Certain kinds of difficult-to-quantify experiences are either discounted, disbelieved, or shrunken down to a ridiculous and facile system of measurement.
Those who suffer from chronic pain are asked to rate their pain on a scale from one to ten – as if sense and feeling aren’t the height of subjectivity, as if the body isn’t our own individual organ of touch, non-transferable. When trauma (especially medical) is layered with the experiences of women, traditional methods of knowing, understanding, and naming become even more complex. So Jane Lewty invokes Dora early in her prize-winning collection from the Cleveland State Poetry Center In One Form To Find Another: “The damage and fatigue left by Freud. // How it hits, the depth, the effect of it.”
What follows in the collection’s five sections (no table of contents) is a cacophony of prose-poems, experimental forms, interruptions, fragmentary narratives, excerpts, and lyrics, most loosely grouped under titles that identify them as Case Studies, with the name of a symptom, syndrome, disease, phobia, or diagnosis. The effect is chaotic: “word-strings that occlude meaning.” Except they don’t, quite. Lines and images swim up, unrelenting in their clarity. In “Case Study #4: Heart Arrythmia” the speaker asks the reader to consider “a future device for individual use. A sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name. ‘Memex’ will do.” Lewty’s book is this Memex – a compilation of quotations (from other authors, theorists, historians), medical terms and definitions, snapshots and memories of the self, willful mis-rememberings of the self. It’s a catalog of a speaker – a woman in a certain place and time.
If you eavesdrop on poets often enough, you’ll hear talk about two distinct kinds of poetry: poetry that is accessible and personal, or poetry that is experimental and cerebral. I don’t understand this dichotomy. It speaks more to our desires than our reality – and what a strange desire, really. As if our lived reality is linear, easy to follow; as if our lives don’t diverge or skip ragged from one idea to another. Yes, a casual reader of poetry may open Lewty’s book and find it a bit intimidating; the titles and epigraphs take pleasure in their disjointedness. Some of the poems revel in the jarring lines, the abruptness from one stanza to another, the disappearance of situation, speaker, stanza altogether. But for readers who wish a little more coherence, there are poems here too. Turn to “Case Study #19: Disequilibrium”: it could be an essay. The speaker talks about her wrestling with memory, her memories, what she “cannot bear to assemble again.” She writes, “Over time there’ll be a different me, a different other.” Turn to “Case Study #34: Sepsis.” Maybe the speaker is writing a letter to herself. Maybe she is writing a letter to that other self – that beloved, best friend, sister, other half who knows her best. Maybe she is writing a letter to herself who she wishes existed somewhere as her beloved, best friend, sister, other half. (How many of us have wished someone like that existed?). The poem is unbearably dear, unbearably personal. She tells her intimate-other, “You’re a weakened slight return, a worn want.” Even as she writes, she recounts “The then-King of Egypt said no not letters, they’ll create forgetfulness. / . . . The recorded sensual is dead, a construct.” That these poems both quantify and resist that construct is their charm.
The book explores different aspects of the body, of memory, of suffering, and sexuality. It is as if the speaker is looking for herself through a series of mediations: googling symptoms, reverse-searching images. Section Four confounds me; there, the images may be lifted from porn sites, re-cast and re-narrated. Some images may be projected from the speaker’s mind (actual memory, not found) onto a screen, re-edited, but in darker corners of the Internet – not consensual, not about pleasure at all. So many lines caught me up and stopped me short – many that referenced the speaker, a constructed self, and the work of writing that self:
“A lucid sentence is a demonstrable fact / but it’s so long ago.”
“The poem didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. It was a residue of an experience, not the essence.”
“I felt myself erode, like stucco. I couldn’t find a language to name what took place. What took its place.”
“We’re backstage of something normal, this page of everyone else”
(Forgive me for giving you fragments, but they’re beautiful – they don’t need structures for their beauty to be evident. At the top of one poem, I wrote “Jesus – brutal.”)
Rather than doctors asking patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, maybe they should ask for a poem. Pain is bodily, personal and sensual – it lives in the matter of our skin. Maybe we could follow Lewty’s lead and quote from her poem “Case Study #17: Fibromyalgia”:
In what you have sentenced, the hand has an eluded edge. It locks but you can’t see how.
In what you have sentenced, the jaw has a new basis. It can’t say I.
The voice a shy bolt, though incomplete. Senseless wordsindream.
Lips of shoulder. Fleeting, malleable, the lower body organs are hung all adrift.
The same poem contains the image of “the throat a hollow-out space where a faucet should be.” These poems speak like a faucet, a throat, a hollow-out space. As poems should.