- Illness and Poetic Language
So-called formal poetry holds the most appeal for me because in it are present the fundamental beating contents of the body at peace: the regularity of resting brain wave activity in contrast to the disorganized spiking of a seizure, the gentle ebb and flow of breathing, or sobbing, in contrast to the harsh spasmodic cough, the single-voiced, ringing chant of a slogan at an ACT-UP rally in contrast to the indecipherable rumblings of AIDS-funding debate on the Senate floor . . . . The poem perhaps is an idealization, or a dream of the physical—the imagined healthy form. Yet it does not renounce illness; rather it reinterprets it as the beginning point for healing.Rafael Campo, The Desire to Heal1 [End Page 197]
Veil and Burn, a first book and National Poetry Series winner by Laurie Clements Lambeth, begins with a striptease: a silk garment peels away to reveal the bulging, spotted body beneath. In “Coming Down,” the speaker’s husband stands behind her to undo buttons on a dress, helping her search for “the flaw that brought down / the price” (author’s italics, 1). It turns out that the gown has merely “aged a little faster” from being displayed in a store window, but the shape beneath the clothes bears more ominous scars. This is a common literary scene or motif—external smoothness concealing a lumpy body, a mask contrasting with the true self—but here the disparity is especially painful. When the fabric tumbles to her feet, the speaker thinks, in a flash, of Venus emerging from the waves and then confronts her own difference from that rosy perfection: “spine / stippled with lesions, glowing red injection / lumps studding my thighs.” These lesions and lumps echo the opening image of buttons, especially when her husband’s hands reappear to stroke those “subcutaneous Interferon half-globes.” The body, too, is worn like clothing over one’s real self, and the speaker eyes it from a distance through its reflection in the dressing-room mirror and in the mirror of the poem.
“Coming Down” contains several elements that recur in recent poetry about healing, illness, and pain. It mixes blunt descriptions of bodily hurt with sensuous imagery and erotic intimacy. The perceiving “I” is alienated from her physical self. Lambeth’s allusion to Botticelli’s Venus prefigures other re-readings of paintings, literature, or music, sometimes to uncover the occluded role of illness within them. Finally, and most surprisingly, her aesthetic emphasizes wholeness. The poem presents some ambiguities at first: are the “nineteen nub buttons lining my spine” part of the dress or part of the person? What voice or voices do the italics in “the flaw that brought down / the price” represent? Ultimately, however, even the sentence fragments make clear sense. Lambeth’s poem reshapes illness as order.
“Good art incorporates disability,” writes Tobin Siebers, discussing aesthetics in the visual arts: “Modern art continues to move us because of its refusal of harmony, bodily integrity, and perfect health. If modern art has been so successful, I would argue, it is because of its embrace of disability as a distinct version of the beautiful.”2 Powerful poetry often concerns the interdependence of beauty and pain—or, at least, a mixture, a clash of surprising elements. Further, twentieth-century poetry interweaves representations of suffering with stylistic disruptions. In the early decades, these disruptions often occurred at the level of the line: free verse itself violated poetic norms, but unconventional spacing, [End Page...