Tory Dent’s poetry was a record of long-term illness and pain

IN THE POEM “Fourteen Days in Quarantine” Tory Dent reflects on her stint on a tuberculosis ward in New York. While a snowstorm blows outside, scores of doctors and nurses—masked for protection, “bodies with just eyes”—scurry around her. When Dent’s boyfriend visits, she notes “the thick cardboard material of the/quarantine mask which we would defiantly indent in order to kiss”. Observing herself in the glass of a TV screen, her reflection “refuses to echo back what signifies reality to me”. Here is the patient’s sense of alienation from themselves and others, the danger of touch, and, later—when Dent’s doctor tosses a coin to decide which of two drugs “would likely cause another/allergic response”—their sense of helplessness.

Dent’s poetry chronicles her experience of HIV/AIDS, which was diagnosed when she was 30. Her work enjoyed critical acclaim during her lifetime but has gone largely unread since her death in 2005. Dent published three collections—“What Silence Equals” (1993), “HIV, Mon Amour” (2000) and “Black Milk” (2005)—of which two are out of print; internet searches reveal only a handful of obituaries, social-media posts and reviews. Yet her depictions of long-term suffering are powerful, elegant and newly resonant during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work deserves another reading.

Dent describes an awful routine of symptoms, medication, reactions and pain—pain which frequently resists Dent’s attempts to describe it, even in new or surprising ways. In “The Interfaith Chapel at New York Hospital”, Dent, struggling to verbalise an intense allergic response, makes a “noise like an animal hurt on the road”. In “When Atheists Pray” she considers “each level of the disease”: “the gradations of physical recession,/the lungs, the gut, the eyes, the brain—systems of torture”. In her later work, Dent expresses her willingness to die with honesty and directness, refusing to paper over the grim challenges of reduced bodily function. In “Interfaith Chapel” she begs “for release, complete and total; for release final and instant, release from the torture—and torture is not an overstatement.” All the same, she writes in “Fourteen Days”, “I knew that one day I might look at this interval as when I was better off”.

In its willingness to lay bare her awful experiences as a patient, Dent’s writing is forceful and uncompromising. Her poems often prioritise lyricism over clarity, and her use of language can be intimidating and difficult to follow. (In one poem she uses “abeyance”, “finisterre”, “exequy” and “metonymical”.) Critics have considered her poetry an expression of vigour and rage, but this emphasises the personal element of her work at the expense of the political. Dent often looked outwards at the unfolding HIV/AIDS epidemic, as in “The Legend”: “Was I supposed to supply a metaphor, beautify the language,/make pretty the fact that the USA’s increasing HIV population/consists primarily of inner-city teenage girls?”

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Dent gives the reader a sense of what it might be like “to be dying/but not to die”, as she says in “The Defeat of Linear Thinking”, or to live perched on the precipice between being well and sick. What is most striking about her poetry is the way in which she allows seemingly contradictory impulses to coexist, contemplating her illness in the present even as she plans for the future. In “Fourteen Days” Dent adapts to life inside the tuberculosis ward with her boyfriend, who brings “flowers, cassette tapes, favourite home items” to her room. In “us”, Dent recalls “all the work/we had yet to do, had just done,/the hope, ridiculous amounts of it/we had to pump/from nothing, really…/make it from scratch, air and water”. In this, her work is a record of human optimism as much as of suffering.

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/08/17/tory-dents-poetry-was-a-record-of-long-term-illness-and-pain
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