The Way a Wound Becomes a Scar: Poems by Emily Schulten. Kelsey Books, 2021 $16.50, (paperback) 76pp, ISBN: 978-1639800537
The Way a Wound Becomes a Scar, Emily Schulten's second full-length poetry collection, is an exploration of the way wounds become scars, both physical and visible, emotional and metaphorical. Schulten takes the reader on a journey far beyond the deeply personal story of a life-saving kidney transplant from sister to brother, and investigates familial and partner connections, and the relationship we have with our own bodies, in the present and remembered past. Using images in which myth, story, ancient and everyday ritual are interwoven and "re-made," Schulten attempts to make sense of grief, pain and loss in our lives, and to transition toward hope and regeneration.
In reading Rest in Black Haw (New Plains Press, 2009), Schulten's debut collection, one is struck not only by her already heightened sonic sense of language, and the intensity of her multilayered imagery, but by the darkness at the root of her poetry. Her acute awareness of our mortality is palpable even in such pastoral-sounding poems as "Making Grape Jam," in which her mother whispers, "that's all until next year," and the speaker thinks: "what a year might feel like...." And it is this intensity and lyrical precision of language which Schulten uses to explore the darker undercurrents of our lives, and the sense of the body as "other," in The Way a Wound Becomes a Scar.
Prefacing the main poetry collection is the title poem, which acts as its ars poetica. "Slowly." This seemingly innocuous adverb is deliberately end-stopped to make a one-word sentence; indicative not only of the slow healing of wounds, it could also be interpreted as a guide to the reader to take their time: "Slowly. The body closes, muscle sutures itself." For we are about to step over the threshold into an interior journey of immense depth, delicacy, and resonance, which explores the tenderness and gravity of the connections which bind us together in the world, our wounds, and also their pre-story, their healing and aftermath; and – as the title poem tells us – our scars, which are only "illuminated when you close your eyes."
One should also take special note of the book's epigraph, "It's not me who made my body. / I wear the used rags of my family." The quote is taken from Anna Swir's visceral poem, "Large Intestine," translated into English by Czeslaw Milosz (Swir, Happy as a Dogs Tail, 1985). Anna Swir was the pen name used by Polish poet, Anna Świrszczyńska. If one reads the poem the epigraph is from, one will see that it gives emphasis to Schulten's collection as being centered in the flesh, and the body being inherited, even attacking itself – the words, "the body" are set on their own line to give further emphasis. In an alternative, deliberately more literal translation, "used rags" becomes "inherited scraps" (Swir, Fat Like the Sun, 1986). For the speaker in Swir's poem, used for Schulten's epigraph (translated by Milosz), goes on to declare: "I will become kidney failure / or the gangrene of the large intestine." And in "Living-related Donor," Schulten's first poem of the first section, unknown to the family, the speaker's brother's body is also secretly turning against itself:
Inside the toddler, his kidney's tiny blood
vessels strategize, practice synchronized
swelling, his immune system begins to scheme,
tactics so secret the body hasn't told yet.
And yet, concomitantly, there is the powerful image of the brother's sister, later to be his donor, who is still unborn inside their mother's womb: mother-sister-brother as almost being one flesh; inextricably bonded: "The toddler has his hands on either side / of his mother's belly, domed and taut."
Motifs of ritual and myth, such as the texts and burial rituals of the ancient Egyptians, and superstitious rites of the living are interwoven throughout the five sections, expanding the collection's narrative beyond the personal story to the human condition. The poems are arranged in informal couplets, blocks or stanzas, and very occasionally with staggered lines, to accentuate meaning. Section I communicates the 'pre-story,' from when the speaker's brother is a toddler, when his immune system starts to "scheme" against his body, and when his sister is still unborn, to the final preparations for the transfer of the donated kidney. Section II comprises poems which move through the arc of an intimate relationship, to its break-up and aftermath. Section III contains poems which depict family loss, and the body's invisible, interior darkness; from the surgeon's training "to be close to the body" in "The Body's Dark Inside," to the family watching videos made by their father in "Ghost Story," in which he never appears in front of the camera himself, and remains just a phantom voice, "his body unseen," with the family afraid of their own "apparitions." Section IV is a sequence of five block poems, told with clinical precision, describing the brother's new kidney's rejection episodes. In Section V, the speaker recollects and explores, with lyrical intimacy, how to make sense of loss, and how to transition into the still unmapped stories of the future.
The balance of relationships, death and life, are seamlessly integrated both within individual poems and across the collection. For example, there is a poignant metaphor at the end of "Dialysis," in which Schulten switches from the unsparing depiction of the everyday reality of dialysis, and the speaker's brother's "two little blonde girls" being unfazed by "the jugs of urine in the fridge" alongside their "apple juice," to the speaker's own childhood, and how she and her brother took turns to link arms and lift each other:
For them, this was life, their father's blood
For us, at their age,
it was easy, standing back-to-back,
our arms hooked at the elbows, taking turns––
him leaning forward, holding my weight
until he couldn't, and I stood up and lifted him.
The caesura in the text – the half line, end-stopped, followed by the indented line – provides an effective break, as she thinks of herself and her brother, lifting each other off the ground, until her brother became too weak, and could no longer lift her, literally or metaphorically, and the inference to what she is doing in the present – about to donate one of her kidneys, is altogether a beautiful image, connecting past, present and a hoped-for future.
Throughout this collection, Schulten effortlessly alternates between first-, second- and third-person speakers, transitioning between the past and present-day. In "Choosing a Stone," the speaker describes herself and her brother as young children, making rubbings of the carved names on graveyard headstones, innocent of death or illness, unaware that "our story / was already written." She compares this with imagining making rubbings across their own bodies to reveal their markings. Beginning in the first-person plural (brother and sister) past tense, the poem shifts into the present-day and present tense, the speaker talking directly to us, drawing us in as active participants:
...If you lift our shirts,
tape the rice paper to our sides, and rub
the chalk across our bodies, you will see––
Robbie's ridges have already worn deep, the S
of our name begins to draw circles in my side.
The interplay between the present and past, and the speaker re-imagining, re-framing memories, is typical of how Schulten achieves the seamless yet multilayered depth and resonance within and across her poems. She interweaves Egyptian mythology with modern-day rituals, such as the speaker being wrapped like a mummy by her lover in strips of bed linen in "Our Little Death Joke," re-enacting the Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony, and touching "the mummy on the lips, eyes and ears with a blade," which echoes "Anointing of the Sick," in which the speaker recollects rituals such as 'taking' the priest's blessing of her father for herself, smearing the olive oil on her own body. Other modern-day rituals include her brother making a list of his own burial goods in "Navigating the Afterlife (Burial Goods)," and carving spells into the walls in "Navigating the Afterlife (Burial Texts)." In "Rain Dance," the speaker imagines taking her brother to a warlock, to "smear regeneration circles on his back," echoing the circles already being invisibly drawn into the speaker's side as a child in the earlier "Choosing a Stone." These motifs are echoed later, when she is tracing with her thumbnail, imaginary lines of a future story onto her lover's tattooed body, in "Mapping His Body," the collection's penultimate poem, as if the speaker is inking a fresh tattoo.
In "Sydney," the speaker describes giving "Mayan worry dolls" to one of her brother's little girls; and this is echoed in the poem "Sculptures," in which her grandfather gifts miniature carvings of his dead daughter to family members.
Schulten's push through poetic language to attempt to understand the darkness within the body is explored throughout the collection in poems which present themselves to the mind's eye as vividly as dioramas. Two poems in Section III indicate her painterly use of light and shadow. As the speaker confesses in "The Body's Dark Inside," she is jealous of the surgeon's "everyday" skill, his ability to be so "close to the body":
I'm envious of the touch, everyday your hand
lifting the shirt, pressing the abdomen, finding
the shape of the body's dark inside, and making
it mean something.
And in "Spaces for Light to Come In," she compares the light "streaming in" through the window into the hospital room of her father, with her mother's windowless hospital room, in operations to remove her father's "cancered lung" and her mother's cancerous breast, and her own operation to donate one of her kidneys to her brother:
...they wove it into the darkness of another body,
where it made shadow puppets on my brother's
pruned organs, the shape of mangoes, of star fruit.
"On the Study of Butterflies," in section III is a key poem in the collection. Intermixing life and death, it uses a complex metaphor: by contrasting the chasing and capture of butterflies with a depiction of medical procedures – of being pinned like a displayed butterfly by catheters and intravenous drips; and yet also comparing the caught butterfly with the "delicate wings" of her netted kidneys, and the hope that one of her kidneys can be donated to her brother, in order to begin the 'metamorphosis' of her brother's body's "decay into flight":
When my brother's kidneys started to die,
we chased to net the delicate wings
of my insides that might metamorphose
decay into flight.
The epigraph to the poem, by Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov's son, alludes to the penultimate farewell a few days before his father's death, in which his father began to cry, and when he asked him why, "He replied that a certain butterfly was already on the wing; and his eyes told me he no longer hoped that he would live to pursue it again" (Encounter, 53.4, 1979). Schulten uses this quote to emphasise the uncapturable nature of life and its beauty – the pursuit and capture of butterflies being the opposite of living. And perhaps one can extend this to all our lives, to stop chasing "the clock's flutter," to stop being 'pinned' down.
The symbol of flight and decay is a recurring motif. For example, in "The Boy's New Body," the speaker asks the surgeon to "Imitate the curves of bird wings," in which the wings are imagined as those of the mythological figure, Icarus. Wings, whether those of her kidneys, of a butterfly, or the angels imagined on the white hospital room ceiling after she comes round from anaesthetic after the operation in "Tracheal Intubation," that used to be on the ceiling of her childhood church's ceiling, are a way to metamorphose the speaker's personal journey of loss, pain and grief into hope and regeneration, which in turn communicates itself as a universal human story, and thus to the reader.
In "Mapping His Body," the penultimate poem of the collection, the speaker traces the tattoos on her lover's body, repeating the motif of the imagined rubbings of the speaker and her brother's body in "Choosing a Stone." But this time, the speaker starts to think about her own personal future, one shared with her lover, and uses her lover's body to inscribe and "rewrite" these possible futures – as Schulten has done in the poems throughout this collection:
...I hide my eyes
in the clean slate between
his shoulder blades, write
and rewrite lines across
his neck, with my thumbnail––
the story of where we end up,
an image we are still inking,
indelible and only for us.
In the end, the book comes full circle, for in the first poem we are told how the Egyptians take out the organs of the body through an incision in the groin, and an incision on the speaker's body is what we begin with – and in the last poem, "Love Poem to my Kidney," the speaker revisits both her recent past and the distant past. Drawing upon Egyptian myth, the speaker tries to understand why: "The kidney is the only organ besides the heart / that Egyptians left in the mummified bodies of their dead." Why did the Egyptians have no word for kidney in their language? The speaker tries to make sense of the visceral weight of this word as flesh, imagining "the taste of its syllables so heavy on my tongue."
How can we reconcile our sacrifices and loss with the regeneration that comes after: in a bodily sense through illness and recovery, and within our relationships, both familial and with lovers, past and present? In writing these poems, Schulten is discovering a shared language of the body, through the modern and ancient rituals we use to make sense of our lives; her personal 'odyssey' of becoming a living donor to her brother is situated within these rituals and myth.
It has taken the whole book to attempt to come to terms with our mortality; the dichotomy of the body strategising against itself, with the healing process of the mind and body, of grief, loss, sacrifice, familial bonds, and the fragility of our lives. To read and successively reread these poems is to deepen one's appreciation for the craft of poetry, and it will richly reward the reader who wishes to immerse themselves in the journey this poet makes with this extraordinary collection. Narrative, precise and lyrical, The Way a Wound Becomes a Scar truly embodies a poetics of mortality, and of the human condition.
1 Emily Elizabeth Schulten, Rest in Black Haw (Auburn: New Plains Press, 2009).
2 Anna Swir, Happy as a Dog's Tail, trans. by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, with intro. by Milosz and 'Afterword: A Dialogue' by Milosz and Nathan (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), p. 57–59. 'Large Intestine' in English trans. by Milosz is more readily available in Anna Swir, Talking to My Body, trans. by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1996). One can also freely read this poem, amongst others by Anna Swir, on Poetry Foundation's website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48639/large-intestine.
3 Anna Swir, Fat like the Sun, trans. by Margaret Marshment and Grazyna Baran (London: The Women's Press, 1986), p. 38.
4 Anna Swir, Happy as a Dog's Tail, p. 59.
5 Dmitri Nabokov, 'Father's Room', Encounter, 53.4 (1979), 77–82, p. 82.
Alison Smith is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Lincoln, Editor-in-Chief for The Lincoln Review, and Assistant Convenor of The Poetry, Poetics, and Literary Translation Research Group. She is editor of The Big Walk: It Takes a Decade (Justice Arts and Migration Network, Lincoln Institute for Advanced Studies), and has contributed work to "Poetic Conversations," responses to "I Am a Refugee, But . . . ," as part of the Refugee Poetry Project, to the film poems, "5 Voices," shown at "The Wings of Technology Festival," for the International Refugee Poetry Network, The Abandoned Playground, and The Lincoln Review.
© 2019–23 The Lincoln Review