Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener
Toward the end of Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s relentlessly bold, tenth poetry collection, Plan B Audio, the poet makes note of “the room within” (95, italics in original). While italicization here may be yet another instance of the book’s many inner voices in their own operating and recovery rooms (and, this section of the poems, within these particular inner rooms, has other italicized moments, too), my sense is that the book, as a whole, is the poet’s “room within.”
This room into which we as readers are permitted intimate and often horrific entry is a changing and changeable room of entrapment and imagination, the fears and turbulence of potentially, dangerously fatal illness—and its accompanying hospitalization (treatment)—and the specter of disablement. Disability is enlivened through a non-dramatic, often humorous, and scathingly honest poetic conversation with death. In this spacious while at times suffocating room, disability’s many nuances and troubles within cross-cultural spaces simultaneously siphon and exceed their own personal while local and global geographies.
Years ago, a graduate student of mine suggested that I read Carole Maso’s 1993 novel, Ava. I am thankful that she did. Maso and her novel deserve far more credit than they seem to have received for creating a paradigmatic, looping narrative that threads back upon itself, finding multiple repetitions and accentuation strategies in order to undergird the last 24 hours of the protagonist’s life. Joritz-Nakagawa’s poems in this collection have a parallel goal, in certain respects, for they compel us as readers to bear witness to a loop of suffering and resilience that is not ultimately about redemption. There is no nauseating overcoming tale in the face of debility and disablement—although there is certainly nausea, as a treatment side effect. Throughout the book, radiation and its accessories and machinery are described as a “three headed dragon” that is part abuser, part companion, part devotee, and part terrorizer.
Many disabled poets have of course written about illness, hospitalization, and the changing bodymind in the face of distress, suffering, and pain. What’s unique (and brazen) about Joritz-Nakagawa’s work in this collection is complicated to explain—at least for me. For one, she is wholly unapologetic in her descriptions of “irrepressible stasis” (21), and in the apparent refusal to make clear if this book is one, long poem, or a series of poems. Like in Maso’s Ava, one gets the feeling that medications have produced a kind of poetic hallucinosis, but, as also happens with Ava, there is nothing romanticized about the imaginative, surreal, and very real experiences described. Instead, there is honesty, in abundance. “This is a hospital so someone must die,” Joritz-Nakagawa says (54); then, she tells us, a few lines later:
I am dancing wildly to Brian
Eno! but the dancing becomes
bizarre, pelicans appear,
red beetles, everyone
flapping their wings in
time to the music using
the beetles crawl up my
ankles toward my
knees then into my anus
I don’t know what to
do except let the
torture continue for
A choice (55)
After the poet notes, “I DREAM OF WALLS” (61, capitalization in original) she immediately goes on to say:
Walls, my soul
riot of sound
watching the world (61)
The feeling of displacement, of being at-once outside one’s own body while being in possession of one’s own body, is not a story of betrayal, alone. In these poems, which have numerous sequences and none at all, the reader is given a way to move from a Bergman-like film trailer to an ironic drama to a treatise on linguistic ableism to radiation’s violence to a kind of surprising lyricism (this sequence occurred, as I read)—as one might feel after being rescued, after being trapped, perhaps, in a well, or found very much alive in a hidden, underground cell.
At the time of this review’s writing, T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, published in 1922, is nearly 100 years old. Its 434 lines are known to be foundational to and for modernist poetry. Plan B Audio is its own kind of waste land, without being in any way derivative (on the contrary). I mean this in the sense that Joritz-Nakagawa’s collection (or, long poem) creates a nightmare, a noir dreamscape that is peppered with humor, with its central figure being an American in Japan. Eventually, knowing deeply the myriad implications of doing so, the poet mentions radiation (treatment) as causing a kind of bodily detonation—and also a cure, at a grave, great cost.
In the ways that Joritz-Nakagawa reckons with end-of-life themes, and in the book, altogether, she is consistently and unapologetically feminist, negotiating spheres public and private. Tiresome debates about what is “natural” become a feminist matter in the sculpted idioms of this brilliant, experienced poet. “A poem is a cafe,” we are told. “A cafe is a part of nature / Nature is metaphor / Metaphor resists intelligence / Intelligence is stagnant / Stagnant is a stronger life / A stronger life is the image / The image is / Is is invisible / The invisible acquires humanity” (40). The concluding line of this poem—“…the tumors are not invaders, they are my body”1—makes plain that, for the poet (or, the poetic protagonist), embodiment is cripped, gendered, and sexualized.
Throughout the work, Joritz-Nakagawa uses the same clarity to explore sensual language and to describe assault. References to pussy, vagina, vulva, love, and rape are not coated—they are front and center, and inescapably explicit. I am reminded, too, of Emily Martin’s 2001 text, The Woman in the Body, in which she takes issue with how women’s bodies are rendered as metaphors, cross-culturally, and often described as reproductive battlegrounds. The body in these poems is at war, but it is also not (as in: “…the tumors are not invaders, they are my body”).
Some readers may feel trapped in or by the many instances of stream of consciousness, as the protagonist narrates alinear experiences of imprisonment in the hospital, its staff wardens rather than healers, in certain respects. For me, the poems’ immersive terror evoked an emphatic while disconcerting empathy. And, when I think about the radiation’s effect of detonation, I also feel the poet’s words as denotative; she is speaking to us about gender, class, nationality, displacement, refugees, xenophobic politics, and global economies, as much as she is talking about cancer, renunciation, disfigurement, and transformation on the “micro” scale of her own body and consciousness. Even the many (many) instances of binaries used as an aesthetic technique of juxtaposition make me wonder if they are really anti-binaries, refusing splitting and dualism, and insisting, instead, on complexity.
I interviewed Joritz-Nakagawa for the June 2020 issue of Wordgathering, as Plan B Audio was in-press. We have maintained our correspondence, since that time, and decided to include some of her observations about the new book, in this review. Joritz-Nakagawa noted:
I absolutely do not view disability as a tragedy. I view disability as simply one important part of my life and one important part of my identity as is true for many of us. I worry, however, that the new book may sound tragic, because I was not yet used to my new body and things kept changing; the treatment was physically grueling and extremely painful physically, and I went into a kind of emotional shock, too, as I kept losing pieces of my body—first a little and then a lot. So, for me, the book documents what I went through, like a diary. Some of it is poetry, some of it is fiction, some is faux memoir, there is a lot of intentional blurriness in terms of genre and style, and some of it is more Japanesque (haiku/tanka-like), and some of it more Western, as is true of the photographs by Sue Sullivan inside the book—they have just the right tone, sort of austere, you could say. But, I was in an ‘institutional’ environment, so that was really strange, almost everything was controlled by others, and I simply recorded what was being done, or what I felt, but not necessarily in a direct way! But, I think some of the trauma that I experienced came from the environment and the way I was ‘handled,’ too, not just the changes to my body. Right now, I love my body and am proud of it. It certainly does not look like a conventionally beautiful body, but I am cool with that.
Read Plan B Audio, but perhaps wait until you are feeling particularly solvent in order to do so, and you are likely to feel stirred while shaken.
- Joritz-Nakagawa borrowed this line from “Benign Bone Tumor City” by Kara Dorris, whose latest poetry collection, When the Body is a Guardrail, is reviewed in this issue of Wordgathering. “Benign Bone Tumor City” appears in Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011).
Title: Plan B Audio
Author: Jane Joritz-Nakagawa
Publisher: Isobar Press
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. Her poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The 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 as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. 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 at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.