After admiring and envying for years those poets capable of writing a “project” book, I was stunned in the fall of 2011 by the arrival of a character I call the sickly speaker, a woman bearing no resemblance to myself but with a story that took an entire manuscript worth of poems to tell. The sickly speaker suffers from fevers of unknown origin; her story pulls together inspirations from Emily Dickinson’s “Master Letters” and Lucie Brock-Broido’s book of the same name, along with hints of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Within the manuscript, there are many characters, all unnamed: the whitecoats (doctors), the nurses, the mystics (orderlies and therapists), a woman who serves as the sickly speaker’s mother, but is not, and a woman who is her mentor. Having steeped myself in Dickinson and Brock-Broido, I was consumed with the idea of mentorship, and yet I knew the sickly speaker would not have a male mentor, thus leading to a series of epistolary poems addressed, “Dear Madame,” as is “Having Been Outside the Body.”
While the reader is never sure if these letters have actually been written down and sent, the emotional appeal within them is no less valid. In this particular poem, the speaker is at the height of her fevers, and the whitecoats offer no effective treatments, although they persevere in poking, prodding, and experimenting on her feeble body. In her letters, the sickly speaker is able to regain some control over her situation, a situation that often implies imprisonment (re: “The Yellow Wallpaper”) as much as it does treatment. As someone with an exotic and resistant unknown disease, the sickly speaker has become a source of intrigue for the whitecoats, as well as a possible source of pride and glory should they ever be able to find the elusive cure. In the meantime, they make no effort to learn who the sickly speaker is as a person, and in this way, the manuscript evolves as an indictment of what I’ve come to call the medical-industrial complex.
While not all of the poems in the manuscript are in the form of letters, the letters were my first insight into the voice of the sickly speaker, a voice that stayed with me for nearly a year as the story unfolded. Having often heard writers talk of characters taking over the story and leading the way through the plot, I was delighted when the sickly speaker did just that. I confess, I did not even know if she would survive her illness until I wrote the poems that tell the remainder of her story.
Sandy Longhorn is the author of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, winner of the 2013 Jacar Press Full Length Poetry Book Contest and Blood Almanac, winner of the 2005 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hotel Amerika, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, where she directs the Big Rock Reading Series, and for the low-residency MFA Program at the University of Arkansas Monticello. In addition, she co-edits the online journal Heron Tree and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty. Sandy's story, "Having Been Outside the Body," is featured in issue 297.2.
Photo by Adolf Echtler