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LOVE SONGS TO MY BRAIN by David Joel Orenstein


A Memoir

by David Joel Orenstein

Pub Date: July 4th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-09-687959-6
Publisher: Self

Questions of disease abound in Orenstein’s debut memoir in verse.

In 1979, 100 years after Scottish surgeon William Macewen performed the first successful removal of a brain tumor, the 17-year-old author found himself in need of the same critical operation. From this experience springs a poetic memoir that follows the chronology of Orenstein’s diagnosis, surgery, healing, recovery, and adaptation. Almost all of the poems are written in free verse with strophes that often alternate, sometimes without clear purpose, between couplets and triplets. The frequently abrupt variations in line length could have been more effective with stronger line breaks. That said, this collection still manages to cohere, due to the sheer peril of its subject matter. Especially engaging is the way that the author mashes up clinical terminology with the language of internal anguish. Words such as “myoclonic,” “diplopia,” “lambda,” and “gurney” mix together with “helotry,” “aura,” and “agony.” For example, the remarkable and unusual “December 19, 1979” includes an extended, clinical, prosaic, and detached description of neurosurgery. However, it then fizzles out to a disappointing and perplexing ending. Even more intriguing is “The Man in the Intensive Care Unit,” in which the reader experiences the fullness of the poet’s tender sensibilities as he recalls the death of his hospital roommate: “you beg God / I have been a good man, please.” One wishes for more of this raw vulnerability instead of the book’s later shortcomings, such as sexist sentiment (“that wimpy sissy girly word / feelings”) and awkward expression of a sheltered worldview (“thankful for my warm bed / and for this cozy middle-class house”). There are also hokey openings, at times; for instance, a Webster’s dictionary definition begins “Birth of an Empath.” That said, the collection does contain a few individual gems and intelligently explores some of its subjects, such as double vision.

An often engaging, if flawed, poetic remembrance.