In the interstices of being horribly sick (this was another chemotherapy week, with the usual panoply of crushing exhaustion, constant diarrhea, intermittent attacks of abdominal pain, continual nausea, and serial vomiting), I have been thinking about Lin Dinh’s fascinating recent Harriet post “Our Bodies, Our Selves,”? which begins by juxtaposing my recent litany of my various physical ailments with Kenneth Goldsmith’s claims that an undefined “we”? no longer have coherent selves, that “We're infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute.”? Lin Dinh’s response to Goldsmith begins with these words: “Could someone with even a single serious illness believe that he can be ‘everyone and no one at all’? That's he’s ‘infinitely adaptable and changeable minute-to-minute’? I don't think so. Hell, even a simple headache brings me back to my senses, reminds me of the limitations of my body and mind.”? I think that everyone is at least a somewhat different person in different situations, but I don’t believe that people are wholly malleable. Nor do I think that anything is infinite, not even the universe: the most decentered self still has boundaries. But I can see the truth in both viewpoints.

We are all grounded in our bodies, in our immediate material existence. Some believe that such physical circumstance can be transcended, but it can’t simply be escaped or ignored. At the same time, we are as humans, as sentient beings, by definition not wholly confined by and determined by our immediate physical existence.
Some years ago I was walking down the street in Chicago with an HIV positive friend while we discussed what HIV meant to us and to our lives. My friend insisted that HIV was who we were; I had to disagree. I am not HIV, and HIV is not me. In fact, I thought that we were two very bad examples of the viewpoint he espoused. My friend was and is a very talented painter; I was and am a poet. And in neither case did our work simply (or even complexly) revolve around our HIV status. That circumstance entered into our work, but didn’t define it. My friend then suggested that it was only because we had access to HIV medications that kept the virus and its effects in check that we could see ourselves as separate from and in some ways independent of HIV, that otherwise, if we were dealing with its physical effects on a daily basis, it would be the meaning of our lives. Again, I had to disagree. Many quadriplegics, whose lives are about as circumscribed by their physical limitations as I at least can imagine, still nonetheless manage to lead lives that are not simply about being quadriplegics, whose meaning isn’t that they are disabled. When I lived in Ithaca, New York, I had a friend from Norway who was confined to a wheelchair, having broken his back when he fell out of a tree. He was a musician and a music scholar, and his disability did not hamper him in his pursuit of his passions. He had even rigged up his car so that he could steer it with his hands alone.
I often think of the English painter and writer Denton Welch, who suffered a fractured spine from being hit by a car at the age of twenty and spent the rest of his short life in a wheelchair, dying in 1948 at the age of thirty-three. Despite his injuries, he went on to become a successful writer—the novel In Youth Is Pleasure is probably his best-known work—and the main influence on William S. Burroughs’ work: Burroughs dedicated his novel The Place of Dead Roads to Welch (or rather, to the memory of Welch). I’ve no doubt that Welch’s writing and painting made a great difference to his sense of self, especially at a time when to be handicapped as he became was more painful physically and socially than it is now.
The physical ailments I list in my “Illness and Poetry” Harriet post from which Lin Dinh quotes have often been onerous (they are at the moment, while I am in the midst of chemotherapy side effects). But it is exactly the fact that I have other identities besides “a person with HIV” or “a person with cancer” that enable me to make it through my physical trials and travails. I am a writer, in more than one genre (poetry, creative nonfiction, literary criticism and theory). I am partner, lover, and friend to my darling Robert, who has transformed my life. I am someone who gets great joy from listening to a good performance of the love duet from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, as well as from hearing Kate Bush sing “This Woman’s Work” or coming across a good Britney Spears remix. I am, when not suffering from nausea, a chef and a gourmand. And there are many other identities, more and less central to my self-definition, that I could list. It is by being all of these things at once that I am able to cope with having cancer, with having HIV, and with my many other medical conditions. If I were just my illnesses and their effects, I wouldn't be able to bear them for even a day.
If I may borrow one of Lin Dinh’s identities for a moment, “I’m not here to express me, me alone[,] but as many selves as possible, including you if I’m lucky…we don’t have much of a choice but to entertain and bore each other with our bodies, our selves.”

Originally Published: April 13th, 2008

Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...

  1. April 14, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Well, I thought Linh Dinh's original post missed the point a little. No one who's questioned the stability of the self - from Plutarch to Montaigne to Hume to Foucault - would deny that mental & bodily experience lends the impression of a coherent subject. On the contrary, the whole point is that it just is phenomenological continuity that provides the illusion of a persistent self. If it didn't seem to us - because of our memories & headaches - that we were the same, there would be no need to argue against our identity. For a terrific analytic defense of the thesis that "we cannot explain the unity of a person's life by claiming that the experiences in this life are all had by this person," see Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons; for a doorstop overview of the problem, Jerrold Seigel's The Idea of the Self is pretty exhaustive.

  2. April 16, 2008
     John Blackard

    I just read your article "On Difficulty in Poetry" in the May/Summer issue of The Writer's Chronicle and wanted to thank you. Your "anatomy" or taxonomy will be very helpful the next time I get to teach a course in poetry.
    Near the end of the article you say, "I don't see poems as things I want to get over with, any more than I see life as something I want to get over with." I like that a lot, my friend.
    Best wishes--
    John Blackard