- Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness; Duologue and Rengas
Slow Dancing, like its title activity, is collaborative, dynamic, intimate. Composed by two poets over four difficult months, during the fatal illness of Malca Litovitz, the book consists of thirty-six rengas, prefaced by a 'duologue.' The OED definition of duologue as a 'conversation between two persons, a dialogue; spec. a dramatic piece spoken by two actors' suits the entire volume, given the collaborative form of the poems and their dramatic interaction with the poets' conversation. The subtitle of the book, Creativity and Illness, and the time of composition may suggest a dark mood, but this is not the case at all.
In the prose duologue, Litovitz's illness appears only between the lines or in passing comments, such as, 'Right now I'min a very troubled spot in my life - the hardest I've ever been in,' or, 'I'm far too exhausted right now to contemplate it [novel-writing].' Only at the end does Elana Wolff explicitly raise the issue and Litovitz, typically, turns a remark about illness as paralysis, as 'limiting, debilitating' physical challenge, into an optimistic reason for writing: the need to incorporate and express it creatively.
The same sense of optimism characterizes the rengas, from Litovitz's opening line ('I need people around me to feel the pulse of life') to Wolff's final one ('the doom is gone; / we write another renga'). On their poetic journey together, the two women create poems that, while not eschewing a shared vocabulary of wounds, ache, pain, tears, sudden death, and even despair, are also replete with images of wellness, health, healing, and recovery, images that do not feel like wishful thinking, but rather evoke the spiritual power of creativity. This renga [End Page 505] writing, in Litovitz's own words, is what is 'giving me life. It's the momentum that's carrying me through life because writing is so important to me and right now the renga line is a lifeline.'
The merging creative identities of the two poets (what they call a 'third voice,' 'an embracing voice') is captured in the final lines of 'Poses,' the penultimate renga:
'I'm sorry,' you tell me Monday noon,'I haven't written a line.''That's fine,' I say and hold your cheek to mine.
Since we are informed, in final notes, of the authorship of each line, we learn that the first two here were by Litovitz (recited orally from her hospital bed), the last by Wolff. What both parts of this book capture equally is the life-affirming role of writing, even in the face of death, for both women. And there is one image, from Litovitz's collection To Light, to Water, that Wolff picks up on in the duologue, that epitomizes the paradoxical quality of this work's linking of illness and creativity: the 'game of suffering.' As the poet herself explains, '[T]here are some light-hearted rules but there's real pain going on. You're trying to stay in a light and cheerful frame of mind, but actually, at a deeper level, you're suffering.' But that's where the writing comes in. The suffering is clearly still there, but so too is the power of the creative impulse to come to terms with it: 'The dance, only the dance - it transcends everything, / giving us strength / to ford the river, lose our cares.' A testimonial and a lesson to be learned, Slow Dancing is that dance.
Linda Hutcheon, Department of English, University of Toronto