POETRY AND HEALING
The Phenomenology of Addiction: Two Poems by Dawn McGuire
by David Shaddock
This regular column for Poetry Flash looks at poetry to illuminate issues relevant to health, mental health, and coping with our lives today.
IN 2018, THE LAST year for which we have numbers, almost 70,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. This is a staggering number, almost impossible to comprehend. Opioid deaths have contributed to the lowering of the average lifespan in this country. Greedy pharmaceutical companies, economic dislocation, soldiers coming home from our endless wars in the Near East—we can debate the causes, but we need a poet to take us inside those numbers to the actual lived experience.
What use are the blues?
Notes bent on a guitar
made from the wood-hard
veins in a son's arms.
Dawn McGuire writes in "Ecce Homo" from her collection, American Dream with Exit Wound (IF SF Publishing, 2017). McGuire, a neurologist who has worked extensively with wounded vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, is able to provide the experience-near details of suffering physicians have access to. "Now he shoots up / in his feet," concludes the just-quoted passage.
Ecce Homo, Behold the Man, are the words Pontius Pilate is said to have uttered when he presented Christ with his crown of thorns to the masses. The analogy is overwhelming. Each psychically wounded soldier, each lonely person in a walkup flat, each partying teen who didn't know what she was taking, is Christ, bearing a crown of unnamable thorns. McGuire, who in addition to her medical degree is a classicist and holds a master's degree in Theology, insists that we understand her individual subject's suffering in these larger frames. In the collection's title poem, which we will turn to momentarily, a vet tying off his veins with a belt is exactly Achilles, nodding off in his tent after the battle for Troy. McGuire fills the space inside these frames with unforgettable details, contrasting the ever-hopeful, increasingly desperate classics-loving father with his son who, "…Bagram 2012, / pawned his father's Purple Heart / for some high-end Afghani smack."
"Ecce Homo" begins, "He keeps trying to bring / the Classics back to life." "American Dream with Exit Wound" begins, "She looks at belts differently now." It's not the addict, but the addict's parent speaking. These are our children, yours and mine, McGuire is saying, identifying the reader as one more helpless parent, watching a generation nod off into oblivion. Steeped in complexity theory and systems thinking, contemporary perspectives on addiction question the very notion of the addict as a separate individual. We are all part of family systems, this thinking goes, part of larger social and political systems. What is addiction? McGuire asks. It is the unbearable suffering we ask our children to bear when we throw them into our foreign adventures. But it also our collective suffering, which every father, mother, wife, or citizen feels.
The father in "Ecce Homo," himself a Vietnam vet, is desperate to offer his son the solution—studying the Classics—which apparently helped his own PTSD recovery. "…You're like Oedipus, / he says. You can't help / what you're doing. But a man's / still accountable. The son, caught between the love and hope his father offers and the centripetal pull of his own darkness "…listens as long as he can." The question posed—are our lives ruled by fate or individual choices—is answered by the silence of the son's nodding off. One cannot read this poem of a father's desperate love without thinking of the passage in the Iliad where Priam supplicates the triumphant Achilles to return his son Hector's body. "You know what a man would give." The poem concludes:
Every donate-able organ.
His life's last glance.
To know what to fix.
To know how. Not even why.
Achilles himself enters at the end of the poem, "American Dream with Exit Wound," which we find a few pages further in the book. Here the mother has only her hyper vigilance to offer: "She looks at his belts for a hole / too close to the buckle," meaning that he has been using the belt to tie off a vein and shoot up. But then the poem jumps from the mother to the son: "The cubital vein pops up // blue as a bruise / a swollen lip." After a momentary sting, "…all that is unendurable/melts into air." In one last turn, the poet imagines the son as Achilles, not the triumphant warrior dragging Hector's body, but after the fall of Troy, exhausted:
Achilles at last asleep in his tent
His pillow wet
The warm, blue Aegean
slipping over it.
Though she invokes Classic and Christian perspectives on human suffering, McGuire ultimately leaves them mute in the face of these "Exit Wounds" (a forensic term), hemorrhaging from American Exceptionalism. Her poetry doesn't offer us a solution for a society in the throes of addiction. But it defeats our ability to distance ourselves from that suffering. Like William Carlos Williams, her fellow physician/poet, Dawn McGuire demands that we look at "things" of addiction, the nail file, peeler, or stick the addict uses to turn a belt into a tourniquet. And that we look as well at the failing, flailing ties of love that surround it, the mother counting belt holes, the father promising his nodding out son the "intell on Antigone."
David Shaddock PhD is a poet and psychotherapist. His new poetry book is A Book of Splendor: New and Selected Poems on Spiritual Themes. Poetry and Psychoanalysis: The Opening of the Field, from Routledge, has just been published. He is also the author of two books on relationships and couples therapy, lectures widely on those topics, and maintains a private practice in Berkeley.
— posted JULY 2020