Anne Kaier


On an October afternoon about ten years ago, I sat fingering the bark of the yew tree that dominates my small Philadelphia garden. As an evergreen, my yew is prized in the city and it’s been allowed to grow freely, reaching nearly thirty feet. Its bark bunches in rough clumps where the branches fork. On the trunk, it peels in copper-gray strips. Its skin is rather like my skin. Only the tree’s is normal and mine is not. Mine also flakes and mottles because I have a rare skin condition called ichthyosis in which the skin does not shed normally, but clots and peels perpetually. It’s genetic, chronic, and inelegant.

That afternoon, once again I had been looking for a way to talk about my skin in the poetry I’d recently begun to write. How, I wondered, do I handle my flawed body? What attitude do I take? What language do I use? The answers did not come easily. All my life I had been taught to ignore my skin condition, to pretend—against manifest evidence—that the problem didn’t exist. Schooled in silence on the subject, I had to develop a stance about my ichthyosis and then find a voice for my first poems. They didn’t simply pour out. I set out very consciously to choose certain seams of metaphor. How was I going to talk about this body which flushes with an unnatural redness and cracks in patterns like a desert pool drying in the sun?

I knew what attitude I did not want to profess. There was no way that I’d be sentimental. No nonsense about how God or some wise power gave me this disease for some greater benefit. I remember once going to the Confirmation of a friend’s daughter. One of the confirmands was a child with muscular dystrophy. The Bishop looked out over the rows of preteens in their thin dresses and dark suits and told us that the child with muscular dystrophy was actually lucky that God had given him this burden, luckier than the kids who could easily run. In the back of the church, I seethed.

Of course, I certainly wasn’t about to treat myself as a freak, like conjoined twins who used to tour in traveling circuses but now are interviewed on the TLC channel which regularly features people with unusual bodies. However, it has been easier for me to know how I wouldn’t present myself than to know how I would.

What did other artists and writers do? I’d been taken with the story of how the nineteenth-century French painter, Jacques-Louis David, portrayed the fanatical revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, who was murdered in his bath during the French Revolution. Marat suffered from a debilitating skin disease called dermatitis herpetiformis or Duhring's Disease, a problem often associated with allergy to gluten. For relief, Marat spent as much time as possible in a medicinal bath, plotting the deaths of his enemies. On July 13, 1793, a young woman in a rival faction gained entry to his bathroom and stabbed him. David,who admired Marat, immortalized this scene in a famous painting. Simon Schama, a noted contemporary art critic, calls this painting a lie because David has transformed the terrorist Marat into a hero. His skin looks clean, his arms muscular and firm. If David had wanted to portray Marat as evil, implies Schama, he would have shown the man’s skin as red, blistering, scaly. The sins of the soul would have shown themselves in the flaws of the body. Skin disease equals evil.It’s a positivly medieval equation—one which I, of course, utterly reject.

But there’s something here that I needed to consider. If some people who read my work might be afraid of skin disease or even think that it erupts from a polluted soul, how, I wondered, do I handle that feeling? How do I neutralize their fear? I knew that the way in which I characterized my body would affect the way I invited others to look at me, know me, accept me.

So I turned to a more modern author, John Updike, who had psoriasis. Friends recommended his famous essay “At War with My Skin.” Perhaps the title should have tipped me off. Updike wrote about his condition with what seems to me intense self-loathing. Here he describes Siroil, the medication he used as a child. It was, he writes, a bottled preparation the consistency of pus, tar its effective ingredient and its drippy texture and bilious color and insinuating odor deeply involved with my embarrassment. Yet, as with our own private odors, those of sweat and earwax and even of excrement, there was something satisfying about this scent, an intimate rankness that told me who I was.

Surely this is of no help in calming the fears of readers, yet, Updike, as usual, nails one thing—the rank smell told me who I was. When writers with skin conditions choose a language to talk about our diseases, we are also revealing how we characterize ourselves to ourselves. That surely, is the heart of the problem. As a child and as a young woman, I spent years in denial about my skin condition (even here I hesitate: do I call it a condition or a disease?).When I finally began to write about it, around the time I turned fifty and sat under my yew tree, I also began to admit it, face it. And what a thing to face. Here I was, with a body that some people feared, that people thought could indicate moral failings, that was unlovely even to a great writer who had a similar flaw.

So what did I do? Like poets from forever, I turned to the natural world. Here were pools of metaphor and a way of looking that I could use. The tree, I thought, peels and is beautiful. Its bark whorls like the clumps of skin between my toes. So I stretched my hand out to its trunk and the scales on my palms met its rough bark.

I think that afternoon with the tree gave me a beginning, a sort of permission to write poetry about my body. Using language drawn from nature, which of course, can be intensely cruel, gave me one way to show myself—to myself and to others—as part of a larger current of life. Here is the first stanza of a poem I wrote a few days later:

Cosseted In my fantasy, the organdie cap
bought to cusp flawless cheeks
fills with a baby whose skin
cracks like burnt phyllo.
She’s a river creature,
washed like the infant Moses
from some muddy mutation,
a gene gone awry in the womb.

I coo and tell her she’s pretty in her eyes
and in my eyes and in her dress she’s pretty
and she smiles her cracked smile
and I wipe blood from the cracks and never mind
that her dress is stained.
I pick her up as tenderly as any mother, as any father.
I tell her she’s pretty and she smiles.

The river creature image, with its suggestion of strangeness, of alligators and above all, of water—which is life to my dry skin—gave me a way to talk about my body as a living, natural creation. The link to the baby Moses—hubris by any standard, I suppose—gave balm to my ego and refuted those who would associate flawed skin with moral evil. Once I had the river image, I could go further, could describe my own baby face very precisely, sparing neither the reader nor myself. To write like this was a great relief. I could finally confront the realities of my condition, yet see myself as a part of the eternal natural world. No longer an anomaly, I too was part of all creation—and I had the language to prove it.


Anne Kaier's poetry has appeared in Philadelphia Poets, American Writing, Sinister Wisdom, HLFQ and other venues. Her chapbook, InFire, was published recently. She reviews poetry for The Wild River Review.Her non-fiction has been published in Tiny Lights and is forthcoming from Under the Sun. Holding a Ph.D. from Harvard University, she teaches literature and creative writing at Penn State, Abington, Arcadia, and Roemont College.