Have you ever entered a house that has been abandoned for some time? You open the door, and the first thing that hits you is the smell of moldy plaster and insulation soured by mouse nests, the damp smoke of a long-ago fire. Someone has been squatting here. You see a half-painted wall, a single spot of countertop wiped clean, a fairy circle of surreally arranged objects: antique dishes, open medicine bottles, soiled and brightly colored children’s clothes and toys, cigarette butts, shotgun shells. No one else is in the room, but you know you aren’t alone. There is a story here made up of all you see and cannot see: the objects left behind, the objects taken, the people who must have owned or borrowed them. You are standing inside this story, but you don’t know what it is. You are an intruder.
This is exactly the feeling one gets when reading Betinna Judd’s Patient. and Esther Lee’s Spit. Each of these masterful debut poetry collections explores the idea of the self as something damaged, fractured, or haunted—the result of historical events and the weighty legacies that these events carry into the present day. In order to heal the self, both poets must sift through the wrecked stories that litter their cultural pasts, taking on the additional role of researcher or interviewer. In Patient., Judd’s speaker has “an ordeal with medicine,” which leads her to confront the historical exploitation of black, female bodies in the name of medical research—particularly the voices (ghosts) of Joice Heth, Lucy Zimmerman, Betsey Harris, and Anarcha Wescott. And in Lee’s Spit, we see the speaker, the child of [C]orean immigrants, struggling to negotiate the silences and ruptures that run through her family’s history, both personal and national, and create an inheritance of “unsettledness,” which hangs over her “heavier than heaviest chandelier.” Indeed, the language that permeates both collections is one of lurking ghosts and inherited punishments, of interrogation and confession, of the body dissociated and severed from its voice, of generations of truth and lies layered one upon the other so thickly it is nearly impossible to peel them apart. Likewise, the architectures of the two collections are equally haunted, riddled with gaps and absences. Lee’s epistolary poems seem to function as ghosts —ruptured and cyclical—letter after letter sharing the same addressee and sender, both names scarred by long blanks. At other times in Spit, we see bracketed interruptions running through the middle of poems like gorges. Judd, in turn, alternates poetic forms rapidly in Patient., reflecting the fundamental instability of her endeavor as she interweaves prose poems with lineated poems, surrendering at times to scattered fragments, often welting the page with the keloid scars of italics or bolded text or cross-outs.
From the very first page of both books, the doors to the two haunted houses creak open, and the similarities are eerie and unmistakable. Both Judd and Lee begin with prose poems that address the reader in tones so intimate and urgent that one cannot help but imagine the words coming out in a stage whisper. Judd’s “In 2006 I Had an Ordeal with Medicine” wastes no time in establishing either the setting or the terms of her predicament:
This, then, is the equation that runs throughout Patient. The weight of history is a punitive force. When we stop to examine its silences and betrayals—marked visually by the gaps after “See" and “punishment”—the body is made unwell: separated it from itself, inhabited by an other, reduced to passivity, relegated to object. And as Judd’s formal choices throughout Patient. indicate, the poem is a type of body, too—another haunted house that must suffer the same consequences. While Judd’s opening is explicit—flat and raw—Lee’s style is more illustrative. However, it is obvious that Spit employs a similar type of reckoning. The book begins with what is perhaps the strongest of Lee’s epistolary poems:
Here, we see again the notion of punishment as a historical inheritance, the same “lurking” ghosts. We recognize the tone of interrogation and confession that signals we are about to enter another dangerous and unstable room, the binaries of “guilt” and “innocence” easily traded for “truth” and “lie.” Here the body is again stripped of its agency and forced toward silence—the ears “unlatched,” the mouths contorted. The poem presents itself as an act of cyclical futility: a letter by and to the self, twice-redacted, demonstrates the extent to which telling (or simply trying to tell) not only provides no escape but instead “inflicts you all over again.”
In order to heal from such situations, Judd and Lee’s speakers both turn to research. Judd concludes her opening poem by suggesting that research will lead her to recovery: “To recover, I / learn why ghosts come to me. The research question is: / why am I patient?” Understanding the reason for one’s current state—with all its implied passivity and submission—must logically lead to a way out of it. Thus she immerses herself in the study of Joice Heth, Lucy Zimmerman, Betsey Harris, Anarcha Wescott, Saartjie Baartman, and Henrietta Lacks, inhabiting their voices and bodies. In the process, she awakens the ghosts of her subjects, who often fail to behave as one might expect research subjects to behave: “You, in bed with me Anarcha. You, / brushing my head Joice. Why do you mourn me and / sing as if I am the one who has died?” Lee’s speaker also takes on the role of interviewer, questioning her father about his past and her own childhood in series of “Interview with My [C]orean Father” poems. And, like Judd, her undertaking proves to be no easy task. The series begins as a fairly typical albeit surreal poetic interview, but as the poems progress, we begin to see the effect of years of omissions, miscommunications, mistranslations, compressions, and power struggles. The interviews—numbered to suggest that two (the second and fourth) are missing—eventually transition from a question and answer format to a litany of hybrid questions and demands, asker and answerer somehow fused by their ultimate failure to understand one another:
Thus, in the end, even language is a haunted house; reduced to a howl, it seems to fail both parties. And therefore the presumed goal of Lee’s interviews—the simple exchange of questions for answers—eventually fails as well.
There is, of course, a terrible price to be paid for investigation on this level, for, as Judd puts it, “opening things made to stay shut.” Both Spit and Patient. suggest that the act of research—while seemingly necessary, because how can there be any wholeness without full knowledge?—only leads to greater dissociation. We see this almost immediately, in the title of Judd’s second poem, “The Researcher Discovers Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy,” as the “I” slips away and becomes the remote, third party “researcher.” And research causes the boundaries of time and space to distort. The self risks becoming confused with the object of the research, as in Judd’s “In Special Collections, A Ritual of Anger:” “Another finding / becomes feeling: she is in the page. I am turning myself.” Every act of research is a risk. How many blank spots, how many redactions, can one encounter without absorbing them? “After memory, I am absent,” writes Judd. And Lee too struggles for presence, her assertions undercut by the absences that surround her and appear as bracketed spaces disrupting both poem and claim:
The more lies one discovers, the more one doubts the truth, even the truth of one’s own identity and existence. With every layer, the difference between lie and truth becomes increasingly arbitrary, a phenomenon which Lee suggests in her first poem and which Judd echoes in “Inner Truth:” “Collected words: pewter, automaton, john hopkin string a / line across my tongue. None of it is true. All of it is / true.” Eventually there is no choice but for the self to turn against the self, as in Lee’s “On Lying:”
Here, identity itself is stripped away in the search for truth. The self-damning cycle is realized as human form becomes indistinguishable from object—the notion of body as haunted house fully and physically manifest.
The trick about a haunted house is that there is no way out. A stairway appears, or a door, but as soon as we reach out to touch it, it vanishes. That the contemporary poetry collection should be built on the notion of narrative arc—that a book should end with some hint of resolution for the problem at hand, some sense of how to climb one’s way out—has perhaps become a matter of course. It is refreshing, then, that both Judd and Lee fail to provide the reader with any such security. Instead, they remain organic to the last, playing until the end with the haunted architectures they have established—hinting at resolution in one breath and then retracting the promise in the next. Again, there are striking similarities of language, as both poets mock and muddle the notion of forward progression, of moving cleanly from the past into the present. “I look ahead toward what / has happened,” writes Lee in her penultimate poem, “Amening.” “. . . no heritage cruise/ only forward // through the mind’s / backward gaze,” echoes Judd in “Of Air and Sea,” a fragmented poem dedicated to Henrietta Lacks. And Judd, in particular, seems to relish acknowledging what her reader wants only to deny it. Her final poems are expertly arranged in order to maximize this effect. In the penultimate poem, “A Diagnosis Is an Ending,” she taunts the reader with the hope of a diagnosis as “an ending / to the idea that / we are not human,” but in the final poem, “To the Patient,” she drops us back to the realm of patient, a purgatory, “which, as you know / will be spent waiting.” Lee too ends without conclusion. The speaker of the final, self-addressed epistolary poem—relentlessly “keeping on” despite knowing that she “can’t hold this beam up much longer”—has become absorbed by the book’s architecture, a load-bearing post in a perpetually decaying house.
Patient. By Bettina Judd. Black Lawrence Press, 2014.
Spit. By Esther Lee. Elixir Press, 2011.