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.
December 21, 2016 § 7 Comments
Essayist William Bradley updates an earlier holiday blog post, with more lasagna, continuing challenges, and enduring prayer, hope, and love:
Two years ago, in a short essay published here on the Brevity blog, I acknowledged that I wasn’t always a perfect husband but promised “my New Year’s resolution is to make you smile at least once a day.” I wonder sometimes if I was successful? Now more than ever, I worry that you married an utterly selfish man. That my love for you isn’t quite enough to make me the husband you deserve. And you do deserve an amazing and thoughtful husband, because you are so amazing and thoughtful yourself.
I will make us a lasagna again this year, though not on Christmas Eve, the way I usually do. My first chemotherapy treatment to attack the cancer that has caused all of the recent drama is on December 22, and I’m told I won’t have much of an appetite in the days that follow. So we’ll do Christmas on the 20th instead. I won’t be able to drink wine, the way I usually do, but I won’t judge you if you decide to have some. I’ll even help put you to bed, if you get a little drunk. Because you deserve a relaxing evening just as you deserve a husband who is better than I sometimes am.
A month and a half ago, as we sat on the front porch and discussed our days at work, I had a seizure that I don’t really remember, but that terrified you as I began speaking gibberish and started referring to myself in the third person. You called the ambulance and followed me to the local hospital, then followed me to the bigger hospital in the city 45 minutes away when they realized my problems were more serious than they could treat here in town. You spent the night before my brain surgery in the hospital room so that I could see you before they wheeled me to the operating room the next morning.
In the days that followed, you corrected my vocabulary, reminded me of my friends’ names, and washed my hair for me. And in the weeks since, you have reminded me of what doctors have told me, insisted that I needed to be optimistic even at times that I have somehow convinced myself—erroneously—that I will die soon. You know so much more than me about what has happened and is happening, which empowers you to soothe my damaged, frantic mind when it gets out of control.
All this during the last weeks of the literature classes you teach, as you covered the last act of King Lear, even. “Pray you, undo my confusion,” I might as well be asking of you. I’m not the intellectual and thoughtful man you married. Not right now. But even though that must be frustrating—how could it not be frustrating?—you never criticize me or express exasperation. You just take my hand, or rub my arm and say, “Remember, Dr. Alkalili said the plan is to have all of the growths in complete remission within 18 weeks.” Never uttering to yourself, “Break, heart; I prithee, break,” though you have every right to do so.
My brain slowly heals. If things go according to plan—the way I pray every night, after you go to sleep, that they will—the tiny glowing growths in my chest will be destroyed soon as well. I very much want this to happen, not just because I fear death—sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, to be honest—but because I want to spend more years with you. I want to recommit myself to my promise to make you smile at least once a day. I want to make you as happy as you make me. I want you to know how wonderful it is, how lucky one can feel, with a spouse as unbelievably amazing as you.
As David Bowie sang 39 years ago this Christmas, I pray my wish will come true.
William Bradley is the author of the essay collection Fractals, published earlier this year by Lavender Ink. He became aware of his health problems at the beginning of November, but honestly believes he has a lot to be thankful for nevertheless.
February 13, 2008 § Leave a comment
From the hippie culture to the AIDS epidemic to the Internet revolution, love has gone from “free” to fraught to Facebook. What is love now, in this age of 24/7 communication, blurred gender roles and new attitudes about sex and dating?
The NYT invites college students nationwide to submit a personal essay of between 1,500 and 2,000 words that illustrates the current state of love and relationships. The winning author will receive $1,000 and his or her essay will be published in a special “Modern Love” column on May 4, 2008 and on nytimes.com.