"AN ELEMENT OF BLANK":
ON PAIN AND EXPERIMENTATION
by Cynthia Hogue
Page 2Diagnosed four years ago with the same illness that Rich has, I had the uncanny experience of having studied her work closely for some years for a book chapter and subsequent critical essays, without ever having concentrated on her representations of illness and pain. In fact, I did not even notice them. Rich's project in the 1980s and more recently has been persistently to learn "from the edges that blur" between "the body's pain and the pain on the streets," as she writes in the serial poem "Contradictions: Tracking Poems."1 Although she exhorts readers of that poem "who love clear edges" to "watch the edges that blur," I never heard her.
I wrote much of my critical work on Rich before becoming ill, and it was, as I say, uncanny to realize how in that work, I routinely elided all references to a specific, localized "body's pain," tracking instead the tormented, historically situated syntax of the body politic. I was remarkably blind to any chronically ill body's specificity. Among others, I mapped Rich's search for a language honest and accurate enough to express her evolving, feminist vision, which I argued produced formal innovations--dialogic contra/dictions.2 I sailed past images of "wrecked cartilage" and "elective surgery," consistently casting anchor at the broad picture's harbor: if a speaker "came out of the hospital," I focused on how she emerged "like a woman/ who'd watched a massacre" (Your Native Land 93;111). Thus, even as I sought passages emblematic of a divided, "contra/dictory" subject, I could not "see to see," to adapt Dickinson's well-known phrase that imaginatively tracks the process of dying. Critically, epistemologically, experientially, Rich's references to personal physical pain didn't exist for me.
But this blindspot is, as it turns out, the norm not the exception. Bodies not in pain, who cannot physically feel the suffering, often stop at that imaginative chasm between them and the body in pain, unable to make the projective leap of empathy. For those bodies only "hearing about pain," suffering remains alien, opaque, closed to epistemological inquiry--to wit, clinically, scientifically unconfirmed. "Pain comes unsharably into our midst," Scarry writes, "as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed" (4). For bodies in pain, Schweizer recounts, physical suffering is irreducible and unrepresentable, a dis/figuring inaccessibility to figuration: "Here at wit's end, at the point of a veritable episemological crisis, is the moment of artistic, hermeneutical, or narrative beginning, the beginning of reading and writing" (16). And so, reader, I began, although admittedly not with an empathetic, revelatory epiphany, but from my own experience of chronic illness. For over two years, I reached "wit's end" in concrete if imperceptible ways to all but my closest friends and family. I lost the ability to write poetry and to read with any focus, because of neurological symptoms not commonly associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It got extremely difficult to teach--I routinely forgot lesson plans, or what I had intended to say or had already said (stopping dead mid-sentence). As the pain of my physical symptoms worsened, I also manifested personality changes from these clinically-unconfirmed and medically undiagnosable symptoms (for the many doctors I consulted, my neuropathy simply did not exist).
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