Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Caput Nili

One evening last June I read Caput Nili: How I Won the War and Lost My Taste for Oranges by Lisa Gill (West End Press, 2011), a book-length series of poems, mingled with prose interludes, and with artwork by Kris Mills. The book is, more or less, an account by Gill of her attempt to find a medical diagnosis for whatever was causing her difficulty walking, and of her long and varied journey along the way through the infernal underworld of medical clinics and hospitals, and psychiatric treatment for bipolar disorder and whatever else doctors thought she might have.

Throughout the book the poems and prose mingle jittery desperation, quick humor, a quiet sense of self, and a keen perception of the leaky cracks that are everywhere in the implacable walls of modern bureaucracy. Gill repeats phrases and ideas from one poem to another, circling back through the same moments to reach for multiple perspectives. The poems move along like electrical current, not pausing to rest. The book kept pulling me along with it -- I read it in one sitting, something I've rarely done with any book.

The book is organized into four overall sections, and the individual poems in each section are numbered in sequence, without titles. The first poem (numbered 1:1) begins:

In 2003 I threatened to hold up the MRI clinic.

I went to the ER and told them
my legs had been numb for five weeks.
They told me to eat mandarin oranges.

They told me to eat mandarin oranges
and then shrugged, as if legs didn't matter.

So I threatened to hold up the MRI clinic.
Self-preservation is instinct.

And from the next poem (numbered 1:2):

You want to know where the shotgun came from?

It came from my knee--
this was a weapon birthed from patella and ligament,
hard-hitting myth born the day I decided
I would not leave a man's hands wrapped around my windpipe.

It took years to get around to defending myself,
it took less than a minute without oxygen

as if my head had been forced underwater in the River Styx
fish swimming by

a baptism into adrenaline
fast riddle of flesh
this time the answer was a leg.

In a note at the front of the book, Lisa Gill explains that the title, Caput Nili, is Latin for "head [i.e. the source] of the Nile." According to Gill, after the source of the Nile River was "discovered" by a European explorer in the mid-1800's, the phrase "caput Nili" came to refer more broadly to any sort of significant discovery. Caput Nili is, in part, about Gill's search for the injuries or traumas in her early life that may lie at the source of any or all of the illnesses or conditions affecting her body and psyche.

At some point as she was writing Caput Nili, Gill worked with several other women to create a one-woman performance piece from the work-in-progress. Much of the writing, especially of the poems, has the feel and movement of speech and performance. The writing is at times deeply personal and vulnerable, but it the voice that is speaking never retreats into isolation. The author is speaking to human beings, face to face. She means to tell us something we need to hear.

From the poem numbered 1:6:

I get tired of the onslaught.

One man threw a blanket over my head.
If he hadn't been shoving a knee into my crotch
and his tongue into my mouth, I would have gone to sleep.

It's so old, the harassment.

When I have insomnia, I can't count how many times
I've been followed or stalked or felt up or groped
or slapped or flashed or propositioned or catcalled
or had a gun pulled on me... no, I can count that.


Once a man pulled out a pistol
and began gesticulating at me.

I knew him and although I wasn't entirely sure
what he had in his hands, it looked like a .22 caliber

He wanted to sleep with me.

The prose sections of Caput Nili are difficult to quote in brief passages -- much of the power throughout the book, both the poems and the prose, grows from the cumulative effect of repetition and revisiting, a kind of double and triple exposure sensation. The prose sections serve to flesh out the background of the poems and Gill's life in general. I'll quote a brief passage from the first prose section, titled "Say So":

The first seizure drug was like my third serious relationship.
It nearly killed me.
Things started off innocuously enough. The doctor said, "This pill will make it so you don't smell the images on TV anymore." Or that's what I heard. My sensory life was a bit out of whack. I had visual and auditory hallucinations and was plagued with smells that no one else could perceive. And I was suicidal.
I thought that pill would cure me.
Instead, after only a month, when I took a routine follow-up blood test, the result was that I got called into the neuro's office. He said, word for gregarious word, "Your body has quit producing white blood cells. You might die."
Ten years later, I asked my shrink for my chart. When I got it, that adverse reaction was summed up in one line: "Patient experienced Leukipenia on Tegretol."
It didn't say what I'd have said: The drug the patient was taking so she wouldn't off herself nearly killed her, the irony of which thrust her into such a profound despair that she didn't eat for two weeks, though she went ahead and took her iron pills on an empty stomach, because the blood test had also shown that she had become anemic, and she still, stubbornly, wanted to believe that pills would make things better.
Now I'd say my bone marrow was depressed, literally.

Much of the artwork by Kris Mills plays with classic works of art: a cubist Picasso woman eating from a can of mandarin oranges; an old-style pistol with a caption,"Ceci n'est pas une fusil"; the woman from Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World," pulling herself by her hands across a flat surface marked into a grid of squares; an image (after a painting by Ingres) of a woman holding a shotgun up over her shoulder like a water jar. Lisa Gill also includes in the book a couple of MRI images of her own brain.

From the poem numbered 2:4:

Five weeks. My legs had been numb for
five weeks when I went to the ER.

I'd already been to my primary.
She took X-rays.

They were clean as something else going on
so she gave me a referral to a neurologist.

I called every neurologist in the phone book
trying to get an appointment.

I knew: crossing my kitchen
shouldn't feel like crossing the Rubicon

and I'd fallen
for the idea that someone might help me

this time. I knew:
I wasn't crazy.

The numbness was more stable
than anything in my life.

Caput Nili tells a remarkable odyssey, a hard and persistent struggle, a story and struggle that repeat, in countless variations, in the real lives of the billions of us who awaken and live in the world. The story Lisa Gill tells is a warning and a celebration; it is an offering to the bare bones of light.

From the poem numbered 3:12:

Six months later, when I'd recovered feeling
in my legs, I met with a new neurologist.

She hit me with a hammer.
One leg flew into the sky, the other did nothing.
Bipolar reflexes.
Neither response was normal.

She struck a tuning fork and put it to my shin.
I was supposed to say when I couldn't feel it.
Instead my whole body started trembling.

She raised her eyebrows
so I told her about the time a sitar concert
had made me hear laughter
every time I bent my neck down.
I told her I'd learned to keep my head up.

Without hesitating,
she slapped my MRI's onto the light screen.
I didn't know what I was looking at.
I didn't know anything but I could see polka dots.
I trembled again. [...]

[...] Then she flipped some more
stopped, pursed her lips, and said,
"Your corpus callosum is thinner than I'd like to see."

And she showed me the arc,
the strip of brain that connects the two hemispheres,
the strip of brain that should have been plump.

"So what does that mean?"

"That means you'll have trouble with memory."

"What kind of memory," I said, trying to be calm.
"Long term of short?"

"All memory."

Several places in Caput Nili, Gill includes short quotations from various writers: Sigmund Freud, Margaret Sanger, John Hanning Speke. One quotation, by Martin H. Teicher, particularly struck me, in the context of all that Gill tells about in her book. Here is the quoted passage by Teicher as given in Caput Nili; Gill notes that the quotation is from Teicher's article "Scars That Won't Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse," which appeared in Scientific American in 2002 (Gill's citation doesn't note which month):

"...Research reveals a strong link between physical, sexual, and emotional mistreatment of children and the development of psychiatric problems. But in the early 1990s researchers thought of the damage as basically a software problem amenable to reprogramming via therapy or simply erasable through the exhortation, Get over it.

[However] such abuse, it seems, induces a cascade of molecular and neurobiological effects that irreversibly alter neural development. ...We see the need to do much more to ensure that child abuse does not happen in the first place, because once these key brain alterations occur, there may be no going back."

Caput Nili is, partly, about the long journey toward recovery from trauma; it is also about the ongoing effort to survive and grow in a world that continues to create trauma on an ever greater horrific scale. The book presents no neat conclusions or simplistic answers; it asks essential questions, and shines light on them in the darkest places.

From a poem near the end of the book (numbered 4:12):

So yes, I wish I'd pressed charges.
I wish I'd reported the malpractice.
I wish I'd done anything
to stop any of the people who hurt me
from hurting one more woman,
so I am doing what I can do now:

I am sicking  my skinny corpus callosum on the world.

Because what's horrific is not what happened to me,
it's that i'm not alone. [...]

[...] And I was not in the wrong place at the wrong time:

This is the wrong culture at the wrong time.

Poet Lisa Gill has written the right book at the right time.

Wow, that looks like a powerful read!
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