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My Medical, Hysterical, Poetical, Comical Eighteen Month Memoir

by Jane Marla Robbins

Robbins rages against the confines of a rare disease in this poetry collection.

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disorder characterized by a breakdown in communication between the nerves and muscles. Though a so-called snowflake disease—meaning that no two cases are exactly alike—common side effects include muscle weakness, double vision, and difficulty chewing. The eponymous musical, which makes up the first half of the collection, follows a woman, Jane, who has been newly diagnosed with the rare disease. To make things worse, her doctors have no idea how to treat her. “Maybe this is a dream,” sings Jane in “The Doctors.” “Nightmare, more likely. / These doctors don’t know me. They’re even unsightly. / Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee. / No one’s got a clue of what to give to me.” Jane’s stay in the hospital is indeed nightmarish, as she is beset by giant birds, nurses dancing the cancan, and human-sized pill bottles screaming “eat me.” When she finally escapes the hospital after 12 days, Jane is still bombarded by unhelpful therapists, pharmacists, caregivers, and an anthropomorphized steroid named Prince Prednisone. The second half of the book continues Jane’s story, though it eschews the musical format. Instead, through a series of poems, Jane continues to narrate her search for a viable treatment while also documenting the numerous frustrations and insights she experiences along the way. There are some unexpected developments, as documented in the poem “Orgasms”: “I may have weak eye muscles, / weak hand muscles, weak leg muscles, / but glory be to God, my pelvic muscles / that froze with early childhood molestation -- / are now sooooo relaxed!” As the collection progresses, the poems begin to grapple with what an artistic life might be like given the new realities of this disease. 

Robbins’ verses are lively and full of surprising images, as in “On Music”: “I must orchestrate / a new life for myself. // Where’s the bassoon? // Must create a schedule based on / when to take what pills with meals, / what pills without. / No soft pedal on the piano. // Must wear clothes that protect me / from sun (thanks to my new drug, / a wily, flamingo-pink and / powder-blue rock ‘n’ roll capsule).” Rhymes are generally reserved for more jocular poems, while the serious moments tend to be expressed in free verse or even prose. This mixture—of forms and emotional registers—is key to the project. It succeeds in capturing the manifold nature of illness, the way the sufferer can go from laughing to crying and back in a single moment. The opening musical should be read as a long postmodern poem (the scenes are too short and grandiose to actually stage) meant to be of a piece with the shorter poems that follow it. Though individual lines or poems can come across as sloppy or unpolished, the effect of the work as a whole is quite moving. It reads like the raw diary of someone trying desperately to make sense of what is happening to them using the medium through which they prefer to engage with the world.

A mercurial book of confessional poems that speaks to the grief and fury of illness.