This is an excerpt from the poetic memoir Visual Inspection by Matt Rader, published April 27, 2019 by Nightwood Editions.
I was born with difficulty breathing. Doctors guessed cystic fibrosis. They were wrong. My first memory is of being in hospital. Several internal organs were enlarged; they were testing for cancer. Rows of cribs. Large hands. Wires and machines. I was less than a year old. I did not have cancer. My mother carried me, blue and gasping, into the Emergency Room more times than she can recollect over those first three years. At four, when we moved from the city to a small fishing village on Vancouver Island, my mum insisted on a house within minutes of the hospital. 1980s. We’d go to the hospital in the evening. They’d shoot me with adrenaline. After, in the late hours of the night (it is always night in my memory), my eyes wide, my heart racing, I’d dash through the house, careening off the wainscotting in the basement, jumping from the back of the good couch, collecting myself from the carpet, from the linoleum, full of the drug our bodies produce when we most fear for our lives. I don’t remember fearing for my life. I imagine the nurses and doctors feared for my life. In saving my life, they injected that fear into my body. Literally.
I know my mother feared for my life. She spent the first eighteen years helping me seek an answer. We searched daily. We accepted some stories. We rejected others. Nothing explained what happened with me beyond the idea of hyperactive immune responses to my environment. To my emotions. All treatments addressed symptoms, nothing else.
When I took over the search in my twenties, my largely inexplicable medical history continued to accumulate—I had the rarest form of appendicitis the weekend my mum moved from my childhood home after her divorce; I saw five specialists to address why half my lip had been swollen for a year (Guess what the answer was? No answer); and I did trials of breathing medications for three years, measuring the “peak flow” of my breath four times a day, every day. By the time I was thirty I was wracked by pervasive and debilitating pain.
Sometimes searching for something guarantees you’ll never find it. Sometimes what you are looking for obscures what it is you find in your search; you have to see not what you’re looking for but what is there.
From 2015–2017, I conducted a research-creation project at the University of British Columbia Okanagan called Visual Inspection […] Originally, the project asked a basic question: If the page is a field of visual composition in contemporary poetry—and it is such a field—how can we as poets make this field available to non-visual learners in a manner that is consistent with our own individual aesthetic preferences? What would we make? […] When I began the project in the fall of 2014, I was having considerable difficulty typing as the result of several immunological conditions, some that had been with me from the start, and others that had developed in adulthood. At times, I couldn’t even hold open a book.
Over the course of the project my life was dramatically shaped by these conditions. Among other things I made upwards of three hundred visits to the Rutland Aurora Health Clinic, a space dedicated to people with complicated health histories and/or precarious socioeconomic statuses. I received more than six hundred injections. I travelled throughout British Columbia to see specialists in rheumatology, immunology, respirology, internal medicine, dermatology and psychiatry. Both at home and away, I received massage therapy, Trager massage, physiotherapy, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, hypnosis, cupping, moxibustion, chakra healing, Qigong and traditional Chinese medicine. Twice I received emergency, life-saving medical intervention. I spent four days trussed to an IV on a hospital bed across from a room called “Dirty Service” in the hallway of 4B at Kelowna General Hospital. For two years, I spent sixty to seventy minutes of my day, every day, attached to a machine that helped me breathe. Never mind the details of my austere diet and the regime of pharmaceuticals I experimented with. Never mind the hundreds of hours travelling for treatment or given up to convalescences.
How did this shape my poetry? The list above is a chain of references awash in connotation: it employs specific elements of my life to suggest something more general about what it was like in this body over the years of the Visual Inspection project. This book is a similarly devised response to the question of how bodies shape poetry.
Some people like to be read to and other people do not.
Until the age of six my eldest daughter enjoyed hearing novels read aloud. Then she didn’t like novels at all. Then, at the age of ten, she started reading them to herself, silently, in her head.
I heard somewhere that Jorge Luis Borges, whose progressive blindness reached maturation at age fifty-five, thirty years before his death, had a rotating crew of young people who read to him at the library in his mother’s home in Buenos Aires.
Some critics feel that Borges’s blindness prompted him to develop intricate, imaginative worlds.
Such is the double bind of the mythologized blind: unseeing and all-seeing at once.
If my daughter reads silently in her head, then where does Borges read in the voices of young readers?
In a guided meditation, I’m invited to close my eyes.
After a series of descending numbers and images, I’m relaxed and I visit an island.
I look around.
The island is russet-coloured and black. A couple dozen metres in diameter. Barren. Large white seabirds glide down from the milk-blue sky, perch on the rock, then flap away. I’m standing on a beach of fine round pebbles the ocean combs through as it recedes.
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash/ Come flowing through… / You stand there like a pipe / Being played by water… / And diminuendo runs through all its scales…21
This is what I know: the island is still warm. As if it were new. As if in this place, deep inside myself, human time and geological time are unified.
After about thirty minutes of shuffling along with our eyes closed, kicking the heels of the person in front of us, apologizing, trying to find the rhythm, the pace, the Iranian-Canadian sculptor steps out of the line to pee, carefully taking my hand from his shoulder
and giving it to the person in front of him, one of the guest artists visiting for the week, someone I’d met several summers before on another island in the Salish Sea,
someone who, like me, lives with chronic, uncontrollable pain.
Pain either obliterates the world or becomes the world. Elaine Scarry says something like this in her book The Body in Pain.
Think stubbing your toe. The world collapses into the absolute gravity of the acute injury from which no light escapes—
or it radiates until every contact hurts, until everything is the searing light of pain. Paradise Lost. Radios.
An old man, talking of his controversial work with Haida myth and story, once said that sometimes one’s injuries are so great that to simply be regarded hurts.
The old man may be wrong about the Haida but right about pain.
Reaching back, Taryn takes my hand and guides it to her shoulder.
Is this okay? I ask.
She is several inches shorter than me. I think of my voice, my breath, coming from just above and behind her.
Touch is never innocent. Touch is never innocent?
Throughout my life, when I’ve been sick and quiet, I’ve heard two voices, one male and one female, calling my name from a distance behind me and slightly above.
Yes, she says, then a few minutes later she asks me to place my hand lower on her arm.
Matt Rader is the author of three books of poems: A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle over the River Arno (House of Anansi, 2011), Living Things (Nightwood Editions, 2008), and Miraculous Hours (Nightwood Editions, 2005), which was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and long-listed for the ReLit Award. His poems, stories and non-fiction have appeared in The Walrus, Prism International, The Fiddlehead, The Journey Prize Anthology, as well as many other publications across North America, Australia and Europe and have been nominated for numerous awards including the Gerald Lampert Award, the Journey Prize and two Pushcart Prizes. His website is www.mattrader.com.