I have not been as consistent as I’d like to be with these essays – the usual busy-ness. Meanwhile my son is posting on his basketball blog every other week like a boss. So props to him, and if you are one of those rare few whose interests in poetry and interest in basketball coincide, feel free to check it out.
Depending on whether you find it online or in the back pages of her book, Unmeaningable, Roxanna Bennett’s bio states that she is “living with disability” or “a disabled poet” in the first or second sentence. It’s something she frontloads in her literary identity, and her poems often investigate her physical limitations and discomforts, her experiences navigating the medical system, and the way disability impacts relationships in other contexts. She’s rarely specific about the kinds of challenges her poetic speakers are facing, but she can describe pain with an almost hallucinogenic power that I admire and dread.
I admit that part of me is curious, reading these poems, what exactly the speaker suffers from, what disease or injury or deficiency, and when there are hints, I seize upon them in my mind to extrapolate diagnoses and accompanying symptoms. But I’m aware that what I’m trying to do with that curiosity is to pigeonhole Bennett’s speaker, to categorize the poetic voice in a way that is reductive to the rest of her humanity. We are not the sum of our diagnoses, as this poem reminds us.
Are you rain
against the rec room window?
Are you air
uprooting the old willow?
Are you light
lancing the roof of the gazebo,
wood wreck left at the behest
of a former – ? Be patient.
Be bolted by meds, slow mo,
shunning group time.
Be cement, tonguing
narrow fault lines.
Or are you the lake, land-locked.
Or are you radiant.
–from Unmeaningable (Gordon Hill Press, 2019), used by permission.
The title brings to mind the forms on clipboards we have all filled out in hospitals or doctors’ offices. But the questions here do not resemble the ones I answered before my recent stress test!
A couple of things to start with: first, the questions “you” is being asked offer a wide range of possibilities in terms of, to put it over-simply, power. “Rain / against the rec room window” is nothing that will make a lasting impression, a pleasant and unobtrusive visual image. “Air / uprooting the old willow,” on the other hand, is a gale force wind to be reckoned with. So the “intake questionnaire” seems to be asking about something more abstract than the subject’s health.
The other thing I notice in the first two stanzas is a weird kind of music. There’s the near rhyme with “window/willow/gazebo” that is familiar. But the alliteration that appears almost serves as a kind of barrier. When I read “rec room window” too fast I end up saying something like “weck woom widow.” “Wood wreck left at the behest” in the second stanza verges on a complete garble in my mouth, it’s literally hard to say. My point is that there’s something in the sonic tools Bennett is using that gives me a halting kind of discomfort, or a sense of being off-balance as I read. I’ve written elsewhere about how the music in some poems can add beauty or resonance to certain images or ideas. But here what it seems to add is complexity, difficulty, even a kind of artful awkwardness.
The second stanza adds another layer of ambiguity to the questions from the first. Is “light / lancing the roof” simply a familiar trick of the light that we’ve seen beam down through a gap in roof slats, or something more piercing and destructive? Remember, these questions are theoretically trying to determine who “you are,” and as such they’re metaphorical to begin with. So is it really so outrageous to imagine a spear of light literally tearing through the flimsy roof of an outdoor pavilion? “Is that what you are?” the poem asks, and the potential answers range from transcendent light to the wood rubbish left behind by someone who cannot be named. How can these questions be answered? And as the “you” pronoun keeps being repeated, I’m feeling increasingly cornered by all of the suggestions. Yes, the poem is imitating the language of a questionnaire, but wait a minute, is it talking to me?
The end of that stanza shuts all this dreaming down with a thump. “Be patient” also suggests “be a patient” to me. When we walk around in the wide world, we are people, workers, parents and children, point guards and power forwards, writers, readers and raconteurs. But when we enter a hospital, we are patients. And the only job of the patient is to be patient. And to follow orders.
Sure enough, the next stanza begins with a pair of prescriptions, though how they are intended to help us is a mystery: be patient, be bolted, be cement. The possibilities seem to have narrowed significantly. To “be bolted” can mean to be secured, as in “bolted in place,” but it can also point to a kind of imprisonment. Being “bolted by meds” certainly doesn’t sound like the image of a light lancing the gazebo that we could have been a few lines ago. And this change in status also represents a kind of isolation – we are “shunning group time,” and my sense of “tonguing narrow fault lines” is that “you” worries these points of division rather than trying to surmount them.
The final stanza gives us two more answers that reframe of the situation. A lake, while beautiful and even perfect, is “land-locked” in a way that seems to keep it in isolation. For me it calls to mind those I’ve known who take medications for psychiatric disorders, but who describe the side effects as living under a kind of psychic gauze. On the other hand, that isolation of a lake also allows it to reflect light from above and contain its own ecosystem in a way that can be nourishing and rich.
To me, that last line is the beginning of a kind of resistance to the whole situation the poem finds itself in. Hospital questionnaires are a kind of self-analytical tool, meant to help others figure out what sort of person you are. But the information they predominantly care about is medical: are you diabetic, do you smoke, are you on medication, whatever. Our medical conditions, though, are only a small fraction of our “selves.” This is true even when our diagnoses are a constant presence in our lives, as they are for the disabled. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that it’s even more important to assert a “non-medical” self when much of your life is determined by disability. And so the answer to that last question seems to be a defiant yes: I’m not patient, I’m radiant. Even the small extra space Bennett places before that last word, a kind of deliberate pause, feels like a shoring up of the strength required to make this declaration. We sense the effort it takes, and we admire the speaker who summons the will to make it.