Share this article on:




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

The first lines of this poem call to mind one of the most fundamental fears of childhood—that if we go to sleep, we'll suffer some loss—miss something, lose our protections, even “die before we wake.” For most of us those fears are gradually stilled by years of waking to ordinary mornings with our lives more or less intact, still able to sustain the continuities by which we define ourselves. But for the woman who speaks in this poem the fears have been realized. An operation becomes a watershed in her life, on the far side of which the most basic terms of life and selfhood have been altered. She is “all stitching and sorrow”—in the moment of post-op waking her physical and emotional wounds overwhelm the other dimensions of self that made her “silken, magic, [and] strong.”

The dark backgrounds of Rembrandt's self-portraits, mysterious and poignant in the way they isolate the subject from all social context, offer a powerful analogue to the isolation of the one who suffers. In those famous studies of a man whose sufferings are intricately inscribed on his flesh, we see, as we do in this poem, an environment where references to the social world the subject inhabits are obscured or obliterated by a compelling focus on the subject's complex interiority. The speaker in this poem is caught in a kind of space–time warp where pain blots out the markers we count on to take the measure of our days. The almost matter-of-fact observation that time is “all one color” deepens the sense of almost visible change in ambient light viewed from the place of pain, so that the painless neutrality of objects and familiar faces recedes behind the gray haze of preoccupation that fogs in the field of consciousness and keeps it close in to the body.

Not all continuities vanish: the inner life “goes on,” but the relationship between mind and body is altered. Where the supple, healthy body may give expression to inner life as an instrument gives expression to music, the broken body, the body in pain, reduces the range of those communicative possibilities: movements are restricted, the muscles of face and limbs are tyrannized by flaming nerves, and the outward flow of attention is forced inward like backwash.

The final stanza of the poem opens into surprise the way Psalms of lamentation end in praise. Even great pain, though it defeats one's immediate purposes, can give rise to new ways of claiming life. The “flowering” that can take place in a hospital bed may resemble the gratuitous growth of wildflowers where one had hoped to design a garden. Plans, deadlines, appointments, and other boundaries dissolve into the uncertainties of recovery, but recovery time offers its own teaching moments and occasional gifts. As habits, hopes, and purposes are altered by loss of “normal” life, life can reassert and reshape itself in the radical discontinuities to which time seems reduced. The ancient admonishment common to so many spiritual teachers to live fully in the now may come to the person in pain as the only viable choice. To choose life on these terms is to scale something steep and hard, but perhaps to find blossoms that don't grow in greener places.

A poem that honors the complexity of pain in the way this one does offers a valuable aid to caregivers who need to be reminded how profoundly alien a place the world may be to those who look at it from a place of pain. The view from that place can be hard to imagine for those who have not traveled there; it can only be reported adequately, not by instruments and graphs, but by the ruthless accuracies of the poet, whose task, as Emily Dickinson put it, is to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

© 2003 Association of American Medical Colleges