The management of thresholds is perilous business.
Lindsay Tuggle’s first collection of poems, Calenture, is a fitting companion piece to her scholarly study The Afterlives of Specimens: Science, Mourning and Whitman’s Civil War, published in 2018. In their different ways and registers, both books grapple, in intellectual and emotional ways, with an explicitly embodied engagement with death: its horrors as well as its fascination, its persistent pulse beneath the skin of the living. Precariously balanced on a threshold between life and death, these poems contemplate and dive and retrieve - making them both difficult and disorienting, while also eerily beautiful and seductive. Read together, they weave a siren song of the cross currents of grief as it tugs variously toward despair and refusal, the desire to somehow redeem what is lost and the desire to embrace, to follow into death’s alien fields. These are important poems which enact what poetry at its best is sometimes able to do: to enable a reader to make greater sense of life’s most difficult and otherwise unmanageable experiences.
As Tuggle describes in a 'Preface', 'calenture' refers to ‘A fever incident to sailors within the tropics, characterised by delirium in which the patient fancies the sea to be green fields, and desires to leap into it.’ (ix). This complex blend of the febrile, of the power of illusion / delusion and of a longing for immersion or even return to ‘green fields’, informs all the poems as they range across a number of scenes of loss and even into the imagined experience of death itself. While these poems tackle death and mortality as universal human themes to be analysed intellectually and through the emotional specificity of the image, they are also explicitly personal. Not only does the poet grapple with the prospect of her own death, as we all must, but it is made more visceral, urgent and unavoidable through the looming remembrance of the death of her sister, Amanda, to whom the collection is dedicated. It is this death which literally haunts the collection; ‘her long arc into the lake’ – held, in the imagination at that point of heart breaking incipience – is envisioned by poem after poem as something aesthetic, beautiful as well as violently impossible which continues to influence everything.
As poet, Tuggle enacts a fine line between voicing loss and being drawn herself toward the dangerous allure of its deceptive waters. Her poems articulate the dead, acknowledging their specificity - ‘she’s prettier now / in coffined silhouette’ (5) or ‘her face went glittering / worn not quite with beauty / but an easy symmetry / you fall into ‘ (11). There are also moments in which the ‘Hysteria of reminiscence’, its greedy accumulations of memory, leads to a vertiginous identification with the dead: of ‘decades walking in dead girls’ shoes’ (13) or ‘Some days [when] her face obliterates my own’ (15). As she describes it, this push me-pull you is an ‘echolalic duet between what is lost and what is left behind’ (ix); the poet-sister must always refer back to the absent-presence, the power of ‘The Ghost beside me’ (26), while simultaneously seeking to move forward, even to heal the wound.
The second half of the collection is a long and intense sequence of poems entitled ‘An Elementary Treatise on Human Anatomy’. As is outlined in the notes to the poem, this sequence responds to the work of nineteenth century anatomist Joseph Leidy and the production of the anthropodermic text – a book literally constructed from human skin. This disturbing image embodies a gothic strand which highlights the bones and organs beneath the carapace of ‘self’:
The body re-enters the weather an altered urban bedizen. Such cutaneous armour still fails to staunch the bleeding.
It also draws attention to the potentially fetishising gaze which the living direct toward the dead. Channelling something of Leidy’s perspective and his colonisation of the dead bodies of his female patients, these poems suggest the ways in which a living, active and masculinised gaze might seek to control and to know the body of a feminised other, reduced to the passivity of a corporeality, a body evacuated of agency:
He. loathes to cancel her skin. In vascular tracery scars cast lures with an abattoir’s fugue.
Tuggle makes use of the trope of Leidy and his fascination with the corpse to suggest a number of important and often contradictory aspects of human experience: the relationship between body and self, the visceral embodiment of the human subject; the emotional and physical ‘amputation’ which comes from experiences of death and loss; the sharp severing of what was once an organic whole; the suspect desire on the part of the living to hold onto, to keep the dead somehow inscribed upon the skin of the living. These elements are cleverly explored through the idea of Leidy’s dissections as a kind of eroticised grotesquery of the female body in particular and the concomitant desire for control over the always slippery business of staying alive and keeping death at bay.
As poet, Tuggle builds her own craft from this same set of uncomfortable tensions. It is impossible to leave the ‘ambiguous wound’ of loss and mortality alone, just as it impossible to provide any kind of redemption or revival of what has been severed – although perhaps we must always try. Many of the poems are structured around a tight and often bewildering dialectic between lines yoked in couplets or short stanzas, where meaning tugs and eddies and calls us into the lure of calenture, the green fields of promise which are always at risk of morphing into suffocation and silence:
No silence is more beguiling than a ghost’s except the invitation of an ambiguous wound.
In this sense, the collection operates as elegy, although it is perhaps an ‘elegy with no end in sight’ (14), or one written ‘in [the] clavicle,’ the mortal limits of a human body (48). The poet’s momentous task then, as writer of the elegy, is to negotiate this ‘ambiguous wound’: to outline its un-closeability, to seal what it is possible to seal, to temper its hypnotic power and to thereby render such an abyss more manageable – and less dangerous – for the rest of us, as we hover, fascinated and appalled, on its threshold.
Lindsay Tuggle, Calenture. Carlton South: Cordite Books, 2018. ISBN:9780648056812