Best Poems Ever about Illness

Perpetual Care by Susan Eisenberg
Perpetual Care by Susan Eisenberg

Poet Susan Eisenberg has published three previous books, all worth reading, all notable for their lack of pedantry and abstractions affecting so much poetry today. Her poems are immediate, dramatic, and firmly rooted in day-to-day reality. With this fourth volume, she reveals something personal you’d appreciate knowing about. She is unwell: a cancer survivor, she also has lupus, an insidious autoimmune disease you can read all about in Wikipedia. So what does she do? She writes about it. How? Astoundingly well.

Perpetual Care starts off as a diary of her physical afflictions, with chapter-like poems such as “In the Beginning,” “Pre-Diagnosis,” and “Driving Home Haiku.” In “Lupus Outwits Me, Declares Martial Law,” she uses a military metaphor to describe feelings of being overtaken by the disease. But she fights back and starts to “plot in whispers/the first frantic steps of resistance.” She compares her pill boxes to “miniature coffins” but soon discovers pills are not “liberators” ─ they overstay and “bring their own trouble.”

But she doesn’t merely document her reactions to her conditions. She also tells of the effect they have on others. Describing a friend scanning her face, she tosses us this sharply observed image: it’s “like it’s an obituary page.” She tries to be casual with her daughter, but her “voice histogram” betrays her and her daughter “deciphers the setback.” Her mother hugs her, bearishly, and offers her years if somehow she could do that. Using a popular trope from prison movies, she expertly applies it to the patient/doctor relationship: “We press our palms/against the same thick glass/but can’t make contact.”

Contrary to what you might think, this is not a depressing book. It’s simply too well crafted. While it is about being ill and apprehensive, it’s also about being snared in the medical system web. She attends a lupus conference where even the “quilt of kindness” around her can’t conceal her chill at discovering the keynote speakers can’t be there because of illness. She interacts with a nurse who tells her a nasty anti-inflammatory drug can’t be replaced with milder version. She even writes about medical bills, each of which only underscores her captivity to illness.

What tools are left for her? Grim humor, for one. She fights back with well-honed irony and satire. “Patient Gallery Closed: Social Worker Explains” is a Brechtian masterstroke, in which a bureaucratic employee rationalizes why a patient art gallery had to close: “A great experiment,/but we can’t risk complaints. We’re a hospital, a cheerful place.” In “Cancer Survivor Dies of Cancer” she sardonically depicts the dilemma the treatment center faces: “cool things down, offer condolences, let them know/how much we all loved Paula.”

The book is illustrated with a quirky creative idea I’ve never seen used before. She placed rows upon rows of her empty pill containers along the paths and monuments of Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery and photographed them. They seem to be marching toward her in a grim procession, light shining through like a vile amber fluid. In one photograph she placed containers under an eagle sculpture so that they look like newly-laid eggs. The other dozen shots contribute in different ways to the book’s mood.

In most of her poems, Eisenberg has perfected the art of the kicker final line. To her thyroid tumor, she tosses a parting salvo: “Tell me, what seeds did you scatter/before you were cut out?” This talent serves her best when writing about the deteriorating conditions of others. In the prose poem “My Parents’ Health Declines,” she relates a bittersweet tale of her father’s last year and her mother’s reactions each step of the way. It’s a mini-short story. The last line (sixth in a series of time marker lines) may chill your soul as she describes the end: “Until July, when even she acknowledged it would be all right for him to leave her.” When read publicly, how could such a line not coax sighs from an audience?

Her final poem “Hope,” is about about helping a friend, a fellow cancer patient, navigate through difficult times. It’ an ending you won’t forget, but I’m not telling you what. I’ll just give you a hint: it’s not the least bit soppy.

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Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog The Bodega Project.

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