Living With Pain

Cynthia Hogue uses poetry to chronicle her dealing with arthritis

Cynthia Hogue's fifth book of poems, The Incognito Body, artfully details her experiences coming to terms with rheumatoid arthritis. The adjective "artfully" seems fitting, given that the poems contain not only Hogue's lines but also the words of other poets, scholars and historians who have influenced the poet's relationship to creativity and pain.

Hogue, who serves as the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall chair in modern and contemporary poetry in the English Department at Arizona State University, is a master at various poetic forms. She has also published The Never Wife, The Woman in Red and Where the Parallels Cross. In addition, she is the co-editor of We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, and the author of a critical book, Scheming Women: Poetry, Privilege and the Politics of Subjectivity.

In her latest book, Hogue embeds quotations from Buddhist leaders; the poets Robert Duncan, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and Denise Levertov; celebrated Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry; and numerous others to create a patchwork effect of language and imagery, an effect that makes the reader consider Scarry's argument that pain doesn't "simply resist language but actively destroys it." However, as these poems demonstrate, Hogue writes her way into, around and over her pain, always with her face turned toward the sunlight of life. This is not to suggest that the writing of these poems was cathartic for Hogue, but merely that the poet appears to defeat Scarry's thesis.

The central title series, "The Incognito Body," is drawn from a journal that Hogue kept during the first year of her illness; she wanted to record an experience she was not sure would ever change, and spent two years fine-tuning the poem's shape. In the first section of her title poem, Hogue quotes lines from The Duchess of Malfi (Malfi's lines are in italics):

With slow, slug-
moves (gray-
pouched skin), I
more contemptible: since ours is to preserve
earthewormes: didst though ever see a Larke in a
cage? such is the soule in the body...
limp to this shore,
stand in white
light on white sand,
step into sea
so salty that
I float free
of gravity.

But this book is not only about Hogue's experience with pain; it also explores how pain can facilitate (and hinder) the creative process. She writes, "Pain bleeds through imagination, unimaginative: / it just is. One wishes to do something, go somewhere, / but everywhere the sensation remains, / the body in pain. Its eyes look / on fuchsia and lilac overtaking / the black fence, it still bleeds, / and I am knowing this." Poetry isn't only defined by words but also by the white space or line breaks on the page; here, the white space seems to want to portray pain as a character that is at times muted, other times rampant.

In another section of the center poem, subtitled "The Exhibit of Pain," Hogue dissects the cycles a person with a chronic illness experiences, presenting these cycles as cold facts, so to speak, in the form of framed excerpts of medical language taken from an Icelandic doctoral student's unpublished article. (In 1979-1980, Hogue enjoyed a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship to Iceland.) The exhibit's Blue Gallery notes that "chronic patients exaggerate personal / disability and unfortunate event, / triggering unnecessary sympathetic / arousal, feelings of anxiety, and tonic changes in muscles." The Red Gallery suggests that "confusing desire for a pleasure with a need / for pleasure is a self-defeating position: / that one must give in to short-term / pleasure."

Hogue, who has won numerous awards, certainly doesn't exaggerate or wallow in these poems; this book is long on pleasure, with a learned voice that ponders and challenges wisely the physical and metaphysical. Hogue's voice is at times modest, other times funny, and wavers between control and chaos, joy and sadness. Her poems travel from the literal to the metaphorical, and back again. The poems rely as much on rhyme as on rhythm, narration as on abstractions.

Cynthia Hogue recently spoke at a UA panel called "Creativity and Illness," a panel formed in response to Paris Press' new edition of Virginia Woolf's essay "On Being Ill." In this essay, Woolf discusses the trajectory of her life with mental illness and its effects on her creative process. In response, Hogue spoke from a place of understanding, noting the odd and even ethical experience of having the self mirrored back at her, and of feeling unsettled by the otherness of Woolf's pain. Like Woolf, Hogue struggled to write about her illness having "been inside the bell glass of a painful illness." Unlike Woolf, she came to live with it.

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