Poetry News

A Great Capacity for Openness: Melissa Buzzeo on Healing & Poetics

By Harriet Staff

Melissa Buzzeo

If interested in the confluence of poetics and healing, look no further than Melissa Buzzeo's essay up at the Les Figues blog. "The Poetics of Healing: Vital Forms" is an excerpt from a talk given by Buzzeo at Vital Forms: Healing and the Arts of Crisis, a symposium in San Francisco curated by Eleni Stecopolous in April. This excerpt is apparently just the first third of the piece, which aims to "[employ] different poetic registers to the body space within time and its folds." Buzzeo also quotes Helen Cixous upon arriving at Vital Forms: "The ideal or the dream would be to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates." An excerpt of the excerpt:

Why people who are sick are also looked at as waste products in society. Why people, especially women, especially sick women, do not want to draw too much attention to themselves. Healing is personal rather than universal. It is painfully intimate, often without the erotic overtones that sometime save writing. What does it mean to talk about yourself.

My mother died in 1992 at age 43 of pre-menopausal breast cancer. She was 36 when she was diagnosed. This was in the eighties, and she was the same age I am right now. She had a mastectomy and lost her hair, went into remission and came out surrounded by a great silence, a degraded silence which I will touch on later. This six-year process included induced menopause, multiple brain surgeries, and massive brain damage. In the end, she no longer knew who I was in the normal way and she was terrified, unable to move. Her body swollen with drugs past any kind of absoption, her skin deeply unhuman-looking. And she was terrified. Later I learned that many women in our small town had breast cancer. Our area of Long Island was then on par with some place in California as having the highest incidence of breast cancer in the country. Yet nobody talked about it. As an adult, I learned that our next door neighbor had it, as did the lady across the street, my high school guidance counselor had it, and many of my friends’ mothers. But no one talked about it. And no one knew why.

The first attention I got for writing outside of school came from the medical community. I was 10. We were told by our parents, in a time pre-internet, that breast cancer was very curable, 99 percent, that Jesus had saved Mommy and we weren’t allowed to tell anyone she was sick. Someday, when I got married, yes, we could tell. But not until then. This not-telling came, in part, from my mother’s extreme shame over her new body, unwanted. She was very beautiful. She wore high heels and was shy, was passionate, a virgin when she married, was so capable and so often looked at while walking on the street of our small town. She had the upper hand in her marriage, in a compromised society. And then she did not. Women were not supposed to be a problem, to put such a drain on the system. Were we a system? They told us that we could not tell because if anyone knew, she might lose her job as a teacher, the new and lucky job with health care.

The first summer after she was sick, as we became increasingly alone as a family, I would make up Q & A’s and ask everyone, but especially her, if you could have one wish what would it be?

She always said, for my body to be the way it was.

At the hospital, the doctors asked the women with children to have their children write letters to petition Congress for funding to see why our area was so diseased. Although I believed her, that she would get better, that everything was fine and that we would always be together, I wrote my letter by pretending to be someone else. I had seen a Highway to Heaven episode in which sick children petition Congress. In my letter, I mimicked the tone and voice of the children—very childlike, very performative. Please don’t let my Mommy die! And then I stopped thinking about it. But one day she came home from the hospital sobbing, at that point she maybe had been a little brain damaged from the treatment, but she wept and I had never seen her cry from being sick. She was going to get better, many people have worse things, AIDS, worse things, people without families, so awful, we are still very lucky. But she wept and said how proud she was of me, that my letter had been picked, out of all of the letters by all of the children in New York state, to be read in Congress. She wept and hugged me as we stood on the staircase. It was so confusing. And the upshot, of course, was that that writing—mine—led neither to healing (the money was given but the statistics stayed the same for so many years, I no longer follow it) nor to poetry. The rupture made of our embrace on our staircase did not produce anything but more weight, more silence, more fear. I was too afraid. She had experienced rupture, but then wanted to go back, almost immediately, to the other reality, the one in which everything would get better. And anyway, it was just a performance. On our staircase.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2013