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By Michael T. Young
In the Event of Full Disclosure is the second collection by poet Cynthia Atkins. It was published in 2013 by CW Books, an imprint of WordTech Communications. Since its publication it has received an increasing amount of attention for how deftly and powerfully it handles the delicate issue of mental illness in a family. For this and for the larger concerns it addresses, the collection deserves such attention.
In the first of five poems titled “Family Therapy” and which mark the progress through the five sections of the collection, Atkins writes, “I am the sister of a schizophrenic.” This admission and it’s fallout provides the narrative journey of the collection evidenced by this same poem when it asserts towards the end, “I’m looking for a cure, because anguish/is harmful to live with.” But this is not just a family ordeal played out in poems. It’s also a private issue played out socially on a national scale.
In our tabloid culture, public and private spheres bleed into each other and distinctions are lost, much the way identity itself—that division between self and other—is easily blurred and sometimes lost in the mind of the schizophrenic. The poem “In Keyholes” concludes,
. . . Privacy is the fever
that will loom at half-mast, tomorrow.
All the houses congregating to open up
a gateway to our anguish—Earmarked for
the landfill of last week’s trash.
Our interiors deposited and undisclosed.
With our backs turned—This flashy society
of genes and germs, will relish to expose.
So the arc of the book from opening to closing sees the connective tissue between public and private dysfunction. This connection is explored and unpacked in nearly every poem.
In “Vacation,” a family takes a road trip (in their little “system concocted for consoling our wounds,”) but abruptly turns back home upon learning that Martin Luther King Jr. has been shot. Thus, private and public wounds become indistinguishable in the family’s need to deal with tragedy. Or the brilliant poem “TV” that parallels the mania of mental illness and the mania our society thrives on and how this
Little box of tinkers / with so many voices / Talking all at once… / Commands us / to flip through / every channel / to surgically remove / every crafted origami heart—/ This gangly box / intoxicating / the shame and shock / imbibing on / the envoy of our pain /
Or how the poem “Terror In the Streets” declares “The news has a title and theme song.” In context, one sees the insanity of it more clearly as we make our way through daily routines. News is another form of entertainment, which means other people’s pain becomes our entertainment. And here, exposing a system in which suffering becomes a public spectacle. The insanity of the routine becomes even clearer throughout the book and allows us to confront it, which, in both a good and a bad sense, is what this poetry is about: confrontation, the event of full disclosure. But also its limits.
For the speaker of the poems, being a writer was a means of both surviving the anguish of family mental illness and struggling to understand it. The opening of “Dear Reader,” recalls how “the pencil made us/fathom the unsayable” and the pen was an “intrinsic mind in hand—bridging the gap.”
Throughout the collection, these poems swarm with a violence of phrasing, leaping back and forth between extremes: sharp image and penetrating judgment, cliché and mixed metaphor. It’s a mind stretching and contracting in spasms of effort to understand and reconcile great disparities. So what in other poets would be flaws, such as those clichés and mixed metaphors, in these poems become part of the driving force of a mind at the edge of sanity. Which, of course, is the edge of insanity. If I have to confess that I’m not always taken in by the phrasing, that sometimes those mixed metaphors or clichés seem unnecessary, I also have to confess that the overall effect of the collection is absolutely successful. One is unsettled and hopeful at the same time as the speaker clearly is in pursuit of that cure for anguish. I was, at times, reminded of the unsettled feeling I get reading a large amount of Robert Lowell, another poet who battled mental illness.
Early on, the power of language is itself the hoped for talisman to the anguish. The poem “Next,” concludes,
. . . At home, there will be words
scratched in the walls of a shanty
lit-up beside a river—a kind of grace
nestled in, to protect us from
the elements and the answers.
Clearly a double-edged sword since language is also here used to shield us from the answers. So in some ways it reinforces the dysfunction. Thus, later, the poem “Country Mouse, City Mouse” tells us “home—Is the one place—We’ve never been.” This too has a societal resonance as the poem, “Disclosure,” the penultimate poem of the collection says, “it’s homelessness that/kills us in the end.” Here again one sees how the private dysfunction on the family level mirrors that on the national level considering the rise in homelessness in America since the 2008 recession. A recent study indicated that homelessness in New York City is as high as it was in the Great Depression. So the collection wrestles with national issues on a personal level. This same poem states, “alien nation or alienation, a nation/of fists.”
Edging towards the end of the book, it is realized that the anguish is beyond words because only so many statements can be made about the self that is ultimately unknowable or, as “Diminution” puts it, “I am a mass disappearance.” There must be an assertion, a declaration of boundaries, even if arbitrarily chosen. In the penultimate section “Order/Disorder/Order,” declares, “Disclose my unbearable/junkyard of mental debris?—No dice.” This contrasts with the assumed absolute disclosures expected in the poem “In Keyholes,” at the beginning. Confession loses force. “When Homer Roams,” opens with
It’s pointless calling, my thin voice
caught like gossip gone missing
from the laundry-line of home.
The resolution in this vortex of splintered song is finally to accept the limits of confession, of disclosure, and even of our ideas of love. Our telling can never exercise the ghosts; we must learn to acknowledge them for what they are. It requires an absolute honesty on both familial and societal levels where
. . . Our sobbing is only
a chemical process. This is an elixir,
our secrets are kept radiant and illumined—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Not that they meant you
any harm, shadows folded on shadows,
an industry unto themselves.
“Our secrets are kept radiant and illumined.” It’s a wonderful double-entendre that focuses the answer to the anguish confronted at the beginning. This is the boundary that must be kept, even guarded and never violated, but kept publically. It’s like a genie that stays in the bottle even as you polish the bottle to a blazing brilliance—much like these poems.
Discussed in this essay:
In the Event of Full Disclosure by Cynthia Atkins. CW Books. 2013. 96 pages. $18
Michael T. Young has published three collections of poetry: Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press), Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press), and Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press). His fourth collection, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, will be published in 2014 by Poets Wear Prada Press. He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous print and online journals including Fogged Clarity, Off the Coast, The Potomac Review, and The Raintown Review. His work is also in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red and forthcoming in Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. He lives with his wife and children in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Photo: Privacy, 2012 by David Melchor Diaz