Arianne Zwartjes, Detailing Trauma, University of Iowa Press, 2012

[Review Guidelines]

Arianne Zwartjes's new book of essays is curious in that it is both strange and inquisitive. Detailing Trauma examines language and laboratory and limb, probing for the metaphorical relationships between physiological processes and emotional ones. It asks: how can we understand life and death as experienced by our organs? Our nerves? Our lungs? Does that understanding make us better, make us safer? It asks: how does language mirror actual, physiological activities? What of the tangible world do our words capture?

What is heart to us: this one small organ, glistening and crowned with arteries. Thorny tangle. (This little clump of muscle, chest-lodged and unrelenting.) When we speak of heart...[if] what we are speaking of is grit. Take heart. She's got heart. What we mean is stubborn doggedness, spunk, fight, clinging will. Pulsing red fist, desire: ferociously determined.

I think it's the persistence that captivates us. The way a heart will actually restart itself if stopped. Sinoatrial node flashing bright little codes, sparks of imperturbable hope, electrical impulses to beat and live and keep on. (4)

In this book Zwartjes posits that we live in language just as we live in our bodies, are just as susceptible to the words that describe a feeling as we are to the glands and nerves and wounds that produce the sensation itself.

Sometimes fracture arrives forcefully. Sometimes a telephone. Sometimes it is quiet. Sometimes a conversation, a sunny morning. (54)

Too, the breaking of the body is only as perilous as the language that describes it; a collision of syllables is equally deadly as that of automobiles. Zwartjes defines for us our emergencies, gives us the words that manifest our traumas, that makes them urgent, understandable, real to us.

Imagine your body calcifying, hardening, with no understandable reason. Imagine facing the incomprehension of no information, the desperation for an answer. The desperation to be able to at least explain, define, attempt to synthesize some sort of story. Some kind of cohesive narrative. Some reason. We live by story and dying without story seems the most terrifying of ends. (52)

So by naming trauma, by filling bodily rendings with words, do we become more whole? Are we healed by story? Is Zwartjes, an EMT and practitioner of wilderness medicine, dressing our many and various wounds?

How we choose to respond to the fracture all around us can be transformative. What we make of our own wounding. Which narrative we choose to believe. (42)           

This book is, of course, itself a story, a lifesaving narrative. The reader who cracks open the body of the book will see that it lives in a complex anatomy. Each of its six provocatively-titled sections ("If Language Fails Us, or Body" and "This Suturing of Words or Wounds," among others) opens with a word and its definition. As the reader probes deeper, these linguistic layers peel back to reveal further subsections within, named after body parts, maladies, or physical processes; these demi-essays, linked to the section heading and epigraph, are like integral components of organs in a moving animal.
     For instance the word "impoverishment" introduces the section titled "The Pathology of Loss and Longing" and primes the reader to contemplate forms of lack, of withering, of emptiness, as well as the physical locus of love and whether it can be excised, atrophied, starved. The ensuing essays (on the appendix and its seeming irrelevance to the body, on joints and other kinds of connectivity, on the brain and its connections and the estrangement that results when those connections are severed) nourish and support those core concerns. The interconnections between essays are far from overt, however, and it is only by stepping back to look at the whole animal that the reader can begin to understand how the book moves, creates impact, makes meaning.
     This fracture and disjointedness of the reading experience echoes the sensations of living in a body: What has caused this? and How does this relate to that? are questions asked by any embodied person as she attempts to understand the mute, dumbfounding, and bewilderingly interconnected organism that houses her.

By body I mean a plane, an expanse of our breathing and vehicle of our attempts at living, attempts at being and making our way through the tangle of people and questions and fears that is this world. (1)

Zwartjes is an expansive scholar, and the excellent index cites the essays' foundations in literature and philosophy (Zwartjes directly quotes Anne Carson, Simone Weil, Jenny Boully, and Fanny Howe, among many diverse and far-flung others), and its wide, wild forays into the field of medicine (intensive care manuals, psychology texts, journal articles, and case studies). In a way this book has two minds, disagreeing over whether it is more pressing to understand and visualize a visceral, tangible, physiological recovery or to illustrate the change and growth demonstrated by a person undergoing a more figurative recovery, from another kind of fracture or wound. Is healing purely a physical affair, or is it more reliant upon narrative than we like to admit? Are our words, our diagnoses and our proclamations of love, false comfort in a world of inevitable catastrophe? Who is the true healer, doctor or writer? Is this book, perhaps, a relationship between the two?
     If anything, this book is a resounding response to fear, a robust cry for trust, for bravery. It is a healing, a knowing, a courageous acceptance of the inevitability of fracture. It is a body and a body of text, fragile and flawed and miraculous as anyone. [DL]