Sanatorium Songs, by Marc di Saverio
Cactus Press, 2010
Reviewed by Shane Neilson
Poetry about or inspired by madness risks a few pitfalls. The most obvious of these is nonsense verse. Many a madman has channeled his inner huh? and written unintelligible, clichéd-crazy poetry. The most relevant anecdote for the purposes of this review concerns a frizzled Robert Lowell. Out from a three month stay at McLean, he’s in his apartment. A thick sheaf of poetry is on his desk. A friend visits to see how Lowell’s doing. This friend notices the fresh pages of manuscript. Lowell himself notices this attention and winces. The friend asks if Lowell wrote the poems during his recent stay in McLean; Lowell nods, looks at the large stack of paper, and says just one economical word: waste. (I imagine Lowell said the word like Christ said, after three days on the cross, the words “I thirst.” The same desire, the same thwarting. Both poets.) Lowell often tried to make crazy sense during his time on the locked ward, but little of what he wrote there could get straightjacketed into verse. In short, the mentally ill can write poetry, but in the end poets write poetry. The strange energy of manic composition should be harnessed but also tamed and later coldly evaluated. Lowell knew that. And so does di Saverio.
Another pitfall of mad poems and poets is that the investigation into states of consciousness, and the discussion of mental illness itself, is old news. Poets have already broken that barrier down, even though the stigma of the illness itself remains. It is old hat to write a suicide poem or a ward poem. That territory was poached by Lowell’s generation.
So: both technique and content can be compromised in the case of poems about mental illness. But that’s problem shared by all forms of poetry, resulting in a shared solution: taking the risk of writing anyway, and hoping, as one hopes with mental illness itself, that poetry is a kind of recovery.
What do I mean? I do not mean that poetry is therapy. This might be true for some, but I sincerely doubt any substantial work will result with such an idea as the main object. Therapy regards, in too myopic a way, the self as audience. Remember the old adage? Talking to yourself is okay, but answering yourself is a sign that something’s the matter? A poet writing to himself can be okay, but a poet in a dialogue with himself risks a retreat from the world, a self-hermitage. Through the traction of engagement of the world can a man stay sane but also can a poet write well. Even Emily Dickinson had a life.
The concept of poetry as therapy diminishes what poetry is for audience and what poetry is for the poet. Poetry is a sense-making investment in the world, an understanding of what has happened in a life, and what may happen. The wards, the suicides, this is the data and pretext for what actually occurs when extremity is articulated.
Marc di Saverio’s Sanatorium Songs is a small chapbook. It contains only eleven poems. For a person coping with mental illness, and who needs some kind of start, small is manageable. But it’s also an incredible moment in our letters, for di Saverio has established his talent almost flawlessly. Most poets don’t have the sense to build something small and well. Even “normals” suffer the manic state of poetry creation and overestimate their abilities, resulting in first books that can’t withstand cold, clinical scrutiny.
The first clue the reader is apprehending a special talent comes with the cover. The artwork is by di Saverio himself. It is a sketch, a scribble, looking as if a small boy let loose with a doodle one afternoon. But where the first-book magic begins is in realizing that Di Saverio has depicted a hospital that, if blinked at rapidly or if the head is tilted askew, make the hospital resemble a castle.
This symbolism is powerful. Castles were / are fortresses. So are hospitals in a few senses: hospitals separate the sick from the well, and hospitals are also platforms where research (or “war”) is conducted against disease. But the chief resonance here is that fortresses keep prisoners in, just as hospitals confine mental cases. The whimsy of di Saverio’s drawing is therefore rather heartbreaking. Furthermore, the cover itself is black. As obvious as the pitfalls are about mad writing are, so are the pitfalls concerning madness itself: silence, and oblivion.
What does the poet di Saverio have to say? First of all, that he has been a student in the castle keep. His book contains villanelles, quasi-sonnets, unmannered haiku, and translations. In addition to the castle-like traditional forms, Sanatorium Songs contains “freer” poems that are associational, iterative, inventive, metaphorical, and frenetic. Secondly, he’s not satisfied with what might be termed “first-order poetry”: the kind that coughs up meaning with phlegmatic immediacy. He’s interested in embellishment and refinement of usual poetic techniques, perseverating about ideas, writing curlicues and flourishes as the equivalent of intellectual calligraphy. His poems are, in a word, complex. For the most part, this chapbook avoids narrative. Finally, he declares he’s ready for a full length book based on the sequence of his poems. He knows poems need to gain strength from antecedent poems in a collection, that poems must sing individually but sing to one another too.
Consider the villanelle: in terms of structure, as a poetic form it most resembles a castle. It’s imposing, has solidity and repeating units. And like castles, it takes incredible poetic capital to build. Many poets’ imaginations have gone broke trying to write one, just as kings have taxed the treasury building their castles. The first villanelle in the book is “Code Yellow.” Here’s the first stanza:
My shard-studded clubfeet blaze me astray.
Hallucinated staffs wind their tracts across the stars.
I sing my songs of stars along my way,
It’s as if the reader were immediately put into a cannon and shot up into the sky. The sound is propulsive, sure, scintillating: the sense is askew, but not obtuse. With the first line, di Saverio admits he’s… elsewhere. Not of here. Rather flagrantly so. In the second, he invokes the very symbol of medicine itself, the staff of Asclepius, but in a dreamlike and very beautiful fashion. The poet’s audacity is impressive: di Saverio invokes one of the oldest images in the business, that of “stars,” twice in this stanza, and of course uses the third line as his anchor throughout the poem.
As if a villanelle weren’t difficult enough, di Saverio adds another level using the anagram of “astray” as the other end-rhyme anchor! He cheats by adding a “y” to the word “star” but the gesture is so dramatic, the word so perfect in terms of theme (the ill lost amidst their peregrinations and then ironically confined and not astray at all), and the idea of the supplementary question of “y”… virtuosic. But the poem has further technical brilliance. There’s a literal element to this poem and to the word “astray.” Remember McLean in Massachusetts and Lowell? At St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton – the city where di Saverio lives – a Code Yellow is a missing persons code. In other words, when such a code is called, a patient isn’t able to be found by hospital staff. di Saverio is therefore literally astray. This is an ovational performance. One can’t help but speculate what significance stars have to di Saverio’s own castle, what they meant to him when he couldn’t be free.
The next poem that sees stars is “Psych Ward Queen.” The pertinent couplet, occurring dead centre in the poem, reads, “I was catatonically depressed / ‘til this, your star-shot night!” (I mention that the word “ways” appears later; it’s just di Saverio’s effortless repetition of patterns. And the chimes on the word “stars” just keep lapping against the shore of thought.) The poem is about di Saverio’s awakening from a dastardly mental state. This awakening is provoked by a woman. The stars are light-bringing, and they’re also violent (“shot”). Love on the wards is a rather questionable essay, but di Saverio makes it a salvational act.
All poets have truewords, a word or words they use with the greatest care and deliberation. These words are deployed like gang-signs, like bombs: these words possess the gravitational force in the poem, they are the prime mover. “Stars” is such a word with di Saverio. The final haiku in the book makes it the very last word:
battle fatigue —
giant warriors water gardens of lightning
di Saverio lays down his arms here. It’s facile to say that di Saverio is or will be a star; but he has written a book that’s unified, dexterous, wild, coursing, image-rich, and shining.