Colors of My Pain (Tamara Hattis)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

Imagination is malleable and potentially unrestrained; this truism is of course one of poetry’s many gifts.

Imagine being isolated and then freed to roam in a sequence of rooms where mid-20th century popular television and music meet critiques of misogyny and ableism by using relentless irony and the second-person (yes, this means You) in the service of asserting empathy for the self by fusing it with the other in metaphoric spinal surgeries.

Imagine a fairy tale (with or without Disney) that is shaken, not stirred, then turned upside down and thrown into a trash grave, to be retrieved later by an undead lovebird who has the power of lip exfoliation co-mingled with wickedly cool sewing skills.

Okay, You are doing great: stay the course, and imagine a thematic approach to usurping inspiration porn by using invented cosmetics that serve anti-purposes and anti-goals—and these are actually paradoxically designed to create aspiration and invent a whole new world.

Tamara Hattis’s debut poetry collection—decidedly, a kind of memoir, as her introduction makes plain—is the active antithesis of mainstream Western social norms that contribute daily to disabled women’s lived experiences of invalidation, gaslighting, and other forms of social violence and oppression. The poems are accompanied by collages created by the poet/artist. Some readers may be hard pressed to perceive whether the poems accompany the visual images, or the other way around, as the typed textual elements (otherwise known as the poems) form a collage of their own, and the book as a whole is its own unique assemblage.

Hattis adheres and releases images of spinal fusion, fibromyalgia, and mental health variance within her holographic poems, centering a life lived with chronic pain. The underlying reasons and experiences are beset with outsiders’ presence, minimization, dismissal, and outright harm. There is no linear progression from what is this? what is causing this pain of mine? to the present, where symptomatology is concerned; rather, acceptance in one poem might be followed with suicidal ideation in the next. The poems traverse the dailiness of pain and its lability in terms of cogitation and affect, paralleling the moods and changeability of pain, itself, and what it means to endure its unpredictability, in chronic and acute ways.

Variegated frustrations, levity, refusal, sexuality, self-abnegation, and hope, as intertwined in the poems, are presented somewhat unevenly; while many of the poems are laugh-out-loud funny, and a lot of them are downright exquisite with respect to imagery and language, a few of the pieces could have been left out. A second edition of the collection might find the poet/artist potentially removing some of these less persuasive pieces in order to strengthen the otherwise terrific collection.

Wordgathering published “Contact Lens Death Stare” (from Colors of My Pain) in our March 2020 issue, as well as Hattis’s fictional piece, “Dr. Brett.” In these works, as happens throughout Colors of My Pain, the poetic narrator does not pull any punches. Lyricism happens at surprising moments, too, often in the midst of scathing commentary. In “Grief,” the reader is once again greeted and summoned as the You to whom Hattis refers—except, as always (or so it seems), the You is likewise the poet. The poem begins:

Dry spidery black-veiled false lashes accentuate your eyes so big and sad. People will tell you that you look beautiful because that’s all that ever matters, right? “You look better without makeup.” This doesn’t have to do with you, fuckers.

The switching of You, or the multiplicity of You’s, occurs within this poem’s treatise on loneliness as well in its unremitting political commentary. Lyrical breaths occur first with, “You’re alone and you keep forgetting to look at the moon,” and then with “Seeking hurts. Be loyal to the moon and water.”

Water is central to the collection as one of the salves running throughout the work. The text is also fashioned, writ large, with internal references and cross-linkages—as if a manual with its own tongue-in-cheek citationality. (The book includes references crediting various allusions, at the end, as well.)

Aptly named “Water” reads as follows:

Answer to everything. See LOVE.

And, “Love” reads:

Makeup remover, 99% water. You are accepted for you. You are clean and whole again.

“Valium” is one of several pieces that points directly to the maddening world of misogyny, and how women are often deemed mad, precisely due to misogyny. Another terse piece, in contrast to many, far longer pieces, “Valium” has its own strategy:

The yummiest yellow eyeshadow shade ever. Texture pow-
dery. Watch out for the Wallpaper.

While the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” might be this song’s ideal soundtrack, this poem is importantly explicit in its connection to The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (as Hattis cites among her references)—arguably as foundational a text to discussions of women and psychiatry as Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness.

Many of the poems are interactive as well as causative in their paradoxes, as if using the cosmetic products will knowingly cause further harm, and You have been forewarned. Each poem has its own interlocutory set-up, while the groupings of poems and the entire volume likewise share an interlocutory largesse: Hattis is speaking not just to You (we the readership) and as the You (herself), she is engaging with and laboring through her own experience—to, for, and about herself—in front of us, asking us to bear witness (not just visually) to her pain and disablement, and to topics of pain and disablement as they exist beyond her own experience.

Numerous poems are didactic—explanatory as well as inventive—providing the uninitiated with key information about suffering and alienation while validating those already in-the-know. The first line in “Short Fuse” instructs: “Electric pink eyeshadow will remind everyone in your life that, no shit, it doesn’t take a lot to set you off.” Rather than being off-putting, the poem’s stylistic convention seems intended to suffuse the reader with compassion by using candor and humor. The poem concludes: “Possible sensitivities include chagrin, eggshells, feverish flamingos, and the question of whether you’re a good person, a well-liked person, or an object of pity.”

Although the famous children’s book, Goodnight, Moon (written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd) is not mentioned in the acknowledgments, as are other texts cited, it is clear that the book’s influence on a kind of collective unconscious is present for the poet at the conclusion of “Sleep,” which I quote here in its entirety:

The most perfect poem you have ever written is embossed
on sparkling black eyeshadow. As soon as it is applied, the
poem will be absorbed into your dreams, never to be found
again. You’ve escaped under velvet blankets to the floors of
the ocean. You are safe.
Goodnight potions, goodnight pills, goodnight fibro-
myalgia ills.

The book has a coda—“Afterword: The Weak Bleak Chic Palette”—via which Hattis explains what is included with Your purchase: “Inside, you will find stalwart, inspirational, and brave shades with the grit and intensity of a thousand white suns. People will compliment you on your constant courage as you carry these colors on your countenance. With this purchase you will receive one sample of any product mentioned in this catalog.” The two-and-a-half page “catalog” that follows includes: “I Think I’m Dying,” “Date with the Ceiling,” “Leave Frida Alone!” “Don’t Sit on My Table,” “Not Munchausen,” “Moist Heating Pad,” and a host of other listings, thereby shoring up the book’s (and this particular poem’s) indictment against ableist ignorance. The book and its afterword are sharing a grand inside joke rife with vivid seriousness, and You have been invited to the proverbial table (just be sure not to sit on that table).

Speaking of catalogs, while it would be an intriguing exercise to sub-catalog the poems based upon color or hue, type of makeup (there are many eyeshadow tales, for example), pain scale, physical exemplar, and affective genre, most readers will likely find themselves not wanting to keep track. I encourage You permitting a kind of abandonment of convention in the service of joining with the ironies of an unreal cataloguing of deeply real things.

Title: Colors of My Pain
Author: Tamara Hattis
Publisher: Capra Publishing
Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile MagazineWordgatheringTammyQueerlyThe South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe and Mollyhouse; her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness (Weasel Press). After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed Assistant Editor for the magazine. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach for the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, where she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. She has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. Diane is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: