Book Review: Healing Times (Linda Fuchs)
Reviewed by Linda Benninghoff
In Healing Times (Lulu, 2014) Linda Fuchs shows us with graphic, emotional-filled poems what it is like to be manic-depressive. Without searching for a cause for this disease in childhood as a Freudian might, or accepting that the pills and electroshock treatments are the whole answer, she concludes that a spiritual outlook and the support of friends and family can make a big difference. Unlike Robert Lowell, who in one of his later poems lets readers know he is afflicted with mental illness by saying, "My mind's not right," Fuchs tends to be less subtle and more straightforward. Also, unlike Lowell, Theodore Roethke and other past poets with this illness, she confronts it more directly in her work, and devoting the entire book to mapping out her mental illness. All of her life the illness has remained an obstacle which she has risen above, and in this poetry she marks a course through the labyrinth, with poems that are by turns happy and sad, shocking in their intensity or surprising in their quiet. With her full delving into the illness, the book becomes instructional and shows the reader how to survive manic-depression. The book is an extension of her two previous poetry chapbooks, Midnight Ramblings of an Insane Woman and More Ramblings, Less Insanity. It is an effective extension, and I feel I learned from reading this book.
Imagine you are inside a volcano, and make quick jottings of what you are going through to the outside world. The structure of this book is something like this, a little random, with poems about support and where it comes from interspersed with poems about pain.
Fuchs prefaces the book to the reader, saying, "Having been diagnosed bi-polar, my moods run from ecstasy to suicidal. There are few days in the middle. I have attempted to sort these poems to reflect these ups and downs." With titles like "Flying With Therapy," "Joy," "Complexities" and "Death," the poems cover a range of manic depressive emotions, in a structured architecture that helps the reader perceive shifts in mood—the unbalance the poet suffers from.
In the book's second poem, "Bulldog," Fuchs describes the contrasts and contradictions of her life.
Although the disease is unpredictable and eats away at her life, "friends and loved-ones" offer a way out. Interestingly, Fuchs describes the times of illness as "foul" times; bad times or hard times would not be strong enough language—as the book goes on to show. And "foul" is also an example of reaching for imaginative language, in a situation where clichés would not work.
The importance of developing a network of support is a thread that runs through out Healing Times. In "Mother," an early poem in the book, the poet describes her mother as helping her. With friends, family and lovers, the speaker is well-set to transcend the battery of illness. Learning healing and unconditional love is something these poems aim to set forth. Though the poems describe the poet's personal battle, they will be of help to others suffering from this and similar illnesses. Designed as if to be a guidebook for navigating bad days, the poems are clearly written, accessible, and engage the reader in their struggles. Anyone who has felt the debilitating effects of depression preceded by unexplained happiness will understand them.
In one of the poems, "Grey Mind," she "grasp(s) at the minutiae of thoughts" that never become clear. The day is difficult to get through. Whereas for most people the daytime brings comfort and joy, for this speaker it doesn't. Yet she makes an attempt to overcome her depression. She gathers her friends, family and lovers to her, and goes on living. This everyday heroism is what the book is about.
The imagery of the book is accessible—that of every day life. A U-Haul truck takes away a ghost lover. Snow, polar bears and salmon are preferable to derricks and trucks. Our ties to apes, lizards and amoebas are deep, and this perhaps explains the biological nature of the illness, what makes it so hard to overcome. She emphasizes that we are biologically connected to our ape ancestors, as if to say that our biology is something we don't have control over. It may be that this mental illness is something the poet is just saddled with, which she can try to combat, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. It is neither her fault or her choice, and from what she seems to say, she had a good mother and a good family. It may be that Fuchs looks at the illness as genetic, and this is clearly said in some of her poems.
Every poem in the book is clear and easy to understand. Fuchs does not short shrift the reader on the pain, fear and depression she feels (which seems to take all her stamina to bear), so the reader's understanding of manic-depression becomes full and more simple than the individual poems describe.
The poems are not strictly limited to describing the experience of manic-depression, but take in vistas of ordinary life. In "The Search" the poet seeks love, as well as sanity.
In the poem she seems to be with a lover, and is searching for a reason to stay. Why should the poet observe a hole where love should be? Perhaps the speaker's emotions are more intense than the average person's and she feels love's absence more keenly. There is a sort of sexual play on words, in "impotent anticipation for release," but the main point of the poem is not sexual but emotional. It is about searching for a lover but also about the negativity that fills her heart all the time during her periods of depression. In general, the poems tend toward intense moments of emotion, and tend to record them. The poems are about this depression, which is more than an emotion recollected in tranquility.
In the poem "Dancer," the poet writes about her happiness, then adds, "I believe if I dance through the hard times/I will be delivered to the other side without harm." The sense that there actually is another side, a normalcy, going hand in hand with the difficulties pervades the book. Unfortunately, for Fuchs, this normalcy is elusive; there is no way out, just ways of coping. Often it is like being "caught in the throes of a volcano," but as the later poems show, she still intends to "live life to the fullest."
The book's clear, simple imagery is fitting to the subject matter and makes the book comprehensible and gives it force. There are some occasions when Fuchs reaches for a word—such as the word "foul," in "Bulldog", or the "raw sores in "The Search"— and it seems Fuchs has used this word in a way that is not clichéd and has captured a range of emotion with it. Often, however, the poetry collapses into cliché, and the reader wishes Fuchs had tried harder in finding the exact right word, the exact right nuance. Still, the book does not fall into obscurity, which can be a danger in seeking richer, more nuanced language. Fuchs' book is successful both in what she teaches us, and what she learns herself as she writes and creates.