Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Paula J. Lambert, author of The Sudden Seduction of Gravity. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Paula and each other, and write your own poems along the way.
The Hypochondriac’s Question to the Woman with Synesthesia
If seven is blue,
what’s dark blue, indigo, navy?
Is six-and-a-half a cloud-filled sky?
The pain in my side is an empty house.
There’s nobody home. The pain is here,
on my left. My ribcage is a birdcage.
There’s a sparrow inside. The doctor
doesn’t understand. I thought you might.
I heard you say your doorbell smells
like bacon. Mine smells like a wound.
It doesn’t ring very often. It smells like
undressing. Not taking off your clothes—
like lifting a bandage. Like stagnation
and healing at the same time.
If seven is blue, what’s dark blue, indigo,
melancholy? Sometimes what smells
sweet is so sweet I can feel the sticky
on my fingers. Sometimes burnt toast
makes me cry. The doctor doesn’t
understand. The nurse just purses
her lips. I thought it seemed like,
maybe, you’d understand.
The pain in my chest is a birdcage. There’s
a sparrow inside. When we were children,
we were taught to shoot sparrows in the
barn. It was how we brought down flight.
A barn is a big empty house. There’s
nobody home but the sparrow inside.
I wondered, could you tell me, if the number
seven is blue, how do you calculate sky?
Photo by ajari, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Paula J. Lambert.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99 — Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In April we’re exploring the theme Dragons and Creatures.
- Poetry Classroom: The Night Sky - April 22, 2013
- Poetry Classroom: Only So Much a Poem - April 15, 2013
- Poetry Classroom: The Hypochondriac’s Question - April 8, 2013
I have read this over and over again… The feeling I get? To me there is a lot of sadness – sadness in this lone seeking voice pleading for recognition – that someone will recognize her/him… and say “yes, I know what you mean”, and mean it. The voice feels desperate to me – a lifetime of searching culminates in this bold questioning. I would be so interested in what everyone else sees/feels in this.
I looked up and read about synesthesia after my first read. Fascinating. I guess if anyone might be the port in a storm for this seeking voice it would be a synesthete.
I would love to know what inspired you to write this poem, Paula. 🙂
Paula J. Lambert says
I will confess that reading your comment left me a bit teary: that that sadness is recognized seems validating somehow, still. Let me explain:
I wrote this poem in the hospital. I was there for the umpteenth time for an illness that was still a mystery and for which I had been assigned a psychiatrist…again. I knew that I was going to be told again that I was suffering from conversion disorder (and I was) because no doctor could figure out any other label to apply. I would take another two years to be properly diagnosed as having a severe and very complicated hormonal disorder. The sadness and frustration were very much my own; it was an awful lot to deal with. But the suffering was compounded by knowing how many women (and men, but far more women) have been offered a psychiatric diagnosis for a physical disease.
The most classic case in literature documenting this phenomenon would be Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where the central character finally does break with reality after a (probably loving) husband and a world-renowned (perhaps genuinely caring) male doctor essentially conspire to worsen the woman’s illness rather than better it by steadfastly refusing to listen to what she believes she needs. I’ve known many women through the course of my life who were referred to psychiatric care while later diagnosed with fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, or thyroid disease.
Had my illness been psychiatric, I would have and could have accepted that and dealt with it. But I knew to my core it wasn’t. Because anxiety and depression were part of my health background, though, there was nothing I could say to explain myself that didn’t sound like…anxiety and depression! I have long been a mental health advocate, had already written a book-length memoir that helped me understand my two past suicide attempts, had been through years of intensive and very important therapy. Conversion disorder is defined (simply here) as a physical manifestation of a repressed psychological issue. It wasn’t possible that there was anything left in me still repressed!
I can’t say I had anything planned out in writing the poem. I just wrote it. But I had met a woman once at a Wellness and Writing Connections conference who had synesthesia; her son was now suffering from the same disorder. She was perhaps 40-ish, and had explained that through the course of her life she had sort of trained herself to re-interpret her own sensations into a more “normal” context people could understand and was now able to function fairly easily through the course of day-to-day life. Her son, though, had not yet figured out how to navigate this (and she wasn’t sure that he should) and was still suffering through experiencing the world in ways other people simply cannot understand.
The poem—the whole book—was my only way of expressing to the world what was going on in my own body.
In her essay, “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman says, “the best result [of the story’s publication] is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.”
These were poems that had to be written for my own sanity and as my own way of dealing with what was happening to me. But they were also written, and published, with the expectation that they could help others: both those who suffer without a voice, and those who care for them, that they might finally be able to understand the experience.
Maureen Doallas says
I’m struck that you call synesthesia a “disorder” that causes “suffering”. That saddens me. A friend, an artist, with the condition considers it a gift and believes it has given her an extraordinary color sense; indeed, her artwork is filled with brilliant color combinations. While she knows she has a condition that she shares with few others, she has never been made to feel it makes her “not normal”. Many gifted individuals are known to have or thought to have had synesthesia, among them Kandinsky and Liszt. Oliver Sacks talks about synesthesia in his book “Musicophilia”. I find it fascinating, frankly.
I love your beautifully expresed poem and agree with Donna that its vein of sadness runs deep. Knowing the background to it heightens the emotion it conveys and instills, and, of course, the title carries within it such a judgment (to be labeled “hypochrondriac”. . . can anything be worse when the disease is present and not imagined and no one believes you?). How very difficult it must have been to live with a disease no medical professional could identify accurately.
For nearly a year I took care of a person with advanced Lyme disease. I was privy to the contents of her medical records and knew how the disease had ravaged her brain and body. I will never forget taking her to the hospital and a disease specialist telling her that Lyme “doesn’t exist”. There’s a tremendous film out about Lyme (“Under Out Skin”) that puts the medical establishment to deserved blame for its insidious attitude toward this disease.
Paula J. Lambert says
I hope my use of the word “disorder” is not untoward. Perhaps “condition” is better?
And please understand that I believe, absolutely, that my own medical history–my own body, “disordered” as it may be, is a gift. The dual-edged sword of extreme sensitivity has been, throughout my life, a source of both pain and inspiration. If I may quote myself, from another poem in another section of this book:
“Agony, after all,/ begets compassion. It’s the secret all/ sufferers know, the key to our survival,/ what draws us to each other, provides/ that surface tension, keeps our too-full/ cups from spilling. Cups too full not/just from pain. Cups too full of love—/ the love that keeps our balance, brings/ us back, gives us reason to go on and on,/
the love that too few feel and we must
I believe I’m a better poet for it all, and I’m sure your friend is a better artist for it. I’m glad she has never been made to feel “not normal.” It is indeed fascinating and beautiful, and I’m sure it’s a gift.
Oh, that all our gifts made us all feel special!
For we are! Yes?
Wow Maureen. Thanks for sharing that. I’m sorry your friend had to go through this and am glad she had you by her side. It’s inconceivable that this is still the norm. This movie is tremendous to be sure, and is free for watching now on hulu, netflix, on demand, and now the National Geographic site has added it to their documentary list. The wheel turns very slowly.
Paula J. Lambert says
Please note, in case it’s not clear, that in paragraph two, above, “(and I was)” means “and I was indeed told that” not “that is in fact what I had.” Eek! 😉
Yes…. Very clear. 🙂
No worries I knew at once what you meant.
Well then, to be fair, I will confess that reading your comment here has cost more than one tissue. I almost didn’t write that response. I’m so glad I did. I had felt nothing but resonance and emotion and so I was going to leave the comment box empty. I just felt strange with nothing more to say…. I’m glad I didn’t leave it blank. Thank you. My experience was and still is so similar, and I felt the hypochondriac was just like me for so long (and even now to some extent since the existence of my illness is denied flat out by the medical establishment at large). I am here on the fringe living with chronic Lyme disease. So the diagnosis might be different, but I felt so connected to this piece. Now I see why. Thank you. I want to read your book.
Paula J. Lambert says
(((Thank you, Donna.)))
(((Thank you, Paula)))
Paula J. Lambert says
I would just like to throw out a whole other thread here and say that I just LOVE the photograph chosen to illustrate this poem. Once again, Tweetspeak *nails* the pairing of the picture and the poem. Do I have L.L. Barkat to thank for this?
We spoke of humor in the previous “Burden of Meaning” discussion. To me, these blue feathers tumbling out of the overturned cage say “Poof!” in a light way–a delicate way, that is gently evocative of the tone of the poem and still just beautiful on its own.
I am reminded the littlest bit of the single yellow feather that always floated alone when Sylvester snatched Tweetie from his cage!
Yet the blue suggests melancholy. And the particular *shade* of blue suggests springtime, sky, spirit…I love that the photos evoke…