A Cautionary Tale of Vulnerability and Resilience: Jan Seale’s Parkinson Poems

Editor’s note: The following review originally appeared in The Mimeograph.

By guest contributor Carol Coffee Reposa

In The Parkinson Poems (Lamar University Press, 2014), 2012 Texas Poet Laureate Jan Seale explores the workings of an illness that continues to defy full understanding or cure. Like a jeweler putting a large and freakish diamond under the glass, she examines Parkinson’s both in its entirety and facet by menacing facet—its etiology, onset, symptoms, progression, treatment, and outcome—as the disease inexorably invades the life of her husband Carl.

seale parkinsonNo marker for the malady escapes Seale’s notice. Whether it’s the “mask-like expression,” a tendency to see faces in everything, night sweats, obsession, deterioration of speech, or difficulty in walking, all and each come into sharp focus under the lens of her scrutiny. In “The Guest,” for example, she ironically personifies the disorder as an uninvited and churlish visitor, a neurological Grendel who systematically dismantles the days and nights of his reluctant hosts, leaving them in grim anticipation of his next foray—minus any help from Beowulf. The intruder “dropped silverware, knocked over glasses,/ spilt food, complained of dull knives, . . . / Gradually he began running the show.” Other poems like “Prey and Predator” confront the disease head-on. Here Seale charts mercilessly the process by which Parkinson’s transforms previously innocuous objects like café tables, pews, and rugs into “venomous tile floors, . . . man-eating sidewalks, spidery chairs.”

Although the illness catapults Seale into the unexpected and exhausting role of care-giver, she deftly balances humor and pathos, never allowing self-pity to cloud her vision. She finds nobility in canes, props which help her “Parkie” spouse morph into Paul Bunyan, Tenzing Norgay, or even Moses. Pills are “the first-aid candy” that “convinces your feet to walk/ and your mouth to talk.” In the epistolary “Dear Dr. Parkinson,” the speaker even thanks the discoverer of the ailment for becoming its eponym, although she wryly qualifies her gratitude: “We never know, do we, what will make us famous?/ . . . I’m guessing that you would rather have/ lent your name to a star, a flower/ or a bird.” Seale occasionally permits herself an understated evocation of happier times past, as in the poignant “Evenings,” recalling when “a kiss wasn’t postlude but prelude.” Even here, though, humor bubbles to the surface as the weary couple try “to get the less charming/ Parkinson kid to quit wiggling, gnawing at us, / the only bedtime story we want being rest.”

If the 33 poems in this collection documented nothing more than one man’s encounter with one disease, they would stand. Seale moves far beyond the reach of individual experience, however. Through epigraphs, abundant detail, and numinous visuals, she ties present to past, the particular to the general, expanding her survey toward the universal and unending. To reinforce this perspective, she marshals an array of rhetorical strategies ranging from energetic free verse to haiku, apostrophe to narrative, and the lyrical “I” to the more detached third-person. Seale often pairs form and content ironically to jaw-dropping effect. “The Dys-es Are Dissing the Parkie,” which lists the numerous physical malfunctions accompanying the disorder, is written entirely in tight rhymed couplets:

Dysphonia makes it hard to speak;
Dysphagia makes it hard to eat.

Dyskinesia jerks one to and fro
Where one does not wish to go . . . .

If only one could diss the dys-es,
There’d be a chance to know what bliss is.

This offbeat combination of almost-epic catalogue and almost-but-not-quite heroic verse generates a gritty humor that recurs throughout the text and leavens an experience potentially devastating for reader and writer alike.

The Parkinson Poems is rightfully dedicated to Carl, but the book ultimately sweeps everyone into its arc. In 77 pages, Jan Seale unfolds a cautionary tale of vulnerability and resilience, appraising unflinchingly the ravages of the disease while urging her readers to glory in the serendipities that float through their fragile lives. As the epigraph she draws from Menander reminds us, “No man alive can say, This shall not happen to me.”