Beautiful Minds 

Pamela Portwood transforms mental anguish into artful poems

When one reads a great work of literature--and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is such a work--one turns the final page on a world that's richer, more colorful and more real than the world we claim to inhabit.

How can this be? How is it that certain writers can capture the full emotional range of human beings, often with more precision and depth than our own experiences allow? Is there any correlation to the fact that many of Western culture's greatest writers suffered from varying forms and degrees of epilepsy--as did Dostoyevsky? Indeed, can a neurological misfiring heighten a person's imaginative powers?

Tucson poet Pamela Portwood (a former Weekly contributor) certainly makes the case for epilepsy as a creativity booster. In her debut collection, A Bruised Light, Portwood portrays a slew of famous literary and historical figures, each one struggling to reconcile the beauty and terror of the "wild song" screaming in their brains. This is an epic, exquisite lyrical meditation on "the ecstasy before the darkness," as well as the many other mental disorders--schizophrenia, depression--that are often bundled together with epilepsy.

Part One, however, is autobiographical. In poems like "The Falling Sickness," Portwood uses metaphors that do much to capture the intense physical symptoms of a mounting seizure:

Some nights my dreams cross the border
like immigrants desperate to escape
a hungry life. I lick my lips
with words that cannot escape.
My fingers knead my pants
as if they were the finest cashmere,
but I feel only a bleached stillness,
a stiffly woven waiting.
The air is vibrating in a cicada's buzz,
and I cannot hear, I cannot speak
the terror of falling into death--
and then waking
without remembering those last moments,
this hunger for life.

Eventually, of course, she finds herself locked in the topsy-turvy embrace of a full-blown fit, where she notes: "The floor is sinking if floors can sink, / or is it that I am rising like a balloon." The funhouse horror of such moments is matched only by the side effects of the anti-epilepsy drugs Portwood was originally prescribed, which included, as she states in the preface, "the loss of cognitive and memory skills." Here, the language takes an even darker turn:

A towel wiping the saliva away.
Blood in the mouth.
Swallow the pills.
My tongue with its edges
now scalloped
like a sea creature,
split again.

Indeed, the loss of memory means the loss of identity, and Portwood excels at describing the indescribable. But it's in her portraits of artists like Van Gogh and Flaubert that A Bruised Light really shines.

Part Two begins with epistolary poems written from the perspective of art history's most famous self-mutilator. In these, Van Gogh writes to his brother Theo, articulating the fragile authority he gains from his epilepsy. In "The Starry Night," Portwood expertly communicates what many have long noticed about this work: its gorgeous yet destructive violence. In the same way that a mushroom cloud arrests the senses, so does "The Starry Night" stop a viewer in her tracks. Van Gogh explains why:

The wave of night sweeps over the town,
dyeing the blue ground,
drawing the rows of trees
into foam before the mountains crash
over the tiny, lighted houses,
the thin church spire smaller than a single cypress leaf.

That the onset of epilepsy may have provided the tortured artist with an apocalyptic vision has certainly been discussed before, but never with such finesse. In addition, Portwood confidently nails the voices of figures as wide-ranging as Napoleon and Lewis Carroll. Although not every voice she expresses is known to have suffered from epilepsy, the poet does a good job of making the case that such suffering was at least a possibility.

Part Three, while fascinating, is a tad too educational. One gets the impression that Portwood is squeezing the remainder of her research--and not her personal experience--into instructional-sounding poems like "Ancient Greek Remedies for Epilepsy." Yet while some of Portwood's lyricism falls way, there were certainly plenty of interesting cures, among them: "Eat part of the liver of a gladiator nine times / or better yet still drink his blood as it foams warm from his veins, / suck his soul from his wounds."

A Bruised Light will leave a mark upon your imagination for the simple reason that it illuminates a little-discussed ailment. But you don't need to be a mental-health professional or suffer from epilepsy to admire this book. Portwood's debut is an auspicious one, and she joins the ranks of many other first-rate writers living and working in Tucson. We look forward to reading more.

More by Jarret Keene

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