Inevitably, we become aware of our mortality

POET'S CORNER

Though the body betrays us, hope teaches us to treasure the life we have

October 26, 2003|By Michael Collier | Michael Collier,Special to the Sun

The 18th-century hymn "The Good Physician" offers "A dying risen, Jesus / Seen by the eye of faith" as the only cure for a "sin-sick soul."

The health or illness of the body as a mirror for the condition of one's spiritual life has a long tradition both in literature and Christian allegory. Additionally, the bad physician is a traditional stock comic character in English drama.

Taking up where these traditions leave off in our more secular era, Linda Gregerson in her beautiful but disquieting "The Bad Physician," from her second book of poems, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, explores notions of belief and trust in a world where faith is often equated with science and technological miracles.

Gregerson's poem is defined by two extended metaphors or conceits. One describes the body's possessing a "versatile logic," producing "error" and functioning as a "system." And the other speaks to the ways in which we "learn" our relationship to the body, whether it is "willy-nilly" or by "rote."

For Gregerson, learning is a form of consciousness, and it is through consciousness that we become aware of the body's fallible nature, and thereby our own mortality.

Running alongside these conceits are the themes of "belief" and "hope," which are something like products of consciousness. These are not "faith" and "hope" in the religious sense -- though I think they are related -- but rather, they are faith and hope in our ability, perhaps necessity, regardless of the body's indifference, to find beauty and to claim it by way of love.

Gregerson demonstrates this in the following lines: "The beautiful cells dividing have / no mind / for us, but look / what a ravishing mind / they make / and what a heart we've nursed / in its shade."

Charged and dramatic language, as well as subtle allusion, characterizes Gregerson's poems. In a beautiful and thrilling evocation of Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 73, which concludes, "To love that well which thou must leave ere long," Gregerson ends "The Bad Physician": "who love / that most / which leaves us most behind."

In ending this way, Gregerson reminds us, as Shakespeare did, that our ability to love the body in spite of its inevitable betrayals is a form of courage that is greater than knowledge and as such is evidence of what Gregerson calls, in a stunning oxymoron, "the pure, / distorting light of hope."

Linda Gregerson teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at the University of Michigan. She is the author of three books of poems, the most recent of which, Waterborne (Houghton Mifflin 2003), received the prestigious $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize.

Gregerson will read as part of Loyola College's Modern Masters Series this Thursday at 5 p.m. in the McManus Theatre. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 410-617-2528.

Michael Collier is poet laureate of Maryland. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

The Bad Physician

By Linda Gregerson

The body in health, the body in sickness,

inscribing

its versatile logic till the least

of us must, willy-nilly, learn

to read.

And even in error, as when

the mutant multiples, or first

my right eye,

now my left, is targeted

for harm by the system

designed

to keep it safe,

even in error the body

wields cunning

as birches in leaf wield light.

The child who swallows the amnion now

will swallow milk

by winter. The milk

can find a use for me but not

for my belief,

nor yours, and it beggars the best

of our purposes. Within us

without us,

this life is already beyond us,

so what must it make of the man who cures

by rote?

My friend's young daughter moved

with a slightly muddied

gait

and then her tongue

and then her hands

unlearned

their freedom, so newly

acquired. Unlearned with great

labor

while the tumor thrived,

all the elixirs in Mexico

could not

revise her sentence by a day.

You who make your living at

the body's re-

versible deviations,

what will you say to a six-

year-old

when all her bright first lessons

are defaced? Even the skeptic

in his lab,

who works at the friable boundaries

of our common

legibility

and does the work that I trust

best, is bound to frame his question

in the pure,

distorting light of hope.

The beautiful cells dividing have

no mind

for us, but look

what a ravishing mind

they make

and what a heart we've nursed

in its shade, who love

that most

which leaves us most behind.

From The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. Copyright c1996 by Linda Gregerson. Reprinted by permission, Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved.

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