Sarah Manguso's Two Kinds of Decay.

Reading between the lines.
July 7 2008 6:39 AM

Pain Beyond Words

A poet's quest to capture her excruciating illness.

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Manguso's own solution to the problem of communication is resolutely not metaphorical. She tethers her descriptions to the brutal details of her ravaged body, avoiding extended ruminations on pain and illness. The bald facts—of IVs, 14-gauge needles, chest catheters, blown veins—adequately convey the horror of what she went through. "My three temporary central lines had been precarious and depended on my staying in bed, supine, because if I moved too much, they would fall out and I would bleed. They went in pretty close to my heart, so I wouldn't bleed long," she writes, deadpan in the face of the dramatic. Manguso involves her readers in her efforts to communicate: "I was very slowly infused with several liters of fluid"—plasma—"that was colder than the rest of my body," she writes, "I need to describe that feeling. I want to write a metaphor that will make a reader stop reading for a moment and think, Now I understand how cold it felt. But I'm just going to say it felt like liquid, thirty degrees colder than my body, being infused slowly but directly into my heart, for four hours." On the rare occasions she avails herself of a metaphor, she avoids the usual suspects, preferring a simple, unexpected analogy: The waste bag of blood plasma "felt warm, like a bag of soup."

For a poet, Manguso's approach is a curiously prosaic one. But she seems to realize that less is more in this context. The specifics of her very rare illness—only six people on the East Coast qualified for a drug study of it—are so extreme and alarmingly bizarre that it is arguably more meaningful to evoke them with an accurate depiction than to try to conjure feeling through a metaphor. All metaphors intrude on the immediacy of the anguish—no one feels pain by way of comparison—and they can't help but distance a reader. A precise rendering has the potential to trigger a more visceral reaction, whether empathy or revulsion, than any analogy could.

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Manguso risks aliening readers in the process—which is, after all, a reminder that pain is ultimately incommunicable. She frequently employs clinical language, writing of "necrotic tissue," "parasthetic skin," "proprioception." This is her description of the blood-cleansing: "In the hematological context, apheresis is the process of separating blood into its components (red cells, white cells, platelets, plasma), removing the component that's sick, and reinfusing the rest of it, along with a suitable replacement for the sick part." In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, too, uses the exclusionary idiom of the medical profession, sometimes without accompanying explanation, to put readers in the position of the civilian in the medical world who, as Didion writes of herself, is "unable to locate the grammar." But Manguso, a patient rather than a caretaker, seems less intent on re-creating the disorientating effects of medical vernacular than on calling attention to the strenuous task of finding the most exact terminology available. In a way, the accretion of clinical terms becomes a poetics all its own.

This particular linguistic choice is driven above all by Manguso's desperate need to communicate her symptoms. Though any writer feels the urgency of expression, there is nothing like the pressure of conveying a complaint that, if let untreated, will have dire consequences. "[I]f I went eleven days without having my blood cleaned, my peripheral neurons would start sustaining major damage," Manguso notes. It is as though she has learned to talk to her doctors on—indeed with—their own anti-metaphorical, plainspoken, clinical terms. When numbness is too broad a word, opening up a host of interpretive possibilities, then only the most specific, rigorous designations for her symptoms will make the doctors (and, 11 years later, her readers) understand.

Even then, it is a fight, not least because the symptoms of myelin repairing itself can mimic the symptoms of myelin being stripped away. How to counter her neurologist's optimistic reading of her symptoms with her own conviction that weakness and stumbling and shortness of breath felt like no "bump in the road" to recovery? If ever a patient's authority might carry weight and compel doctors to listen very closely, you would think it would be when dealing with a disease of such rarity. Yet the neurologist shrugs off her worry, and Manguso ends up in intensive care not once but several times.

Still, given the subjective nature of pain, it is hard to vilify doctors for calling the symptoms as they see them, for giving the ailment a name—a diagnosis—and thus creating a reality that can be treated. Patients depend on them to do that. At the same time, they cede total power to their physicians at their peril. One writer's effort to wrest back some word-wielding authority is a reminder of how tangled the life-saving lines between suffering bodies and white-coated experts can become. For a doctor, the correct expression of pain determines treatment; for a writer, it determines nothing less than the truth.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.