I have avoided writing this essay. This essay was really supposed to be strictly a review, written and published a year ago. In the world of publishing, reviews are timely and scheduled around commercial purposes. But nothing about life since the publication of Maps of Injury has been timely or felt purposeful.
So this review-cum-essay is not timely, and, with a few freak exceptions, poetry is not commercial. But despite the way our lives over the past sixteen months in the U.S. and across the globe have shifted and morphed and disintegrated and risen again as something new, for this reader, this reviewer, at least, the poems in this book feel oddly prescient, incredibly personal, and devastatingly timely—which made them difficult to write about.
Published in early 2020, Chera Hammons’s collection of poems was one of those books for which marketing and promotion was slowed, crippled, or felled by the first wave, and then the second wave, of the pandemic. This is sadly apt for a book that is largely about being slowed, sometimes crippled, and occasionally felled by chronic illness. These poems were written in a pre-COVID life, about a speaker who lives and sometimes suffers with an insidious and unpredictable, but ever-present illness that creates invisible disability.
When I read them, initially, I was a woman who was just beginning to suffer from an insidious and unpredictable, but ever-present illness that creates invisible disability.
But as a reviewer, you want to write what is relevant for many readers. A wide audience. I cannot speak for many readers; however, I suspect that Hammons’s ideal audience is quite wide and growing larger as the pandemic continues into this fourth Omicron-variant-driven wave, as people are left to contend with not just the loss of loved ones, but with the infection’s potentially life-altering aftermath: the loss of one’s general health, the loss of a body’s function.
So while I suspect there are others out there, I can only write about the way these poems, like “Phlebotomy,” felt intense and personal to me, and visceral, plucking at a chord somewhere between my brain and my gut:
I’m still not sure I know how to listen
now that I miss turns, misspell words.
I know my body, like theirs,
would rearrange itself like a bullet.
No wonder it accommodates so easily
a needle whose language finds its tongue
in eight vials of blood that comes out slowly.
That’s what we’re all made of, untidy warmth
thick with uncertainty and dark.
Maps of Injury opens with poems that ground you in the collection’s main concerns: bodies that fail, and the way we cannot depend—no matter how much we want to—on anyone to save us from this failing (even, and especially, ourselves). That’s a grim premise, for sure – to see the way a body betrays itself mirrored in the landscape around us; in the animals, wild and domestic, with whom we coexist. And these metaphors or parallels in the natural world are not a veil or a way of being slyly indirect: Hammons’s book never sugarcoats or avoids frank discussions of morbidity or mortality.
But that’s not to say, oddly enough, that her directness isn’t comforting. There’s a grace, Hammons shows us, in the way we persist in our attempts to survive or thwart what plagues us. There’s a kind of beauty in the way we try to subvert the inevitable, to ease pain and suffering, whether in horses trapped by a flood, as described in “Broke”:
Because no one else can stand to watch the horses die,
men and women are jumping into the water now to save them.
They believe us enough to follow us out;
horses are trained to ignore the most exquisite betrayals
or when we try to help ailing family members, as described in “What Happens Then”: “My retired mother cleans my house while I am at work / because I have become too sick to do it.”
These poems also tell us there’s an equal grace in seeing the world and its strange mechanisms for what they are: neither cruel nor beneficent, but purposeful, even if that purpose is coldly atom-and-energy driven, not God-given, and still beyond our comprehension. Take, for example, these lines from “Staked Plains,” where the poet wrestles with the necessity of physical pain:
And the filter that is your body—the chambers
separating blood with oxygen from blood without,
the lungs rising and falling like tides,
the membrane of your skin—is meant to allow pain.
With every breath, then, let the dangerous world in.
In May of last year, I was two months past having contracted the novel coronavirus. My first brush with the illness was about five weeks long, but nothing—thankfully—catastrophic. My husband—who also fell ill—and I managed to keep from infecting anyone else in our household. Neither of us had to go to the hospital. We were both able to keep our jobs and support our family.
But when I first read these poems, and particularly the sentiment of that last line above—“let the dangerous world in”—I wasn’t ready. My body had begun attacking itself in a strange new way, although for a good half of a year, or maybe more, I fought a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. I wanted to believe that my aching knees and swollen knuckles and audibly cracking elbows and overwhelming fatigue were part of a post-COVID syndrome that made me a “long-hauler,” because being a part of that group meant that scientists and researchers were learning more about COVID, developing possible cures and preventatives, miracle vaccines, all the stuff we read about last autumn.
It gave me hope that this pain was temporary; it gave my neighbors and friends and family hope that there would be an end to the lockdown and the isolation and the shadow of death that persisted. For months we’d lived with the fire whistle going off multiple times a day: first responders with their blue dashboard lights rushing to help those who could no longer breathe on their own, those poor people who had to enter the hospital alone and sometimes died there, also alone. It was rumored that the cemetery crematorium in our small town on Long Island was burning bodies daily at the same rate it burned them monthly in the years before COVID-19 hit. Those bodies, according to the wagging tongues (wagging at a distance of 6-feet apart, through masks, or over the phone) were almost entirely from New York City.
But for many people with a chronic illness, pain is never temporary; it takes a backseat at times, but most of the time it’s driving one’s actions and inactions, and accelerating one’s emotions to unpredictable and unnavigable speeds. Much of the not-knowing in the early days of chronic illness does this too.
For the speaker in Hammons’s poems, like here in “After Another, I Don’t Think,” physical pain often triggers memories of another kind of trauma:
. . . Finally, I gave up on arguing with him,
would just watch him open the next bottle and start counting.
Even if he moved too abruptly toward me
when he was still sober, I’d flinch.
What are you afraid of? he’d ask, though he must have known.
Nothing, I would tell him, thinking, This.
Depression triggered by chronic pain is surprising. Perhaps it seems obvious and expected to some, but I was unnerved by my consistent low moods, particularly as my joints swelled more and the doctors had fewer concrete, absolute things to say.
It was then that my pain-filled, sleep-deprived nights became a catalyst for another kind of pain: It fractured my relationship with my husband where there had already been fissures. Old, unresolved conflicts resurfaced; new treasons erupted. When you lose faith in your body’s ability to be a body, it’s difficult to have faith in much or anyone else, despite the time and love and children and life-building between you.
And perhaps I’m projecting, but Hammons, I feel, would not be surprised by my surprise. Nor do I think she’d be confounded by the fact that (with help, with new rounds of medication for me, with telehealth therapy for us both) we’ve been able to repair some of that division and found a way back to building faith in one another. She writes about this faith-building in “The Long Definition,” how it is grounded in an intimacy that has everything to do with the intimacy between two bodies even when one of those bodies is in jeopardy:
. . . two people, born strangers,
lie listening to each other breathe
in the quiet hours before dawn, able to believe,
for one more day, that words don’t get lost
in the space between them.
Finding faith in a body’s ability to heal, or finding faith in fraught, complex loves, Hammons suggests, is a similar process. To some extent it’s forced and unnatural, maybe even farcical: “if you care about me, / make me believe it,” the poet writes in “The Fine Print of Our Vows,” even though here the speaker wants to believe her husband is removing a spider from the house to the garden, and not just throwing it into the trash can. But whether spiders or COVID or old traumas are the threat, Hammons reveals that sometimes healing is a matter of saying a thing over and over, no matter the tenuousness of its truth:
Tell me again how I still make you laugh.
Tell me again that the first time I noticed
that quiet danger that watches with its many eyes
will be the only time.
For me, reading Maps of Injury again, now and in the future, might be my way toward healing as I navigate away from the bodily and emotional wreckage of the past year. I managed to survive a second, far more severe bout of COVID in January 2021; my marriage is something different now, but one more likely to survive, and thrive. And I’m trying out different drug therapies to see what works to stop the inflammation in my body.
Ultimately, I don’t know if I’m traveling toward something better—but Hammons’s book has helped me feel calmer and better equipped to face wherever this passage might take me. And whether you are enduring chronic illness or emotional upheaval, Hammons’s book can probably help you, too.
About the Reviewer
Sarah Kain Gutowski is the author of Fabulous Beast: Poems (Texas Review Press), runner-up for the 2018 X.J. Kennedy Prize, winner of the 14th annual National Indie Excellence Award for Poetry, and a 2019 Foreword INDIES Finalist. She holds an MFA in poetry from New York University and a BA from James Madison University. Her poems and criticism have appeared in various print and online journals, including The Threepenny Review, Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review.