V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Jim Ferris's Book of Poetry




Many poets have drawn from the specific
constellation of self-dissolution, healing
and structure that the hospital experience signifies:
hospital poems make up a sub-genre of lyrical poetry.

In a recent volume of Parnassus, Danielle Ofri discussed poetry created around hospitals and their practices, poetry out of the field of medical humanities, often written by doctors. Ofri is a doctor herself, and her specialist position helped to frame her readings. I am a specialist, too, a crip: a disabled woman, a member of a world called disability culture, and I also read poetry, set around beds and wounds and the aftermath of decisions. Disability culture has many poet voices: Stephen Kuusisto, Floyd Skloot, Karen Fiser, Mark O’Brien, Tom Andrews, Kathi Wolfe, Kenny Fries, Lynn Manning are some of those whose poems sustain us.
    Come with me, then, and hear different sounds in hospital poems. And please, do not turn away, whispering "confessional poetry" or some such label: there are complexities to be found here, by no means victim stories. I shall guide you through a few rooms of cripdom, visiting with Jim Ferris’s The Hospital Poems, Winner of the 2004 Main Street Rag Poetry Award, a collection of poems widely discussed in disability studies classrooms throughout the nation.
    In the imaginary of many who see themselves as residents of disabled country, hospitals have currency, are one of many themes that acquire half-mythic, community-building resonance. A culture as a way of living creates places of melancholia, spots in which energy pools, where emotions get bundled into prisms and become the material of song. While we call ourselves a culture, precariously, there is no homeland for disabled people — but there are these sites of energy. The institution of the hospital, where disabled people meet medical specialists, has provided a durable and strong antagonist, rarely wayfarer, in the journey of disability.
    Many poets have drawn from the specific constellation of self-dissolution, healing and structure that the hospital experience signifies: hospital poems make up a sub-genre of lyrical poetry. Within disability frames, though, the trajectory of this work can become specific, biting, and easily exceeds the fascination that hospital experiences have for people who are not bound into their structures for long and repeated times.
    In this essay, then, I visit the hospital with a disability culture poet, and also drop into the room of another poet who, had she lived into the time-period in which disability culture asserted itself, many of us would no doubt have been proud to invite into our group. Whether she would have accepted that invitation, or shrunk back in horror — well, that is another question.
    The hospital: a strange place, apart, yet connected, full of foreign languages, exotic beasts. Medical institutions are bearers of specialist power with the ability, particularly interesting for poetry, to name conditions and direct bodies into meaning. And many hospital poems speak from the patient’s bodily experience as a specimen, particularized and fragmented. Painful fragmentation can seep into language, and into the rhythms of words. How much emotion was learned in the hospital, by so many of us, crip culture citizens who spent too much time enclosed by white, or green, or other walls. But many also learned about relationships there, about speaking in code, and finding ways out. Jim Ferris’s poetry hones the point of anger into form in "The Coliseum," where a boy is naked:
        Before this pride

        Of professionals, lords of the hospital, cold-eyed
        White coats trained to find your flaws, focus on failings,
        Who measure your meat minutely. You are a specimen
        for study, a toy, a puzzle—

    Ferris has spoken about his collection, The Hospital Poems, as a memoir in verse, remembering his personal history of a childhood spent in hospitals, one of his legs broken again and again as doctors tried to get bone to grow, tried to harmonize the two sides of his body, a fruitless undertaking. A memoir in verse: I am still not sure what to do with that description, as I veer from the literal. There’s an aide de memoir, a haunted house: in the Renaissance, a memory palace was a mental store room you could move through in your head, finding all you know on the walls, in display cases, in the mosaics on the floor. There are paintings of such memory palaces, stuffed with rooms, but the trick was to hold it inside, in your head, in your body, and catalogue your belongings and history that way, as you recited to yourself the contents, like a mantra. It was a device of a time which felt that it was nearing all there was to say, that knowledge could be eventually stored, and where man’s (or boy’s) brain was the site of this great adventure. The description has stuck well, for modern thinkers have often taken up the image, and gone in search of attics, vaults, up garden paths and down into root cellars. And maybe it is just this heritage that makes me want to turn from the specific confinement of a limb, a leg, painfully arrested in a plaster cast that won’t stay pure as snow or as a lamb, and turn to the other image here, the house I see in the "whitewash white," on a rainy day, on red clay lands, in this poem:

        New Cast

        Sometimes blood would seep from the wound
        Into damp plaster, and evening rust
        Would mingle with whitewash white,
        Reminding all who cared to look just
        What well-intentioned violence
        Lay under that stiff, brittle trust.

    All throughout The Hospital Poems, spaces are charted: hospitals, with corridors, beds, dark rooms, but also islands cut off from mainlands, orphanages, voids and cliffs, Main Street America, the Girls Ward, spaces connected to others via mail, radio, sounds, songs and oceans. Ferris runs us through the sites, sometimes "like a school of goldfish," sometimes in a "Banana Cart" (like soapbox cars, extended, so that large hip casts can find space, and with wheelchair wheels — but also chariots of more exotic locales, across the sea so often mentioned in these poems, but "not like a coffin, no"). Transport, movement, rolling through the memory palace undercover: "my balance is exquisite / if no nurses are watching." Many of the poems in the collection journey far, and fast, from wildly funny to deeply cutting, from abjection on to anger and hope.
    "New Cast" veers from the literal, too, and takes a journey in a sentence. This journey is a transformation, a trans-substantiation: an alchemy of color, as meaning is cast newly. A wound and plaster shift into evening rust and whitewash white, taking an element (iron rusts and plaster white) and declinating it. I can play in the field opened up by this configuration: the house that is built here — the science of foundational measurements, the expectation of symmetry — is a violence, a wound barely scabbed over by fake scar tissue, suffocating hot plaster, a mere molecular twist from flaky sand on which no house can stand.
    The alchemy does not stop there: the red and white of the wound and its healing, moved into the red and whites of houses and landscapes, now colors into abstraction, and into the cloths people wrap themselves in, Roman togas, white coats, red crosses — "reminds all who care to look just."  Twisting up, the simile emerges: "what well-intentioned violence / lay under that stiff, brittle trust." The red of violence, the white of trust: color and meaning become malleable, but beware those whose bodies similarly excite some aesthetic medical gaze into cutting action. The red and anger of violation, red whitewashed, bleeding for some notion of balance and beauty. And the first action is "seep": this is not a clean alchemy, but a messy one leaving traces of all states behind, binding the flights of fancy back into the wound. The deeply satisfying balance of the poem’s careful analysis of color might open in a contemplative mode (in the "sometimes," "would mingle"), wreathed and bound by rhyme, but in its last line the poem hisses at me with a body, confined, and bleeding: the "stiff, brittle trust" thrusts sibilants against the bucolic image, and fills the memory palace with blood.

Reading through The Hospital Poems, I remember one of the first hospital poems that touched me with color — Sylvia Plath’s "Tulips," in the collection Ariel, published posthumously, after her suicide in 1963. I remember when I was near obsessed with her work, in my twenties some time, reading Plath criticism. And when I got my first writing award, the annual Arts Council of Wales fellowship for a disabled writer, I took up residence in Ted Hughes’s home, the Arvon Foundation, and sat by Sylvia Plath’s grave, all in the rolling hills of Heptonstall, West Yorkshire. That first day at the grave, I sat with my little notebook by the side on a low stone wall, my crutches next to me (the wheelchair was useless on those cobbled old graveyards, and rested in my beloved Subaru sports car). I do not think I wrote that much, I just sat, and looked at the autumn leaves and the low sun dappling through them, and I thought of stoves, and husbands, and the bee covens I had seen in the back of Hughes’s home. How silly now to think that I put my hand down onto that cool dark soil next to her grave, but I was young.
    "Tulips" begins:

        The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here,
        Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
        I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
        As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
        I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
        I have given my name and my day-clothes to the nurses.
        And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

    White might be the color of winter, and pure snow, and of the cradling sound my tongue makes as it reads "white," and "quiet," "lying," and "my." Only light lies, all effort is given away, flaking off, tumbling into "this bed," "these hands," petals falling. But this foundation, too, is assaulted, by "excitable" and "explosions," and echoes in the "anaesthetist": too much tongue movement, across too large a field, to slip away into death. The "look" is still addressed, still speaks of agency, and it is this eye that cannot but take in, connect:

        They have propped my head between the pillow and sheet-cuff
        Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
        Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.

    The poet of Ariel sees too much, and cannot but name it — light, color, distinction: the learner/eye that cannot shut, sleepless like a wraith, all-seeing on the island, cannot give over to Prospero, stop making meaning. The hospital becomes a space of calm, and then, unwanted intrusion. To how many crip culture people does this speak?
    I remember well the meditative draw of machine, whirling gears, even the pulse of the red mainline where it entered above the clavicle, against my moving chest. To make time pass, a minute observation coupled with a letting go. Watching the patterns my bruised arms made, hour by hour, as continents moved beneath ("the rest of the body is all washed out / the color of pearls," Plath writes in her poem "Contusion").  But the meaning, reading that body, that map of the continents, cannot stop, and continues on to the point of pain, and it cannot be shared — but doesn’t that make you a special, special island?
    Again in The Hospital Poems, Jim Ferris writes in "Post-Op":

        you are alone. And it hurts. No One
        can share this, and you know it in your marrow
        when you’re wide awake at midnight,
        for the first time since morning, and now you know
        how much it hurts, how badly your bones
        mistreated, how alone you can be
        in a room with fifteen others.

Triplets of words, contained, containing, trying to border experience: "you know in your marrow / when you are wide awake at midnight" moves up and down in a heaving rhythm or a nursery rhyme, and into a slowing, a ritardando towards "for the first time since": the first five words are short, sharp, cutting into wonder, and release out of the heaving into the "now." Another pattern of threes, how/how/how, move from unlocated feeling (it hurts) towards feeling for reasons, located in a "your" ("badly your bones / mistreated," with any "were" held in abeyance, erased by the line break, grammar still fixed in this body, not the specialist other, other agency) towards feeling in space ("in a room with fifteen others," yet "alone"). The calm cannot last, the silence fills, and aloneness explodes:

        just can’t help it out it comes Nurse! And now
        your humiliation is complete.
        Everyone crumbles after surgery.

An explosion, falling into the patterns of "ice chips, a shot / for the pain" — and the monad of pain is breached, open, normal, from alone back to everybody. The greatest shame: the ordinariness of it all.
    There is much more in "Post-Op," an ocean of time, and more complexities of nearness and distance, pain and comfort, but it is this moment, and this humiliation, that speaks loudest to me.
    Even spectacular bruises dissolve in the lapping blood.
    In "Tulips," the tulips are too red, and their color is seeping: "I could hear them breathe / Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby. / Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."
    The tulips become not only sound and color, connecting tissue, leash into the land of the living, but also observer, locating the poem’s "I," "a cut-paper shadow / between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulip." Against the demand to be, issued by the living thing, the poem’s "I" capitulates, or, depending on how one reads the ending, is swallowed by an animality that overcomes:
        The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
        The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
        They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
        And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
        Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
        The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
        And comes from a country far away as health.

Is the land of health the colonizer, taking charge, the land of the baby, those tears that call for a "natural" response, the beating heart? I love the duplicity of this poem, reading it as a refusal, a quasi-Victorian sob-story of getting better.
    Between the white and the red, the violence and violations of those beliefs in the natural body, the normal way, are opened up. Ferris’s and Plath’s poems denounce "healing" perpetuated in medicine, or in the institutions that make divided space, rule and conquer. Set up the tension, do.

To structure new tensions within given structures: that is one of the tasks of poetry. And Ferris shapes what he is given. So in one of the poems in The Hospital Poems, his material is not so much found as decreed, a charting of his bodily space, his history, now in need of reclamation. Medical notes make up a poem entitled "From the Surgeons: Drs. Sofield, Louis, Hark, Alfini, Millar, Baehr, Bevan-Thomas, Tsatos, Ericson, and Bennan." It begins:

        6-10-60. History. The child is the second of three
        children — the other two are perfectly normal. He was the product
        of a normal pregnancy and delivery. At birth it was noted
        that the left lower extremity was shorter than the right. The child
        had a fragmentation and rodding of the left femur
        for stimulation of bone growth.

This is a poem — it is part of The Hospital Poems, but neither a foreword nor a chapter heading. Instead, it appears, nonchalantly, after a different trench battle poem of men in distress. That one’s a funny one  — funny for a while, until gas masks and history offer a different echo — where a poem turns with a giggle: "Fear at Thirteen," where a patient prepped and surrounded by "green masks showing only bandit eyes" has to hold it together, heroically, while the blue-eyed nurse washes his leg: "and what you most fear / in all this world is that you’ll pop a boner / and die embarrassed on this green yet sterile field." Crip culture critic and writer Cheryl Marie Wade calls it "savage crip humor," and "monstrous truths about being a crip kid at the mercy of the fix-it fanatics." And I see that, but also magic: transformation through word operations, trickster words. Trenches, lines, and war waged across them.
    All words are part of that machinery of the line, the poetic unit that shapes new meanings: although doctors wrote those words in "From the Surgeons," the poet crafts a careful frame, using the tool of the line, digging in. Spread over the page, internal rhymes emerge, in the "6-10-60," "history," the "second of three": the line-break catches my breath into pattern, reads backwards and notes the rap that is emerging. That levity of the word sound continues on, as I scan "pregnancy" / "delivery" / "extremity" and voice the delivery of spoken word, becoming wide and down on those sounds, growling them across my tongue and against my teeth. Those lines break all along, with a crunching sound, to draw attention to the numbering, the "product," the noting about a child — there’s a note here, right here. Right the child. The right child. "Fragmentation" and "stimulation" become attacks in that song voice I hear, the weight on frag and stim, with a wide "a" and a shimmy on the "tion," coming down voice on the dark sounds of "bone growth."
    In this rap enabled by the line, the doctors’ voices, whatever their initial clinical standing, have lost their attachment to a chart, a patient file, a narrative of authority, they have lost their weight. This file is no longer patient. That’s not quite distance, not quite play — it is a ritual that offers breath for stones.
    Outsiders enter into the hospital: visitors walk in the memory palace. But there’s a price to be paid for whirlwind visits, for those moments when the hale can lock eyes with those imprisoned in white and red. In Ferris’s "Mercy," the price for trespass in the palace is clear: violences of separation, of hierarchies, sadism and anger, projected in mirrors. Children from the outside world come and visit the narrator in the hospital, with get-well cards made in school. "How did these aliens get in?"; the poem’s narrator cringes backwards in the banana cart, sees it all with other eyes, and despairs:
        We are so strange—I see it all: clothes, charts,
        chairs, carts. I pop a wheelie to entertain them.
        They are full of questions, and oh God,
        take them away, hurt them before I do,
        break them and empty their chipper eyes. Forgive
        us our trespasses as we forgive those
        who trespass against us. Once they leave
        I retreat to the still of the linen room
        and look out of the window until full dark.

The divisions of outside and inside are wide, and there’s a reversal, a melodramatic snarl in these lines: "I see it all" — the poem’s "I" uses the words of the godhead, the all-seeing eye, the power of naming, and enumeration — the function of the memory palace, but also of the deity. It makes me laugh to read "I pop a wheelie" right beside that voice, this crip slang release of wheelchair artistry. Those multiple personalities of voice and position keep merging and mixing in the poem: "oh God" sound echoes the "I do," and the chiasm puts the poem’s "I" next to the God: "hurt them before I do / break them and empty their chipper eyes": there’s transgressive power roaring beneath these cutting lines, and eyes are glassy places here, and opaque sites of hurt. The gabble of the Pater Noster becomes an abracadabra, a magic formula, a drawing in of lines and hisses (for what fun is it to say "trespasses" often, with many sibilants slithering about). And then, the other God can get his fill: outside, space, an ocean, darkness. What new connections can be made, what darkness can fill the watcher in the linen room, the whites of hospitals overtaken by night, and memories of space?  What normalcy can be expelled, desired, drowned in the still (which tickles me with alcoholic trespass), what revenge plotted, burning with shame? Or else, while my mouth curves up in a smile — what dark God is emerging, filling till full dark, what Lucifer, hoofed fallen angel, can wrap black velvet night into a stylish coat, peering out with a boy’s eyes?
    Alchemy of color, bodies healing, spaces and bodies out of bounds, bound and yet on trajectories that encompass nights, oceans and that outside: these are travels in the mythology of disability culture, with humor leavening the mix.

But lest we become nostalgic: the hospital can swallow us all again, any time, anywhere, and not just as patients.
    I am returning to this computer late one afternoon, in Texas, coming back from a lecture given by a visiting speaker to an audience of medical humanities and bioethics scholars and students — the same students who are in the Disability Culture class I am teaching here as a Visiting Scholar. The lecture was in the Shriner Burns building, and to get there, you have to make your way through the John Sealy Hospital and the Children’s Hospital — in through the back entrance, snaking through the underbelly, through narrow passages, all on squeaky linoleum, past white coats and strange paraphernalia of gurneys, rigs, and tackle. It’s a long walk, and while I am only a visiting scholar, I have often moaned about the department’s policy to schedule lectures in prestigious places with newer carpet, rather than in the building we all inhabit. The administrators know that I just don’t want to do it. It never makes a difference, even though I am here for six months, and I plead my case, every time. But I got to the hall, eventually. Sitting in that audience, I lost my crip tongue, for a while, my trickster reading. The speaker spoke of a bioethicist’s implied audience, and how failure to acknowledge certain groups (always "the disabled") can wreak catastrophe. He described briefly the protest Not Dead Yet, a group of disability activists who protest euthanasia, were mounting at the annual bioethics convention in Albany, but without any of the gleam and defiance I feel when hearing the words.
    And yes, he was courteous, well-dressed, with tie, and did explain "nothing about us without us" — but still, I heard again and again NDY as a radical group, the pesky disabled, disruptive, outsiders. This speaker’s implied audience in the hospital did not include this crip (although I know well that I was not the only one in that audience, nor the only one finding the long walks hard: I am just the only one in a position secure enough to even moan about it). And this lecturer’s implied poetics, format, structure did not include a painful body. I am not proud to say that my hand rose only rather feebly and belatedly in the six minutes allocated to discussion. I never gave that impassioned defense of activism I composed carefully in my head, that scathing attack on professionalism and expertise. I was tired of it, had schlepped myself across this monstrous hospital, and to this fancy lecture hall with podium and medal (and the Shriner’s tufted fez and scimitar on the emblem, giving an exoticising lie to all this rationality). Having listened, I didn’t even get to eat for free: we have the reception at the Rosenberg House, just two blocks up the road! You coming? I don’t think so. I hope someone’s noticing how pathetic I try to look here. And in high grouch I enter again the massive hospital building, to pick up my car on the other side, past my office, and this computer. I pass people sitting in wheelchairs, motionless. I witness a woman crying into her mobile phone: bad news, it seems, and screams. I pick up my pace. Dog-tired nurses still overtake me, and I follow the lines cut into the linoleum hospitals use to mark the paths. And as I walk off the lines and twist into the older parts of the building, trying not to get lost, I see the sea-green tiles that feel as if they must have echoes for crips everywhere. I never really noticed them before on this path: those long rectangles, slightly irregular, to let a gaze travel past, that milky sea foam color that looks as if it has depth, that spider web of graze crackles that can be visible, sometimes, if you stare long and hard, if you have nothing better to do. Those walls that look, if your eyes blaze with melodrama, as if you could hose them down, as if they do get hosed down, at nights, after blood splattered. Surely we can’t have had those same tiles in the hospitals all the way over in Germany? And still, it seems to me that way, the color burrowing into me as I am tired, in pain, annoyed with myself and with this profession that might invite me in for a while but of course can still shrug us off without a second thought.
    So I am in my office, heavily down in my chair, and I take out the book with The Hospital Poems one more time, remembering a foamy ocean in there, to see if I can’t find some energy, some wave, some lift in its pages, before I am leaving, going home:


        The hospital is on a promontory jutting
        far out into the ocean. We’re on a cliff, about
        to topple into the waves which smash against the rocks.
        We can’t even see across the street—there is no street,
        no one can reach us, the thin tongue of land behind us
        has crumbled into the sea. Hail drums windows,
        thunder rattles the glass until it must break, the lights
        go out. The doctors have lit out for shore—we can see
        their boat, their white coats in the far distance. The nurses
        pound the waves in an open boat behind the doctors,
        their white caps serene, protecting them from the weather.
        Our island washes away beneath us, wave by wave
        it gives us away until we slide down what is left
        of the cliff into the alien sea and bob there,
        rudderless, our casts and the ether our only friends,
        and wait to see what happens next.

    Oceans, yes, and the green of sea foam, late afternoon rain shading into gray, running milky down window panes, hazy figures leaving the palace, leaving nothing but waiting behind. Drama is drummed up (what word choice in the "promontory jutting," getting ready to "topple": full-mouthed word delight), adventure and the tales of tall ships and storms, and the piquancy of abandonment. And from that drop into night, an ocean swells out into dream, with only the kindnesses of strange things to give familiarity, weight, anchor and sea-sick air. The island dissolves into Ariel’s land.
    The poem is bisected by that one line, "go out. The doctors have lit out for shore — we can see." In this line, there’s a pool of stillness, enclosed by lights going out and by a precarious seeing. Those doctors ride in the calmness of a perfect meter — one that finds its match and rhyme in the last line, "and wait to see what happens next" — iambs calmly proceeding, echoing the assuredness, the sense of knowing one’s space and place, at least for now. The melody of those lines mitigate my other readings of this poem, the danger, breaks, crashing, smashing, those aliens, that lack of rudder. There are two pulls for me: chaos and calmness, and I can choose as I read.
    For there’s still a wave I catch here, in the "we," the 'our": these are shared adventures, as islands give way, to rocking sounds, not to lonely thoughts. I listen beneath the words, listen to sounds and rhythms, and find a different tune. Words and lines and waves string this along, rocking me on, knowing that something will come next, the story goes on, as boys and all crips dream.
    For poems are not just puzzles to work out, or mnemonic devices that crystallize our world to us: they are also comforts, familiar sounds, the gentle touch of paper on fingers, breath on tongue, and a going home.
    The companionship of breath, and shared sleep: crip culture can live, anywhere, it can find itself in the hospital, and in the many spaces the hospital can shapeshift into in the memory palace of disability culture. Crip culture might only ever be a horizon, a moon across the sea, sometimes just a castle in the sky, but it’s alive. It’s full dark now here in Texas, and no-one else is around the office — but crips like all humans everywhere have long learned to cope, and to find sustenance in unlikely places. I can imagine journeys shared, tenuously, recognize the signs of sea foam, and find transport on watery night-horses, lulled and bobbed, alone and together, awaiting the next day.

There are many people out there, alone in hospitals, and with memories of bodily differences and invasions, benevolent or not. Dealing with these experiences and memories is not easy, as Ofri’s review of The Body in the Library: A Literary Anthology of Modern Medicine testifies. But the poetry of crip culture, including Jim Ferris’s The Hospital Poems, can provide sophisticated companionship, can open spaces of agency, and can allow connection in anger as well as in healing.

Ferris, Jim.  The Hospital Poems.  Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag, 2004. ISBN: 1-930907-52-4 $14.00

© by Petra Kuppers


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