Poet's Choice: Michael Collier

By Michael Collier
Sunday, March 29, 2009

A decade or so ago, through a series of coincidences, one of my sisters came into possession of the medical records of my maternal grandmother who from 1937-1967 was a patient in the Central State Hospital of Indiana. As summaries of annual physicals administered by the doctors and nurses at the hospital, the records contain notations about the dosage of medicines she was taking and remarks concerning her general condition, i.e., "Placed on iron and Thorazine (50 mg. 4X a day). Up in a wheel chair. No weight on fractured leg." They also preserve statements and delusional pronouncements she was apt to utter: "There was a heritage invasion" or "I changed my skin, my hair, and my weight all in one year."

Initially, I attempted to write a poem based solely on the transcriptions of my grandmother's medical records. I hoped to fashion something like a found poem out of this raw material but the literalness of the material and the disquieting paranoid lyricism of my grandmother's statements proved resistant.

A few years ago, when reading an essay about the history of psychotropic drugs, I started a poem that used the names of these drugs as a kind of incantation. This lead me to recall what my college roommate, who killed himself, had once said about Thorazine, that it was "handcuffs for the mind." Eventually, this provided an avenue back to the poem I had wanted to write about my maternal grandmother.

(To see this poem without interruption, press the Print button in the Toolbox. -- The Editor.)

An Individual History

This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft

before mood stabilizers and anxiolytics

and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before thorazine,

which the suicide O'Laughlin called "handcuffs for the mind."

It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,

Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,

find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,

or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.

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