The Alchemy of My Mortal Form

This is a poetry book review of a narrative persona chapbook. A little different from my previous reviews, but well worth the read!

The Alchemy of My Mortal Form is a fever of words exploring illness, awareness of self, and intellectual and bodily freedom. Winner of the 2014 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, Sandy Longhorn grips the reader with a tale of suffering through diagnosis, treatment, and remission by exploring the transformation of self and the condition of the human mind and body.

Reviewer Terry Lucas describes the work as one that “gives language to the feelings of helplessness that imbue our faulty bodies when they, as well as those charged with helping us get well, fail us instead. Without reading the book’s title, a reader might think she has awakened in a Kafka novel in verse, with its god-like bureaucrats in the end not only being complicit in turning patients with difficult-to-diagnose symptoms into victims, but also in becoming the disease itself. Healing, in our individual and collective bodies, if it is to come, must come from within, rather than from without.”

Longhorn weaves in an air of perplexity when addressing a mysterious benefactor, Madame, and the woman I accidentally called ‘mother’ and keeps the speaker in changing states of hope, complacency, and fear. The speaker writes to Madame as her Subservient / Sickling / Resilient / Beggar / Debtor / Tethered, expressing the delicate balance of one’s resiliency when facing death alone in a stream of strangers. The benefactor is alluded to, but never named by the speaker, a secret similar to the one she refuses to share as the whitecoats and mystics prod at her for information on the one she accidentally called ‘mother’.

A stasis of mental and physical health is shown throughout the narrative. The opening poem, “Fevers of a Minor Fire”, expresses the start of the health decline and fever, while also establishing a timeline in the epistolary form addressing the Madame:

                                                                        August, near the First

Dear Madame—

I address you with a tongue calloused
& lumbering. Imagine the skein of my hair,
humble & falling, neck ravaged.
Based on your favored advice,

I have passed some days burning
the locked boxes my suitors sent me.
The firelight refracted by the fever flush,
Sweat on my brow & collarbone.

In an interview with Viewless Wings, Longhorn explained her inspiration and process of writing for the collection. She states, “The very earliest inspiration was the first poem, “Fevers of Minor Fire”. This book is very different from my previous books. I wrote the poems in chronological order, from “Fevers of a Minor Fire ” through the end of the speaker’s story. The glossary at the end and the general orders at the beginning were separate, but the narrative I wrote in chronological order.”

Longhorn continues by including underlying factors in her life that helped the narrative hold an air of complexity through fighting an illness, “The speaker’s journey is inspired by one of my cats, who at the time was diagnosed with a fever of unknown origin. The book is also largely a reaction to my father’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s in his 60s, and the amount of work my mother had to do to get him care. Those are the two medical threads that are going through this book. They come from the fact that I could get better medical care for my cat more quickly, easily, and cheaply than my mother could get for my father.”

With the journey of facing an illness of unknown origin, the collection continues by alternating poems with the persona and an epistolary form addressed to Madame. Towards the middle of the collection, the poem, Left a Refugee Here in a Sterile Country, adds to the theme of the understanding of self and evolves into the mysterious narrative involving the repeated address of the woman I accidentally called mother:

When the fever shifts & loosens,
I understand absence, being born again
to solitude, the population of my hallucinations

elusive & in hiding. It is then,
when I think of the woman I called mother
by mistake & yearn for the soft yarn of her sweater,

the gloved hand taking mine
on the icy path, the way her lips were firm
in their enunciation of my name, though never daughter.

The poem following is another address to Madame from November. It is entitled, “We Live in Black and White” and gives the first mention of the secrets that lie with the unknown mother:

Be on your guard. There are secrets here
which I will seal with glue and string.

The woman I called mother by mistake takes pity,
sends me gifts addressed by an anonymous hand.

She keeps her name well-hidden from the whitecoats.
Though they wish to track her down & pull

some quantity of that bold liquid from her veins,
they are mistaken in their belief of our relation.

If you know her whereabouts, assure her I am mute.

The voice of the speaker can be read as almost Victorian and gives the reader clues that the narrative is taking place before modern medical practices were established, which adds to the layer with the whitecoats conducting tests on the patient. When asked about this voice, Longhorn references one of her influences as ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She states, “The narrator of that story is so multi-dimensional and layered and is often taught as an unreliable narrator, but I disagree. I think that is a red herring that we have perpetuated in academia. She would certainly serve as a sense that lack of agency was going on.”

The speaker is in a condition where they cannot leave of her own free will and is unable to fully recognize that she has become a victim of the whitecoats. In the same interview as above, Longhorn speaks to this point, “The idea of an institution is very unusual. In my first two books, I was considered a place-based poet. I was a poet writing about the Midwest, even while living in Arkansas, and those poems are steeped in landscape. And as I was writing these poems, it dawned on me that there is no landscape in these poems, other than illusions that the speaker might make to something exterior to the walls in which she lives. It really drew my attention to how important those details were going to be. It was important to make the setting of the institution its own landscape.”

An example of using details to create the landscape can be found in the poem, “The Wine Shows a Blood Sheen.” The poem begins with the lines: Above this metal bed, there is a window. // I arc & crane for a view of the boxed sky, / the geese that burn an arrow pointing south. These lines not only describe the layout of their room and the environment outside but also hints at the speaker being restrained to their bed and/or too weak to move from it.  

The awareness that the speaker has of their condition and environment is ever-changing, especially with the constant supplication from the whitecoats conducting their tests and the mystics providing small comforts as they try to leech information about the mother while the speaker is in an unstable state. The speaker stays true to her word and holds to her secrets which makes the persona such a strong and reliable character. As readers, we know what is important to the character and can see how strong they are in body and mind.

Although, as a new year begins while the speaker is undergoing treatment, their mental state starts to wain as they start having delusions of the mother figure, which considering the constant treatments, is an understandable result. In the poem, “The Radiant Shimmer of Supplication”, the speaker asks Madame if she has heard from the figure and requests that she Seek her out, discover what message she has for me. This paranoia adds to the extreme conditions that the speaker is facing throughout her treatment as they progress towards remission and release.

The whitecoats and mystics add a layer of confrontation and healing to the speaker’s journey throughout treatment. The whitecoats followed the orders of Approach the body by preying without distinction and Sacrifice the body in order to find what may be saved. They used marrow-bone transplants, blood transfusions, and other procedures to cure the speaker. In the last epistolary poem, “Cloaked in Darkness & in Health”, the speaker expresses how they become of no use to the whitecoats:

When my body burned beneath their hands,

when my veins resisted their prescriptions,
the whitecoats found me fashionable, a test

of their aptitudes, a quest to set their names

in bold font, spinning through the profession.

The mystics were instructed to Approach the fevered body as one approaches a trapped & rabid animal and Use the force deemed necessary to compel compliance should the subject be unwilling. The approach of both the whitecoats and mystics gives the speaker justification for plotting her escape as she refuses to give up her mother, information that would allow her to leave.

As the speaker reaches remission, their ability to fight against the whitecoats and mystics lowers to a state of resignation. In the poem, “The Body’s Instinct is to Bloom”, the speaker shares this feeling. Compliant now / under their smooth-fingered grazing / I allow them to lift, / pinch, & shift newly muscled limbs, // to persuade the new growth / forming on the budding branches.

The speaker’s complacency doesn’t last long as she returns to plotting her escape and carrying out their plan in the last poem in the main section, “Cloaked in Darkness & in Health”:

Each night, I work more quickly at loosening
the bars at the window. Each day, I memorize

the path I’ll take. Expect me three nights past

the new moon. I’ll be insolvent, hungry,
in need of just enough to make my way.

The five poems that conclude the collection provide insight into what seems to be terminology and instructions on how to save and treat an individual, such as the speaker, but they also expand upon the theme of the separation of one’s body and their mental state. The final poem of the collection, “Health’, an Expanded Definition”, concludes that health can be compounded into four categories, including “Sound condition of the body,” “Freedom from disease,” “Vim & Vigor,” and “Spiritual or moral soundness.”

Longhorn takes the reader on a journey of suffering, acceptance, and defiance with a character whose sole objective is to survive and maintain their fealty to the one who raised her. With a narrative of unanswered secrets, delusions, and a battle for life, The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, calls readers to, as reviewer, Oliver de la Paz states, “embrace their fullest capacity for empathy.”

Sandy Longhorn is the author of three books of poetry, including The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (Trio House Press), The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press), and Blood Almanac (Anhiga Press). Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Tupelo Quarterly, Sugar House, diode, Cincinnati Review, 1-70 Review, and many others. She received her MFA from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville and her BA in English from the College of St. Benedict. She currently teaches at the University of Central Arkansas in the Arkansas Writers MFA Program, where she directs the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference.

To purchase this work by Sandy Longhorn, click here!!

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