A REVIEW OF ERIN KNIGHT'S
BY TARYN HUBBARD
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 4 | February 15, 2013
Erin Knight’s second book of poetry, Chaser, examines the ephemeral nature of health and language. Language is missing, destroyed, erased or censored, and the illness is unclear, while the diagnosis is simply unrepeatable. Meditating in a liminal hypochondria between assumed health and ambiguous sickness, Chaser is divided into three sections, each of which performs its own diagnosis on illness at the level of patient, scientist and market capitalism.
In “Travelogue of an Amorous Consumptive” Knight begins her inquiry into the fleeting and fragile world of health with “The body can be mostly right/ but occasionally sick” (12). The diagnosis from the doctor “is quite impossible to repeat,” especially when “all talk at present is of x x x x x x.” Could the five x’s be a placeholder for cancer? Knight’s Chaser trades in a poetics of ambiguity.
In the first section, “I Hope the Sea Air Will Act as Physician,” Knight introduces a transient, unwell character called Invalid. The narrator identifies the character by name in “The Invalid Conducted Safely Through the Seasons” when she speaks of a mystery disease:
Invalid, I have no meridian
As the poems in the section progress, however, Invalid is reduced to “I——,” turning what may have been a character or idea towards a visually isolated first person “I.” In “Go West and Live,” Knight uses the double emdash as a barrier between the I and its undisclosed treatment: “At this point, I——/ was being treated.” Language is skewed into a boundary creating device, making fraught the delicate nature of words and meaning.
Chaser’s second section “Lacuna in Productivity” follows a young, ambitious tuberculosis scientist as he researches and works through his various experiments. Continuing the dialectic of transitory health and diagnostic uncertainty she sets up in the first section, Knight develops her exploration of illness, this time focusing on the apparent struggle scientists have between theoretical cures and the real life likelihood of an unrealized hypothesis. In “The Novice,” Knight writes of frustration and failure:
We went for walks. He was not immune
Feeding off the juxtaposition of theory and fact, there is a sense of hopelessness and futility in the drive to understand and cure illness.
The final section, “Must See Bankruptcy Friday Better Stay Reply,” Knight brings to light sickness in the open market place. Writing from a quantitative and statistical place, in the poem “Contagion of Wishful Thinking,” she calls upon the idea of faceless, black and white health and data analysis: “If she is well and happy, put a mark +/ and if —.” Knight does not name “-” or what a patient’s characteristics would be if he or she had that mark beside their name. Also in this section, Invalid, whether as character or feeling, resurfaces in “Song of the Open Market:”
Trouble is, I—— is not always at peace
With this it appears Knight is moving towards an idea of health as ultimatum. Her repetition of “not always” suggests a weak-willed character, one who may use the illness as a personal crutch or simply brings the sickness on himself, or so thinks the judgmental narrator.
In Knight’s note on the work, she explains how she “built around lines” from various autobiographies, histories, and science books. The collage aesthetic of the work gives the poems a measured, even sterile, feel to them, a tactic that works well to mimic the lab-like environments that pops up throughout the collection. Likewise, playing with collage and documentation poetics, Knight has moments where traces of failed documentation slip into the text. For instance, in a poem like “A Necessary Change of Air” she writes “I felt so happy I leaned out the window with my arms/ along the rail and my feet crossed [illegible] the sunlight,” using [illegible] as a placeholder for something unreadable in the research.
Exploring the societal and linguistic ways in which health and illness are measured, Knight’s Chaser is a poetry collection that develops from a point of pre-diagnosis into a rich and focused analysis of language and sickness.