Illness, arguably the direct or indirect source of human suffering, prostrates us all. Accordingly, theories of illness and healthcare form an uneasy truce for such icons as Karl Marx, Pope John Paul II, and Ayn Rand even though their philosophies would diverge on many other topics. Moreover, one might argue that the management of limited medical resources has become the preoccupation of our age. But when you are sick, philosophies fail; you seek mercy, and sometimes the voice of that mercy comes from literature. The Healing Muse, a journal produced by The Center for Bioethics and Humanities at SUNY Upstate Medical University, offers a platform for such voice. As editor Deirdre Neilen notes in her introduction to the journal, “The land ahead may be unfamiliar territory, but the same humor, resilience and desire propel our poets and essayists and their characters to chance the unknown and to chart the journey for us.”
Unlike the conventional approach to a literary journal cover where the art is more coincidental to or abstractly thematic to the literature, this volume initiates the conversation with its cover: Marguerite McDonald’s painting, created after a devastating diagnosis. The literary journey begins with Founding Editor Bonnie A. St. Andrews’s luminous poem, “Opening the Summer House”:
Sun-drenched again and one
with the universe I am
sweeping this kitchen singing
at the top and bottom of
essentially tuneless lungs.
It’s still winter here, and Andrews’s poem creates a sense of hope when one might expect a preponderance of grief. Also skirting laughter is Kevin Bray’s darkly comic essay “It’s All in my Head.” In Bray’s off-beat tempo of maladies, the speaker explores the mindset of hypochondria and the perceived ironies of anti-depressant medication.
Carole Glasser Langille’s “Who Are You” excellently portrays how illness (in this case neurological damage from a car accident) affects those around the individual who is ill or hurt (I am not using the word “victim” or “patient”). You can see many different portraits of illness in the history of world literature, but in The Healing Muse, I see originality in the face of that hyper-saturation. I’ve been studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night as a portrayal of caregiver psychology, but Fitzgerald’s original text—with all of its terror and starshine—fails the closeness of Langille’s achievement. When Langille’s story ended, I really wanted to see more.
Susan Huang’s essay “Prime of Life Redefined” is also very good at telling a story with a measured tempo. It captures the triumph of a young physician who faces a serious watershed but remains resilient: “Every day is relished because I learned life is fleeting.” Huang doesn’t employ any wiles in charting the course of her illness—this is no Lauren Slater—but you feel that the subject does not require it. I feel that Huang’s challenge in this case is uniquely tied to the manner in which she described her ultimate success. Often times in the literature of illness and healing we blow up (i.e. enlarge) the disease because it is that daunting. Metaphor helps us understand what we face but cannot stare down head-on, but Huang simply spells out her experience with a grace that we can appreciate for its forthright approach.
A second balanced take on the psychology of a young physician is Timothy Vo’s “Getting Wisdom.” I enjoyed the narration infused with “new” media—Vo cobbles together a message from both Robbin’s Pathological Basis of Disease and Facebook. It is also reasonably economical and straight-forward, which suits the subject matter of the essay exceptionally well.
More centered on the craft are David C. Manfredi’s “Vespers” and Allan Peterkin’s “And What Felled the Princes of Europe?” Both poems, more in the tradition of Wallace Stevens than Linda Pastan, radiate the symmetry of life and that which sustains it. You feel the spiritual seething into “Vespers”:
The white coats drift quietly
from one malady to another
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and always the patient
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . how bright the eyes
how strong the voice
how tired the soul.
“Vespers” invokes the 1885 Swedish hymn “How Great Thou Art,” in a setting where such is integral to the nature of healing—the prayer at the base of every medical intervention. And he says none of this directly—there is no “telling” in this poem—he simply weaves together a faith-full shroud or baptismal robe in a place where all of us go to be saved.
Peterkin’s epiphany concerns a small cut on the one hand and several generations and continents on the other—through the thinnest scrim. His sixth stanza captures the essence of pain: “Some must have / seen the frantic beauty / in all this.” He concludes the poem:
I get to forget (again)
all I learned
all I once knew.
and the body I take for granted.
Peterkin’s epiphany is a masterful riff on a form that has bloomed in poetry well after William Carlos Williams but still functions beautifully after all the plums are gone.