Illness draws a person into narcissism in many ways, especially chronic illness that debilitates the mind and soul as the suffering of the body advances. Yet the author of this amazing collection of poems lives and depicts just the opposite focus. Joan Sidney celebrates life and shows that one can have “vision” outward, even as the MS she suffers continues to move through her body, creating indeed a “body of diminishing motion.” In the title poem, the reader experiences her struggle, “…Back and forth/I crawl across this room,/synchronizing/opposite leg and arm./I try to train my nerve cells/to reconnect, as if/there’s method to disease…” She understands the need to remember those who lived and died in the Holocaust, including her grandparents. “Malka at Ninety” makes the reader gasp with shock about a woman who survived 25 months hidden in a cellar below a cellar, “Thirty-five Jews in a space designed for twelve./What did you eat when the rats stole your stockpiled flour, barley, kasha?” “Flamenco Night at Centre Cap Perefite” rejoices over the ability to move beyond pain and stiffness, “I throw open my arms/and spin, in my blood now/the music in the strings/of Juan’s guitar, on the tip/of my tongue the song.” In the memoir section of this collection, Sidney describes the betrayal of others who begin to exert power in frustration at their inability to control her disease. Ironically, she describes how “My writing helps me understand what’s happening to my body and to take control,” to live a separate, independent life. Humor, determination, and stark honesty permeate the pages of Joan Sidney’s life, and sharing that in these pages is worth so much more than the small price one pays for this vivid collection.
Deborah Schoeneman, is a former English teacher/Writing Across the Curriculum Center Coordinator at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School and coeditor of Modern American Literature: A Library of Literary Criticism, Vol. VI, published in 1997.