Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener
I first encountered award-winning poet, author, editor, and physician Shane Neilson’s brilliance in Imaginary Safe House, a co-edited, “co-production” between Frog Hollow Press and Hamilton Arts and Letters. This excellent, extensive collection of Canadian CripLit, and its associated moniker, “Dis/Ability Series: Number 11,” was co-edited by Neilson, Roxanna Bennett, and Ally Fleming.
In the work’s introduction, each of the three editors communicates on a first-name basis with the readers. Shane begins, “One of the things I like to do in an introduction is speak my mind, a process that often involves me saying I dislike an aspect (or aspects) of Canadian literary culture. When I think about it, I recognize that this tendency is the natural outcome of having lived a life like mine” (p. 7).
Neilson goes on to discuss internalized ableism, abuses of power within systems intended (allegedly) to help and support, and what he refers to as a “sanctimonious” framing of “community” as demonstrated, often in full display–among other places–on Twitter. He meta-narrates his own patterns in a long history of (now-refused) self-refusal, and conjectures that (or, how) “good” can come out of “complaint”—and why complaining might thereby help undermine systemic oppression while deterring self-refusal. Re-reading these words in 2021, I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s recent book, Complaint!. Neilson ends with the bold while persuasive assertion that the reader needs this book. In a direct refutation to those who have “shamed [him] for [his] difference,” Shane says, “I choose to be proud of the thousand hours we’ve spent bringing this issue to you. Here you go. You needed it, and you need more of it” (p. 9).
My response: Shane, hells yes. Crip readers (and the normals and ableds) need it, and–Goddess knows—we all “need more of it.” Much more. We need more of your editing, and your approach toward non-idealized healing. I think about how your work as a physician-writer-poet-editor in some respects parallels Graphic Medicine co-founder Ian Williams’s engagements with and in insider-outsider roles as a physician who creates art and plays seriously with words.
What we (and definitely I) may need most, though, from you, Shane, is much more of your poetry, including the powerhouse work found within Revolutionary Doctrine of the True Faith, the 2021 chapbook that is among the first publications shared with the world by the new and unapologetically Mad press, swallow::tale.
This mighty little book is a kick-in-the-ass for anyone who thinks medicine is without its foibles (word on the street is that some people still believe this…). While critiquing medicine is not new for or within CripLit circles, Neilson’s Neurodivergent poems bring ekphrastic imagery together with mythographic emplotments and temporal shapeshifting in ways that feel both original and somehow timeless.
There are so many things happening in your poems, Shane. BAM. Another shot. BAM. An injection. BAM. A selfish asshat communicates poorly with someone with little power. BAM. The daemons are hanging out with the fae.
BAM. “A doctor said, You’re angry, big deal as he misdiagnosed my son,” a line from “Patron Gods of the True Faith,” is one of many examples where/when Neilson’s peers are taken to task, as only his words can accomplish. (Italics in original.)
BAM. Promises are a nuanced set of affairs. From the titular poem, “we learn”: “Here in the dirt and thin grass the wind is entropy too. By mine own hand is a broken oath, I shall never perform it, but such is the dream, this is the dream, no revolution. / I am so small, inconsequential…” (Italics in original). Is the Hippocratic oath a messy business, too? Oh, yes. During a time when healthcare providers are being ravaged simultaneously by their responsibilities, structural expectations and systemic exploitation, and their own heightened risks for illness and death in the face of seemingly endless, ever-mutating Covid-19, how can we or they heal or repair (make reparations of or with…?) a “broken oath”? Moreover, what are some contemporary meanings of and implications for the axiom, “Healer, heal thyself,” given these contexts and dynamics? Tikkun Olam. Heal the world.
BAM. Accountability is a process, not a coupon. The poet insists that readers wise up. And forgiveness is not only overrated; in some cases, it is premature—if not outright unwarranted. “There is no healing in reconciliation. / There is only reconciliation,” the poet says, in “Fire’s Still Life.” I read these words (among other ways) as saying: Fires live on. A fire is a painting. “There’s a point at which understanding is of no consequence,” Neilson makes plain. “There is a permanent wound that cannot be blamed for its gape.” The spacing of the poems, the precision in each word, syllable, sound, silence—the refusal to “just” be a doctor who is “also” a poet—all of these reasons, and many more, make me want to return to this book, repeatedly.
We are told that “The medicine won’t go in. / It won’t. It must. But it won’t.” (from “Sweating Poison”) Consider this line in parallel with the last poetry lines in the chapbook, from “Less I shall be”: “The column marches clinicward — / a poem in my head, images shimmering, / some impression of I know not what — / call it healing – call it nothingness.” (Italics in original) A message of existentialism? Perhaps. We are presented, it seems, with the idea of the clinic as a ward. A place to which a column marches is met here with imagination that cannot be stymied in neither its “impression” or its “shimmering.” Neilson’s is such an imagination, and I suggest that you, dear reader, take a trip to visit him and his mind, in “true faith.”
Title: Revolutionary Doctrine of the True Faith
Author: Shane Neilson
Publisher: swallow::tale press
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About the Reviewer
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. 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, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.