Table Of Contents
- Issue 3.0 — Suspended
Note From The Editor
- On the Nervous Edge of an Impossible Tropics
- Suspended Selves: Between Female and the Warrior Bond
- Disintegrating Involvment in Second Life
- bloodli(n)es: Carnivalizing Narratives of Illness: Breathing Bakhtinian Life into the Compromised and/or Dying Body
- Imperial (Re)assemblages and Reconstructions: Intimate Terrors and Ontological Possibilities
- Wishes, Lies, Dreams
- The Land of Sunshine
- RE:FORM: Becoming Visible
- The Earth is Closing on Us
- Cellu(H)er Resistance: The Body with/out Organs?
bloodli(n)es: Carnivalizing Narratives of Illness:
Breathing Bakhtinian Life into the Compromised and/or Dying Body
Sheila Simonson, University of Manitoba
The following presents and discusses an excerpt from a work of creative non-fiction — a 90 page long poem titled bloodli(n)es. bloodli(n)es explores the evolving experiences, tensions, and suspensions of living with a degenerative and incurable disease. The poet confronts her diagnosis, her prognosis, a variety of physiological complications and related indignities, while being confronted with an inhospitable medical discourse. She struggles to come to ‘new terms;’ with her tumultuous past, her challenging present, and her uncertain future as well as with the new discursive, linguistic and physical terms being thrust upon her. Among the pressing questions the text raises is, why and how does this woman write; about her past, her disease, and her dying? What does her writing accomplish? How does she seek to write herself out: of an over-determined father-daughter history; a seemingly dead-end story; a textual tradition; the elevated poetics of sentimentality and transcendental notions that so often characterize stories of illness and death; and an overwhelmingly positivistic medical discourse, which increasingly threatens to over-define and over-write her?
A series of paintings expressing tensions arising at various points in the text accompanies this work. These are titled: (1) father/daughter dis-eases I; (2) silences suspended; (3) bloodli(n)es; (4) seeing red; (5) father/daughter dis-eases II; and (6) art-eries.
Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind;
that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks
straight and clear . . . in illness this make-believe ceases
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of
a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of
the earth . . . Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more
primitive, more sensual, more obscene
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional),
a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted
out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals.
 This excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s essay, On Being Ill, aptly situates and contextualizes my study. My first interest is in writing illness. Secondly, as Virginia argues in this passage, I feel that traditional literary approaches to writing of illness and death - its formal language and forms of polite discourse - are woefully inadequate to articulate the experiences of chronic, acute, or terminal illness. My scholarly and creative work seeks to subvert a long-standing classical tradition of literary representation in favour of a language grounded in the Bakhtinian grotesque body and a carnivalized writing that rematerializes the body and is thus better suited to such narratives. Contemporary poetics, in particular those founded on the vernacular and other so-called ‘sub-literary’ discourses, can provide suitable alternatives. More specifically, I would argue that writing based upon the carnivalesque and basked in the ‘grotesque’ (as espoused by Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World), offers the most fertile ground for articulating illness.
 I have adopted the phrase ‘diss-courses of bawdy/body language’ to describe the aesthetic and writing strategies that I see as being most suitable to this task; those characterized by vernacular, bawdy, bodily and scatological counter-discourses that are, in keeping with Woolf’s suggestion, more primitive, more sensual, and more obscene; basically more bodily. When writing out of a grotesque and Bakhtinian aesthetic, the materiality and matter of the body is no longer avoided and in fact, at times, takes on a life of its own. Indeed, anyone who has been truly ill, or has even gotten ‘sick-drunk,’ can attest to the ‘baseness’ of the situation and the inappropriateness of high-minded discourse. As one becomes subject to (and the subject of) one’s own body and its functions and malfunctions (burning from fever, lesions, rashes, infections, etc.), the cold, classical, and bloodless body of literature seems a distant and false manifestation; a hoax.
 Turning our attention to Bakhtin for a moment, I’d like to consider three aspects of the carnivalesque in particular: grotesque realism, the conception of the grotesque body, and the notion of carnivalized writing. Bakhtin speaks of the carnival atmosphere as an anti-authoritarian attitude to life, founded in the joyful acceptance of the materiality of the body. The essential principle of grotesque realism is “degradation,” or debasement, and despite conventional connotations, he does not mean this to be wholly negative (Dentith 67). According to Bakhtin, “debasement is a fundamental artistic principle of grotesque realism; all that is sacred and exalted is rethought on the level of the material bodily stratum or else combined and mixed with its images” (Bakhtin 370-371). Stressing the ambivalence of carnival imagery, Bakhtin asserts that the degradation enacted in grotesque realism is a constant reminder AND affirmation that we are all creatures of flesh and blood and other bodily fluids, emphasizing that even excrement is ‘gay matter,’ simultaneously linked not only to decay and death, but also to regeneration and renewal. Grotesque realism celebrates the material body that eats, digests, copulates, and excretes, doing so in an abandoned and exaggerated way.
 Related to grotesque realism is the conception of the grotesque body, which Bakhtin sharply distinguishes from the ‘classical body.’ The body of classical art (both in its representations and as a category), being subject to the bloodless niceties of academic philosophy and polite society, is a completed, contained, enclosed, spiritual and presumably eternal thing; a cold, static, bloodless body - consider, for example, the Apollo Belvedere - whereas the grotesque body is unfinished, protean, unapologetically corporeal, and ambivalent. It is, to quote from Simon Dentith in his book Bakhtinian Thought, “a thing of buds and sprouts, the orifices evident through which it sucks in and expels the world...a body marked by the evidence of its material origins and destiny” (67). In the context of carnival, the body is unbounded, is in transformation, and materially linked to the past and future. Whereas classical art celebrates the elevated realms of the spiritual and the cerebral, the grotesque celebrates le bas corporel, or, in other words, “the material bodily lower stratum;” our material connection to both birth and death (Bakhtin 325). According to Bakhtin, the “verbal norms of official and literary language, determined by the canon” prohibit and exclude what is linked with birth, sex, and death, distinguishing between familiar and vernacular speech, and so-called correct language (Bakhtin 320). In the context of these conventions, the grotesque characteristics of the body cease to play a role, and cease to be spoken. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body — physically and linguistically — brings the materiality of the body back into utterance and text (Bakhtin 318).
 Carnivalized writing can be understood not only as an aesthetic that celebrates the anarchic, body-based and grotesque elements that can be mobilized against the seriousness and sterility of official culture, but perhaps more stylistically, as writing that has taken the carnival spirit into itself and consequently reproduces it in its own structure and practice. Like the carnival, carnivalized writing becomes a time outside of standard time, and so structurally, is often given to non-chronology, shifting tenses, overlaps and non-linearity. The language of the carnivalized text is ‘down-to-earth,’ idiomatic and vernacular, allowing for the informality, familiarity, fraternization, and intimacy impermissible at other times and in other con/texts, offering an aesthetic liberated from that which is prescribed and universally accepted. Common to both the carnivalesque and carnivalized writing is an attitude in which the high, the elevated, the official, and even the sacred, is debased and exposed, specifically as a condition of renewal and regeneration. It is often characterized by a swing from a mock-serious tone, to the comic or sardonic, providing a malleable space where activities and symbols can be inflected in different directions. Both are also characterized by polyphony, that is, multiple voices - as if standing in the middle of a crowd at a carnival - fragments, overlaps, snippets of conversations, and so on.
 From out of this theoretical and critical context I have been writing a long poem titled blood-lines in which I have sought to apply the Bakhtinian ‘diss-course of bawdy/language’ to a narrative about chronic illness and the experience of facing death. The narrator has been diagnosed with a degenerative and incurable form kidney disease, and as she becomes increasingly ill over a period of several years, being diagnosed with other complications and conditions, she records her thoughts and experiences. A notable aspect of her writing is the manner in which she singles out individual body parts, organs and other ’matter,‘ giving them “Id/ entities of their own.” She takes off the kidd gloves, if you will, wading hip deep into the material and materiality of her body, refusing to hide behind polite discourse.
 Additionally, her use of bawdy and bodily humour not only transforms “terror into a gay carnival monster” (Dentith 241), but undercuts the prescriptive seriousness and sterility of the medical professionals and their discourses, which might otherwise over-write her. Her writing also subverts the desire of polite society to avoid talking about the body, its matters, and most of all the messiness of death. The narrator engages in Woolf’s “childish outspokenness” and blurts out that which might otherwise be deemed inappropriate and literarily unacceptable. And her writing itself is carnivalized; drawing upon the tumultuous, rebellious, parodic, and evolving character of the carnival. Finally, by employing these carnivalized strategies, the narrator is able to side-step the conventional abstractions, transcendental pit-falls, and sentimentality that are so frequently characteristic of texts dealing death.
life Increasingly becomes a series of strange plantings...
transplant: to plant in an other place...
i found myself at a sex conference, ended up in a lecture, by accident, intimacy coaching, they called it the speaker wanted to do an exercise, asked us to focus, on what we wanted, he said it didn't have to be material, but we should choose something big, i thought what the hell, let’s give this a go had three words on my mind, when i opened my eyes he was staring at me, he said “what do YOU want” caught off guard, i blurted “a healthy kidney” the audience went silent
transplant: to settle in an other area...
it wasn't where I planned to do it, but there, i said it, i have said it aloud, finally allowed to say it, was that me? a kid ney, speaking the unspeakable?
PKD is inherited, a dis- ease passed on from parents to children...
gene tics in my family tree dis-eases passed on, root to tip
...if you inher(e) it the gene you will have the disease, or will be a silent carrier...
silence so long i've been silent a carrier of silences festering i've been sentenced by secrets needing to be kept, the words held on the tip of my tongue, dangerous if let loose; i just kept quiet, my mouth shut things would work out, in the end but held hostage beneath my thinning skin the past worked its way out wormed away at secrets and cells mutating, i am infected, have been exposed, at last diagnosed as a carrier of dis-eases
“we’ll have a better idea of what we’re dealing with when you see the nephrologist”, doc’s talking about the ‘how long’ and ‘how bad’ details, i’m about to become an expert on parts of my body which, until now, i hadn’t given a second thought...
...changes everything the world has shifted on its axis, wor(l)ds have changed
transformation: change in compos i tion
touched, the intimacy coach seems shocked, but pleased with my honesty i wonder if i have gone too far am too far gone? he doesn’t hold back “you know,” he says, “kid ney failure is a man i-festation of unresolved anger” or in other words, being pissed off, that’s clever kidneys, the bladder being ‘pissed’ urine and all that too u r’ in the ball park, man on to me, i guess have i been dealing with the past, he ventures or perhaps repressing feelings of frustration ?what's the big deal do you kid know or not do you like fooling around, the block i’ve been there and yer’ catching on to the dirt rounding third hoping for a homerun
kidney: one of a pair they filter impurities in the blood...
filtering impurities, by- products guess that's been a problem bye- products ta-da, see ya waste- not, want not, i'll tell ya what i want not to have to waste another day you know
PKD causes cysts to form in the kid ney, there is no known treatment or cure...
i’m not scared but pissed off, at the moment (oops! that’s what got me in this mess, right?) i should re vise, get hold of myself, say i am in disbelief (but it wouldn’t be true)
cyst: sac containing fluid or semifluid morbid matter...
;morbid matter more bad news what’s the matter with you
morbidity: ...indicative of dis- ease
doc said to me “at least you have that healthy sense of humour”
morbid: an unusual interest in sad or unpleasant things, especially death.
anne called today she says she knows someone else with this did i want it? their number? so i could talk to them she’s trying i know, to be helpful but i can just imagine the call hi, you don’t know me but we have a disease in common, my fear is this will be come my primary source of id -entification, i’ve never been the support group type do they have one? a twelve step program for going into kidney failure?
other organs can be affected including the heart...
? how/do i get passed it ,my past has taken over, how do i grow passed it or do i, try to take another pass; can i pass?
can love be a burrowing or a burying (of hatchets, perhaps)?
the old man and me are at an impasse, have not yet come to terms, but i’ve learned to manage the mess minimize the waste at this stage, the best i can do is damage control, i figure he knows that, finally has decided to leave well enough alone
Simon says, what a waste...
...the main job of the kid neys is to remove waste...
Kidney as editor taking out the bad stuff, now walking off the job; what’s a poet to do? ...clean up your own mess
...without properly functioning kidneys waste products build up in the blood, are poisonous...
? have you ever tried to imagine, your insides the landscape beneath skin, it’s alien, my own flesh and blood, unnerving, i’ve been learning how things are supposed to be, how my body, stubborn refuses to con form i’m getting acquainted with the uni/verse inverted my in/verse my photo negative forced to see the world in black and white
one litre of blood enters the kid ney through the renal art eries every minute...
art-eries scary stuff, after all veining the canvas of skin; never a dull moment
the intimacy coach is persistent thanks me for sharing gives me a voucher for a free forty-minute session it’s like getting a coupon for a free oil change after the car is wrecked, eh? sure all i really need is an oil, lube and filter and i’ll be roadworthy, ready to go! says he’d be honoured to coach me, that is help me out with diet and exercise, maybe or perhaps, it’s psychological well-being he’s after either way, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it i get this image of us shacked up in Labour and Delivery i must admit i’m labouring for some deliverance, here he’s in my room, i’m hooked up to machines and monitors, labouring he’s cheering me on like a Lamaze coach “come on, be a sport!” he’s checking my fluids, hey listen, it isn’t that far fetched, is it birth or death they’ve always been twins twined together if you want to make an om let’s get real here, you have to scramble a little sometimes break some, if you can have someone coach you through birth why not death, why not?
Passages appearing in ‘yellow notes’ have been borrowed with permission from Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
- Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Image, Music, Text. 6th ed. London: Fontana Press, 1990. 155-164.
- Cooley, Dennis. The Vernacular Muse. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1987.
- Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
- Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought. New York: Routledge, 1996.
- Kroetsch, Robert. A Likely Story. Red Deer, AB: Reed Deer College Press, 1995.
- ---. Seed Catalogue. (1977) Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1986.
- ---. The Hornbooks of Rita K. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2001.
- Nichol, B.P. Selected Organs: parts of an autobiography. Windsor, Ont: Black Moss Press, 1998.
- Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill. (1930) Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 2002.