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Laurie Clements Lambeth
"Chronic Care: 'Broken Leg' by Keith Carter, Photograph"
Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2014
Selected by Tina Chang
Your poem is based in reference to a photograph by Keith Carter; can you explain how you came to view this photograph and what about it inspired this work?
The photo struck me immediately when I was searching for an image to put on the cover of my first book, Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008). Carter is a Houston-area art photographer, and Mark Doty suggested that I take a look at his work for my cover. I was looking at some other images of animals by Houston artists, such as the work of Allison Hunter. Even though animals are incredibly present in that book, using one of these images seemed perhaps too many hooves for one book, especially a first book. As much as I felt haunted by “Broken Leg,” I ended up selecting Carter’s “White Dress” for the cover, which seemed more in conversation with those poems’ focus on hazed vision, the female body, and, of course, a wedding dress. Clearly, “Broken Leg” had a different job—besides its job as a spectacular photograph—to do. It burned in my mind for some time, especially after meeting Carter at the opening for a series of his photos called Ocularia. Carter had recently experienced cancer in one eye, and he digitally combined his own optic images with images of space from the Hubble Telescope. These were quite arresting, giant works, and it was hard to tell the difference between gasses or space dust and a possible mass in the eye, they optic nerve like a planet or sun.
I began writing “Chronic Care” after receiving some physical and occupational therapy for a multiple sclerosis exacerbation. Both my left arm and leg were weak, and my left hand had lost dexterity. Typing was nearly impossible. The leg had been an issue for months and months, but when I couldn’t type, it became a problem. Each day’s session began with a therapist asking, as they are supposed to, “Are you in pain?” I thought, pain isn’t the issue. These appendages just don’t work. The occupational therapist, who handles upper-body issues, originally created sensory exercises because she thought my hand was numb. It wasn’t numb; it just didn’t do what I asked it to, but she imagined it differently. All of this reminded me of how little we can know each other’s physical sensations or pain, a dynamic that’s all the greater between an animal and a human—hence, the deer. I put those words, “Are you in pain,” in the voice of the faceless girl, whose blurred face and hands perhaps suggest how patients perceive some caregivers, especially when those caregivers are only in the patients’ lives for an hour or two.
One of the themes that seem to be overt in “Chronic Care” is the theme of control; the girl tells the narrator who shall be whom and what to do. What perhaps were your intentions with the idea of control? It is particularly interesting that a little girl who is not even in focus in the picture is the controlling force.
She’s out of focus, but she’s like a vortex of focus because the viewer doesn’t see what’s expected. I suppose that since the deer is in focus it conforms to our expectations. It’s adorably beautiful. It’s only after reading the title that we take a closer look. At least, that’s how I experienced the photograph. The deer is in a very submissive position near a human, from which most wild animals would flee, while the girl stands over it, in a position of power, “close/ enough to kick or stroke the animal.” This is sort of similar to patient experience; we hope and trust that medical practitioners will treat us well and listen carefully, but the potential for the opposite still exists.
I also see a fragility and tentative nature about the girl in the photo. In my notebook I began with “I’ll be the girl and you be the faun,” and jotted down other moments from the dialog that I expected would occur. But as I wrote the poem, the tone started taking control and I released it, and her voice formed as the kind of child who wants other children to play by her rules.
My main physical therapist, who is actually warm and funny and whom I miss dearly, tested my balance through a game. She would repeat over and over, “Don’t let me push you,” and I would try to stay as rigid as possible as she repeatedly jabbed two fingers right under my clavicle or between my shoulder blades. This is important for stability, but there’s also that element of a children’s game to it, like “how many times can I poke you before you say something.”
The photograph itself is black and white, some of it is in focus, some out of focus, and yet the poem seems to be playing in an ‘in-between space’ that is neither here nor there— but instead a distant third realm where things can be “dead” and yet able to breathe, where a “heart will beat forever.” This draws an interesting relationship between the poem and its inspiration. Did you intend at all to have the poem become an explanation? Or provide a story behind the photograph, maybe?
I don’t know if I’d say I’m creating an explanation, but I think the photo offered a way for me to investigate the nature of chronic illness, from the point of view of a person with a chronic condition as well as from the point of view of healthier people whose only brushes with serious illness might be limited to scenarios of cure or death. As children, death is even more complicated; we play dead but we are alive. My experience of MS doesn’t follow any expected chronological illness narrative. Instead, there are periods of stillness—of movement, of vision, of mind, of sensation—interspersed among moments of free motion. A still body (or mind or eye) might seem like death to some, but when you live in that stillness, you can find a vitality in it. That’s very in-between. As I think about it, the poem also responds to my fear that the non-chronological nature of my MS will change, progress, or is already progressing. We know that the deer will not survive in the wilderness without veterinary attention, right? So this situation I create in the poem seems, in some ways, to insist upon this chronic, in-between state, though I know the alternative is also possible.
Another facet of this poem is the brevity of the conclusion made when the girl states: “No, sorry. That’s the game, deer.” Do you find this to be perhaps presenting how life actually is—not only a ‘game’ but one with rules and strictures from which one must not deviate?
Much of your work has to do with disability. How do you see this poem fitting into that genre?
In so many ways this poem revolves around disability, as it is perceived from outside and inside disabled experience. I personally straddle the line between both worlds; for instance, I walked a mile yesterday, but two weeks ago I was teetering and using my cane. Depending upon whatever is going on in my central nervous system and how that looks to others, I pass as disabled or not. Of the two worlds, I choose to identify as disabled because I have encountered enough pity, doubt, well-meaning prayer, and dismissal faced by disabled people to question the source of those attitudes—fear of becoming disabled, of growing old themselves . . . possibly losing control over a game we have little control over to begin with.
Disabled people—or people living with illness—desire access, respect, understanding and subjectivity, but more often we are excluded or considered tragic objects of pity, anyone’s worst case scenario. And it’s pretty powerful to have someone imagine your life to be unbearable, not worth living. In that way, writing about disability is less a genre than a variety of perspectives from a socially marginalized group, like any minority. And there are numerous approaches. I just try to express my own observations as best I can, which actually involves a lot of crossing genres—prose, poetry, and graphic memoir—whatever language will convey each experience most accurately, viscerally, and with enough emotional space to let the reader in.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
My biggest challenge is time, allowing writing to occupy a more prominent space in “the real estate of my brain,” as writer Elizabeth McCracken once termed it. I’m currently taking time off from teaching Medicine and Society classes at the University of Houston so I can concentrate more on writing a memoir I’ve had waiting in the wings for way too long. Prose takes so much more time and sustained focus than a poem does, just in sheer pages alone. Since I treat the language in my prose with nearly the same scrutiny as I do in poetry, it’s slow going. I think I also need to allow myself to make larger creative leaps.
Which writers have influenced you? What are you currently reading?
I find myself returning to May Swenson’s work again and again; formally and linguistically, she’s so masterful and forward-thinking, and her angle on nature probably gave me the space to imagine “Chronic Care.” My poems are also influenced by the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Marie Howe, Thom Gunn, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, James Wright, Lucia Perillo, and probably a host of poets I will remember later. Joan Didion, DJ Waldie, Lauren Slater, Nick Flynn, Rebecca Brown, and John Berger have been huge influences on my creative nonfiction. I’m currently reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, really poring over the details of each panel, trying to absorb some of her genius and techniques. I do take a long time to finish a book, even if it has pictures.