A Review of Cataloguing Pain by Allison Blevins
Allison Blevins’ Cataloguing Pain, out in April from YesYes Books, is a lyric memoir like no other. Told in two parts—before and after her husband’s transition—Blevins fearlessly explores through hybrid poetry her emotions, experiences, and feelings surrounding her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. This collection is intimate, almost to the breaking point, exposing her physical pain, emotional fears, and the genuine danger she feels surrounding her. At its core, however, although this is a painful story, and full of harrowing and difficult moments, it is also full of love—tenderness for Blevins’ husband and children, care for the queer family she has built around her, and some kind of hope for the future, whatever that may be. Through hybrid writing and deep exploration, Blevins has written a disability memoir which asks questions but also interrogates what it means to be disabled, how queerness operates in this space, and how the two intersect.Even when she is angry, as one would naturally be, the writing is always reflected in a beautiful, lyric way.
Blevins’ strength as a writer is reflected in many places, but I was most struck by these lines in “A Poem For When You Ask What’s Wrong,” when Blevins says:
I’m not the clutch-kneed child. I’m the wailing
squall line, funneled wind—needle thrust out to waiting skin.
How many times a day must you consider pain? When you ask,
what’s wrong, imagine me as an opened animal twitching roadside.
Her anger is completely justified, but to reflect it with beauty is simply astounding and shows incredible strength of character. By blending memoir, flash narrative, and lyric memoir, Blevins is reflecting the hybridity both of queerness, the situation itself, and her own experience; poetry is too formal a language to speak about her feelings. Some of the more traditional poems are breathtaking, but some of the shorter, prose-poetry chunks are even more stunning; Blevins has the uncanny ability to shock and awe while still being sincere and tender. The pieces of this book feel jumbled, and at times, out of order, but the way they come in and out of time allow for a huge amount of space, which Blevins fills easily. In one, she says:
The first time I loved, at the end she punched my face, held me against a wall by my throat. I want to tell you this memory makes me feel like a fish. How I wished in that moment to be slick and blue. How I wish for it still. Here you aren’t female but an octopus or jelly. And we can both forget how my right breast still drips milk for our daughter in a hot shower.
This fragment feels out of time, but it tells us so much about Blevins’ past, her current relationship, and her body—all things we desperately need to learn about if we’re going to understand her current narrative. Blevins is clever about sharing just enough that we stay hooked. The hybridity of the poetry—the way it slips in and out of traditional poetic forms and into a more flash-like narrative—allows for Blevins to pick and choose what she shares, hiding behind the ribbon of poetic couplets at times and camera-flashing with narrative at other times, blinding us with the beauty of her prose and the depth of the information she shares so quickly and almost violently.
The reflected halves of this book, where Blevins first refers to her spouse as “my wife” and then as “my husband” show the fluidity of both gender and queerness itself. Blevins even notes herself that as her husband’s body becomes free, her own body becomes a cage. The dual-narrative of the book, and perhaps its genius, is this comparison. In “Elegy For My Wife,” Blevins does mourn the loss of her wife’s body, but by the second half of the book, she is committed to her husband’s new shape—as he is committed to hers. Their love for each other is one of the parts of this book that makes it such a joy to read—in a genre where so many queer narratives end tragically, it feels validating to read a queer love story.
Blevins says late in the book:
Our baby’s scream flies into our bed at five in the morning. I don’t wake enough to hold her, change her diaper. She settles into the nacre of our bodies spooned face to face and knee to knee. In a fog, I move to adjust the blankets and my husband’s hand grabs mine in the dark. Rough. Warm. He covers me in the dark.
Some nights our bodies still bend into negative space left to fill by our curving flesh. Our bodies whisper vows again and again—your mouth on my ear like our first drenched I love you. I want you inside me, your hand on mine.
This is a love story, but it is also a story about disability. The most moving part of the book, I found, was the page which simply says:
Cry out with me.
As Blevins’ body fails, she becomes more and more trapped, and more angry. This book is a cry out, and as a fellow disabled person, I felt her cry. “Pain finds new ways to pain,” notes Blevins. It does.
Cataloguing Pain is a violent, messy, painful and difficult book, and I mean that as an absolute compliment. It is a cry out. We are here, and we are angry. But we are also living our lives—we are crying, we are writing, we are fucking, we are falling in love. We are here, Blevins says. In reading, we are here with her.
Cataloguing Pain is available now from YesYes Books.
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