Book Review: La Belle Indifference (MaryAnn L. Miller)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

As disability poetry comes into its own, it is no longer sufficient just to testify. In addition to bearing witness, a poet must offer something new. It may be a perceptual shift, an engagement in new forms drawn from disability experience, or a book that leaves the reader with the feeling that they now in possession of knowledge that they did not have before. MaryAnn L. Miller's La Belle Indifference is of the third.

To oversimply, Miller's book is about hyperkalemic periodic paralysis with myotonia. If you have not heard of the condition you are not alone. In the "Writer's Statement" Miller explains and lays the groundwork for the collection.

When I was three years old I began getting paralyzed everyday for a couple of hours, usually in the mornings. At age fourteen, I was diagnose with Exaggerated Guilt Conversion Disorder, also known as Hysteria, a psychological condition. Not until I was thirty and my three year old son fell out of his little chair, paralyzed, was the condition correctly diagnosed as Hyperkalemic Periodic Paralysis with Myotonia, also called Gamstorp Disease, not psychological at all.

If La Belle Indifference were simply a chronological arrangement of Miller's poems, the book would still be interesting, but what makes it rise about most other volumes of disability poetry is the structure that she imposes on the poems and the context into which she puts them. The poems are divided into five uneven sections. Rather than titles, the sections are broken up by quotes from Hippocrates, Charcot and Freud, representing the way that Miller's condition— including its implicit views of women—has evolved throughout western history. The poems are further enriched by an extensive "Notes" section at the end of the book. For example, "Other" that opens the the book and serves as a sort of preface, begins:

Galen lays hands upon her neck,
virgin chest,
her canny pubis.

He imagines a womb so elastic and pushy
it elbows past kidneys bowel gut,
suffocates the slender throat.

Though most readers are probably familiar with Galen and his place in the history of medicine, the "Notes" on the poem provide specific information not necessarily obvious from a first reading: "Galen was an Ancient Greek physician who theorized the womb wanders inside a woman's body causing maladies referred to as hysteria baced on the Greek word for womb (Hustera. ) This commentary, while not essential to a reading of the poem itself, helps shed light on the language and strategies Miller employs in the remainder of the book. They also deepen the meaning of the book on a second reading.

The first informal section of the book is prefaced by Hippocrates' comment that Nature seems to have strayed from good sense when it created women. Not surprisingly, the first poem is "Onset Age Three." The poem records Miller's mental reaction to the first experience of paralysis:

I'm nailed to the bed, I can move only fingers and eyelids.
I'm going to suffocate. I strain against
this thing that binds me again and again.
What if it never goes away?

From there on in, the book's first section is essentially a poetic recitative, moving the action along chronologically until it reaches the point at which the narrator says, "Take me to a doctor. I can't stand it anymore! Importantly, tucked among the various instances of physical disability that Miller experiences are also references to the Catholic milieu of Masses, confessions and communions in which she was raised and which contribute to her first diagnosis.

It is in the second section of the book that the diagnosis is delivered: "Exaggerated guilt conversion. Hysteria. Psychosomatic.". The recommended treatment is pretty straightforward, "Snap out of it!". One particularly interesting poem in this section , "Villa Clara" draws on the life of Giovanna M. who, as the notes amplify, was diagnosed with hysteria in Villa Clara, Sardinia at age ten and remained there until she was ninety years old. Even more importantly than the parallel the poem draws between the narrator, who is about Giovanna's age, is the way it illustrates the kind of contribution that good disability poetry can contribute by bringing to light the way that people with disabilities were treated in the past and incorporating that in a context that adds to the modern reader's understanding.

Once the reader hits a quote from Sigmund Freud, they know that they are transitioning to a new section and, of course, it is no surprise that the words include "anxiety dreams are dreams of sexual content." The trajectory is not just one in which the narrator as an individual moves from early childhood experience of a girl experiencing episodes of paralysis to one feeling the first stirring of sexuality that results in her being given a diagnosis of hysteria; it also recapitulates the historical progression from a disability caused by the physical condition of being a woman to one in which it results from psychological sublimation of sexual impulses. In this section the author also ramps up her experimentation with form including pieces that draw from other poets like Ann Carson and Tomas Transtromer. She also draws more heavily on her historical research. Often she combines the two. In "Cures for Hysteria" Miller breaks her standard narrative pattern to pile on an accumulation or folk and ersatz scientific remedies. It begins:

induce the uterus to migrate back to its correct place
hold something foul-smelling at the patient's nose
something sweet-smelling at the vagina
the uterus will respond
take care not to coax the uterus below the genitals

Not simply a list poem, the first line pulls us back to Galen's theory of the cause of hysteria being the migration of the uterus.

If much of the first section was recitative, the later sections contains some major arias. Perhaps the most extensive of these is the six part "Disquisitional." While too complex to discuss at length here, the poem (according to Miller's endnotes) is based upon the writings of Daniel Paul Scheiber who was committed to an German asylum in 1893 and whose memoir influenced both Freud and Jung. These horizontal extensions do not mean that Miller's narrative has stopped, however. In the book's third section, Miller is finally given a medical diagnosis grounded in the body—but only after her son begins to suffer from similar episodes of paralysis. The personal shift in the wind that allows her to be freed from a diagnosis that she has "a woman's condition," is paralleled, as the reader has now come to expect, by a re-evaluation of scientific thought about hysteria. Thus, the final section of the book begins with a quote from Georges Did-Huberman's The Invention of Hysteria to the effect that hysteria is, in fact, not all that rare in males as well.

Disability poetry is a field increasingly filled by many voices. Some, such as Rusty Morrison and Rebecca Foust, write with the self-assured voices, sophisticated language play, and control of style that gives an organic unity to their books. Others, like Maryann L. Miller, create their sense of unity, even as they still experiment with possible forms of expression through the way that their book is structured and the development of its themes. In the latter case, each poem in the collection must contribute to its overall purpose if the book is to maintain its integrity. While Miller is almost flawless, despite the variety of forms and approaches, throughout the first four sections in the book, in the final section of the book "Lunch at the Russian Tea Room" and "Dancing for Maya," as successful as they may be as individual poems, challenge readers to come up with an explanation for their inclusion in the book. If there is any weakness in the collection, this is it. And, all things considered, it is a minor one.

La Belle Indifference is a remarkable book — and one of the most remarkable things about it is that it has not yet found a publisher. It is one of the very few collections of disability poetry to emerge so far in 2015 that genuinely has something new to say. In its use of historical research to inform contemporary poetry it is a model for other writers with disability. It is relatively easy to write poetic rants about one's negative experiences with the medical community. Unfortunately, those experiences are commonplace, and writing about them in themselves, while it may be therapeutic, offers a reader of poetry nothing new. The hard work that is required for discovery, though, is something special. It is that hard work combined with Miller's lived experience and her patience in integrating the two that makes La Belle Indifference so well worth reading.


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the upcoming anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).