Sunday, October 31, 2010
Review - Complete Physical, by Shane Neilson
Reading Complete Physical is something like following your family doctor around for a week, looking over his shoulder at his notes, peering into patient’s records, eavesdropping on both his conversations and his thoughts, following him on his rounds. How much distance can he manage as he tells you you’re’re dying? What moves him to a more personal involvement? What’s going on in his mind as he pokes and prods and hands you the bad news, or when he receives it himself?
Some of the pieces in this collection are as cursory as notes on the human condition as it checks into a casualty ward – ‘bowel habits and missed meds,’ ‘blood, vomit, shit.’ Some are whimsies, the Grinch stealing health from the little whos, or Dr. Gear sitting in his office advising his patients to ‘take the train, take the train’ through the intercom. Some are extended metaphors that evolve into short meditations on life, death, meaning and/or the lack thereof.
‘Reading Electrocardiograms,’ for example, begins by telling us ‘Metaphors are easy,’ and goes on to say what reading electrocardiograms isn’t – fingerprint examination, crystal ball gazing, dowsing, things the police wouldn’t be interested in. From there it shifts to what reading electrocardiograms is, and what they gesture at, moving from a terse, factual account rich with allusion, to a moment of quiet, plain spoken insight that turns from itself as soon as it’s uttered, toward a glimpse of a deeper, less reassuring awareness. An electrocardiogram, the poem declares, is a detective story.
“The private dicks are a part of it. There is a gravedigger
shovelling the Q wave’s six feet, the long plot of a pause. . .
Bedside, I peer at the tracing
and think lifestyle modification
lifestyle modification, what every heart needs
is the amplitude of truth.’
There is certain amount of play going on – ‘and what of the exploring heart, the intrepid muscle with a wandering baseline?’ – but the play serves to move things between levels of interpretation and intention. “But I’m not looking for truth,” the poem ends,
“I’m looking for closed mouth moments and the wave
Of goodbye, goodbye, which the police would be interested in.
There is an order to stay within the city,
But it is unenforceable.”
Lines present themselves and shift their position as you become aware of the possibility of multiple interpretations, as if they were symptoms, teasing you toward a diagnosis. For instance - “I have no handbook, if you are sick, I will marshal what I have, repetitions and one worn stethoscope, love like a stave.” A straightforward enough account of what a doctor who works more with intuitions about the human situation than with textbook approaches might offer, until you think about that last phrase. What does he mean, ‘love like a stave?’
A stave is a narrow strip of wood that forms part of the sides of a barrel, one part of a whole, a group effort, that manages to contain what needs containing, or it’s a cudgel, to beat some sense into you, or it’s a stanza in a poem, perhaps one that will point you toward a new way of looking at what ails you. Any or all of these definitions work, but each offers a slight twist to what the poem is saying, and together they form a pretty comprehensive remedy for most things.
Some of poems are as personal as love letters or thoughts on one’s own mortality. In ‘My Illness,’ the doctor looks inward, without the benefit of modern technology. Just some good old fashioned introspection. Throughout Complete Physical the narrator has seen himself as Isaiah did, sent to bring good news – or aid in the case of bad news - to the afflicted, and to bind up the broken hearted as much as the broken in body. ‘My Illness’ presents him with the New Testament injunction, ‘Physician, Heal Thyself.”
The beginning of the poem is opposite to the beginning of 'Reading Electrocardiograms' – what it is we’re talking about, not what it is not.
My illness is Antarctic, is brittle absolute zero,
Is the highness of high places, is a frosted four-leaf clover
Wished upon: is it over, is it over?
There are three metaphors for the narrator’s illness in these opening lines. It is cold. It is ‘the highness of high places.’ Not the high places themselves, but the thing that particularly characterises them. The ‘high places,’ in both the Judeo Christian tradition and in earlier traditions, are the places where one meets divinity. So something in his illness partakes of the divine. It is also a talisman of sorts, something with magical powers.
In 'Fairygodmother, MD,' the doctor complains about his patients wishing for everything from antibiotics to a celebratory sick leave.
“I am aloft on wish power, I am borne on the shoulders
Of a sweaty wishing public, and Wishes are for the wishing,
I want to tell them, not for the coming true."
It’s plain then, that he knows the relative futility of wishing. He has laid out his illness, It is a temperature, it is a space, whether physical or mental, or both, remains to be seen, it is something that has driven him to grasping at straws.
Fear, and it is fear,
Is left to shiver in the cold: I grow old and awake,
Rash and final. I have crashed and come to ground,
I have outlasted pain to feel, my body hovers
About what’s real and flits to what’s ahead.
There’s something interesting going on her. His illness, the doctor says, has caused him to abandon fear, to leave it shivering in the Antarctic cold, and as a result he has grown old and awake, That illness ages us is one of the terrible things about it, but here the poet claims he has grown ‘awake’ because of it, as if his pre-illness state was a kind of walking sleep. And indeed it may have been. He may suddenly have found himself awake to his own mortality, and the repercussions that awareness has on the way you think about your life, what you’ve done with it, what you plan to do with what remains of it. That it has also made him ‘rash and final,’ suggests that extreme solutions are in order.
The phrase ‘to ground,’ usually carries the implication of hiding or avoidance. A fox goes to ground, to elude the dogs. Here the poet says he has crashed and come to ground. That is, his illness has brought him down, and caused him to hide out while he comes to terms with it, and in the process, something has come over him. He has risen above his pain, outlasted it, to come to some understanding about the nature of things.
But in this fantastic, this hybrid world
Where asterisks attend perception,
When paranoia becomes a kind of love
I frisk with gloves to protect from cold.
Bundle up: up here is a trick of the light,
And I sight what is far, but never near.
Gather hurt like clothes, and grow heady from air;
on a train, it’s the landscape that’s slow.
I will go, or rather I will flee,
and you can’t catch me. . .
Asterisks are used to indicate an omission, or doubtful matter. In historical linguistics they mark a hypothetical or reconstructed form that isn’t attested in a text . In other words, what you see in the place illness creates, is not necessarily to be trusted. Even so, the poet is willing to explore the terrain, given a little protection, and he invites us, with the same proviso, to explore it with him. There’s a suggestion that if we don’t, we won’t be able to keep up, to see what he sees. He returns here, to the earlier claim that he’s fleeing, going to ground, and we won’t catch him. But where is it he’s going?
"I have forsaken care for Hibernia."
Hibernia - hiberna , winter or wintry - the root of hibernate, and also the name, taken from Greek geographical accounts, for Irealnd. The narrator is already in a place about as wintry as they come, so we can assume he’s fleeing to Ireland. Why Ireland? I’ll make a leap of faith here, and say he’s fleeing to Ireland to speak to someone who will know exactly where he’s coming from and give him the support he needs to deal with it. Many poems, as I’ve said elsewhere, are part of a conversation, not just with the reader, but with other poems, or poets. ‘My Illness’ is part of conversation with W.B. Yeats, a master of the backward and forward look attendant on illness and old age, and much of the imagery in IT is answering points raised by Yeats.
In 1934 Yeats wrote the introduction to The Holy Mountain: Being the story of a Pilgrimage to Lake Manas and of Initiation on Mount Kailas in Tibet, by Bhagwan Shri Hamsa. The book tells the story of Shri Purohit Swami, who translated the book from the Marathi, and Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, as they leave the comforts of the material world in search of the Absolute. At some point in their journey, they are boarding a train. Shri Purohit Swami goes in search of third class carriage but can find no space. Yeats relates the rest of the incident – “He decided to return to his Master but found an empty carriage. His Master had left the train and was sitting upon a bench, naked but for a loin cloth. A Europeanised Indian had denounced him for wearing silk and travelling first class, and all monks and pilgrims for bringing discredit upon India by their superstitions and idleness. So he stripped of his silk clothes, saying that though they seemed to have come with his destiny, they were of no importance. Then, because the stranger was still unsatisfied, had given him his luggage and his ticket. They were able, however, to continue their journey, for just when the train was about to start, the Europeanised Indian returned and threw clothes, luggage and ticket into the carriage. He had been attacked by remorse.’
The passage throws a new light on Neilson’s lines telling us to “gather hurt like clothes,” and that “on a train, it’s the landscape that’s slow.” They don’t necessarily refer specifically to this small incident on the road to enlightenment, but they use the imagery of the insult, as if Bhagwan Shri Hamsa is answering the Europeanised man, admonishing him, giving him advice on beginning his own search for enlightenment. You may think that on a speeding train you are moving faster towards your destination, but in fact it is only that the landscape has slowed down. The train is irrelevant, in the end, to when you will arrive. The pain is also irrelevant. Gather it to yourself as you would your clothes. Though it may seem to have come with your destiny it is of no importance.
Yeats relates the end of the quest as follows – “At last, after a climb of 5,000 feet Bhagwan Shri Hamsa sat by a frozen lake, awaiting initiation: My ideal was to have a sight of the physical form of the Lord Dattatreya Himself, and to get myself initiated into the realisation of the Self. I was determined either to realise this or to die in meditation. . . The first night I experienced terrible hardships. Bitter cold, piercing winds, incessant snow, inordinate hunger and deadly solitude combined to harass the mind the body became numb and unable to bear the pangs. Snow covered me up to my breast . . .” at the end of which Bhagwan Shri Hamsa sees the Dattatreya, who initiates him into the realisation of the Self.
Yeats explainS that this realisation of the self was something, “not as it appears in dreamless sleep but as it appears . . . to conscious man,” the man awake to the “unbroken consciousness of the Self, the self that never sleeps,” returning us to Neilson’s claim that his illness has made him grow “old and awake.”The awareness of the significance of things gleaned from the illness is arrived at after the same exploration of extremes as Bhagwan Shri Hamsa suffered in his search. Yeats wrote a poem himself, called Meru, after reading Bhagwn Shri Hamsa’s book, and came to a bleak conclusion.
“. . .but man's life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality.”
The cold, the fear, the solitude, the high place, and the vision vouchsafed are shared in all three texts, but Yeats and Neilson come to an altogether bleaker conclusion.
At this point, in Hibernia, Neilson’s imagery shifts’ –
The gleaming birds there are few,
Just a few crows to curse, a tern or two,
But I see what they see: a man with asthenia,
Who steals from himself, whose one cry is elegy.
Yeats remains in the conversation here. The ‘gleaming birds’ are perhaps related to Yeats’ immortal painted birds who sing of the old man who “bends to the fire and shakes with the cold,” and whose “heart still dreams of battle and love,” or the golden bird in Sailing to Byzantium, who sings of what is past, or passing, or to come. The birds he sees are more ordinary, a few crows (omens of death, so cursing at them may be understandable in the circumstances) and a tern or two. The narrator sees himself as the birds see him, a man with asthenia - a medical term denoting symptoms of physical weakness and loss of strength. Yeats warned against the man whose one cry was a sad, mournful song –
‘And things that have grown sad are wicked,
And things that fear the dawn of the morrow
Or the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.'
My Illness ends with a summary of what the doctor has learned.
And it is always about love, warm my porotic bones,
About what is given up against what is given against,
About the poor old soul who leaks out light,
That tattered trick, and my illness is a cold chest of drawers,
My rags inside.
The lines return to the theme of the aging body. The narrator is not just weak, he is porotic, brittle. He is looking for heat. Whatever wisdom he has gained has to do with love – it is always about love, with what is given up, that is, what is given with no expectation of return, and what is given against, or what is given in pledge for some return. It is about that poor old soul who leaks out light. An odd image. Is it literally the ‘illumination’ gained that is leaking out?Yeats spoke, in 'The Cold Heaven,' of being “riddled with light,” after coming to some insight about love crossed long ago. To riddle is to pierce full of holes, so whatever illumination he had gained would certainly leak out, and something of the sort seems to be happening here. “That tattered trick” is the old man himself – “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick,” to take another image from ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ and also the physical, mortal body – “every tatter in its mortal dress.”
The final image is something of a jolt. We are out of the high cold places, the fantastic hybrid world of the visionary, the rich allusive territory of Hibernia. We are confronted with a chest of drawers. “My illness is a cold chest of drawers, my rags inside.” I propose that the narrator has left Hibernia and returned to ordinary life. His illness has given him a vision of the future of his mortal coil and it isn’t pretty. It’s not that he didn’t know what was coming, at some level; it’s just that he knows now at every level. He understands. The image of the chest of drawers is a twist on ‘from the cradle to the grave,’ playing on the child put to bed in a dresser drawer, and the tatters that make up the old man returned to it. It also plays with Wallace Stevens’ notable use of that particular item of furniture in 'The Emperor of Ice Cream.'
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Stevens’ narrator instructs someone to take an embroidered cloth from the chest of drawers and cover the corpse with it but Neilson’s drawers hold only the rags that are the remains of his mortal self, not even sufficient to cover his mortal remains. However surrounded one is by illness and death the spectre of one’s own aged self, revealing its vulnerabilities, and its inevitable end, doesn’t necessarily haunt the edges of every dealing with a patient. It takes some betrayal by one’s own body to drive the point home.
If Complete Physical comes across as a little uneven it is perhaps because it’s like a Doctor Who version of an old-fashioned black medical bag, bigger on the inside than on the outside, a catch all for whatever the doctor thinks might come in useful, holding everything from a thermometer to an MRI machine. A rummage through it is likely to turn up just the thing you need to help you think about the issue at hand. “I am priestly,” the doctor tells us, in ‘Curing Blindness,’ “leveraging hope and faith and that grand panacea, love, against death. . . What I tell you is like connecting dots: there are points of light, and if you cannot see them, I will heal your blindness.”