Marilyn Chandler McEntyre–Speaking of Suffering: Poetry & Pain

To learn what suffering has to teach requires that we protect the time and space we need to regard, reflect, and pray. Suffering calls us one by one to walk a dark valley. As Flannery O’Connor suggests, “”¦ sickness is . . . a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow” (163). To speak from that place of exile is to forego the clichés and enter into what Marianne Paget called a “complex sorrow.” In her “Mastectomy Poems” Alicia Ostriker issues a practical corrective to those who dramatize her suffering in a way that would belie the daily experience of life-threatening illness:

Spare me your pity,

your terror, your condolence.

I’m not your wasting heroine,

your dying swan. Friend, tragedy

is a sort of surrender.

Tell me again I’m a model

of toughness. I eat that up.

I grade papers, I listen to wind. (93)

Ostriker’s spunky resistance to stereotypes calls to mind the comment of an Auschwitz survivor I know: To call the Holocaust a “tragedy,” she insisted, is to falsify it and to oversimplify the mystery of the evil that took place. Tragedy is an art form in which the hero “suffers into truth.”

Read it all.


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