Book Review: Defense Mechanisms (Jessica Goody)
Reviewed by Marie Kane
Jessica Goody’s new collection, Defense Mechanisms, is a compelling read. From the first poem, "Mermaid," to the last poem, "263 Prinsengracht" concerning Anne Frank, Goody masterfully explores the challenging world of the disabled, the marginalized, and the damaged. Goody, who has cerebral palsy, represents this world as one full of tremendous hard work, self-actualization, and sometimes, tragedy. In spite of this, defiance, a remarkable belief in humanity, and the natural world’s ability to heal take a leading role. They do so not only because of the tenacity of those involved but also because of Goody’s dynamic presentation of the natural world and its ability to survive—even thrive.
The first section of the book, "Being Handicapped," delineates the lives of the disabled. In the opening poem, "Mermaid," Goody tackles the distressing dissimilarity between the mermaid’s life in the ocean and life on land:
Removed from the
Similar to the disabled or those injured by war, calamity, or disease, the mermaid is unable to stand or walk (i.e. to function) in an environment where everyone else can. In the poem, the mermaid "wants to go home," even though the psychiatrists claim, You do not come from / the sea, and believe that a mermaid "does not exist." The doctors employ varying methods to make her conform, such as the use of an oxygen machine, surgery (that only deforms), "electricity, like distilled stars," elaborately named pills, hypnosis, and talk therapy—&none successful. At the end of the poem, the mermaid "drift[s] like the seasons" and "strain[s] towards the ebb and the flow of the tide." Her fate is sealed: unable to return to the one world in which she can move, she is forced to remain in the other where she cannot. She is literally ‘a fish out of water’: doomed to submit to painful medical treatments in an attempt to give her mobility in the ‘real world’—to no avail.
This first poem maps the rest of the book in many ways. Two other poems, "Polio" and "Willowbrook," target the medical profession’s attempt to treat the disabled, often with negative results. Also, like "Mermaid," many poems in Parts One and Two (titled "Green Sentinels"), are replete with sea imagery. Goody often showcases the ocean’s or a sea’s archetypal meaning as the mother of all life, or timelessness and eternity. An epigraph by Loren Eiseley for the poem, "Arctic Seas" summarizes Goody’s attitude: "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." Other poems in this section herald water’s ‘magic’ as portrayed in "Mermaid." In the poem "Till Human Voices Wake" (a tribute to T. S. Eliot) the speaker harkens back to the image of the mermaid: "lying in the back of a boat as it drifts … sinks." But the "water will not take me … does not frighten me" as the speaker relishes this "aqueous embrace that is not a death knell … but a benediction" —she is "home." The lovely lyric, "Beachcombing," describes collected seashells as "shaped like trumpets, church bells / spinning tops, cat’s paws like clenched fists; / tulip shells whose curving lips collect sand like cupped palms." The poems "Oceans," "Blue Sunrise," "Artic Seas," and many others celebrate what the sea offers: weightlessness, beauty, and the "eternal rhythms" of life, death, and rebirth.
Water also functions as the speaker’s "true home" as in "Mermaid" and "Till Human Voices Wake." The concept of rebirth informs in the last poem in Part Two, "Odyssey," and in the important poem, "The Selkie," which is a mythological seal-creature in the ocean and a human on land. In the poem, human caretakers nurture an ill seal pup to health, a "selkie among humans," and when "his fur grows back, sleekened and glossy… " / "he is released back into the wild" where he "runs back into the arms of Yoruba"—an African god who believes that animals can take off their skin and go about as humans. He loves life in the water: "splashes joyfully, water droplets beading / the tips of his ears and whiskers." The speaker experiences the following at his release:
I watch him go, knowing I cannot follow.
Goody’s poetry often features animals, especially those living in the ocean, suggesting freedom, the mystery of creation, and playfulness. Poems such as "Blue Sunrise" where "seahorses" … "tango together in their morning dance," and in "Pinnipeds," "Australian sea lions are wide-eyed and inquisitive. / Their sleek forms greenish beneath the Pacific, / their golden spaniel’s eyes lit like the moon." Goody’s concentration on creatures living in water—whales, dolphins, otters, jellyfish, turtles, and walruses—confirms her belief that water’s environment offers spiritual mystery, movement, and delight, even if it means the person must be "released from this physical form" to experience them.
Other aspects of nature feature prominently in Defense Mechanisms. In Part Two and in the strong third section, "Other Voices," the color green dominates. Goody’s delicate and powerful talent with metaphor suggests many meanings of the color green: birth-death-resurrection; creation; purification and redemption; fertility and growth. Trees have "green voices … / and [a] calming green aura of serenity." The poems "Green Mysteries," "Green Shadows," "Ode to the Marshes," and many others promote the color green and its ability to generate a kind of timelessness where the "greening of spring," the "ripe odor of green kelp," the "green, expectant scent of rain," and the woods "glowing in endless shades of green," give pleasure. Goody doesn’t ignore the other side of green—quot;poisonous green," "green monsters beckon," and "wiry eelgrass" with its "tangled green strands like excelsior," contesting to green’s depth of meaning and its vibrancy. In a book concerned with those who are disabled, experience disease, or are marginalized in some way, one might not expect the life-affirming color green to feature so prominently. It does so because the color green speaks to Goody’s belief that the fullness of life, its stability and resilience, are what matters—and that includes those who are disabled—especially for them.
Goody does not sugarcoat being disabled; many poems tell of the separateness and insurmountable odds of those who are. In an early poem in the manuscript, "Prosthetics," Goody enumerates veterans’ wounds caused by war’s carnage as "the empty eyes of the shell-shocked," which generates this:
they have drawers of body parts to choose from:
Goody bluntly names the war wounded as "limp marionettes," "patchwork men," and "Tin Men." Also detailed in the book is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paralysis from polio where "your legs are foreign objects," and walking is a "slow strain of trembling muscles, sweating with the effort / of dragging limbs like sandbags or paperweights / in the clumsy waltz of left-right, scrape and drag." The poem "Polio" tells of a child’s innocent swim, the water a "picture of quaint serenity" —the resultant illness is considered nothing more than a "summer cold" —yet, then, there is a high fever. Soon, —movement becomes impossible, and the doctor pronounces "infantile paralysis." A "quarantine sign is nailed to the door, " and the girl is "surrounded by a sea of iron lungs" (note the use of "sea.") Later, the young girl in the poem "struggles along the parallel bars" while the imagined, or real dog, Fala, "looks on from FDR’s plaid lap." The end of this poem tells of resolute perseverance: "Hope is a stubborn thing, neither passive nor / reticent. With gritted teeth it drags its withered paperweight / legs, sweating and determined, refusing to concede defeat."
This separateness felt by the disabled person is also present in "The Lost Child," where a girl’s "presence is a blemish" as [she] limps back to [her] desk, despising [her] twisted body." And in "Fog People," Goody describes the separateness of being handicapped in a crowd of those who are not:
Adrift in a sea of strangers, she skirts
And also in the powerful poem, "Dolphin," there is this aloneness. One can easily compare the captured dolphin to a disabled person who "lives in captivity / the glass walls are scummed with algae" where the animal is "entombed in salt," and a smile is "an optical illusion."
Kudos to Jessica Goody in that her poems lack a kind of happy-go-lucky pluck that can be found in other books concerning disability, which often trivializes the issues real people face. The more powerful and realistic attitudes towards loss, death and their attendant learning curve, wisdom, elevate the poetry. "Thirteen Blackbirds" claims that "With every death, we learn a new language," while in "There Are No Graceful Deaths," death is "cruel; there is no sweetness to it." Towards the end of Part Three, "Other Voices," the poems take on even more significant negativity as other kinds of victims (often of war) are described. In "War Declared," boys who go off to war, return as "hollow now, rendered / robotic by shock and bitter memories," while people in a bomb shelter, whisper "prayers punctuated by explosions." It is easy to read the poem, "Blitzkrieg," as a comparison of the German ‘lightening war’ to the shock of being diagnosed with a crippling disease, which leaves "a mosaic of rubble, bricks, and broken glass."Anne Frank, the gifted, brave, and doomed Jewish girl hiding with her family in the Netherlands, is the subject of the last poem, "263 Prinsengracht." Here, we acknowledge bravery in the face of disaster:
You no longer bear witness to daylight.
In the seminal poem, "Scarecrow," Goody looks to a scarecrow’s advantages and not his weaknesses. The scarecrow may not be able to "keep crows from your corn any more than you can spell," but "if they [crows] bothered to ask," the scarecrow could show them his "knowledge":
the beauty of green fields, the precise
In spite of of the scarecrow’s inability to speak "simple sentences" and his "pitiful efforts at learning," Goody believes that the scarecrow’s wisdom regarding the natural world and its green beauty far outweighs anything else.
These luminous poems in Defense Mechanisms portray the instinct for survival in spite of struggle. Goody deftly handles the poetic form with striking descriptions of the disabled and natural worlds. Her contrast between these worlds is stark; however, she also reveals that a metaphorical similarity between the two is genuine. Goody embraces the natural world that offers equilibrium and a place of sanity and safety. If, as Czeslaw Milosz says, " The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain one person," Goody has embraced that difficulty with the tension and elasticity of her language, her control of voice, her disquieting revelations, and her adept handling of subject matter. Whether one is disabled or not, this book is a must read. Its worldview gives everyone a chance to explore the relationship between self, the natural world, and the challenges of disability all presented with Jessica Goody’s fearless energy.
Title: Defense Mechanisms