In Tom Healy’s book “What the Right Hand Knows,” one of my favorite moments includes the opening stanza of “Mirror, Mirror”:
What do we do when we hate our bodies?
A good coat helps.
Some know how to pull off a hat.
Once again, Healy’s pedagogical instinct kicks into full force. Here we appreciate him as our teacher. (Who can’t appreciate the humorous qualifier “some”? Or that there is an eerie accuracy in his advice?)
But then as the poem continues, Healy doesn’t seem to trust us to make our own observations/inferences in regards to his initial remarks. He offers a fairly obvious litany of other possibilities:
There is also the company we keep:
surgeons and dermatologists,
faith healers and instruction-givers...
Healy is no doubt the latter: an instruction-giver, a bit of a control freak. (Are those super short lines, often arranged in couplets always a result of content releasing the necessary form or does Healy fear that more spontaneous longer line.) Sometimes his controlling tendencies works against him. Even in this fine poem, he feels the curious need to tidy everything up in a way reminiscent of Billy Collins: a gesture to the somewhat saving grace of reading:
..ever so slightly, holding novels in bed,
concentrating on the organizations
of pain and joy
we say is another mirror,
a depth, a conjure in which we might meet
someone who says touch me.
I commend Healy for having faith in explaining possible cures to depression. In this case, it can obviously be specified as body dysmorphia. He doesn’t resort to the boring tactic of lesser poets: showing and telling. In dealing with urgent issues, telling is more than appropriate. It may be necessary.
Showing can just take so damn long. As a self-appointed pedagogue, Healey needs to get right to business. And he does. That’s an act of poetic generosity.
At the same time, it’s also important for Healy needs to trust us a bit more, and not become enraptured by his own more obvious pontifications.
In the Jane Kenyon poem "Having it Out With Melancholy," she writes:
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
Ostensibly a throwaway numbered section in her poem, Kenyon does something stunningly intelligent: she normalizes the use of pharmaceutical drugs for depression. By offering a litany of their names, they have a numbing, sing-song effect. Leave it to those euphonious X’s and Z’s. (Drug manufacturers strive to use as many of those letters as possible. It has been proven that people have more faith in drugs with those particular letters, sounds.) By grouping within three lines these drugs to treat manic-depression alone or in combination, Kenyon’s makes them sound oddly relatable. What person undergoing mental illness hasn’t struggled with the ridiculous even if sometime necessary use of pharmaceuticals? No matter how intense the effort, you’re always- for better or for worse- stuck with your own hardwiring. To a degree.
The brilliant simile (“the powdery ones smell like the chemistry lab at school”) provides a curious quasi-mock-nostalgic remembrance. No doubt people who suffer from chemical depression deal with enough stigmatization. Through demystifying the drugs, making their “taste” so relatable, she normalizes them. To an extent. This is generosity.
There’s a similar strategy operating in Healy’s “Voodoo.” It’s undoubtedly one of the most important poems in the book, possibly the most generous. Based on some of the lines, particularly “Here and Now” (After I found/my blood in trouble”), the persona of some of these poems seem to be HIV-impacted. Like Kenyon, this raises issues regarding the representation of medication as well as people dealing with “illnesses” that could be considered self-inflicted: depression, or in Healy’s case: AIDS.
Immediately, the narrator declares that “Everyone is so involved/keeping track of my pills.” It’s important that the pills transform not once, but twice into a transcendent, almost heavenly object. As the narrator first observesL his housekeeper “...counts them out in Creole,/numbering a scattered universe clustered on the bed/” He also declares a bond to his housekeeper who claims they’re (the universe of pills) are like “the rosary.”
This latter simile yields an affection between the two. Not only does he presume that she sees them as having some sort of transcendent power, they also have their own mysterious set-backs. He doesn’t name the actual drugs (a smart move: naming them would again make Healy fall into his fall-back role of pedagogue). Yet he doesn’t deny their potential dangers: after all, she puts a “curse on one that’s striped/turquoise and kelly green.” Healy doesn’t lecture. Which bears repeating. At the same, I want to emphasize that discursiveness can be a necessary tool.
Healey sees the maid as making no judgment against him; in fact, she normalizes his meds by translating their use in the context of her own Creole culture. The narrator may be a white, middle aged, gay man but he generously cross-identifies with her, seeing the pills as a useful tool (rosary) and danger, deserving of a curse. The poem demystifies and explains in concrete terms the one-word title: “Voodoo.” From the perspective of the narrator and the housekeeper, the health dangers are there, but embedded in the poem, so is generosity of vision and understanding.
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