Behind the Titles: A Closer Look
at By the Windpipe, an Esperanza Edition by Leslie McGrath
Featuring ELJ Publications’ April Jones and Ariana D. Den Bleyker
Oh my goodness! What an punch-in-the-gut way to start out a collection. “To Madness” is equal parts beautifully striking as it is haunting. I can’t help but repeat the line “If you had been candid about your cruelty” over again in my mind. What a simple but heavy statement on mental illness. This poem is so good I wish I’d written it. It’s only four stanzas, but by the end of it I feel the anger, fear, and emptiness of the narrator. What are your thoughts on the opening poem’s ability to pull the reader in and its simplicity?
Admittedly, “To Madness” sucked me it. Mental illness is a topic very rarely touched upon, let alone being the focus of an entire collection. Being a mental illness consumer myself, for a collection to embody mental illness for what it can be, how its violence can leave a person feeling unprotected, up against a wall, even possessed, is monumental. I feel anyone who’s experienced any form of mental illness often feels unprepared or unfamiliar with “the rules.” In “To Madness” you’ll experience the image of “by the windpipe,” for the very first time. Feeling as pinned “by the windpipe” as the narrator, “To Madness” prepares the reader for their breath to be taken away.
Can we just talk about how Leslie can consistently take lines that are already full and then use one or two words to deepen it to the point the meaning overflows? She has got some serious skills. For example, in the poem, “Litany” when she says, “You’ll gain weight, insight. You’ll get a discharge date.” we see the narrator is starting to feel more in control of herself and given the date she has to face the world again. Seemingly, it’s scary, but she’s grown as a person. The question she’s asking herself is, can she handle it? And you, as the reader, thinks she can, of course she can, but then a few lines later she loses her husband and children, she gets a new lover who burns her furniture. Through it all, you come back to this line and think but she’s heavier inside, so she can do it. Do you agree or disagree? You could argue I’m taking a lot of liberties here assuming that I understand the narrator already in this collection.
Yes, “Litany” is another really powerful poem. I mean being only three poems into the collection following the starkness of “Shook Music,” “Litany” slaps the reader in the face with the realness of what it’s like to experience a mental breakdown and its aftermath. I also feel the line “You’ll gain weight, insight” is pivotal to the narrator’s experience. The most important piece of the line is the double entendre. Yes, when taking psychiatric medicine, a person will certainly gain weight and clarity, but you can also sense the feeling of being grounded, pushed firmly into the seat of your pants, being forced to face the music, another dominant theme in the collection, or, again, being “pinned” down by the gravity of what comes next, what society thinks and expects, how you will handle it.
And, yes, I agree this poem exposes the reader to the narrator early on. Already, the reader feels the narrator, despite the mental illness, is strong, resilient despite the ups and downs, the constant tests on her will. Bottom line, hospitalization often results in a series of losses, beginning with the loss of freedom. When a person is given that discharge date, suddenly, the world seems possible, there’s a swell of confidence inside without any sort of trigger. Once those doors close behind the person, and they enter the real world, there are often losses, replacement or compensation for those losses, even relapse.
Indeed, it is a ride. Here, in “Litany” the narrator starts by lying on train tracks, seemingly takes a ride for the entire poem, and returns to the “platform,” where the experience started in the not-so-distant past and is able to clear out the overgrowth, make peace this past and move forward, forgiving and finally letting go.
I love the connection between marriage and being committed to a hospital in “Asylum: An Epithalamion.” I think it’s expertly done by adding in the little details about the pill cups being like First Communion and the white of the gowns being like a wedding dress. Do these comparisons work for you or do they pull you out of the poem? Do you think it’s a stretch, perhaps the over worked imagination of the narrator or a survival technique adapted to survive away from her family?
There is certainly a connection between marriage and being committed. The entire poem alludes to the promises of marriage, starting a new life. In “Asylum: An Epithalamion,” the narrator speaks of leaving family, crossing a threshold, handing over a dowry, seemingly signing her life away. For me the last line sums the entire poem up: “Oh your commitment to an ordinary life.” Surely, being committed and commitment are operative words in the poem, seemingly ironic. Here not only is the narrator committed to the hospital, in the sense of being detained, but she views the commitment to the hospital, the healing and work behind the closed doors, a true commitment to recovery, to getting back to what she considers “ordinary.”
What do you think about the loneliness of “Her Last Thoughts?” Who do you think it’s talking about? The narrator or perhaps her roommate that she lost a few poems back? I wonder if after all the loss the narrator feels if she can’t help but say goodbye to some of her hopes and this is the poem that does that. In this space she can say goodbye to her former self and grief her loss.
Certainly, there is a grieving of the self. I find this part to be the most poignant: “I walk the earth and have forgotten / which memory’s mine and which is not / and who was she I used to be.” The last line “I’m lost to me.” With only four poems left in the collection after this one, all of them dealing with recovery, this seems to be the transitional poem between the past and the recovery. Still, I’m left to wonder about the confusion the narrator is experiencing. I wonder which “me” she has lost. Has she lost who she used to be before the diagnosis? Is she separating from the most recent experiences with her mental illness and losing herself to recover or who she’ll become?
The question of identity seems to flow from the question of memories and if they’re hers. This takes me back to “Dissociation.” Dissociation is something not often spoken about by mental illness consumers and certainly, in my experience, not written about in a creative setting. Leslie really captures the sensation of dissociation, what a person feels like, the desire, the need, the requirement to pull away from reality, to experience life “as if from a distance not a great distance / a distance three inches past the reach….” For me, these two poems seem to play off of one another. For me, it points to questions of identity and loss of time. Perhaps this is one for the readers to decide.
Overall, I feel the collection is one raw emotional poem after another. By the end of collection you find you understand these poems regardless of personal experience. Each poem draws you in and changes you. You grow and you wither and then you grow again just like the narrator. This is the type of collection that should be widely read and loved for generations to come.
I think it’s important to discuss “A Music” when summing up the collection. The last poem in the collection, “A Music” captures the idea of acceptance, accepting the mental illness diagnosis. It is said accepting a mental illness diagnosis is much like the five stages of grief in the Kubler-Ross model, denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I think it’s important to note By the Windpipe covers these stages in order. In “A Music” the windpipe returns. Consider this line: “…you could have spun me silver / tricked thin as fish pins / and wedged me tight within that windpipe / some call God.” Considering just for a moment the connotation of the color silver, the harnessing of feminine energy, we see the growth and strength of the narrator come full circle. To be “wedged…tight within [the] windpipe,” the force by which humans breathe, the breath being a force of life, is just about the most powerful way a collection like By the Windpipe could close.
Overall, I agree this collection is one of the most powerful collections in terms of raw emotion and experience. It is not only timeless but essential to the movement of writing the stigma of mental illness away. Not only can any reader by drawn into the collection regardless of personal experience, but there is the potential for the reader to connect with the narrator, to witness living with a mental illness diagnosis, begin to understand living with a mental illness diagnosis isn’t about “being crazy.” By the Windpipe embodies the notion a person can be diagnosed with “a five digit number” but the number, the illness and the person are not mutually exclusive. The mental illness consumer remains an individual with unique thoughts, experiences and emotions.
It is important to note this collection launched Esperanza Editions because it is important mental illness consumers share our stories not only for others but for ourselves, for all the moments we may have lost ourselves in the face of losing others to the stigma.