Rafael Campo reflects on Illness as Muse


Campo explores what it means "to write explicitly about one’s own illnesses" at Bellevue Literary Review. It is not unusual, after I’ve given a poetry reading, for some impossibly young writer from the audience to remark over the post-literary pretzels and Diet Coke, “Wow, your stuff is really depressing.’’ One especially unkind reviewer of my books proclaimed—in a similar but perhaps more impatiently dire vein—“Bad things happen in Rafael Campo’s poems.” Coming from a fellow poet—and none of us are generally associated with boundless joy, or even middling cheerfulness—his indictment seemed inordinately cruel. Even my devoted spouse counsels me, after reading my latest villanelle about botulism or ode to schizophrenia, “Honey, maybe you should think about lightening things up a bit.” Try as I might to take all of this concern to heart, to see butterflies or snowflakes or flowers as more suitable, or at least less foreboding, objects of literary address, I keep finding myself drawn to write about illness. Like anyone, I despise the kind of person who slows down his car at the sight of a roadside accident, craning his neck in the hopes of glimpsing some awful carnage. I hate television shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy for making a ludicrous spectacle of illness. I can’t stand it when innocent family members solicit advice about their hypertension or cholesterol, because it seems to me there is so much in the world that is more interesting to discuss; I grew impatient even with my endearing grandmother, when she was still alive and would ask me my advice about her blood sugar.

When I feel I’m about to fall ill myself from such constant noxious exposures, I dig out my well-worn copy of Susan Sontag’s scathingly sober Illness as Metaphor. “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is the one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking,” Sontag says, and I think “Take that, Sharon Olds!” “The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness,” she goes on to say, and I crow, “Take that, Franz Wright!” What a relief it is to understand illness for what it really is—matter-of-fact pathophysiology; a boring, unpleasant and decidedly non-revelatory experience. Illness is a problem for the human imagination only insomuch as we might seek dispassionately scientific methods to cure it while we avoid the inevitably destructive pressures it exerts on our fragile psyches.

Image: Rui Ribeiro at Paper Darts

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