Book Review: Hit the Ground (Liz Whiteacre)
Reviewed by Linda A. Cronin
In her new book of poetry, Hit the Ground, Liz Whiteacre demonstrates in poem after poem that she understands what it is like to live with a disability and chronic pain issues. Her poems reach out to the reader and wrap them in language and metaphor that work together to create an understanding that is not easily achieved when discussing disability or pain. This collection is well worth reading. Whether you are a person with a disability or chronic pain, know someone who is or are just interested in learning about other people, you will not be disappointed by these poems.
As Whiteacre writes in an essay that previously appeared in Wordgathering "All this experience with pain, yet I wrestle with how to express pain in poems--what do I do to make you really understand what I experience, so that it becomes something shared? How do I do this while preserving my pain's individuality? And, should this even be a goal, could it stop my conversation about pain with you?" (Whiteacre, Extending Conversations of Pain). But in these poems I believe she truly accomplishes her goal of making someone understand her experience and the experience of others with disabilities and pain.
Whiteacre attempts in a number of poems to reach out to the reader and explain what her experience of pain is like. In "Cold in the Paper Gown", she writes "The pain in my back and hip mimics childbirth /contractions imagined each time the PA plays lullabies."(Whiteacre, 2). In several poems, Whiteacre treats pain as a roommate or boyfriend someone who is a constant companion. In "Pain Flirts," she writes "But pain knows no boundaries, follows you into the stall, / lumbers to your car, trails you home, hovers outside your window Pain arrives on your stoop with the paper and a bag of donuts/ offers to make coffee while you put up your feet"(Whiteacre, 3). Later in the collection in "Pain Courts", she opens the poem with "Pain seduces you slowly, until one morning/ you wake to find its toothbrush in your bathroom, / its underwear in your laundry basket "( Whiteacre, 10).
Towards the second half of the collection, "Pain Deserts" appears, a poem in which Whiteacre and pain finally grow apart: "You pack Pain's stuff in boxes, and when Pain doesn't stop by Sunday / as promised, you carry them to the attic." (Whiteacre, 22). These are not the only poems that pain appears in but I felt that in these three poems Whiteacre made its constant presence clear to the reader she lets the reader know the way pain infiltrates a person's life, the way it becomes so constant you can't imagine it not being there. I believe she succeeds in explaining what it is like to live with her injury.
In Hit the Ground, a title which refers to the accident in which Whiteacre was injured, she demonstrates what it is like for the person with the disability to be pitied and to be treated as a patient, someone who is less than. She once again makes the reader understand her point of view the point of view of the person with the disability or illness, and she does it well.
She explains what is like to be in a wheelchair and ignored by a friend in "Two Feet Shorter than My Usual Height." She describes the experience writing: "Panic didn't burn my throat until she stared/ wide-eyed at me through the window when Dad /pushed me, two bags held tightly on my lap. / She turned quickly. No smile. No hello.. . " (Whiteacre 4). Whiteacre describes being pitied by retirees during water aerobics class she leads. "Gossip and chatter is absent today but for calls/ of 'How you doing, Honey?' / I'm no longer invincible youth no 'age before beauty' jokes"(Whiteacre, 9). In "Composition Students Pity Me in English 101", "I try to make light of my plodding, but their smiles hold pity: / my injury has made them model students "(Whiteacre 18). The reader comes to understand her horror of being pitied of being felt sorry for.
At times, Whiteacre describes the conflict she undergoes torn between being honest about how she feels and not wanting to feel like a complainer, to be labeled a whiner. "This is my embarrassment: / am I hung up on decade- old accident? / Do I beg desperate for attention, / a hug?"(The Accident: Revised, Whiteacre, 24). She goes on to explain how she worked on a boat dock and a guy who wanted a paddle boat fell on her and crushed her spine so she couldn't walk for a year." This poem gets to the heart of what this collection is about how an accident that can change your life can happen in an instant. She explains the strength she receives from hearing about others: "My ears swivel, gawk / for shared experiences: survivors' strength / renews my body's spirit so that it might bubble /to the surface each morning." (Whiteacre, 25).
Whiteacre shows what it is like to be not just the observed but to be the one who is poked and prodded, the one who is left wondering if she will be okay. For example, she writes In" Cold in the Paper Gown" of her uncertainty over her condition when she tells the woman in the next cubicle, "Sure. I'll be okay./ I pray I don't lie."(Whiteacre, 2). Whiteacre describes undergoing a procedure in the doctor's office in "it's for My Own Good": "I can't believe I've agreed to do this I didn't / want to seem ungrateful or that I wasn't trying / to get better or that I didn't care so I said, 'Okay.'" (Whiteacre, 8).
In another poem, Whiteacre describes how the nurse at the pain doctor's office is always dispensing pearls of wisdom. She describes a visit when she falls walking back to the examining room. "I find /myself in a terrible tangle / wondering what wisdom / or comfort this woman might /give me. It takes the edge /off my pain, this game. "("Make Lemonade" Whiteacre, 15) and later in the poem, she writes " 'Now Elizabeth,' she says, 'we must try to make lemonade, / mustn't we?'"("Make Lemonade" Whiteacre, 15).
There are people like the nurse above who tries to offer comfort either on an office visit or during a procedure. And there are others who offered to hold a bag or open the door, not everyone offers only pity. Whiteacre writes in "I Finally Give Back," of a time when she is able to help someone else. She describes how the woman when she's leaving the bathroom turns and says " ' Sometimes, you hate your body,' she says the retreat./ 'Sometimes, you want to kiss every part." (Whiteacre, 21) Whiteacre gets to the heart of someone with chronic pain, the inherent conflict they deal with constantly of both loving and hating the body they live in.
Liz Whiteacre has created a collection of poetry well worth reading the words reach out to each and every one of us. Everyone has experienced pain at some point and although it may not be constant or chronic , it is a situation that everyone can understand. She describes perfectly her experience of living with a disability and of living with chronic pain. Whiteacre a previous award winner in the Inglis House Poetry Contest, is a poet I have enjoyed reading and look forward to seeing her future work. Hit the Ground is a collection that will not disappoint. It is available through Finishing Line Press beginning June 2013.