Starting from the top, my husband undoes
From the opening lines of Veil and Burn readers know they are in for something special and not the usual first book of poems. Laurie Clements Lambeth has given us a book of poetry about disability that is at once both searing and sensuous. This in itself may not seem surprising coming from a poet who is the book review editor for the Disability Studies Quarterly, but what one does not necessarily expect is the deftness of the organizational structure.
One thing a reader immediately notices is the periodic interjection of prose "fragments" among the poems (untitled on the page but listed in the table of contents). Each of these fragments relates in some way to perception and many document the gradual deterioration of the narrator's vision. In some cases, these prose texts serve to transition between sequences of poems. After two poems about monsters from old B movies, "Case History: Frankenstein's Lesions" and "Alfred Hitchcock Meets the Blob," Lambeth places the prose fragment from which the title of the book is taken:
In Hollywood's gold age, the camera was often veiled by a thin piece of fabric to dissolve any harsh features or wrinkles in close-ups. The cameraman burned cigarette holes into the fabric to bring the eyes to sparkle. I have a feeling that my vision is something between the veil and the burn, or that it alternates between the two.
This fragment lead back into several poems about scars and disability, connecting them with the previous poems.
The variety of form employed in Veil and Burn is also immediately apparent. They include, among others, a villanelle, an ode, a hymn and free verse in a wide variety of stanza lengths and shapes. Such a display is a bit risky for a first book because it can make it appear at first glance like the gleanings from a creative writing workshop. Fortunately for Veil and Burn, Lambeth has the skill to overcome this perception and deliver the goods.
One particularly nice adjustment of form to content is in "Seizure, or Seduction of Persephone." Initially,the poem's appearance on the page seems to invoke the caesura with all of its Old English associations, but the first few lines reveal the use to which Lambeth puts it.
I convulsed so hard I broke
The intersecting images of seizure, earthquake and the old Persephone myth provide the reader an opportunity for a nuanced reading and such readings are one of the delights of the book. In fact, one reads these poems holding on to them as to some shape-shifting pagan god, sensing that if they can only hang on, an underlying meaning will reveal itself.
Veil and Burn, begins with the body and even with all of the changes in perception never strays far from the body and the physical. Images of O'Keeffe's flowers, the inside workings of the body, and the minute dealings of horses keep the poetry grounded in the physical world.
One way in which Lambeth maintains the underlying thread is through the repetition of images. For example, building on a line from Shakespeare, "(those are pearls that were his eyes)", Lambeth writes in "Retrobulbar":
as though the lesion somewhere behind the bulb- optic nerve, optic chiasm, orbit of fluid under bone-was a pearl rolling its weight behind and above me eye, there in the socket.
In the next poem "The Merle" the pearl images take on a somewhat different effect:
one of those cattle herding dogs
The linking of poems serves at once to unify and transform all movements rather like the baton in a relay, except that with each poem, a new baton is produced.
This unification is most evident in a series of ten poems that come together to form "Reluctant Pegasus." While in some respects, these seem to form an island in the midst of the book, making horses the subject of most of the poems, they actually tie in to the overall theme of the decomposition of fleshly bodies and to imagery previously used in the book. Opening the suite is "Saddle," a poem in which the narrator reflects on her friend Richard's death and the dissection of his body by medical students as she cleans a saddle that was once his. If the reader has been with the book since the beginning, this immediately calls to mind and is juxtaposed to the much earlier poem "The Space Between" in which Richard watches over the death of a horse.
Halfway through "Reluctant Pegasus" in a poem of the same name, the writer's own disability is introduced into the sequence and metaphorically linked to the "the reluctant Pegasus," a horse unwillingly hoisted into the air by helicopter. This is the baton passing - but a subtle one. Horses dominate the next few poems until they meet up with the narrator's illness and disability again in "To the Gray I Can No Longer Ride." Horse and disabled rider come together in the final two poems:
The numbness migrate, charts the slowest route from left foot to my ribcage along the thigh grown accustomed to gripping a horse's abdomen, squeezing cues of forward reverse, passage, side-pass right.
At the very end of the poem, the disease is personified in a way familiar to those with multiple sclerosis.
Look , if you can, at the invisible colonists finding home in my neurons. How they tear myelin, how they eat of my flesh, invite me to make metaphors for this disease, to comfort, but I'm sick of it. This is when I pull the reins.
One of the major coups of the book is the final poem. After poems graphically chronicling the unraveling of her body, including the poet's sight, her ability to walk, and her memory, she closes with "Washing Up," a hymn. This is not an ode to false hope, a cheery eyeing of her place in heaven, or a spartan vow to overcome. It is a clear-eyed seeing of the worth of the material world.
What vague assurance brought me here to you in a yellow kitchen?
What makes Veil and Burn so appealing and raises it above most books of disability poetry is both its freshness and its avoidance of stereotypes such as the angry crip, the poor charity case and the inspirational overcomer that, as scholar David Mitchell points out, so many books succumb to and perpetuate. Lambeth's book is full of fresh metaphors for disability that extend beyond the immediate medical diagnosis of the body in which they are grounded. One of the most tantalizing of these is hypoesthesia, i. e., the inability to feel. It is a term that, once discovered, few poets would have trouble running with. Lambeth keep a rein on the possible meanings, heightening the emotional impact:
Are you touching me ,
Interestingly, Lambeth, whose poetry makes such a contribution to disability literature, is very much of an individualist. She pretends to speak for no one but herself, she has no party platform. As such, she is able to concentrate on poetry as art because she is free of the compulsion to act as an advocate. The irony is that in foregoing the advocate role, Lambeth may actually reach a wider audience - those more interested in the medium than the message - and bring some understanding of the value of disability poetry to those who might balk at work actually labeled "disability literature" as just another culturally compulsory reading. All political positions aside, Veil and Burn is a book that is doubly rewarding to read: the first time, for the sheer joy of the ride, and the next few times for the ingenuity and richness of the poetry. Though it is a book whose whole is certainly larger than the sum of its parts, it contains many individual poems that readers will want to come back to again and again. No one who takes a chance on the book is likely to be disappointed.