Book Review

In 1968 Jack Leedy, impelled by his own professional experiences, edited the book Poetry Therapy: The Use of Poetry in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders. Leedy’s book was pioneering, putting poetry therapy on the map – even if it was as a rather minor town. Sixty years later, poetry therapy has built up a much larger following and Tom Lombardo’s recently published After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events is a conceptual and literary descendent of Leedy’s book.

Lombardo reveals in his introduction to After Shocks that the desire to edit this book arose out of the loss of his own wife at age thirty. As the cover announces, the anthology’s poetry is drawn from 115 poets and 15 countries, and, indeed Lombardo has pulled together quite a diverse group of poets. Some, like Donald Hall, William Stafford and Rita Dove are known to anyone who reads poetry. Others, such as Therése Halscheid, Liesl Jobson and Patricia Wellingham-Jones have been published in Wordgathering and other literary journals of disability. Many, though, are fresh faces, known only to readers of small literary magazines.

The poems in After Shocks are organized by the "life shattering events" to which they seem to speak. These include such events as the death of a spouse, war, bigotry, abuse, and divorce. Naturally, many of these situations overlap and a poem may speak to more than one trauma. Though much could be said about any one of these categories, this review will focus on the poems in the section called "Recovery from Illness or Injury."

"Recovery from Illness and Injury" boasts sixteen poems, each from a different author, on a variety of subjects including strokes, scars, cancer, autism, black lung, therapy, and several others. Lombardo has selected these poems well and each is engaging enough that it merits reading. Not all of the authors write of their own personal experiences with injury or illness and recovery. In fact, if one relies upon the comments of the authors themselves that are included in the biographical notes at the end of anthology, the poets writing of their own injury/illness appear to be very few. Others are writing of experiences with spouses or children, and others pure projection.

While the poems in this section are all gathered under the umbrella of recovery, some defy this classification. Certainly, Valerie Nieman’s "A Moment’s Peace" in which the speaker of the poem dies, is not recovery in any conventional sense. Barbara Mitchell’s "Boy of Silence" and Diane Holland’s "At Baggage Claim" seem to resist the title of recovery poems as well, and J. E. Pitts poem, "Scar Inventory" ends with the lines:

All the scars will end one day
at least that’s what the doctor’s say.

which seem almost sarcastic towards the idea of recovery/therapy. Nicholas Mazza, the editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapywrites in one of the introductions to the to After Shocks, "Recovery doesn’t mean ‘finished." In this collection, recovery is not meant to imply the outcome of bereavement but rather speaks to transformation and hope." Even this broader umbrella, however, does not cover all the poems gathered in this collection.

Ironically, from an artistic point of view, this lack of solidarity around emphasis on recovery is a strength of the collection. Too often, poems written for the purpose of being therapeutic sacrifice craft for message, resulting in predictable, cliché-ridden verse. Lombardo’s collection is saved from this fate precisely because most of the poets included, not anticipating the anthology, wrote with their poetry mind foremost. The result is that any poem in the "Recovery from Illness and Injury" can be appreciated quite apart from its context or the anthology’s stated purpose.

In his 1997 breakthrough book Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability and Life Writing, G. Thomas Couser pointed out that life writing narrative involving illness tended to be co-opted by medical establishment narrative: there is a medical problem to be solved/overcome, some sort of a climax and a denouement. For this reason, Couser and essayist Nancy Mairs, who wrote the introduction to the book, sought to distinguish illness writing from disability writing. This is distinction that has been built upon both by disability studies scholars and by poets like Jim Ferris, Stephen Kuusisto, and Sheila Black. Although as Mairs points out, the boundaries of any new genre are always in flux as are the boundaries between and definitions of disability and illness, some distinctions are important.

Illness is generally looked upon as an individual misfortune and something to be overcome, if possible. Illness is perceived as a deviation from the "normal" and it is the job of medicine to make that person normal once again. Disability theorists, however, reject the idea that a person with a disability is someone who needs to be "fixed" and made "normal" again. They see disability as being primarily a social construction; thus the idea of accommodation. As a result, the emerging genre of disability literature, including disability poetry tends to reject the notion of overcoming, as well as sentimentality and charity, and focus instead on the perspective that a person with a disability can bring to literature.

It is in this light that After Shocks helps to define disability literature. By illustrating through poetry ways in which people pass through a therapeutic process towards recovery, Lombardo’s anthology distinguishes itself from what disability poetry attempts. For example, in "Therapy" Alexa Selph uses the metaphor of evolution to describe her recovery from a state in which:

I moved among nests of sleepy fish
tunneling through a netherworld
of broken bottles and rusty cans.

Looking back across the waters on the other of her emergence from this world, she is now able to see it as a calm one.

Another metaphor for the process for recovery comes in David Bottoms' "A Daughter’s Fever". Using images reminiscent of Grimm fairytales, he writes

Rachel, about the little girl
who started home late
across the darkening woods…
Someday I’ll give the words I used all night
to guide her home. So many ways
to enter the forest and never return.
But happily, that’s another ending.

The possibility that one might not ever really return, suggested by Bottoms is realized by William Greenway in still another metaphor, that of "Eurydice." Though frequently used to describe the loss, Greenway uses the old myth to good effect in another narrative poem. In this case, the narrator’s wife has suffered a stroke and does not seem to respond, but when he writes the first line from Eliot’s "Prufrock" and shows it too her, she amazes the staff hospital staff by reciting the entire poem, which

came to them from a far place,
deep and dark where she had been,
beyond the reach of light and love
and even words themselves.

Common to all of three poems above is the imagery of light. Self has ascended from a "netherworld", Botttoms’ daughter has emerged from a dark wood, and the voice of Greenway’s wife comes forth from a dark realm that light cannot penetrate. Though the imagery of light and darkness certainly has a place in the poetry of writers like Stephen Kuusisto who have limited vision, it is generally inappropriate for writers with disabilities from birth like cerebral palsy or spina bifida, and when employed reinforce the idea that such writers are not acceptable as they are and must therefore be lead out of their “darkness.”

It is not surprising that the extended metaphors for the recovery process follow a narrative pattern of loss, climax and denouement, echoing the patterns found in fiction and life writing. At times this can be quite effective, as in Greenway’s poem, but at other times this concern with the message of therapy can interfere with the effectiveness of the poem. At the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival, poet Linda Pastan, in a clinic on poetic technique, pointed out that one of the major downfalls of many poets, especially beginning poets, is that they do not end the poem soon enough, but feel compelled in a last stanza to explain what they had just finished illustrating in the poem.

There are several otherwise strong poems in the section of After Shocks that could have benefit from Pastan’s advice. One of these is Pitts’ poem whose trifling ending couplet, quoted above, undercuts the case he has made in the rest of "Scar Inventory" for somatic autobiography. At least two other poems, however, Marcia Slatkin’s, "A Late Blessing" and Barbara Mitchell’s "Boy of Silence" succumb to the tendency that Pastan pointed out because in following the recovery model, they seem compelled to explain- though each for a different reason. Slatkin’s poem about caring for her aging mother:

the mother
who beat my defiance;
the one I hit back.

would have been a much more interesting poem, had she ended on this irony. Because she wants this poem to be a tribute, however, she adds a final verse – one which wanders into commonplace sentimentality.

While we walk now,
she gives me her hand,
its back veined and grizzled –
but its wondrous palm
soft as a persimmon
warm and trusting as a child.

In the process, her mother is transformed into a charity case. Such characterization as this is one of the reasons the genre of disability poetry wants to distinguish itself from illness poetry.

Mitchell’s "Boy of Silence", by contrast, is a superb poem in many respects. Without stooping to charity or pity, the poet celebrates her autistic son as he is. In addition to making real for the reader her efforts to communicate with her son:

I copied the form of my lips
over and over against his ear
but his teeth clamped tight
against the easy slur of speech

Mitchell’s poem is a meditation on speech and communication itself…including poetry: "he is reaching me/ teaching me to celebrate in the space between words." The penultimate stanza, however, should have been the last. The music of the poet’s words describing her sons dancing laughter build to a high point where the reader can approach experiencing the joy the poet sees in her son. The last stanza a mere recapitulative coda that adds nothing further to the poem.

Both Lombardo and Mazza, suffered the loss of a family member, so it is not surprising that many of the poems on injury and illness focus at least as much on the experiences of the family members affected as on the person with the injury. This may, in fact, be one of the strengths of the book. As Greenway watches his wife after a stroke, Bottoms sits vigil at his daughter’s fever, Slatkin cares for her aging mother, and Joan Houlihan watches her son emerge from a coma, readers who have experienced these situations themselves are likely to say, "Yes, that’s it. That’s is exactly what it is like. I’ve been there." Such recognition may enable readers with similar experience to connection strongly with the poems.

One of the virtues of having a book of strongly individual poems such as After Shocks is that one need not have any particular interest in either recovery or disability to enjoy individual poems. Each can be taken on its own terms. One of the more intriguing poems is Diane Holland’s "At Baggage Claim." Waiting for her bags at an airport, the poet spots a cooler labeled "human eye tissue, and this causes her to observe:

How I’ve taken for granted the fretwork
and wizardry holding me tethered
for now, never thinking of my self as

In a society in which individuality is viewed so highly, there is still the tendency, even with the interconnected global economy, to view the self, especially, the bodily self, as a monolith, as being contained within certain bounds, yet with the modern ability for transplants and prosthesis, this notion of self is breaking down. Ironically, however, ability to renegotiate body parts confers on donors a certain sense of community if not of a vague immortality.

The body lays down its aggregate of cells,
joints its fine selvages. Someone is dead,
all bafflement and harm, yet someone else
will come to the end of a long darkness
as life rolls out its bright morsels.

A poem that wrestles with a more personalized idea of self is Joan Houlihan’s "Devon’s Treatment" written about her son who was in a coma:

Often we were advised 
the “self” may have come loose

the spark snapped out,

gone dark to probing
and every place a ruin.

The concept of the self in the view of the doctors in Houlihan’s poem is tied to professionals who “appraised his worth” with technology and made further judgments of the worth of the self based upon ability to communicate. In describing this process, Houlihan shows her own prowess with language:


Talk through your fingers.  Make yourself known. 

On opening the crown
the found the chakra scribbled

and dense
flashed “devon”
then “arm”

(right hand pointing, left hand still)

saw him move his jaw and blink -
an ignis fatuus of speaking.

While Holland looks at the definition of self itself as dissolving, Houlihan suggests that we slip through any definition that others construct for us. Both writers engage us by raising philosphical issues that transcend the immediate moment of the poem.

It is poems like Houlihan's, Holland's, Mitchell’s and Pramila Venkateswaran’s "Praying for miracles at Velankani Amman’s Shrine, Tamil Nadu" that make After Shocks well worth reading for anyone interested in poetry. As an anthology of recovry poetry, the magnitude and quality of After Shocks is not likely to be challenged soon. General readers of poetry will learn about poets unfamiliar to them whose work is well worth tracking down and reading in other contexts. Writers with disabilities will learn why they, too, need an anthology of poetry comparable to what Lombardo has amassed. After Shocks is available from Santa Lucia Press.