Finding Poetry in Illness: A reader’s journey of self-transformation from disease to ease.
By GAtherton

Finding Poetry in Illness
Photo by C.J.W. Johson, 1870


On the winter solstice of 2008, I am wobbling in orange Wellies atop a bed of rocks and sea anemones, making my inelegant way to the “big rock.” Cupped in my right hand is a medicine bag holding a healing crystal from a shop in Mill Valley, California, along with several more rocks gathered on the trails of Mount Tamalpais. I also hold a handwritten copy of Joanne Kyger’s “The Crystal in Tamalpais.” My life is not ordinarily so rock-centric, and I am not generally a frequenter of New Age stores; Kyger’s poem has inspired my uncharacteristic gathering of talismans. Here at the “clam patch” near Duxbury Reef in Bolinas, I will mark the beginning of a journey—one that will last three years, with poetry riding shotgun.

It’s chilly and I’m feeling faint as I concentrate on avoiding tidal pools of unknown depths. “Jennifer Nix just might drown here” scrolls through my mind like a Facebook status update as I reach the giant boulder, which I now see is intricately festooned with barnacles, sea moss, and leafy strands of kelp.

I take the crystal from the medicine bag and read aloud into the mist. Halfway through the poem, I get to why I’ve come:

Go out to he rock. Take out of the medicine bag the crystal that matches the crystal in Tamalpais. And if your heart is not true when you tap the rock in the clam patch a little piece of it will fly off and strike you in the heart and strike you dead.
 Of course, I do not believe a tiny piece of rock could strike me dead, though I’m happy to see my Tamalpais crystal remain whole after being tapped against what I hope is the famed rock. Nor do I intend to arrive, at this moment, at an absolute determination about whether my heart is true. I aspire only to begin the process of trying to know.

Six weeks earlier, I learned that I was, at age 42, in a state of advanced kidney failure. I had three options: death, dialysis, or transplant. In the tenebrous first days of my new reality, I grew most attached to the idea of death. There were no children to leave behind, and in my disconsolate state, I believed my husband would be better off with any woman but me. I developed the romantic notion of a sojourn at a Mediterranean villa followed by a jump from a cliff. I am not being glib.

But then life seduced me into wanting to stick around. I refused dialysis and spent the next five months subsisting on cucumber and eggplant, wending through the health care maze, and waiting for a kidney.

All the while, I obsessed over whether I deserved someone else’s kidney. As my husband, family, and friends stepped forward to be tested as potential donor matches, I couldn’t stop asking myself whether my heart was true. “The Crystal in Tamalpais” found me a month into my confusion by way of the coincidences and connections that occur when a heart and mind are open to poetry. My childhood exposure to Catholicism didn’t infect me with any particular religious faith, but as I stared down mortality, I craved contact with something beyond the self—some advice, some confession, perhaps some ethereal, knowing comrade to steady me as I sat in examination and waiting rooms or lay awake in bed every night.

Hoping to satisfy this craving, I reached for the small collection of poetry books I owned yet rarely flipped through. Poetry had not resonated for me in the years I’d  spent venturing through the ranks of journalism, publishing, and activism in New York, Boulder, and San Francisco. Perhaps because I now lived in Marin County, I was initially drawn to the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance. By chance, I opened first to “Avocado” in Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island and landed on these lines: “The great big round seed / In the middle, / Is your own Original Nature— / Pure and smooth, / Almost nobody ever splits it open / Or ever tries to see / If it will grow.”

After devouring that book, I sought more information about Snyder, and eventually landed on “The Crystal in Tamalpais” (Kyger is Snyder’s former wife). In that instant, the goal of performing such a ritual in Bolinas reframed my nightmare as a quest. A poem had cracked the titanic block of dread and let in some light.

Those who haven’t suffered serious illness rarely understand how isolating it can be. Suddenly I was cut off from all the strong and healthy people scurrying up their ladders of success. Being weak in America—where a presidential candidate can declare that the uninsured should be left to die, and audiences cheer!—feels shameful, and I just wanted to hide. Once I invited poetry in, though, it was as if the entire human chorus had started looking out for me. When light returned, I could see clearly the kindness of so many people in my life—in particular Jimmy, who would become my living donor. Without my disease, I might never have known how blessed I am by my relationships.

After my visit to Bolinas, coincidence hovered about. I joined Facebook, rocket-fueling new connections. Some days I asked for poems, and friends sent Kim Addonizio and Sandra Cisneros, Mary Oliver and Robert Creeley. One day I asked for some music to lift my spirits. Sixty-five people responded, one with Leonard Cohen’s “Here It Is,” which its sender called “a Zen poem, or an anthem for Buddhists.” That phrase reminded me of another Cohen song, and I started digging up all my old Cohen CDs. Moments later I was listening to his growling croon on “Anthem,” and his words echoed the revelation Kyger had spurred in me:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Over those months of waiting, I traveled deepest into Gary Snyder’s writings, picking up his collections of poetry and essays and, when I felt well enough, visiting the spots around Marin that appear in his work. My anxiety was quelled by Snyder’s commitment to Zen Buddhism, nature, native cultures, and the many forms of love. “Finding the Space in the Heart” is a favorite: “O, ah! The / awareness of emptiness / brings forth a heart of compassion!”

I needed to move toward Zen as much as possible in those turbulent days. Snyder, along with Cohen, mentored me in the ways of patience and acceptance.

Cohen provided a constant soundtrack at our Sausalito cottage in the time leading up to the transplant, and on reading his poetry I was exhilarated by the mélange of life and death, sex and longing. These lines from “The Correct Attitude” in Book of Longing spoke to me of the importance of not clinging too hard to life, or to anything, and became a mantra: “you have the correct attitude / You don’t care if it ends / or if it goes on.” On the night before surgery, I calmed myself with these words. If I didn’t wake up, that was okay, too.

Thankfully, on May 22, 2009, I did wake up. I then benefited from a nearly magical coincidence. A few weeks earlier I had posted a Cohen poem on Facebook; an acquaintance saw it and wrote that he was playing drums on the Leonard Cohen World Tour. Exactly three months after my surgery, my husband and I found ourselves backstage after the concert in Barcelona—on Cohen’s 75th birthday, no less. The thrill lingers still.

Indeed, the two years following the transplant consisted mainly of euphoria. I felt like I was in my 20s again. The world seemed radiant, rife with promise. During this period I encountered a new connection to poetry, an email list run by a New York journalist I had met through Facebook. The poems arrived once or twice a day to my inbox, little moments of reflection to which no reply was expected.

Months later, my new friend wrote to ask how I liked the poems. I answered, “I’m always struck by how in tune the poems are with whatever is going on in my life or mind at that moment. I first marvel that some soul once created each poem, and then I’m amazed that these gifts find me without any effort of my own, via a conduit I’ve never met in person. I often dream of poems now, and wake thinking of some line.” That, he offered, is how you know they are working.

Among the hundreds of emailed poems were old favorites by Seamus Heaney, Mark Strand, and C.D. Wright (from “Clockmaker with Bad Eyes”: “Love whatever flows. Cooking smoke, woman’s blood, / tears. Do you hear what I’m telling you?”) and new-to-me poets such as A.E. Stallings, Tony Hoagland, and Don Paterson. Lines from the first stanza of Paterson’s “Why do you stay up so late?” gave me a tickle because on the day the poem arrived in my mailbox, I realized it had been almost exactly two years since my day among the rocks in Bolinas.

 …remember that day you lost two years ago
at the rockpool where you sat and played the jeweler
with all those stones you’d stolen from the shore?
Most of them went dark and nothing more,
but sometimes one would blink the secret color
it had locked up somewhere in its stony sleep.
This is how you knew the ones to keep.

As is common among transplant recipients, however, joy abandoned me around the two-year anniversary of my surgery. There were problems with my medication, and I grew fearful that my body would reject the new kidney. Sinking into depression, I also felt guilty and unworthy, frustrated and lonely. Exacerbating depression’s onset was a transplantation of another sort: my husband’s work led us to leave behind friends and the beauty of Marin for a stint in Baltimore. Due to my psychological state, I lacked the tenacity I could once have trained on progressive publishing and political work. I stepped away from an offer to consult on a congressional campaign and a related grassroots organization I was then helping to launch, as well as a potential political book project.

I knew the bottom was dropping out again when I realized I was spending “superhuman amounts of time” (to quote Jonathan Franzen) criticizing myself, obsessing about my health, and crying. I recognized that I needed to discover new ground once more. I did not want to be reliant on still more medication, so I fashioned my own course of alternative therapy and embarked on an intense affair with poetry in May 2011. After months of mixing it up with the human chorus, I emerged in February 2012 as a woman reborn.

During this gestation period, my days consisted mostly of cruising online poetry sites and joining their lists, “spinning” ad infinitum on the Poetry Foundation’s iPhone app, and binge-buying poetry collections, anthologies, and magazines whenever I entered a bookstore. This time I wasn’t just looking for an answer to whether my heart was true; I was trying to cast away all conventions that defined or controlled me, to determine my own code and, as Snyder wrote, to split open my own Original Nature, to see if it would grow.

I began with C.K. Williams’s “Dream” (“Mad dreams! Mad love!”) and ended with Kyger’s “[He is pruning the privet]”: “You are not alone is this world / not a lone   a parallel world of reflection / in a window keeps the fire burning.” In between, I found Swithering by Robin Robertson and through “Trysts” met him on the riverbed. Ada Limón’s “Crush” cut “the right branch / and a sort of light / woke up underneath.” I ached for the current between Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and the ancient liberties taken by Cavafy and Catullus. I luxuriated in the ecstatic poetry of Mirabai and mused on the grand time Jane Hirshfield and Robert Bly must have shared while making their translations. I grabbed onto Kevin Young’s shirttails for a wild ride, and I was no less than razed and rebuilt by Richard Siken’s “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out”: “The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell. / Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time.” Mary Oliver’s West Wind dazzled me with its investigation into longing, and in American Primitive I cherished Oliver’s “The Plum Trees,” with its advice that “the only way / to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it / into the body first, like small / wild plums.” My mouth watered for Elinor Wylie’s “Wild Peaches” as I encountered these lines: “When the world turns completely upside down / You say we’ll emigrate to the Eastern Shore / Aboard a river-boat from Baltimore.” Then I read William Stafford and James Fenton on peace and war, found John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, and Honor Moore, fell into “Rapture” by Galway Kinnell, and burned with revelation on the day David Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” told me:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

It was heady and hearty stuff, and each nudged me closer to finding my way. When I found the phrase “constant creation of ‘self’ is a tricky / mess” in Kyger’s “[He is pruning the privet],” I knew my manic search for meaning was finally winding down. The months of dialogue with poetic minds had delivered me from depression’s hold.

“One’s life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character,” Donald Hall wrote in Unpacking the Boxes. I am at such a new beginning. It is time to apply my mind once again to matters outside as well as inside myself, to new work and the routine matters of existence that give life its form. I have finally arrived back at my true self, after nearly three years. I have found my balance between euphoria and despair, and I have poetry to thank for riding alongside, helping me navigate from disease to ease.

Originally Published: May 9, 2012 by The Poetry Foundation