By Michael Collins
“In Whom the Dying Does Not End,” the opening poem in J. C. Todd’s Beyond Repair, initiates several interwoven themes in the collection, including the roles and perspectives of various mothers and women experiencing different aspects of conflict and displacement, the complicated psychological plights of survivors of such mass traumas, and the roles of imagination and empathy in attempts at healing. The poem opens with the juxtaposition of “cells / churning toward brain / just as a vacuole / opened to become a mouth” while “Hafez, father of Bashar” (3) orders a precursor of recent headlines: “the troops of Hafez attacked / the people that Hafez ruled. Twenty thousand dead” (4). Between these two worlds, speaker subtly invokes awakening to these complexities:
It happened in Hama
while I gestated, TV off,
in Harrisburg, my thinking
sludgy, speech cut back,
consumed by what I fed. (3)
The speaker’s reflective stance juxtaposes an authoritarian, patriarchal lineage of violence with a cellular-level imagining of maternity: “Loved, she grew, singular / anarchic, safe in the province /of my body, and Hama was razed” (4). The two perspectives differ, crucially, in how they imagine their role in others’ lives, or life, over which they have a degree of control, the speaker focusing on a self-image as a haven for the inchoate life and self-determination of her child, the dictator creating a public image of obliterating all life that opposes his rule.
Engagement with images – journalistic, artistic, and psychological – will become a theme of the collection’s larger meditation. Several poems focus on women who are prevented by political circumstances from keeping their own children and themselves safe – as well as a moral exploration of the role and limits of media in presenting their stories. “The Girl in the Square” recalls a woman who was beaten and partially exposed in public during the protests in Egypt, highlighting along with the assault itself, her ephemeral appearance within media coverage and viewers’ awareness
among flotsam, snagged
in the stream of a video
that holds her up
although the torrent
has swept her away” (10-11)
The portrayal in “Cover Shot” of refugees welcomed by a meal in safety shares an acute awareness of the boundaries of the image, in this case spatial rather than temporal:
mother and child
buoyed on a current of mercy
beyond the cropped shot
into the open field
of a good story
that reseeds in each of us
as a perennial hope or wish
but the background resists
and we too
feel the world
These poems’ dual awareness of the scarred and endangered lives presented in the reporting that reaches us and these presentations’ mere representation of thousands or millions of other lives certainly has elements of social critique. However, within the context of the opening poem they also have a quality of self-reflective practice: The speaker’s awareness of suffering is linked with awareness of the mind’s own inability to quantify it. Therefore, yes, the reports are cropped, edited, and insubstantial, but there are also qualifying understandings. For one, the idea of whole story is really just an abstraction. Further, even more comprehensive storytelling, such as the wide lens the poem itself offers, is far more complex and daunting than the “perennial hope” we also require.
What the collection offers in the absence of mythical objectivity is flexibility of perspective; its meditation on war and its aftereffects continues by exploring a plurality of experiences in forms and expressions appropriate to the distances at which they are encountered. The sonnet crown “FUBAR’d” employs a close third person of a female American medic, and its tone and diction reflect the mental and emotional fatigue of seeing one after another “soldier who didn’t come through” (27), often due to circumstances beyond her control. Her gallows humor reflects the need to remain unsentimentally resilient against threats both foreign and domestic: “A stiff prick, / how’s it like an IED? Makes you meat” (30). The shift to formal poems itself adds range to the collection; however, the leaping recurrences from final to opening lines in the sequence also grow to seem expressively necessary in their quiet evocation of the paradoxical comorbidity of feeling constantly on alert for new danger while at the same time experiencing the crises’ permutations as interminable. This seems a quite appropriate presentation of a perspective of one near in proximity to the effects of war yet distanced by necessity on a psychic level by the nature of her own suffering as a witnessing participant and her need to maintain daily equilibrium.
This sequence segues into poems that focus on experiences of surviving war that are both common and, cruelly, trapped within. “Debriding” is one such treatment of the inability to release traumatic experiences: “you’ve survived, but your will will not release / the scream, your wound will not heal / in the mind that daily eats it raw” (40). The run-on sentence and rephrasing line breaks formally mirror the circular and disjointing psychological effects of trauma. Notably, the speaker also shifts to second person here, allowing the sufferer and the reader to be concurrently and interchangeably addressed, perhaps the beginning of fostering potential bridges of understanding and healing. “In Late Summer the Sea Comes to the City” presents another such opening, arising from the common experience of looking down into a puddle: “You are a reflection in / the gutter’s standing water, and the flat-you, / swept up in traffic, an image looking back.” This passage recalls the earlier pictures found in reports of foreign affairs, yet the fleeting image we encounter here is our own. In response, the speaker asks,
Imagine – what is it like to be left
with a solitary thought, uprooted,
pulled out from beneath you
by unfathomed undertow?
Every last cell lost. In this way
you learn to distance from your memory. (48)
The imperative to imagine here is an even more direct outreach to the reader’s awareness of their own self-reflexive experience; correspondingly, the suggestion invokes more objective aspects of the psyche than any of the external stories encountered in the collection, in the sense that the self-reflective contents can be confirmed in the experience of each reader. All of our memories, identities, and daily realities are, on a deeper level, similarly insubstantial. In a counterintuitive corollary, though we may not comprehend individual trauma by direct external experience of each situation, we may, to a degree, have imaginative compassion for them due to the shared temporary and contingent nature of life itself, if we are open to our own awareness of it even – or especially, perhaps – on more existential levels. Here, we should note how “every last cell” is lost in our momentary experience of annihilation, recalling the earlier imagining of the autonomous self-arranging of cells that would grow into a person in the first place. The cell-level imagery here seems to point toward a healthy depersonalization that allows for holding of psychic phenomena as such, rather than carrying them as aspects of identity.
Other poems reexamine and complicate this cell-level imagery through differing perspectives. In “Sonogram” the first-person speaker reconnects to empathetic pain from an article read in childhood, contrasting the objective, metaphorically medical perspective with the individual experience of empathetic consciousness, “echoing internals / image by image.” An aspect of such pain that has been implied throughout the collection emerges here explicitly: The “place” the speaker’s empathic suffering appears is in consciousness, presented in the poems themselves:
Bursting in me, insurgent memory
walled off for thirty years.
Where is the sonogram,
CAT scan, MRI to locate
rogue cells that refuse to forget?
This is where the sorrow lodges.
Here. Where it hurts. (65)
The wish to “locate” and see the “rogue cells” of the internal “insurgent” presents an alternative to the drive of Hafez in the opening poem to eradicate such experiences by projecting them onto political opposition. However, this personal tracking of such experiences allows the speaker to deal with them in their psychic reality. Perhaps such practice also allows the imagining of its pathological opposite, in which empathy is barred from the imagining of cellular life in “Herr Doktor Mengele Considers the Fetal Brain”:
Why not colonize beginning with the brain?
Sort the neurons one by one to link
in clear-cut lines that radiate like spokes
of force. Iconic, like a painted state-
house dome: commander top and center, displayed
above lieutenants, lackeys, messengers.
Redesign the circuitry for worker,
each cell imprinted to obey. (80)
The poem uses persona to characterize the way authoritarian mental illness remakes itself, trauma manifesting as idealized ideation and imagination of the world that, if allowed, organizes both the brain and the world in its image. The terrifying part, and one contribution of the poems to our understanding of the mind, is that all of the minds presented in these poems are our shared potentialities.
The later poems gravitate toward the humble potentials of art for the interrelated pursuits of survival, witnessing, and cultivation of consciousness. Artistic practice provides a measure of solace for those suffering under inhuman – or all too human – oppression in “What’s Left”:
root twigs broken from an unknown tree
braided into a box that holds nothing
discernible under its lid. Oils from
the hands that wone it stained the roots,
but DNA analysis did not reveal
the maker, who may have – who knows?
– entered the exhibit and spotted the box
whose weaving had kept her together
enough to stay alive, enough to say
she knows this box, here, is hers. (85)
The vision of the maker sees itself in the work of the other – in an inverted way to that of the authoritarian, which seeks impossibly to mirror its illusion of power the world over. The making of the cared for object, whether the box in its most basic (though no less creative) form or in the poem with its intersubjective complexities, though it mounts no defense against external brutality, models a practice through which one hopes to survive it and supplant its internal moorings.
Such practices, though noble, are not without limitation, as the collection’s coda, “In Bruges,” acknowledges: “The Old Masters called it still life. In Bruges, the phrase inverts to / life stilled, the burnish of a grieving too particulate to dissipate. / It darkens a lyric voice to contralto, a lullaby to requiem” (89). And, yet, the relative lasting of art, its refusal to “dissipate” like news stories, provides a measure of companionship for consciousness and compassion when they arise within us, just as the ordering consciousness of this collection operates from an understanding that the world’s shadows are our own mind’s, a connection which opens psychologically to some mitigation of its sufferings.