A Review of Lisa Olstein’s Pain Studies

February 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

By Jehanne Dubrow

This past month, as I’ve struggled with the daily scald of acid rising in my throat, my sleep wrecked by the sensation that I’m drowning in my own saliva, my breathing asthmatic, my waking hours hoarse-voiced and blurry-eyed. I have had many occasions to meditate on my body. The fact is, I do not notice it when it doesn’t summon my attention with pain. I only remember that I live inside a thing called a body when it stubs itself, when it winces or twinges, when it bleeds or scabs over or scars. The pain brings me inescapably back to myself, even as it makes me want to run from my own skin.

In her first book of creative nonfiction, Pain Studies, poet Lisa Olstein meditates on the paradoxes of pain. Pain, she writes, is “vivid even in its opacity, vague even in its precision.” It simultaneously “reduces and expands, diminishes and amplifies,” so that the suffering body is drawn away from others and inward to the pulsing hurt.

Divided into thirty-eight short chapters, the text swirls from ache to ache, nonlinear as the pain it narrates. The book’s title implies that pain is a scholarly discipline. Olstein functions here as both scholar and sufferer, her approach brief and fragmentary, as if she worries that to linger too long on any single narrative might lead her to feel more pain. The book also functions as a series of artist’s studies, each chapter a sketch that presents the outlines of its subject matter. Like an artist’s drawings of a bird or a human hand, Olstein’s studies show us pain from dozens of angles so that we eventually see its whole shape.

Like any good scholar, Olstein grounds her assertions about pain in essential texts, including Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill,” Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” and Elaine Scarry’s landmark interdisciplinary text, The Body in Pain. Olstein’s analyses are wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, because pain too reaches everywhere, touches all corners of a sufferer’s life. She writes about the character of Gregory House—who is, provocatively, both a doctor and a patient—from the television drama, House, M.D. She links the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras to Emily Dickinson. She connects her own chronic migraines to the work of artist Donald Judd, his sculptural installations in Marfa, Texas, prismatic in much the same way as Olstein’s debilitating headaches. “If migraine’s prism could be painless,” she writes, “if migraine mind could be prismed through the lens of a hundred brushed aluminum boxes reflecting desert earth and sky, it would look like this.”

A central preoccupation of Pain Studies is the narrator’s examination of the suffering of Joan of Arc: “I find myself acutely, at times even obsessively, interested in Joan—specifically, in her trial. That is, what she had to say.” Finding references to Joan of Arc everywhere—in the writings of Anne Carson, Elizabeth Willis, even the former UN Ambassador Samantha Power—Olstein tries to understand “Why Joan?” In Joan’s trial, the author finds a menacing reflection of the “doctor/patient” relationship: all those unanswerable questions, all the poking and prodding, all the “deeply biased men” circling the small form of a woman.  

As compelling and beautiful as I find Olstein’s language, I can’t decide if her analogy goes too far. She points out that “[t]he word pain derives from the Latin poena (penalty, punishment, execution).” When pain strikes, it does indeed feel like the body has been put on trial.

I was named for Joan of Arc, Jehanne the medieval spelling, how scribes signed the saint’s name on all extant letters. When Olstein asks, “Why Joan?” I can’t quite see my own pain as persecution. I know the hurt comes from inside my body. At night, I lie on a wedge-shaped pillow, my back angled at a 45-degree angle, trying not to choke on the acrid water rising in my mouth. Someone is squeezing my lungs with a fist. But, no, there is no hand around my breath. I have not been imprisoned; I am my only prison. At least for me, there is no burning at the stake.
Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her lyric essays have appeared in New England Review, The Common, The Colorado Review, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.

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