Cynthia Hogue

The Incognito Body

Cynthia Hogue




Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to...the sounds and cries a human being makes before
language is learned. 

                                                                Elaine Scarry

For that is one property of poetic language: to engage with states that themselves
would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers.

                                                                Adrienne Rich



1. In another country

Wake to breeze and satin-
sheen of blue past
village clattered
up since gale-force
winds flattened it

With slow, slug-
moves (gray-
pouched skin), I

                  more contemptible: since ours is to preserve
                  earthewormes: didst thou
ever see a Larke in a
                  cage? such is the soule in the body...

limp to this shore,
stand in white
light on white sand,
step into sea so salty
I float free
              of gravity


2. Much that I don’t remember

All dreams  

                To recOVER is nOt
                to change
                an experience of separation
                a decreasing capacity
                to find wORDs

Sometimes cOMplete    withdRAW
no sexual
not touched at all  

was to flOat
without gravity

                I had been gOing to say 
                Could think of nOthing to say 
                Had sOmething to say
                and suddenly after a sentence 
emptied Out until
nO “me” left
tO act human 
would nEVER cOMe back

                                               As art this SHATTERing
                                               can disPLAY the prO
                                                                                                 ductive basis
                                               of subJEctIve and iDEO
                                               lOgical sig-
                                              nIFying FORMations
                                                                                                I began to                                                                                                 lose language


3. The Nerves like Tombs

As if an island under fog, memory’s
outline blurs in fall and disappears
in spring.  A broken chrysalis, the soul
dries up, self-emptied.  When I try
to drive through town, I do not see
a stop light that I hurtle (deadly)
past to find myself crossing the river
out of town.  I don't know why I stutter,
or sentences stop, words like crows
wheeling, cawing, away.  One fears
nofor a self, but I have no fears
for this no-more being, this body-shell
with nothing-left to say.  First—Chill—
then Stupor—then the letting go.


4. Green surrounds the mind of summer

Taking time, patience
This new body a new land
The doctor said, “Let’s say
that people with green hAIR             
are more likely to DEVELop
this disease, so for our purposes

it’s as if you have GREEN hAIR.”
He wOn’t kill
but he cannot

                                                         cure you

There is no cure
                your mind left
                without your body
                Where did it,
                where did “you,”

The study of individual illness, with the notion of social illness, is a window for us to look at the characteristics of social experience in our society, as well as the development, maintenance and treatment of disease. 


Things happen dAILy
This unspecified this, a waking
and thinking This Is It this!
Take it, beLIEve this is
not in your control
You do not read about
this isn’t news.

If nothing means anything
the medical report
a construction of meaning to mean something

The paradigm of the healthy social world of normal people sees social support therapy as a rite of passage. The person with chronic illness is cast into a permanent liminal state.


then disease-free
is a state of being
I can claim
to emBODY, saying if
I do, I do, and I dO
(it’s a lie)


5. She forecast the future

Los Angeles, summer.  Blue whales returning to the California coast, following
the plankton washed north of Mexico by warm winds. Hundreds of leaping
bottlenose dolphins with their young, humpbacks spouting in the distance, orcas,
and three of the largest mammal on earth, the blue whale. 

One with a scarred fin trolled alongside us, dis/playing himself, so close that he
could have flipped the boat.  He’d arc sideways and dive past the hull, his great
tailfluke reaching straight into the air.  Then he’d turn around and do the whole display again.

We shared him with another boat for an hour, the whale
crisscrossing between us.

The captain insisted he’d never seen anything like it in twenty years of sailing.
Our tickets were a gift from my sister, a news producer who’d been out the day
before with a crew filming a few spouts in the distance.  The boat was filled with
children who kept stealing the camera man’s equipment.  It had been very rough. 
Everyone got sick.  The sea was calm for us.  We felt the day in our bones. 
In the evening, my friend Elsa read my cards: aftermuch hardship, a great gift. 


6. My body in dream-language

Because we don’t know when we will die
we get to think of life as an inexhaustible wealth.
                                                                Paul Bowles


I'm riding a horse (for alast time?). 
Something was wrong or "wrong."
Forbidden to ride I somehow
gallop on cobblestones.

                Yet everything happens
                 only a certain number of times,
                and only a small number really.

I’m too high on the horse’s neck 
(it is my own horse I ride,
and the manor where we are
I also own, or owned).

                How many more times will you remember
                a childhood afternoon, so deeply
                a part of your being you cannot
                conceive of life without it?

I hold the reins too tight.
The horse stumbles.
We start to fall.

                Perhaps four or five?  How many
                more times watch the full moon rise? 
                Yet it all seemed so limitless.

But we do not fall.


7. The Hour of Lead

All fall I waited (in a high tide
of pain, neck, toes, knees, fingers
stiffening, unmoveable) for
joint damage.  Climbed one stair
at a time.  Pain I tried to ignore
became fact; bearing it made
the days “good” or “bad.”  Sometimes
with shooting pain and sometimes
with a dream I could not dream
of sleep.  This body I did 

not know or want was not a dream,
nor a trapped-inside-of fate
that leaves as it came, rolling back,
a tide going out when I wake.


8. Since I cannot think

There are LESSons here—
humility, de-
tachMEnt from ambI-     

ly not spirIT-

                       ual:  how else can one
who has felt whOle
accept the still i-
MAGInation, the VITAl EVEning:                                                                                         moving

favoring my left 
wrist has erupted)  YESterday 
for the rest of the day, in-
crEASING             By evening 
FULLy affected 

Attempts have been made to evaluate physical, emotional, and social well being. Patients score high on tests designed to reveal hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria and sexual aversion, but low on tests designed to measure self-esteem.


beCAUSE so
far, (ex-
cept for mOrnings)
to walk with
pain do  not

know what will
learn to stay
tendering the tENDer



They don't know  
what I have and I have
to keep lEARnin/ re-


to cultivate all winter 
I am “blank,”
not tHERE
not the self
not the laugh with
                                                not the drive to NY
not my wILL 

The person with chronic illness is unable to escape the intense experiencing of social strain (guilt, resentment, frustration), through projection, displacement, repression or sublimation, the experience of illness also invites her to attack social stress at its source.


To be aLIVE in the smALLest  
                                                                  very simple

It is not little
left to dream—
to wish for 


                      consciousness                      of anything
but WILD                                                  and unsavory

to see what it hOLDs
from fear so often from       


9. Body Scans

Almost comforting, cradling &
claustrophobic, the metal tube
surrounds you with
driving sound, your head strapped in
so nothing moves. A voice
floats through the little mike:
“All right in there?  Are you still
all right?”  You’re told half
an hour but it’s fifty minutes. 
Cold, you're hurtling

in space toward Mars,
chanting though you know

they can hear you as they scan
your brain deeper than the sea
& differing from God
as syllable from sound.
Later, when you huddle
on a metal table, they place
your feet, hands on a graph,
take pictures to see you
through & through.
Light cast from above
the machine marks
you with a cross,
a slanted star, a stained
glass window of a church.
“Don’t breathe,” they call,
                                         & you don’t. 


10. The exhibit of pain

In the Blue Gallery:

Chronic patients exaggerate personal disability and unfortunate event, triggering unnecessary sympathetic arousal, feelings of anxiety, and tonic changes in muscles.


In the Gray Gallery:

The “fortune tellers’ error” constitutes hopelessness, the belief in an indefinite continuation of pain andmisfortune.


In the Red Gallery:

Confusing desire for pleasure with a need for pleasure is a self-defeating position: that one must give into short-term pleasure.


In the Yellow Gallery:

Overgeneralization causes depression. “Many of us believe that our worth as humans depends upon how well we perform.”  Patients denigrate their worth when they can not function at premorbit levels, i.e. cannot work.


In the Magic Gallery:

Through their illness, patients are invited to redress social commitments and broken promises by addressing their conscience.  They discover possibilities for restoration.


11. A season of pain

A sentence lasting all
year, then another in present
perfect: am having pain

Sentences, raked
into small shames
like so many piles of leaves
The phenomenon of any-
body, in essence a-
mazing, stops
you cold 

Take my body, your friend remarks
The rounded hips, overflowing breasts
of another era’s maternal
is such comfort with her cream soups,
homemade breads:  Motherly
Mother, mother
this soul’s dark night

                                —Es of essence
                                Chant of enchantment

Your friend laughs
The laughter runs over you
You laugh too
until you cannot
help yourself
                                Say: Even unto the end,
                                lo, I am with you always


Driving home you do not see
deer in brush beside the road
When they spring
suddenly away you
stop amazed to
watch them bound


12. Among Pain

For the body possibly to have gone through,
of the minutest and crucial sensations,
each having its purpose, or configuration:
In the mind everything goes, larger than sky
or God, the heft of all being in perception,

the weight of weight, of sense the same
only through feelings everyone shares:
I do not seem unbelievable or events improbable.
Pain bleeds through imagination, unimaginative:
it just is. One wishes to do something, go somewhere,

but everywhere the sensation remains,
the body in pain.  Its eyes still look out
on fuchsia and lilac overtaking
the back fense, it still bleeds,
but I do not knwo this

(body that cannot rise
from its chair,
that never weeps,
in earth's house-
hold of pain).

My mind scrolls through a list of disappeared,
decimated beings.  If there is no escape,
no separation, there are also no lies.
Sun shines on the arid soil of this garden.
Pain blooms in a body, blossoming without water.


13. In a Mute Season

Questions rail along the field
where winter wheat lies hidden
in snow.(We lie to justify
indefensible behavior, to protect
unprotectable innocence, inhaling
and exhaling with an evenness
of spirit to which we aspire.)
Who calls the sky gray?
or the seasons unsurvivable?

I visit doctors because
my body drives me to them,
beyond my dictates.  Ailing,
I am healing before
my mind understands
that the phenomenology of pain
syntax and order, predictable,
eventual inevitability,

until I grasp that order
eludes us, dispersing,
a wall of fog we drive through,
so frugal of speed, spendthrifts
of time. To feel alone is merely
the mind’s last defense-
a physiological white-out–
from the spirit's largesse.



Epigraphs: from Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain and Adrienne Rich’s
“Voice from the air.”

Part 1
          ***Portion in italics from The Duchess of Malfi (embedded in quotation
          in Rich’s essay, “Voices from the air”).

Part 2
          ***Portion in italics quoted from Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language.

Part 5
          ***Italicized portions spoken by Paul Bowles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s
          The Sheltering Sky
(after Bowles’s novel of the same title; quoted lines
          are not in the novel).

Parts 4, 8, 10 
         ***Indented and framed medical discourse excerpted from an unpublished
         article entitled “Experiencing Health with Rheumatoid Arthritis: An
         Anthropological Study of Illness, Treatment and Cure,” by J¢n Haukur Ingimundarson
        (quoted with permission).


My thanks to anthropologist J¢n Haukur Ingimundarson, whose comprehensive
understanding of, and discussion with me about this disease helped me to
write this poem.  My thanks also to Charles Borkhuis, Kathleen Fraser,
Pamela Stewart, Adrian Oktenberg, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, whose comments helped me further it. 




Bio: Cynthia Hogue has published three collections of poetry, most recently The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999). She is working on a fourth collection entitled The Incognito Body. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches English at Bucknell University.


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