In the mountains, at dusk,
Berber children carry water
pails with their teeth,
to strengthen them, the guide says.
Later I duck into a phone booth,
but you don’t want to talk,
claiming there is no time
to repeat yourself.
I’m 27 and deep into the wind-whipped Sahara.
You will leave me in three weeks
for a hearing woman, a German like yourself,
who doesn’t say “what? what?”
I want to say, listen
to the angry sounds of the July desert,
listen to the sounds
I imagine: camels grunting,
sand beating against tourist Jeeps,
babies whimpering in Arabic.
I whisper, manchmal, wenn es leise ist
sag mir du horest.*
*Sometime when it’s quiet,/tell me what you hear.
From a review by Kathryn Wagner, of “The Incognito Body” by Cynthia Hogue:
In her latest book, Hogue embeds quotations from Buddhist leaders; the poets Robert Duncan, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and Denise Levertov; celebrated Harvard English professor Elaine Scarry; and numerous others to create a patchwork effect of language and imagery, an effect that makes the reader consider Scarry’s argument that pain doesn’t “simply resist language but actively destroys it.” However, as these poems demonstrate, Hogue writes her way into, around and over her pain, always with her face turned toward the sunlight of life. This is not to suggest that the writing of these poems was cathartic for Hogue, but merely that the poet appears to defeat Scarry’s thesis.
The central title series, “The Incognito Body,” is drawn from a journal that Hogue kept during the first year of her illness; she wanted to record an experience she was not sure would ever change, and spent two years fine-tuning the poem’s shape. In the first section of her title poem, Hogue quotes lines from The Duchess of Malfi (Malfi’s lines are in italics):
With slow, slug-
pouched skin), I
more contemptible: since ours is to preserve
earthewormes: didst though ever see a Larke in a
cage? such is the soule in the body…
limp to this shore,
stand in white
light on white sand,
step into sea
so salty that
I float free
But this book is not only about Hogue’s experience with pain; it also explores how pain can facilitate (and hinder) the creative process. She writes, “Pain bleeds through imagination, unimaginative: / it just is. One wishes to do something, go somewhere, / but everywhere the sensation remains, / the body in pain. Its eyes look / on fuchsia and lilac overtaking / the black fence, it still bleeds, / and I am knowing this.” Poetry isn’t only defined by words but also by the white space or line breaks on the page; here, the white space seems to want to portray pain as a character that is at times muted, other times rampant.
In another section of the center poem, subtitled “The Exhibit of Pain,” Hogue dissects the cycles a person with a chronic illness experiences, presenting these cycles as cold facts, so to speak, in the form of framed excerpts of medical language taken from an Icelandic doctoral student’s unpublished article. (In 1979-1980, Hogue enjoyed a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship to Iceland.) The exhibit’s Blue Gallery notes that “chronic patients exaggerate personal / disability and unfortunate event, / triggering unnecessary sympathetic / arousal, feelings of anxiety, and tonic changes in muscles.” The Red Gallery suggests that “confusing desire for a pleasure with a need / for pleasure is a self-defeating position: / that one must give in to short-term / pleasure.”
The whole review is here