Review of Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability
November 15, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Sonya Huber
As many essayists and memoirists know, poets often stroll into nonfiction and bowl a perfect strike, knocking us all over like so many bowling pins. Kelly Davio’s skill as a poet is in full effect in the pages of her new essay collection, It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability. She’s underselling with that word “notes,” as each of the twenty-five essays contained here is a miracle of compression. And as the best poems and essays do, these works pull upward and outward with taut energy, connecting specific experiences and resonant details to overarching themes relevant to any reader who happens to live in a body.
As someone whose body is also awry, I dove into this collection hoping to find that special sanity that comes from having one’s reality reflected in the experience of another. Although my rheumatoid arthritis is different from Davio’s condition, I am pulled toward memoirs and essays of illness and disability because it feels like these authors are engaged in a collective project of understanding and analyzing the way ableism functions. Davio’s essays delivered even more than I’d hoped, opening outward and inward.
Davio’s progressive neurological condition, myasthenia gravis, is named in the book’s epigraph, but that physical state is referenced in a circling, round-about way in the essays themselves. With a balance of intimacy and intellect she brings the reader immediately into the most urgent dilemmas that refract from that condition, dilemmas that reflect on all bodies and especially female bodies, such as the pressure to be “strong and healthy,” the ever-present question about one’s reproductive choices, the monitoring of appearance, food, and clothing, and even the way we think and use our senses.
Although I have delved into the pain experience, I realized in reading this collection that it’s still quite easy to detach from the actual fact of my body, spinning out into abstraction untethered from flesh. For Davio, the sensory and physical world is ever-present, but also intimately connected to larger issues and ideas.
There’s an essay that emerges entirely from the smell of old books and raises itself to the question of which bodies enjoy the experience of being the “default” in our cultures. The last two sections of the book dashes headlong through topics as varied as Kylie Jenner, David Bowie, oxygen tanks, Empire, mindfulness, and a range of other topics, leaving the reader wondering what Davio cannot do. The final essay, “Loss Report,” manages to knit the collection together and offer yet another lens through which to view the whole collection.
Experiences as a patient—both here and abroad—provide a fascinating window into healthcare as experienced by the female body. I found myself wishing that the collection’s longest essay, “Our NHS: One Sick American in England’s National Health System,” might appear in a high-profile venue like Harper’s or The Atlantic, as it provides a valuable and relevant look into the challenges and benefits of a government-funded healthcare system as experienced by someone with a reference point outside of that system—especially important as we watch the collapse of a funding system here in the United States.
Compressed description and an eye for resonant detail are paired with endings that arrive almost before you expect them, with observations that cut to the quick and echo long after each essay reaches its close. One essay in the collection, “The Service of Lesser Gods,” manages to weave together the risks of a major surgery, wool socks, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and Davio’s religious upbringing, all into a stunning four and a half pages that ascends into an ending that leaves the reader entirely clear on the connection among all of these themes and slightly breathless. Davio makes it look easy, so I asked myself whether I could do a similar exploration of Catholicism, the rheumatoid disease running through the family line and striking one of my aunts in the convent, the way faith is entwined with a kind of reverence for suffering? And in four pages? I’d have to walk away from that challenge.
The writing community comes up in more than a few pieces, including one disturbing instance in which Davio, while walking with a cane, is assaulted at the sprawling book fair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. As in other essays, Davio hovers with precision on the moment after that impact, asking the reader and herself to reflect on the gap between what we expect of each other and what we deliver. Her persistent probing raises the question of whether we as writers are so immersed in our own text and world-building that we may fail to engage with the embodied people around us. And part of me wants nothing more than to have this essay read on the stage at the next AWP book fair, though many disabled writers have decided that the barriers in attending the conference are too great.
As with the best of essay collections, the writer’s voice is the persistent presence that unites the pieces. The dry humor contained in these pages both cuts and delights. In each essay, Davio’s dry wit skewers the assumption that she might be considered a disabled “inspiration” for abled people because of her health condition, and in the next moment her vulnerability and intellect offer the reader so much more.
Rather than aiming to transcend her body or to be sanctified by physical challenges, she freely admits that the body reveals the self, and she lays bare her experience at the intersection of body and mind in the service of essaying, thinking, reflecting, and connecting.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.