages: feelings of being punished, which generate "an enormous effort to be good"; anger; fear of death; "a lake of grief"; "neurotic vigilance"; and finally, "only a desire to be done." In the end, he is still en route.


This is a bleak but convincing description of chronic illness. The poet engages our attention and empathy by addressing us directly. The imagery makes clear how all-encompassing chronic illness can be. In describing his loss of interest in sex, the narrator addresses an important issue that is often not mentioned in literature or in conversations between patients and their physicians.

The analogy between good health and a lost country brings to mind Karen Fiser's poem, Across the Border, in which the disabled narrator speaks of being exiled from previous good health (see this database). These views of alienation also raise the question of whether physicians and others who are not ill consider the sick to be alien.

Primary Source

Sweet Ruin


Univ. of Wisconsin Press

Place Published

Madison, Wis.