The late Dean Young resonates with insight into the human condition in writing, “. . . each of us / roams our own locked cell of perception.”
Therein lies the challenge of poetry: the translation of perceptual reality into language, from one consciousness to another.
Jennifer Metsker’s poetry collection Hypergraphia and Other Failed Attempts at Paradise successfully communicates her “perceptual cell” to allow readers into her worldview. The writing is bold, for its bravery and truth, for its unflinching portrayal of bipolar disorder and psychosis.
Hypergraphia is “a behavioral condition characterized by the intense desire to write or draw.” Metsker has disclosed that “Part IV,” a section of one-paragraph prose poems entitled “Days of the God-Sized Brains,” was derived from a book-length poem she managed to prune to thirteen pages.
Given such pruning as presupposition, the terrain of this book is vast and complex, with a head-spinning breadth and depth of richness that the poet squeezes into a mere ninety-eight pages. Her work is mesmerizing, and exhibits immense range.
Metsker’s writing may have begun as a symptom of mania, but in the larger sense, the poetry pulses with desire to share experience. The poems are poignant, heartbreaking, frightening, and humorous.
With a style that breaks convention throughout, Metsker intertwines hallucinatory material with thought and paradigm from collective reality, thereby creating a new logic. Near the close of the title poem, Metsker writes:
Fill a super collider with balsa planes.
Witness all the planes colliding.
Then there is Canada with its vast ice plains.
Then there is water and no water.
Moons come in a variety of colors.
But there aren’t enough pillows for everyone.
There aren’t enough soft landings. There aren’t enough
drink carts or cave dwellings.
There aren’t enough trees or heads
on Easter Island. There aren’t enough mysteries
To make this interesting.
These lines represent the disjointed imagery, trains of thought, and streams of poetic consciousness Metsker employs to imitate the world of psychosis. The poet pulls from classical literature, ancient religion, and popular culture. For instance, contrast these lines:
St. John walked on the shores of Patmos,
the white sand beaches
mimicking a body wrapped in a shroud.
A number of shapes require
dire pronouncements, like the numbers
themselves, the references to Revelations, the sand
and the flowers, those paroxysms of joy and woe.
The grain of sand produces nostalgia
for quantum abrasions, oh, those tiny calculations,
but it’s hard to stick a landing in sand.
You’re not going to the chapel,
you’re not going
to get married.
This poetry of chaos is awash in the familiar—for instance, convoluting song lyrics and advertising jingles, a feat of imagination providing odd comfort. Take these lines from “Deus Ex Machina,” one of three poems so titled in “Part III”:
The billboard described it
a suicide hotline by
a slot machine spinning:
Throughout Hypergraphia, the poet’s outpouring of experience and consciousness slipped in and out of my hands like slick fish. Although unable to comprehend some literal meaning, I loved the poetry’s mystery, its majesty. Metsker’s conveyance of off-beat confusion enticed me to probe with my Geiger counter, a beep beep resounding within my own humanness responding to hers. The poet’s deft use of language is just that good.
In “This is What It’s like to Lose Time and Ask for It Back in a Letter,” Metsker intersperses hospital imagery—isolation room, crisis intervention tablets, dixie cups, and nurses shuffling—with the word redaction. One comes to understand the poem is a censored letter, written presumably from within the walls of an institution.
The repetition of the single word redaction is fraught with double meaning. While the poet is telling us what it feels like to lose touch with time, she is also trying to retrieve that which has been lost while knowing—and letting us know—that what has been lost is irretrievable. The hide-and-seek quality conveys much through what it does not say.
“Dark Helicopter” is another dark jewel of a poem, one that deserves high praise in my book, if only for the line about growing nails for the crucifixion:
When the dark helicopter descends over the neighborhood
we must duck down and cover up the flower beds
as the water from the bird bath catapults its skeletons.
The lawn breeds black spikes in the oppressive geometric
shadow of the helicopter. This is how they grew the nails
for the crucifixion. . . .
The ending conveys a kind of wrenching hopelessness that defines the core of mental illness:
. . . Work harder, yells the helicopter,
You can do it! You can be a productive member of society!
while it blows the trees sideways and slices up
the neighborhood into all the spare parts
that humans are made of.
In “Why I Still Use My Dead Pet’s Name as My Password,” Metsker has transformed blue into a talented polymath, a word-of-all-trades. The poet uses this simple word a masterful fifteen times to haul wood and carry water, to perform intricate mechanisms of the poem’s workload: blue gray, blue bottles, blue-flamed, blue light, blue as twilight, blue as mermaid fins, blue of oncoming advertisements, blue bonnet, blue suit, blue pills, blue world, blue light, blue-skinned, blue regard, blue feet.
I have something to say to Metsker: I’m blue with envy for you.
Like “Part IV,” “Part II,” “Release,” is a series of one-paragraph prose poems, comprehensible separately and collectively. The poet writes:
The pay phone in the hallway would ring in the night and if I picked it up, I would be the prank caller no matter what. Words were candy-boxes. Words had creamy centers. A little sweetness turned the heat up and the parking lot shimmered. On the day of my release, my father gave chocolate-covered strawberries to the cheerless staff who had strapped me to the bed.
The passage is eerily solemn, edgy and frightening: sweetness turning up heat, a shimmering parking lot. Given the poet’s faulty mental circuit board, the joke is always on her, she’s the prank caller, “no matter what.” Metsker counters the mad sweetness of the lines by talking about her father’s chocolate-covered strawberries, juxtaposed with having been strapped to a bed. Throughout “Release,” the father portrays life’s normalcy contrasted to her perplexing madness, a technique Metsker uses to ground the poems effectively here and elsewhere.
Another line—among many—worth mentioning anchors readers in the same way: “At least I know my name again. My name and my planet.”
In “Sand and Flowers,” Metsker conveys the central theme of a book about mental instability, writing, “. . . it’s hard to stick a landing in sand.” In essence, after all the effort, there is still only instability.
Paradoxically, having catapulted readers through psychosis via imitation, the poet has stuck her landing, by employing language skillfully enough for us to understand her. By allowing us entrance to the terra incognita of madness while setting us back down on terra firma, Metsker strikes the bargain between writer and reader on her own terms. For me, this quality is what makes the writing work.
In translating her life experience, Metsker has cracked what Dean Young calls her locked cell of perception. She deserves our praise and admiration for delivering her postcard from the edge, her message in a bottle.
About the Reviewer
Suzanne Schoenfelt is a poet and author whose work has been published in Antenna, Bear River Review, Evening Street Review, Colorado Review, Indiana Writes, San Diego Poetry Annual, and the Southwest Journal (poetry section). She spent her career as a medical writer and editor, and seeks to bridge the worlds of science and art.