Sonic Emotion

  • Shane Neilson
    On Shaving Off His Face. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
  • Shane Neilson
    Dysphoria. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
  • Shane Neilson
    Complete Physical. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at
Reviewed by Laura Cameron

The first section of Shane Neilson’s Dysphoria follows the energetic ruminations of a patient receiving an injection in a hospital isolation room. The sixteen sections of this epic meditation proceed through couplets jerkily animated by enjambment and assonance as the speaker’s thoughts wander confusedly, fighting, perhaps, for lucidity under the influence of the inoculation. In this densely allusive, often bewildering poem, Neilson opens for us the mind of a person in pain struggling to make sense of a world that cannot make sense of him.

Pain, mental illness, grief, love, and the failure of traditional medical discourse to understand these conditions compassionately are the subjects of a trilogy by Neilson, himself a physician and patient as well as a poet: Complete Physical (2010), On Shaving Off His Face (2015), and finally Dysphoria (2017). Although they all contain poignant and innovative pieces, the last of these volumes is the most moving and coherent of the three. After the opening long poem, the second section of Dysphoria reimagines the 1812 textbook Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind, by the pioneering psychiatrist and American Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush. Some of the best poems here, such as “Gyrater,” evoke the mind-numbing violence of misguided early treatments of mental illness; others, such as “Note from a bachelor with tristimania,” express the fragility of sadness with a confident lyricism reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. Neilson takes a more personal turn in the third and final section of the book, which explores the relationships between parents and children as they negotiate illness and loss. Above all, Dysphoria and the trilogy as a whole ask that we adopt new ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling, and open ourselves to the abilities of the dis/abled: “do not break / the line” of “delusion,” Neilson urges:

redraw it by first
marvelling at the
line’s elegance.

In Complete Physical, Neilson uses precise, nimble language and relatively traditional poetic forms to present a kaleidoscopic view of illness. The voice of the doctor, “a fairygodmother with a licence” who often wryly deplores his powerlessness to help, speaks in counterpoint with the voice of the patient, whose sickness is, among other things, “a cold chest of drawers, / [his] rags inside.” These poems are often as witty as they are tragic, and they tend to be more easily digestible than the ambitious experiments in the volume’s later counterparts.

On Shaving Off His Face is, like Dysphoria, divided into three parts, and it too develops toward a deeply personal expression of family trauma—a father dealing with the illness of his young son—in the final section. Also as in Dysphoria, historical, scientific, Biblical, literary, and pop-cultural allusions abound; these references, along with thoughtful formal experiments—a poem made up primarily of footnotes, for example, or the incorporation of visual images into the text—illustrate the trilogy’s developing insistence on finding new ways to voice and comprehend human suffering. The first section of the book explores the relationship between facial expressions and the emotions they convey, which Charles Darwin (whom Neilson quotes at length) theorized as “expressionism.” Building on that foundation, the second section imagines presenters at an academic conference discussing Darwin’s theory; these presenters range from medical figures to serial killers to artists—from Jacques Lacan to Adam Lanza to Lead Belly. Where does true knowledge of human feeling lie, and how might we articulate it? What emotions simmer inside our bodies, behind the masks of our faces? In raising and re-raising these questions, On Shaving Off His Face defies any doctor or scientist who claims to have the answers.

These are not easy books. The poetry is dark and difficult; its reading requires the close attentiveness, the perseverance through confusion and disorientation, that Neilson demands we devote also to those who suffer. And yet potential—hope—glimmers at the heart of the trilogy. In “i sing the body electrocuted,” Neilson recalls the tasering of Robert Dziekański by the RCMP and condemns authority figures—police and medical professionals alike—who wilfully ignore, “[t]ry not to understand,” their subjects, for understanding would lay bare the violence of their (mis)treatment. But if compassion and justice do not reside in legal or medical discourse, they do exist in poetry—in the “song” of the “charged” body. “Medicine cannot make rhyme / ring through the chains on your legs,” Neilson proclaims—but poetry can: “Emotion is sonic. / Poetry expends shrill / blasts. Better lives!”

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