No Acute Distress by Jennifer Richter
Southern Illinois University Press
2016, 67 pp, $15.95
Author website: www.jenniferrichterpoet.com
Reviewed by Tiah Lindner Raphael
From Disease to Ease: Transforming Pain into Resilience
Jennifer Richter’s second full-length collection, No Acute Distress, was published in 2016 by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Editor’s Selection. Following her first collection, Threshold, which won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Open Competition, No Acute Distress centers around family, un/health, chronic disease, and the way in which these forces shape identity. The collection follows a single speaker in an arc of transformation, looking for the universal through the lens of intensely personal – and physical – experiences.
Structurally, the book is divided into sections – “Family History,” “Admission,” “Examination,” “Complications,” “Release” – mirroring the inpatient intake and treatment process. Medical terminology is explored in all its surrealism from the title itself to PICC lines, from visual pain scales to a list that highlights the bizarre naming of pharmaceuticals:
I’ve tried Depakote, Sinequan,
Zomig, Xanax, Toradol: fuck you. Fuck
your side effects, your scripts fanned out then dealt
to me for years. And Midrin, Flexeril,
Vicodin, Axert, Celebrex, Frova
that hooked me – what the fuck?
– “Eighteen Seconds”
Throughout the collection, the body is alternately cataloged with clinical efficiency or given the extreme tenderness of an intimate or caregiver, treating language-lovers to a subtle lexicon that includes femurs, veins, spines, and the wild labor of birth. In the long poem “Eighteen Seconds,” Richter writes, My body’s dragging like a plastic sack /of batteries: they’re dead or not, can’t tell.
Indeed, the body plays such a central role in No Acute Distress because Richter uses it as both a vehicle for action and agency and as a limiting force: Lately I feel my body’s felt docked, as in: all aboard (“I’m Used to Feeling Like I’m Moving Even When I’m Still”). The plurality of strength and weakness, vulnerability and ferocity, is particularly noticeable in Richter’s poems about children. For example in “My Daughter Brings Home Bones,” she writes about the bright future of a young daughter on the cusp:
In this next decade, she’ll go: head off like
today, take into her arms all she’s curious about. Her line of bones
makes an arrow; sun lights them like a sign.
In contrast, in “My Boy, My Body: When I Type I Always Mix Them Up,” Richter describes a sick child and the pain of parental guilt.
The surgeon finally
emerges with photos: the shadowed terrain inside my son like a
moonscape if the moon were smooth. He slides a pen from his
pocket. I fidget like I’m starved. With the tip he traces exactly
where my body, when I made Luke’s, made it wrong.
The further one gets into No Acute Distress, the more one notes the role of pain, in both its physical and emotional manifestations. In these poems, Richter asks difficult questions about the nature of pain, how it shapes the individual and whether or not that pain brings people closer in shared experience or pushes them toward isolation. In “My Own Blood,” the speaker discusses her mother’s ill health, Our pain’s the same, behind one eye. She knows /some studies trace mine back to her.
As she explores the experience of disease, one’s own and that of others, Richter creates a collection permeated with a specific sense of unease, even in times of relative wellness: I’m fine if you mean satisfactory (“Eighteen Seconds”). However, by the final section of the collection, “Release,” the tone of the poems changes towards one of transformation. In the poem “Imagine,” the speaker mourns what has been lost in her journey:
Children’s mouths sigh open in the dark. They’re not surprised:
The healer touched me, and it worked. They’ve seen magicians –
Beneath the sheet that’s pulled away, something’s always gone.
However, in the next poem, “Synesthesia: The Way I See It,” the speaker shows herself to be in a place of more peaceful acceptance: I’m better now;/Still trying to make sense of everything. By the final poem, “No Joke,” Richter’s speaker reflects on her transformation and pauses in a state of gratitude: Even the quality of the light is new. I’ve come so far.
Readers, too, will find themselves grateful for the experience of sitting with Richter’s rich poems. Illness is a universal experience and, shaped by Richter’s deft hand, one that gives readers a way into the most complex questions about body, being, and selfhood.
Tiah Lindner Raphael is an obsessive gardener and writer living in Portland, Oregon. A frequent volunteer with the journal VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, her poems have most recently appeared in Cloudbank, Pretty Owl Poetry and Spoon River Poetry Review.