Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3180309453
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Commentary

McEntyre, Marilyn PhD

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Dr. McEntyre is professor, Department of English, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

In this poem, written soon after the poet received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, the illness invades the speaker's body and consciousness like a monster at night, a harbinger of unpredictable dangers. What is remarkable in this rendering of dread is not so much the image of a looming, menacing form, but rather the grace, skill, precision, and wit the writer brings to bear on inchoate feelings of impending doom.

The poem is exquisitely balanced: the alternation of couplets with single lines creates a kind of heartbeat that throbs beneath the developing chronicle of sensations. The adjectives that open five of the first six lines progress from “unspeakable” to “inexorable” and then deepen to “inescapable” at the center of the poem, marking the steps on a descent into darkness, each offering a way of naming the threat that hovers with uncertain shape and intention in the life-space that once offered the gated safety of reliable selfhood. In the first half of the poem the “some thing” that stalks and watches and enters is the subject of each sentence; in the second half the “I” moves from object to subject, from prey to participant in her own fate. This shift indicates a turning from fear toward resolve, from abjection toward acceptance, emerging finally in the prayer that redirects the speaker's attention toward the “Gods” that bless and permit and toward the reassurance of her own experience that darkness gives way to light. The “thus far” that completes the poem preserves that final reassurance from any suggestion of trite or easy optimism, qualifying hope and faith with a realism that forestalls false comfort.

The poem begins in paradox, as it ends, setting out to speak what is “unspeakable.” And the very consciousness that opens its floodgates to fear is recognized in the end as the weapon with which to fight fear and as a prerequisite to blessing. In every stanza, startling word choices demand that we pause to take in the complexity of the experience being described. “Some thing” written as two words—between which a space is opened for the question, “What thing?”—loses the innocuous anonymity of the indefinite pronoun and becomes a very definite noun, though what is being named is unknown. “Stalking” evokes not only the image of the stricken one as prey, but also, since the poet/speaker is female, associates the unnamed other with the sexual predator who invades and violates the body. “In its sights” shifts the metaphor to suggest not only a watcher, but one who looks through the crosshairs of a lethal weapon. The juxtaposition of “inexorable” and “unavoidable” on a single line locate the threat both within and without, once again playing on the edge of paradox to get at the felt experience. “Scampering,” which lies at the end of a line as a noun and then turns to adjective as the next line begins, brings pathos to the idea of the patient as prey: one imagines bunnies or field mice seeking shelter—or puppies, perhaps, when we get to “whimpers”—helpless creatures one might be moved instinctively to protect. “Usurped” reintroduces the idea of the body as a space invaded and perhaps, for readers who remember making their way through the spiritual wrestlings of Donne's “Holy Sonnets” evokes the anguished lines:

I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,

Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,1

As Donne imagines himself to be utterly occupied by sin, the speaker in this poem imagines the seat of self-governance taken over by sickness.

But like the sonnets of Donne and his metaphysical ilk, this poem takes a surprising turn just as it hovers at the edge of despair. “So,” like the “yet” or “but” that forms a hinge in so many traditional laments, changes the whole feel and logic of the poem. All that has gone before is prelude to this prayer for the grace to “bless and cherish” life even on these terms, to remain insistently and courageously conscious whatever comes, and to remember the light already given as a shield against the gathering darkness.

It is a humble prayer—not a cry of rage nor a plea to be spared, or even healed, but simply a request for the courage to meet what comes with an open heart. The journey of illness offers many vantage points along the way, each a new occasion for spiritual reflection. This poem marks a trailhead where one journey begins and where, already, hope begins to be reshaped and life reclaimed on radically different terms.

Marilyn McEntyre, PhD

Dr. McEntyre is professor, Department of English, Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

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Reference

1 Donne J. Holy Sonnet XIV. In: Carey J, ed. John Donne—The Major Works: Including Songs and Sonnets and Sermons. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1990.

© 2007 Association of American Medical Colleges

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