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The Bellevue Literary Review straddles the worlds of literature and medicine, with the implicit assumption that literature, somehow, is integral to healing. But precisely what is this relationship? Do we gain insights into our own illness and health by reading about the experiences of others? Does the out-of-body sensation felt while absorbed in fiction help us transcend our earthly torments? Does the use of metaphor in poetry expand our experiential vision? Or is it just that a good book takes our mind off being sick?
The fifth issue of the Bellevue Literary Review offers a diverse set of answers to these questions. Myra Sklarew ponders her appendix. In a poetic ode, she considers this vestigial sac, holding it aloft in the sunlight of her words, exposing its biology, pathology, and its grasp upon her life. Sandy Suminski plunges us into the headlong rush that is mania; the language in The City of Light parallels the pulsing flight of ideas, using cadence, rhythm, and rhyme to carry us along her burgeoning psychosis.
In the poem Forgettery, Rachel Hadas considers how language lives in the absence of voice, and how illness is processed when language "stalks gracefully away." These ideas are echoed and reshaped in the pair of poems by David Woo.
Angelo Volandes writes about his own "illness" as he rediscovers the poet Constantine Cavafy. His "symptoms" begin when, as a medical intern, he stumbles upon a dusty volume of Cavafy's poetry in a used bookstore. As he lovingly restores and "heals" these cracked and worn books, the words of this Greek poet insinuate themselves into his life and medical work.
Several pieces in this issue reflect upon how war affects the body and mind. In the poem Morphine, by J.E. Pitts, the narrator is administered pain-killers for his excruciating peritonitis, and recalls how many addicts were created by these wonder drugs during the Civil War. Summer Storm in Sarejevo, 1995 explores the competing forces of warfare and thunderstorm, all set against the "resolute primacy of words." Allison Amend's protagonist in The Cult of Me has returned from Vietnam with chronic pain, incontinence, and a sixth sense for the underworld of cults. His preoccupation makes him both the consummate insider and the intruder in a murky community. Peter Selgin's protagonist in The Bubble has returned from the same war, only to face a clash of creativity and psychosis.
Two powerful essays, Seasons and Song Heart Rail, examine how nature filters into our lives, and how—in these particular pieces—it acts as both mirror and foil for the illness of a parent. Other stories consider the contrasting, and often conflicting, perspectives by which different generations view the same bodily occurrences. A mother and her schoolboy son face childhood seizures in Martha Whitmore Hickman's The Pittsburgh Outings. Three generations disagree as to how a grandfather should react to the death of his wife in Millions of Years in Heaven by Anthony Neil Smith. In The Belt, Stephen Dixon weaves together adult and childhood memories of a long-ago incident. And Phyllis Gobbell brings a mother and teenage daughter together in the care, and perhaps the tutelage, of a paralyzed anthropologist, in the story Primates.
Rather than provide detailed academic analyses of the relationship of literature to illness and healing, we offer the Bellevue Literary Review as primary source data: writing that attempts to capture the mind in the act of pondering the body, and the body shaping the peregrinations of the mind. We hope you find the work thoughtful and evocative.
Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD