review by José Angel Araguz
The idea of poetry as healing is one that is easily romanticized. This romanticizing comes often with an air of distance: poetry as balm after the fact of hurt. However, there is another facet to healing, one rawer and more immediate, that poetry can tap into. Poetry as stitches being sewn; as open wound learning to close and scar. Through the dynamic lyricism found throughout Laura Cesarco Eglin’s latest collection, Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), we come across a poetic sensibility reaching for this latter intersection between the poetic act and healing.
When the speaker of “Melanoma Lines,” for example, shares with the reader “I know / how to listen to what’s not ready,” it is a statement that brings the reader closer to her experience. To know how to “listen” is to know what to listen for, to forge, in this case by necessity, an awareness. Later, in the same poem, the speaker gives an idea of the cost of this knowing:
I smelled myself being burned.
Cauterized, they said, as if I
didn’t know how to detect euphemisms
These lines continue the theme of immediacy and closeness, first through the sensory details of “smelled” and “burned.” Then, by singling out the outside word “Cauterized, they said,” immediacy is implied through the distant air of medical terminology, which the speaker distrusts as detected “euphemisms.” Making this distinction evokes for the reader the nuances of living with melanoma, a reality that is at the heart of this collection. The nuance engaged with here is that on the level of simultaneity and presence: simultaneity in that both “burned” and “Cauterized” exist in the same poetic space as the physical sensation being described by these two words exists for the same person; presence in the voice making these distinctions and dwelling on them.
In “Wrinkled Brow,” further distinctions are made in the same spirit about a headache that occurs “when your diagnosis / returns to melanoma.” Leaping from the imagery suggested in the title, the speaker describes the headache first as “a hefty dark gray cloud” rumbling in, then as “a coup / pressing on my brow, pressing on my thoughts.” This rumble of internal pressure is shown to have effects beyond the physical as the speaker goes on to declare:
so I refuse to iron my shirts
because matters aren’t that simple.
I let it all show,
revealing not that I am unkempt
but that I am
These lines are telling and powerful on a few levels. First, the title is evoked again in the first line here and expanded upon to the end of the poem. The “simple” act of ironing shirts works here through its implication of order and tidiness, ideas that run counter to the speaker’s experience. In stating that “matters aren’t that simple,” we are returned to the same sensibility of “Melanoma Lines” and that speaker’s calling out of euphemisms for pain. For the speaker here to “let it all show” through a refusal to iron her shirts is to again not kid herself as to the truth of her experiences. Another act of reclaiming and redefinition occurs here, as in “Melanoma Lines,” in the way the speaker clarifies that she is “not…unkempt / but… / aware.” The presence implied in these lines is forceful in an illuminating way. This poem focused on meditating on a physical headache is reframed by the end as a poem about how pain can often have one fighting to stay connected to one’s sense of self.
Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals offers a poetry engaged with survival and healing, and understanding the flux in between. Like the image in “Holding Space for Self” where “the beginning / of crying” is described as “far away / from the eyes—what rips apart” or the line in “Articulating the Change in My Body” where the speaker gives us the line “These scars belong here” rendered in Morse code on the page, Eglin explores and details her experiences with melanoma, and along the way works out a hard-earned wisdom that doesn’t preach but rather makes itself realized and felt. The travel of metaphor and image in “Landmarks” (below) is a good example of what I mean.
So much of healing is out of one’s hands. So much of healing is not healing. So much of healing is keeping up with shifting physical circumstances that force the sense of self to change. Through engagement with the refusals and moments of awareness brought on by the flux between pain and healing, Eglin’s poems offer readers survival as intimate knowledge and fact.
Laura Cesarco Eglin
Des Moines bridges remind me
of my scar, so recent
it’s still red and tender and
hurts like arriving
in a new city. One
long line adorned with deep
raw dots on each side. It could
well be a doodle, one I make
realizing it, cancer has drawn
on me, even if I’d decided
I wouldn’t have it.
The bridges here are plural
to connect the East and West,
to connect the skin back to itself with
seventeen sutures, duplicated—
again a plural, like the echo
of the doctor’s voice in my head:
it will come back.
Many bridges, an attempt
to keep me in one piece;
an attempt to keep me
alive long enough
to cross them all.
Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?
Laura Cesarco Eglin: Poetry is how poets engage with the world and contribute to it. Poetry, together with translation in my case, is how I think and observe. It’s a way of raising questions and challenging the status quo. Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals takes the repetition and pattern of biopsy, wait, surgery, biopsy, wait, surgery, and uses it to investigate repetition, cycles, near-repetitions, and to find ways to write alternatives. This exploration of possibilities and transformation are part of poetry and translation. The practice of facing situations, working with language, examining details, and letting go, inherent in poetry and translation, are very much a part of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals.
Question: One of the aspects of this collection that felt most compelling was how the poems moved between the body and the mind, the mind here meaning both memory and imagination as well as immediate sensation. What was it like negotiating those spaces creatively?
Laura Cesarco Eglin: Actually, I think it is negotiation, but not between memory, imagination, and immediate sensation. Rather, it’s negotiation between how we are expected to operate in the world, i.e. the norm, and how we actually live. This navigating between body and mind and memory and imagination and sensation and thoughts and, and, and, is how my mind works, how it connects from one (image, thought, feeling, memory, etc.) to the other, and holds them, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in succession, sometimes at a slow pace, sometimes the pace is faster. Poetry allows me to express myself as myself. Poetry allows for ambiguity and simultaneity and association and contradiction and imagination to co-exist. It doesn’t impose an order, a rule, a particular structure. Life is like that: “the disarray in a bouquet, welcomed after having figured out the countless permutations of this is not a fixed arrangement.”
Special thanks to Laura Cesarco Eglin for participating! To keep up with Laura’s work, check out her site. Copies of Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals can be purchased from Thirty West Publishing House.
Laura Cesarco Eglin is a poet and translator. She is the author of three collections of poetry: Calling Water by Its Name, translated by Scott Spanbauer (Mouthfeel Press, 2016), Sastrería (Yaugurú, 2011), and Reborn in Ink, translated by Catherine Jagoe and Jesse Lee Kercheval (The Word Works, 2019). She has also published three chapbooks: Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals (Thirty West Publishing House, 2020), Occasions to Call Miracles Appropriate (The Lune, 2015), and Tailor Shop: Threads, co-translated with Teresa Williams (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Her poems, as well as her translations (from the Spanish, Portuguese, Portuñol, and Galician), have appeared in a variety of journals, including Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Eleven Eleven, Puerto del Sol, Copper Nickel, Spoon River Poetry Review, Arsenic Lobster, International Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Blood Orange Review, Timber,Pretty Owl Poetry, Pilgrimage, Periódico de Poesía, and more. Cesarco Eglin is the translator of Of Death. Minimal Odes by the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (co•im•press), winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award in Poetry. She co-translated from the Portuñol Fabián Severo’s Night in the North (Eulalia Books, 2020). She is the co-founding editor and publisher of Veliz Books.