Guest blogger, Cynthia Hogue
Photo by Joanna Eldridge Morrissey
Well, nothing is predictable with pain
Did the old poets write of this?
I’m writing about poetry and what I have come to think of as the dis/abling illness I have, and suddenly feel as blank as the blank page of the unwritten volume of the New. I can’t write myself except through reading others’ words. Will try again later.
Later, I take up the delicate Paris Press edition (2002) of Virginia Woolf’s essay, “On Being Ill.” It’s too beautiful to read more than a sentence or two. “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, . . . what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness.” Woolf wonders why illness is not, like “love and battle and jealousy,” among the great literary themes. In this description, Woolf captures the sense of how it feels to get a serious and debilitating and finally disabling illness, that it’s like arriving in a country one never thought to visit. When I landed there, I wanted to book a flight right back out. All planes grounded for life.
As for why few write about illness, I reason that everyone falls in and out of love, is jealous and gets over it (or doesn’t), fights or is fought for, but not everyone gets a disabling illness. And there’s the rub. Why would anyone write about illness except the ill? And at first, too, the experience is too close for the ill person to be a reliable witness. The mind doesn’t want to write about the body’s condition but to change it, for in dreams, the body can still dance!
Trying to dance around the question of my poetry’s relation to my illness, I read Woolf’s inimitable prose, which I register viscerally, because my nerves are on the outside of my skin now. I experience the words as excruciatingly truthful. They make me squirm, not dance: “The creature within” the ill body, Woolf writes, “can only gaze through the pane [or pain]—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instance” (emphasis added). I think, “I” became that “creature within,” that “it.” Why in the world would I want to write about that?
Reading Woolf’s essay, like being ill, is an odd—and ethical—experience of having the self mirrored back as other, of being unsettled by the otherness of the ill body of which she writes so movingly and so coldly. When I got ill, I began to feel an empathy for this othered self with which I could not yet identify, which was suffering, and which I was being forced to suffer. I also felt empathy for others who, I began to notice, were imperiled by circumstances (in that way the unconscious ruptures language with truth, I first wrote imper-illed). Woolf writes that a statement like “I am in bed with influenza” cannot convey the depth or clamor or distortion of perception of this insistently embodied experience: “how the world has changed its shape,” she exclaims. What one learns about human nature! Friends change toward the ill person, some revealed in their strange and beautiful kindness and some exposed in their utter, ugly selfishness. A friend cannot perform “friendship” to an ill person, because she will see right through it. The ill have no time or energy for anything other than the raw and startled truth of another’s soul. To an ill person, subterfuge is transparent, and though she may not blurt out what she sees (to which, when healthy, she was blithely blind), she will eventually write about it. Both poetic and existential excess is scraped away. The decorative and the distractive are dropped like old habits one has outgrown.
I have been moved by poetry that conveys the essential. I live with, contemplate Adrienne Rich’s poems and essays about having Rheumatoid Arthritis (as it happens, the very disease I have). I never took in the details until I was myself living them. Rich reported news I had no way to understand, because it was about a body’s experience I did not share, and described the indescribable (Pain). Then, her words became my guides to an expanded, although unasked-for awareness.
Sometimes, I try to write about the phenomenology of ill health by describing it tangentially. The alienation I have felt from my old life and from the world of the healthy resembles culture shock, another phenomenon I have experienced, because I have lived and traveled abroad a good deal. What interests me about both these conditions is the sensation of the self’s erasure: the disappearance of the signs by which one knows one’s self. In the poetic series I worked on the first decade of my illness, I collaged in medical descriptions, quoted specialists, discovered a visual and symbolic text within a poem, words within words leaping out at me as I struggled to find poetic language in the face of cognitive impairment. I found myself using the second person pronoun, on occasion, the “I” becoming an addressee, a “you,” and the poem an apostrophe designed to conjure “me” back to the world. The whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, Woolf writes. I watched myself turn into a stranger who lived inside a bell glass, far away from all I’d known. All of it was gone – poof! – as if “it” or “I” had never been.
Writing connects what had been to what is. I write from inside a slowly disabling illness to avert extinction, not to understand the mystery. I don’t want to translate this experience into something that is neat or simply meaningful. I want to open the mind to the majesty of perspective—all that dis/ability proffers—which sounds a dissonant but resilient note. I want the poems to resonate with this tone. Call it an aspiration. On the blank page, I see the poems hover in the air like charms, potent and poisonous, magical and medicinal, instructive of a spiritual journey no one chooses, and onto which one stumbles clumsily, trying to catch one’s balance, looking at times wistfully back at the road one missed before looking ahead again, carrying on.
Cynthia Hogue has published seven collections of poetry, most recently The Incognito Body (2006), Or Consequence (2010), and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (2010). She has received Fulbright, NEA (poetry), and NEH (Summer Seminar) Fellowships. In 2005, she was awarded H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and in 2008, a MacDowell Colony Residency Fellowship and an Arizona Commission on the Arts Artists Project Grant. Hogue taught in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans before moving to Pennsylvania, where she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University for eight years. In 2003, she joined the Department of English at Arizona State
University as the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry.
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Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.