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.”

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Busy Little Press: Dozens In Print and More On the Way

LUPLogoColorBeaumont, TX–Lamar University Press calls itself a small university press, but a check of the books in print and those listed on the coming soon page reveals a more accurate description: busy university press. With the release of its next book, scheduled to be Kevin K. Casey’s novel Four-Peace, Lamar University Press will have published three novels, twenty-four books of poetry, and seven nonfiction books. From January through the end of April 2015, the press released ten books. In addition to the forty-plus books already published, the small press lists six books on its Coming Soon page. And according to press staff, there are another dozen books that have passed the selection process and in various stages of production. With this kind of impressive output for a small press, quality has not been compromised. Among the authors are many prize winners, including multiple past Texas poet laureates and one Canadian poet laureate.

For a look at many fine books crossing several genres, visit Lamar University Press.

Building Verse

Dallas, TX–Ink Brush Press has announced the forthcoming release of a new collection of poetry. A Rotating Equipment Engineer Is Never Finished by John Milkereit is a work by a real-life engineer. Though firmly grounded in the sciences needed for a career in engineering, Milkereit also excels in the arts with his performanceMilkereitFrontFinal-900 poetry, and he is currently enrolled in an MFA program. His work has been praised by the likes of Texas Poet Laureates and others. According to Dave Parsons (2011 Texas Poet Laureate):

John Milkereit’s poems sing with the free-wheeling voice of the very finest performance poetry, yet they also gift his readers with the delight of well-wrought similes and metaphors that pleasantly surprise, always entertaining and urging the reader on, widening our reality with his unique imaginative visions.

For this and other fine books, visit Ink Brush Press.

2012 Texas Poet Laureate Turns to Memoirs

Angelina River Press is proud to announce the release of memoirs from prolific award winning author Jan Seale. Nature Nurture Neither: A Family’s Journey in Creativity SealeFrontCovexplores the sharing of artistic talent within a family in a humorous, memorable fashion. According to the publisher: Is it genes, or environment or something else that causes a child to select one of the arts as a life’s work? What are the odds that the offspring of a musician and a poet will be artists? One family’s creative passage shines a light on the deliberate and incidental ways in which all five came to be involved is music, literature, and visual art. This family autobiography is unscientific, anecdotal, and entertaining—in the best tradition of memoirs.

Jan Seale’s impressive accomplishments include two books of short fiction, three volumes of nonfiction, nine books of poetry, and nine children’s books. She is a contributor to numerous well respected publications, such as The Yale Review, Texas Monthly, and Newsday in addition to being a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing.

For more information on Seale’s memoir and other outstanding books, visit Angelina River Press.

Poet Laureate Releases Tenth Book

Denton, TX–Karla K. Morton, award-winning author and Texas Poet Laureate, announced that her tenth book, Constant State of Leaping, has been released by Texas Review Press.

The publisher describes the new collection as “a bold book of poetry delving into risks” and “unfettered joy.”

Kevin Prufer, author of National Anthem and In a Beautiful Country, says: “The poems in Karla K. Morton’s Constant State of Leaping address the big, old subjects: the deaths of loved ones, the poignant intricacies of family life, the complex beauty of nature.”

Constant State of LeapingDavid Bowles, author of Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry says of Morton’s work: “Her work often sparkles, at turns clever, amusing, sensual and sad, but always deeply perceptive of human nature, of the webs that bind us and keep us apart. Accessible and imagery-rich, Morton’s poems have an appreciable emotional heft.”

Constant State of Leaping is available at Amazon.com, Texas A&M University Press and local bookstores.

For more information, visit Texas Poet Laureate.