Unmeaning Mental Illness

  • Roxanna Bennett
    Unmeaningable: Poems. Gordon Hill Press
  • Lucas Crawford
    Belated Bris of the Brainsick. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrew McEwan

Roxanna Bennett’s Unmeaningable and Lucas Crawford’s Belated Bris of the Brainsick are two recent poetry collections that consider the language of identity and experience surrounding states of difference that become socially codified as mentally ill. Both, further, consider psychiatric institutionalization and the lived realities of navigating intersectional oppressions while receiving health care. Although tonally and poetically distinct, the overlapping concern in these books is with articulating the way those who identify as mentally ill, disabled, mad, and/or psychiatric survivors make space at the boundaries of the normative language they navigate, and with how poetry provides a medium in which to explore these spaces.

Bennett’s Unmeaningable presents an interconnected series of lyric poems concerned with the body’s relation to socially disabled subjectivity. Embodied experience in this collection continually shifts below the seemingly steady facade of identifying labels. The speaker negotiates and unsettles diagnostic language to perform the poetry of life under the medical gaze and to “unlearn sanism’s purgatorial / spectacle.” The stakes of this work are not only personal, as it is a question of “Who loses the game / of side effect or symptom. Who gets to be human.” This poetry of mental illness, disability, and hospitalization articulates how the sterile language of institutions operates as a social project of normalization. Further, as the speaker has “lost the knack of knowing how / to unsick act,” the poems figure health as a performance, and illustrate the work involved to meet norms of wellness. Performance becomes habitual, as the poems articulate that “[t]his too will pass / for routine, the tedium of madness” in a twist on positivity psychobabble that flexes on the line break. The poems further unsettle diagnostic language by echoing phrases within and between poems, each time with shifting implications. In the poem “Progression of the Disorder,” the prediction that “You will fail to fill out this form” signals the hospital as a place administering to continued failure. The “progression” follows the word “form” through the patient being “strong armed / into forming opinions / of your worth,” only to be “sent home with a fistful of forms” and “be called deformed.” This twisting of the word mimics the repetition of institutional language and life. Yet, in poeticizing and playing with this repetition and articulating its logic, the poetry performs the flexibility of poetic language to accommodate the critical shifts that official language cannot. Ultimately, Unmeaningable offers hope in the form of destabilizing the language of normative experience to express an “unmeaningable” body and mind: “other & sick / & more / unsorry.”

The repetition of language to both perform the monotony of normalizing sentiments as well as to twist this language finds voice also in Crawford’s Belated Bris of the Brainsick. In a book that thinks through overlapping and intersecting identity categories, Crawford’s poetry considers queer mental health, among other subjects, with a humour that makes moments of intensity all the more striking. This approach is best described in the book itself as “high-camp pleasure and low- / grade pain.” In a poem titled “Psych Ward Grub,” a sign stating “ALL YOU CAN EAT IF YOU LIVE / ONE MORE DAY (now with sundae bar)” unveils the absurdity of life and death in the institution. “It hurts here,” the speaker tells the reader, “We eat swill then try / not to shit shame. We are very different, / but our farts all smell the same.” Yet within the institutional context is also the seriousness of carceral logic—a later poem addressed first to “officer” and then “nurse” attests to the grey areas between policing and psychiatric care. Crawford’s deftness in blending humour with social critique creates an experience whereby the reader’s frame of reference is constantly readjusting. In a rewriting of “I’s the B’y” to articulate a personal history of trans Maritimer Jewish identity, the speaker argues that “the I in I’s has always been / the most controversial pronoun.” Such phrasings that recontextualize and blend ideas inform a poetics critical of the norms of language that leave many identities unspoken. A recognition of both difference and similarity through linguistic play fittingly finds its clearest enunciation in the collection’s final poem, “Conjunction Tutorial.” The poem highlights, through capitalization, the conjunctive ties between identities, colours, clothing, and language in a consideration of the trope of black “depression clothes,” and how “pigment is always political.” The connections and disconnections embodied in the linguistic play of this collection perform both humour and despair, and focus always on the social function of language.

This review “Unmeaning Mental Illness” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Nov. 2020. Web.

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