Poet's Choice: Michael Collier
'An Individual History'

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.

It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.

Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary

to neutralize communists with prayer.

When electroshock was electrocution

and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.

And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then

you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards

of state and private institutions,

and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head

sunk past quagmires, coups d'etat, and disappearances

and in this way find a place in history

among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,

though hidden by an epoch of lean notation -- "Marked

Parkinsonian tremor," "Chronic paranoid type" --

a time when the animal slowed by its fate

was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail

or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy

when for a moment her hands were still.

This poem first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter 2009).

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company