Survivors in the Garden book review

Book Review: Survivors in the Garden by Marie Kane
Review by Michael Northen in Wordgathering,  June, 2012

Poets who write about living with multiple sclerosis have a foot in two camps – that of disability and that of illness. This may seem like a small point but the consequence of the distinction affects both Weltanschauung and writing. Illness tends to focus on tragedy and finding a cure. Disability concentrates on identity and a new perspective. Because MS is acquired, progressive and requires treatment, it shares features of illness, but because it becomes a life style in which one has to cope with the physical and social barriers the non-normative body confronts, it has equal claim to disability.

The unfortunate fallout for most poets who focus on illness is poetry that milks pity or brandishes cliché-ridden bravery, and this seems to be the choice of most poets. By contrast, few have chosen the other road. A standout exception is Laurie Clements Lambeth in Veil and Burn, who has used her life with an uncooperative body as a starting point for creating powerful, cutting edge poetry. Marie Kane’s newly released book Survivors in the Garden (Big Table Publishers, 2012) shares many of the strengths of Lambeth’s book while at the same time maintaining an appeal to a more traditional audience.

One of the Kane’s major strengths is her ability to portray both the physical and emotional landscape of life with MS. It is possible by reading Survivors in the Garden to get some sense of the chronology of her condition and the hoops that Kane, or anyone with her diagnosis, has had to jump through. She uses language that is clear and concise, but at the same time never lets the reader doubt her skill as a poet.

Perhaps the poem that describes the progressive sequence of MS best is “Shards.” Kane, a former English teacher, recalls:

first time
she dropped the yellow chalk this year was nothing,

only a bother to bend, retrieve, and place the broken
pieces on the dusty ledge near the fancy blue and green
chalk, and continue her talk on the failure of John
and Elizabeth Proctor’s marriage in The Crucible.

but then some time later

she heard someone say, Butterfingers. . . . That day
the notes on the board were almost illegible,

Through her skilled descriptions, Kane portrays the experience of many who recount the growing awareness that something more than passing was amiss with their bodies. She also captures the frustration of the seemingly endless inquisitions at hospitals that drag out year after year, as in “Driving to Exeter Hospital”:

And then she is there. To an impossibly
young intern, she recites social security number
and phone number of home and work and yes
she works full time and yes she has insurance
and here is her card and yes she is married and
this is his name and yes she has three children.
She recites each name and age name and age
name and age. And yes she has MS and yes
her muscles spasm and yes she falls and yes
she is sometimes blind in her left eye
and yes her left foot drags across the floor
and yes she needs a leg brace or walker
or scooter to get her to where she wants to go.

While Kane’s description of the physical aspects of MS are spot on, where she really excels is rendering the emotions that accompany them. The questions that arise upon being given a diagnosis are not merely about treatment, but about how one is now going to view oneself.

Sudden realization–
     practice acceptance–agree,

concur, assent, swallow whole. And what if
     I choose refusal, opposition,
disagreement, rejection?

How is one to react? Unlike poets such as Jim Ferris or Kathy Wolfe whose non-normative bodies have been with them since birth and, hence, less conflicted about their identities than with the way normative society constructs social barriers, the individual with multiple sclerosis (or any acquired disability) looks back to the past, to something they were before. Acceptance is at the same time relinquishment – a letting go of one’s image of self. Thus, the strong pull, despite one’s irritation with the medical establishment, to also cooperate and accept the subsidiary role of patient. As Kane says in, “Good Posture”:

But now I am sitting so that this new drug
can drip its magical fix into my right arm, uncurl
this crooked body, compel me to stand up straight.

Such hope, though, is tough to maintain. The knowledge that any kind of a “cure” is remote, also breeds a cynicism. It makes one want to rebel at attempts by do-gooders and scream at cheeriness. It also, makes the poet resent others who seem to be seeing some improvement in their conditions. In what is perhaps the book’s finest poem, “Radio Interview” a poem that needs to be quoted in its entirety for full affect, Kane demonstrates her tremendous skill in portraying exasperation with false hope and with trying to come to grips with just who one is.

Her missionary voice beams from some NPR studio across inaccessible stars and blue-black space while I drive on in the coming dark, anxious to arrive home before my vision fades, before my leg brace constricts my calf, before spasms. She crows–I have no MS symptoms and haven’t for ten years–and credits rest, healthy meals, acupuncture, and reflexology for her symptom-free life. Why, she feels protected from that evil, eating fruit and whole grains and resting with her feet up on a cushion (Sometimes she just HAS to stop and rest), while I grimace and regret the ice cream, rue the wine, lament those missed naps. No daily or weekly shots for her; steroids are hideous and the hope of stem cells? (Stem cells–uttered like a loathsome curse.) Well, she hopes research halts before any more innocent lives are taken in the name of science. I envision her heeled shoes winking as her rose-tipped toes slip in before she launches back home to ride Byron, her show horse. (Riding fights fatigue and stress.) Then I am yelling at the radio, pounding the steering wheel at that nail-driven-home voice so much like the roaring page, the bastard blues–I want to propel Byron through an unlatched gate, his tail a free flag in the wind, push that smiling voice down a flight of stone steps until those fancy shoes fly, and punch my hand through her smug assumption that she knows exactly how to manage MS, never acknowledging that my MS might be a different animal all together. Lights on our cedar trees appear and disappear in the growing wind; I turn onto our gravel driveway, silence the car, clamber awkwardly out, stand supported by my quad cane and leg brace, and admit that I so desperately want, oh how I want, oh, oh, with my heart in my mouth, oh, how I want to be her.

Another common experience of people living with multiple sclerosis, especially women, is a shift in their relationships with their spouses. It is not unusual to hear of marital breakups a decade after an initial diagnosis. Though Kane’s poetry makes it clear that her husband is extremely supportive, this does not keep doubts from percolating.

        Perhaps you regret serving steak, which you have to cook
and slice, and regret having to clean up this dinner
        with its vegetables and rice, and even rue the decision

to marry me now that I am crippled, not able to do as I used to–
        anything, really

At times, even the complete willingness of a spouse or partner to be supportive in itself can prove to be trying.

Because “niche poet” is a term that a remarkably large number of writers fear having thrust upon them, many poets who have a disability feel compelled to demonstrate that they can write about something more seemingly universal, or at least different, than disability. As a result, what could be a forceful, cohesive book that contributes to the genre of disability poetry becomes watered down with poems that really make no contribution to the book as a whole. Fortunately, Kane does not take this approach with Survivors in the Garden. If she did have to provide evidence, though, the poems in the book would allow her to amply demonstrate her ability to write on a variety of topics.

Kane is a keen observer of the both the natural world and suburban life in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she was the 2006 poet laureate. One of the book’s nicest changes of pace comes in a poem with the title “‘How do you grow trumpet vine’ – online question,” which begins “how do you stop it is my question.” Any casual gardener in the Delaware Valley will know exactly what Kane is talking about and immediately be hooked into the humor of the poem. Other poems such as “Leaf Collection Day,” “Summer Fetish,” and “Upon Waking” could all provide proof that Kane can write about things other than MS, if evidence had to be supplied. She also writes about her family members; her mother’s and brother’s own illnesses provide sub-themes of the book.

A great strength of Survivors in the Garden is the juxtaposition of poems such that those poems that would have no necessary connection to multiple sclerosis are informed by those around them that speak directly about it. One excellent example is a poem on a painting by Gauguin, called “Still Life, Three.” Divorced from any context, this would be a satisfying poem in its own right, but in her book Kane has it follow immediately after a poem called “Triage.” Thus, not only the title of the Gauguin poem, but the leading verbs, “accept” and “recognize” are imbued with much richer associations, so that when the reader arrives at the lines, “Understand that some stories end unsatisfied/ incomplete” the emotional payoff is substantial.

It is doubtful that Survivors in the Garden could have been written by someone without the first-hand experiences Kane has had. Her poems carry both the authority and emotional ambiguity of a life lived with multiple sclerosis. If book store owners are confused about whether to place Kane’s book in the poetry section because of its artistry or the diversity section because of the veracities about disability it witnesses, how about buying several copies and placing it in both? Survivors in the Garden does straddle two worlds, and it does so beautifully.

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