Ahead the sky is winnowed to its smallest feature. Starred with damage, the body. What was promised, what was revealed. A long staircase of wounds. Behind: unseen error. Or accident. Harm winking on, a neon sign that says closed. Pain glued to each window. The rooms shadowed with harm. You offered anxiety, a harness made from care. Curved handle, intention. Harm a kind of adhesive. Skin clusters around the opening, ridged and thick. There are lighter and darker marks. They disclose. Paper echo, gesture. Bleakness along the spine of narrative. Harm flat as a swept floor. As a drawn planet. A bright story is requested. What will be touched? Machines, that flashing support, a threaded needle. And the body, sutured to harm.
It has been a while since I’ve seen a first poetry collection strike so well, and so hard. Harm (Richmond CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2012) is the work of Los Angeles County writer Hillary Gravendyk, which includes a foreword by poet Brenda Hillman, that writes:
Harm is a collection of poems, some in short prose blocks, written in a great burst after the poet underwent major surgery. It is a cleanly and delicately paced volume, its pages sometimes punctuated by asterisks which suggest small flowers, snowflakes or abstract ink-breath. It is quiet, intense, and subtly beautiful work and, following in a long tradition of American poetry, is a book about both human and planetary illness, about the subjective experience of illness and the images that come to someone’s consciousness in a time of illness. Thoughts about personal fate and of the present earth in peril are contagious here. References to hospitals, to medical procedures and conditions are threaded with allusions to plants and to physical landscapes. Interiors trade place with exteriors; the meditating poet comes up for air in atmospheres that are literal and figurative. She transcends isolation and offers—not as palliative but as artistic practice—a sense of calm estrangement that often invokes an “other” in the work of a collective dream.
In a collection built up predominantly of the prose poem, Gravendyk’s Harm writes through the space of illness (according to the press release, Gravendyk received a double lung transplant in September 2009), writing backwards through the dark, so that she might emerge from the other side, much in the way Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008) did on her own years of illness, and American poet Beth Bachmann’s poetry collection, Temper (Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), wrote through grieving the murder of her sister by their father. In an interview with Omnidawn editor/publisher Rusty Morrison, included in the press package for the collection, Gravendyk says:
I wanted to offer a new narrative of the physical body constituted in perilous scenes of contact. Harm performs the loss of that fictive division between a unified body and its surrounding world. Terrifying and unlooked-for harmonies emerge in these poems, which dwell in a medicalized landscape where both the body and the land are monitored and laid bare. My intent was to trouble the idea of cure by recasting it in the terms of harm, to shift between warning and error, nature and the body. in the sense of Baudelaire’s “correspondences,” bloodclots externalize into “sunclots” and the air is “rusty with blood.” The book troubles the idea of cure by casting it also as a form of harm itself. Using versions of the prose poem and the lyric, I’m trying to navigate a landscape of extremity both frightening and filled with wonders. […] Part of what this book does is problematize the notion of “cure” by casting it as also a form of harm itself. The title “Harm” wants to trouble easy divisions between cure and harm, landscape and body, wakefulness and sleep. I think Harm drops a small bomb at the entry point of this book, forcing the reader to find their way in a place of partial ruin. That’s the hope, anyway.
There is such an incredible density to Gravendyk’s language, and this collection speaks to strength and frailty, of the human body and the natural world, and count among the finest prose poems I’ve read. This is very much a book of survival, and a deeper comprehension of just how close to the bone it can come. As she writes at the opening of the poem “THE SEVEN SINS OF MEMORY,” “Pain’s absence, like a footprint in snow // but the iron had eaten into my flesh // there was nothing, nothing to record.”
These were our secrets: samples from a charred heart, beak ligament, sharp fist of serpentine. We traded our phosphorous and filament for a ten-pin lock and were comforted. We knew that the right chemicals could make anything glow, knew that our discoveries were too delicate for exposure, and how distant, how troubling outside our rare cabinets! A little more protection and another specimen: clinging ring of iris, breath-bottle, bone, or scab. It was dangerous but it was ours for safekeeping. We wanted something coarser than blood to course through us: beeswarm and fiberglass. Wanted to glitter and wound and the same time.