Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy
Review by Lindsey Drager
Arianne Zwartjes’s book-length essay Detailing Trauma: A Poetic Anatomy works at limits: of the mind and body, of poetics and narrative, of that thin split between order and its dis. The book is organized into six essays that work collectively to explicate the mechanics of the body gone wrong. Between these longer pieces Zwartjes lodges a series of (re)defined terms, therein performing a kind of word surgery and demonstrating the vulnerability at the center of both flesh and text. The interpolations might serve as a structural metaphor for the project’s uptake; the density of chapters are anchored by terms—body, rupture, duration, consolation, impoverishment, attempt—which work like the tissue between bone to adhere the essays into a cohesive form. The mission of both individual sections and the book as a larger project is the body’s fragility, how simply we break or are pierced, how easily the physical fails. But it is also about that fact’s capacity to infiltrate the mind through concepts like fear, risk, and trust, concepts that are rooted in the body’s necessary end. The wonder, then, is not how often the body succumbs to the obstacles of our temporal and physical navigation but rather, how much it can endure, resist, and withstand. In a world where every act requires an engagement with hazard, Zwartjes’s meditation stands in awe that we make it as long as we do.
Significantly, the project itself takes a major risk: a collection of essays about all the ways the body can fail may seem to some readers less than inviting. And in fact portions of the book prove a challenge to read simply because of the project’s commitment to raising reader consciousness about the limits and boundaries of the corporeal, a task that cannot succeed without a degree of discomfort. But the visceral resistance to the text says more about the reader than the writer—the body’s failure, an inevitability we spend most our lives trying to conveniently forget, is one we often find ourselves blindsided by because we do not put our mortality at the forefront of our days. Zwartjes cites Dr. Jeffrey Kauffman, editor of Awareness of Mortality, in terming these “mortality attacks”—the sudden drop of the suspended disbelief that allows us to forget that we are headed toward corporeal erasure. But Zwartjes’s work to detail this trauma serves as less a memo for future-tense loss and more as an ode to present-tense possibility. That possibility manifests formally through the amputation of the phrase “your body,” a rhetorical move that makes clear the erroneous assumption that we think of our bodies possessively. This seemingly minor detail underscores a major theme at work in each essay and in the larger text: The body is not ours but a product of its environment, an apparatus orchestrated by devices outside and beyond our control. This commitment to avoiding second person lends the work the heady air of gracious convocation rather than authoritative warning, and in this way Zwartjes’s essaying seeks not to install apprehension but to make visible the majesty of the fleshy space in which the implied you resides.
In her world, everything inanimate has a body, too—vintage film rolls, the sky, and afternoon. Fostering an awareness that language is perhaps our only method of practicing control, she animates a world of concepts and technologies that are powerful because of their mutability, a trait not as easily adopted by the figure in flesh. In this way, the book attempts to question the widely held assumption that diagnosis is a clean rubric by which we forecast fate. Describing a friend who lost her father suddenly, Zwartjes discusses the gap between the body’s terrain and the story its map tells: “There is no narrative here to make sense of it. To make sense of her loss, to make sense of his death. No narrative by which to say, he did this and this and this, but you don’t so you are safe” (53). We want to read diagnosis as a cautionary tale, punctuated with a lesson from which to learn. But diagnosis reads like an essay—an open-ended exploration, an exercise in journey and attempt. The cautionary tale ends in a plainly stated moral, a logical syllogism that portends if X, then Y. But the essay, arguably, resists any structure at all, taking as its form the chaos and fracture inherent in human experience. In this way, we can only gesture toward a narrative of the body, with the hope that the story has a dénouement with which we—and those around us, those who will record and remember the story long after we are gone, whether to live as an ancestral blueprint ensuring the wellbeing of our bloodline’s future or to serve as a statistic that works to link symptom with treatment for the future of human health—are satisfied.
This relationship between story and body does not just surface at the end of life. In fact, it is post-healing that serves as the universal prompting for narrative. It is the scar, the missing limb, the unfamiliar visible form we deem de- or mal-. In her book Staring: How We Look, Rosemarie Garland Thompson investigates how the aftermath of trauma ushers in a need to satiate curiosity, and this takes the form of the stare. The stare’s exhaustion implicitly asks a question at the heart of the narrative act—that is, What happened? Story is at the heart of diagnosis, as well, as the capacity to articulate through narrative our symptoms direct the trajectory of our treatment. Zwartjes’s concern with the narrative character of illness, with the story at the nucleus of the devastated body is something that, she argues, deserves more discussion. As she puts it, “One of today’s prevalent stories is that of no-narrative. That everything is simply fracture. But I believe a different narrative is also seeping into things. Starting to clot and thicken. We take these stories to make sense of things. We take them to give us meaning” (42). It can be argued that there are attempts to respond to her call to action: for example, Columbia University’s Program in Narrative Medicine makes its goal identifying the intimate relationship between the practice of medicine and the practice of storytelling. The program’s mission statement claims it “fortifies clinical practice with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness.” This may be the very change Zwartjes alerts us to in the book. Or maybe she is just saying we need to resurrect a belief in chronology, that cause-and-effect—while not an infinitely sound relation—is the principle on which we have grown to believe both story and the body rely. Physicists have determined that while the math of the world recorded on the page suggests we should be able to reverse time, the patterns of physical experience suggest otherwise. Instead, time moves always forward and, therefore, toward disorder. In this way, our bodies follow the mandates of narrative, ever-headed toward an unknown unraveling.
“All dying is a kind of murder by this world,” Zwartjes says, quoting poet Susan Howe (82). And isn’t it? For it is our encounters, the brushing of the body against the inanimate, another body, time, that ushers in the end. Detailing Trauma recognizes this, but covertly argues that death-by-world is not a crime. For if our dying is a product of our spatial-temporal relation with our environment, when are we not engaged in the act of death? Even the first scar—the navel—marks the body as having a past, and in this way, the grammar of the corporeal is always writing our end. The body serves as the vestige for all the living that preceded the now, and in this way, as Zwartjes puts it, “We haunt ourselves” (84). Whether through text or flesh, the haunted self persists in Zwartjes’s book, a project that re-members skin and page in constructing an archive ripe for study by bodies yet to come.
Columbia University Medical Center’s Program in Narrative Medicine. “Mission.” Narrativemedicine.org. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Kauffman, Jeffrey, ed. Awareness of Mortality: Death, Value, and Meaning. Amityville, NY: Baywood P, 1995. Print.
Lindsey Drager has work published or forthcoming in The Journal, Sonora Review, Caketrain, The Pinch, Gulf Coast, West Branch Wired, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver where she serves as the Assistant Editor for the Denver Quarterly.