Essay: Heather Taylor Johnsonon writing the body

The Poem Exists First In The Body

Most people writing a life narrative have two selves: the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. I sometimes catch myself thinking in terms of pre- and post-baby, or pre- and post- migration to Australia. My narratives can also be marked with statements such as ‘Before I was diagnosed with Ménière’s’ and ‘After that first attack’. Someone might ask me when I had read a certain novel and I might think to myself, It was a long time ago, but it was definitely after I’d had Ménière’s. In fact it was when I’d had a really bad bout. Yeah, I think I was sitting outside, not able to move anything but my eyes really, because I was so dizzy, and I’d read the book in like, two days. Then I can come up with the answer: ‘2003. It was 2003 when I read Prodigal Summer.’

Having a chronic illness means I’m split into ‘before’ and ‘after’, and also split into ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’. When the Ménière’s comes back strong after a few months’ or years’ reprieve, I begin thinking, ‘I hope this one doesn’t last too long,’ as if once the major symptoms have invaded my body and had their fun, I will be healthy again. But I live in what Arthur Frank calls the ‘remission society’, so the sickness never fully passes. It leaves constant traces of itself in my body, in my memory, and it forges ahead through my lingering fear. Because I am a writer, I can’t help writing about it, and what that can do for me is find the in-between of the ‘before’ and ‘after’, the ‘sick’ and the ‘healthy’, as well as bring these selves together so that I can see myself as whole.

In my own story, the world around me spins violently for hours. I vomit even when there is nothing left and I cannot hear my children talking because of the noise in my left inner ear. Life, when I am sick, is chaotic. I spend a lot of time angry or depressed. But once I am able to step away from the chaos of illness, I find I need to reflect. I need to write. To examine myself and distance myself simultaneously.

I write for reasons of self-communication and self-communion but there is also a need to open the doors to communication and communion with others living within this remission society: carers, nurses, doctors and family members. ‘The pedagogy of suffering,’ writes Frank, ‘begins its teaching from a ground of loneliness seeking communion. This communion is the reward of the nursing assistant who cleans the soiled resident and claims it does not stink because of the relationship between them.’ I’m interested in this, but I’m also interested in good poetry.

When I was first diagnosed with Ménière’s disease in 1999, I turned to writing poetry, as I had so many times before in my life. What an awful experience. I was angry because I was sick, and writing about being sick was affirmation of being sick. But I was also angry because what I was writing was overly dramatic and just plain bad. Kathryn Conway would say this is common: ‘for those who are ill or disabled, writing frustrates as much as it heals. Even as these writers find language and form for their experience, they discover that something of its emotional intensity slips away in the telling of their story.’

Writing overly dramatic and just-plain-bad poetry is a surefire way of losing emotional intensity. I kept asking myself, ‘Where has my language gone?’ The answer comes in the form of a question: ‘What language?’ Even after giving oneself appropriate distance from the event – in my case the attack – how does one describe a violent spinning that lasts for hours? How does one describe severe nausea? Every time I tried to capture my symptoms in a poem it was ‘woe-is-me’, a plea for comfort, or, worse, didactic. Good poetry should never be exceedingly sentimental or advisory. Just as the body eludes us in our time of chaos, language eludes us in our time of written reflection. Virginia Woolf calls it a ‘poverty of language’. Wondering why more literature focusing on illness isn’t out there, she concludes very simply that ‘English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has not words for the shiver and the headache.’ These words belong to the body, and it is the body that the ill person is not able to get a handle on. If prose is ‘words in their best order’ and poetry is ‘the best words in their best order’, then writing bad poetry about illness as therapy is not only ‘not enough’ for poets; it’s shameful. Furthermore chronic illness and pain sufferers often experience low self-esteem as a result of depression.  It can become downright dangerous. But the writer will obsess, and so it was and is with Ménière’s and me.

‘Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat’, wrote Robert Frost; my throat has a horrid gag reflex and is quite possibly stained from the acidity of too much bile, so poems written as chaos narratives make sense to me. The hurried pace of parataxis and a lack of punctuation and other stylistic devices fits my condition. So do specific forms, such as the pantoum, where the first and third lines of one stanza are repeated as the second and fourth in the next, while the final stanza ends by repeating the first stanza’s second and fourth lines. The repetition, though technically ordered, feels chaotic to me, and the circularity of the form suggests the relentlessness of chronic illness.

For the past two years I’ve been working with Australian poets who are dealing with chronic pain and illness in their lives and their poetry. The result is the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self. Fiona Wright’s ‘Her arms and legs are thin’, for instance, harkens back to ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’; the rhythm and repetition of both poems are charming and incessant. The echo of an iconic poem, itself a modernist concept, suggests the recursivity of illness. Stuart Barnes offers a found poem on ENDONE using the ‘myDr consumer Medicine Information’ website as his source, satirising the drug industry:

Do not show your pupils, abnormal,
do not show your restlessness, do not show your goose
-flesh, do not show your fast heart rate, do not show your new
-born child to a doctor or pharmacist.

Susan Hawthorne and Rachael Mead write in uniform stanzas – one using couplets or quatrains, the other sestets and eleven line stanzas – as they reclaim their epilepsy and depression, respectively, through structure.  And in single stanza poems, David Brooks writes the lyric narration of his days and, in the process, represents others within the remission society: regular people living with complex illnesses in the extraordinary everyday.

In The Life of Poetry Muriel Rukeyser recalls a workshop she led in which a student was asked to compose a poem in his head, and when he was finished he was asked if he could remember it. ‘Yes,’ he said. He was then asked to go outside, wait a while, then write the poem down, while the others in the class discussed whether or not he would be able to do it and whether or not that mattered, depending on where a poem exists: in the head, or on paper. When Rukeyser left the classroom to ask the volunteer to re-join the class, she told him about the discussion. His response was to read the class his poem and say that it is pretty much word-for-word how he imagined it, then rip the paper up into tiny pieces. Now there is another complexity: perhaps the poem exists because there has been a witness. The class, after all, had heard it before he’d ripped it up. The question was raised at a later point by one of Rukeyser’s colleagues: what if the poet had died while in the hallway? Would there ever have been a poem? To me, this offers up yet another complexity to the question of how a poem exists / what makes a poem / what is a poem, and it seems to be an inevitable point of discussion: the poem exists first in the body.

And so we have Andy Jackson’s ‘Jess’:

sometimes I wake into a quiet sadness
blood pooling in my mouth
bones on fire – this is the worst
and best thing that has ever happened to me

Or Jessica Cohen’s ‘Foundations II’:

When my foundations were laid
Somebody somewhere was distracted.
A faulty circuit spread through the length of me
Wires mismatched, currents misfiring.

Or again Kristen Lang’s ‘Luthier’:

There is a wooden post inside the cello –
the luthier is tinkering. If it slips, the body cannot hum
and the strings, thin and strange, hold only the shadow
of a melody. I tell him the ribs have tightened. I touch
the sternum – here, I say. He taps the chest – sing, he says,
fingers nudging the heart.

The body is a representation of the self, and when the body is damaged, so too is the self. The sufferer must make meaning, once again, of the self. More than finding answers, meaning-making is the search; in looking at one petal, we begin to search for the flower.

Traumatic illnesses and pain rupture our concept of space and time, so linearity is not representative of the narrative we tell ourselves and the meaning that we make. A single poem represents a single moment of the constantly evolving fractured self – moments upon moments; so many poems to write – which is why our narratives often begin in the middle, and stay there. The middle is the confluence of ‘before’ and ‘after’, of ‘healthy’ and ‘sick’. I believe this middle point is where the microscope comes in. It is the petal, not the root.

Works Cited

Arthur W Frank , The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
Robert Frost, quoted in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations (Little, Brown and Company, 1919).
Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Paris Press, 1996).
Virginia Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’. Collected Essays vol. 4 (Hogarth Press, 1967).
Kathlyn Conway, Illness and the Limits of Expression ( University of Michigan Press, 2007).