[Book*hug Press; 2019]
At the edge of the ocean is a pillow. The tide comes in and in, but it can’t reach the pillow to wash it away. The pillow remains there until, one day, the writer finds it on the sand. She takes a photograph of it. She develops the photograph and wraps it around a box and brings the box back to the spot where she found the pillow.
The tide comes in. It pulls the box into the sea.
Emmalea Russo’s Wave Archive is an index, a set of diagrams, a series of photographs (and photographs of photographs), notes on an index, paragraphs that become poems, poems that become sensations, lists that tell a story that ends in waves, an alchemical treatise, an “edge document,” a compilation of line breaks. When Russo’s lines break, they do not immediately resume. They pause, for the briefest moment, as if in an attempt to take stock, to categorize, to archive, before the waves return and flood the archive away.
Wave Archive is about epilepsy as an experience that results from, resists, and finally returns to an archive. Russo reads seizures as an overflowing, where the archive of emotions can no longer keep their order. Near the beginning of Wave Archive, she writes,
a tremor is an index of your condition
tremors index the seizures the clues
all fingers point splay out well what is inside
A seizure, she writes soon after, is “excess removed,” a purging of the archive of information of the self. This process is cyclical. After excess information leads to a seizure, the symptoms are indexed; they are returned to the archive, which begins the process of building toward an overflowing again. Compiling, naming, and ordering alternate with the archive’s tremor and breakdown.
Such are the waves of Wave Archive: brain waves, yes, but also the simultaneous order and disorder of the ocean. The tide comes in and goes out predictably, the waves rise and fall, but the ocean’s power finally resists efforts to understand and tame it. The waves are a pattern ordered out of uncontained power; then the power disrupts the pattern, overwhelming the order that once emerged from it.
Wave Archive wants to know, where do mind and body meet? What aspects of a life does a seizure bloom from, and what feelings and thoughts does it generate? How much of the self can be categorized, and how much evades categorization? Does the named or unnamed make us? Where does the excess go?
In these questions is a disquieting seed: Though we wish to compartmentalize illness, to understand it as a discernible and separable part of ourselves, such an act is impossible. I cannot strip myself of my illness as if it is a bad thing attached to me. It is me.
What would it mean to take that away? To own a clean archive with white doors, beige file cabinets, alphabetized and enumerated, nothing out of place?
As a person with a chronic illness, I understand that medicine’s attempt to separate sickness from the sick person is the result of good intentions. It would be cruel to tell me that I am the cause of my Crohn’s disease. But it would also be cruel to tell me that the symptoms I live with — the experiences that constitute my life — are mere aberrations, having nothing to do with who I am. This latter idea is the fundamental tenet of biological medicine, and the idea with which Emmalea Russo implicitly takes issue. She explores the tense space between what we are told and what we know: the zone where symptoms meet self.
Russo does not really argue for the entanglement of epilepsy with the person who suffers from it. Wave Archive embodies this entanglement, and never settles into a conclusion. Even when her disruptive line breaks and stretched syntax calm into prose passages, the result is not certainty, even about uncertainty itself. Instead we travel, in the section titled “Tinged With Lunacy” after a 1949 reference to alchemy, through a phenomenological collage paired with scientific terminology; through a sound-based exploration of the word aura, the feeling that precedes a seizure; through an exploration of the planet Mercury and the adjective “mercurial”; through photos of the originary pillow, annotated with poems; through a discussion of Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind; through a consideration of drug treatment for seizures; and through a poetic enaction of the alchemical process, in which Russo transforms epilepsy (lead, at least in common attitudes toward illness) into a glowing and evocative subject (gold):
becoming tinctures blueprint as when the hand crinkles
local field potential this sudden blueprint this golden bar
the inside my body fluttering emerged lead-gold and heightened
a balance of the elements re emotional alchemy? eating the sun
buttery indeterminate the mineral of the future words for that
galaxy belief enter dear dear dear reasonable people what’s edged
Throughout Wave Archive, Russo teeters on a verge. The zone where symptoms meet self is a tenuous one, one that resists direct gaze, one that can be seen only in motion. This is the role of the restless motion of Russo’s poetry: it is always arriving at and being repelled from an edge, which is the only place the self, sick and all, can be seen from.
It is how Russo approaches this edge, rather than the fact that she approaches it, that distinguishes Wave Archive. The inadequacy of Cartesian dualism is a concern for many writers on illness and disability. To take one recent example, Elizabeth A. Wilson’s Gut Feminism attempts to enact feminist theory through an engagement with biological medicine, in contrast to feminist theory’s historically antibiological stance. By analyzing the connection between the brain and the gut as they relate to depression, Wilson illustrates the falsity of strictly neurological interpretations of mental illness. Her goal is to “deisolate brain from body, psyche from chemical, neuron from world,” illuminating a body that is implicated in states we typically attribute to the mind, as well as a feminist theory that is inextricable from the biological data that suffuses contemporary understandings of the body and of illness.
Wilson describes this tension without replicating it. Over the course of ten pages, for example, Wilson links her analysis of the bodily pathways for SSRIs to an earlier, problematic feminist critique of depression. Her detailed conceptual work shows, importantly, “how these very chemical actions are multifaceted and peripatetic and that their association with depression might be a way of disseminating, multiplying, and mobilizing the mind,” as opposed to delimiting it. Such conceptual moves, however, isolate feminist theory from biological data in order to discuss their very interconnectedness. The unit of Wilson’s analyses is the idea, making rapid transitions between “mind” and “body” impossible to effect.
Russo’s work, on the other hand, integrates apparently opposing forms of discourse much more quickly and intuitively. By operating on the level of the word, she integrates mind and body, symptom and self, into a continual flux that deactivates the conceptual barriers erected between these fields. Russo’s semantic fluidity makes it possible to live in both worlds at once, without need of a bridge:
sensorimotor gamma and lined quilt
just crawl arch into certainly next-life
E-being passed through the corpus whether
in existence or not “act madly” (342) or
“mad part” (342) indirect expel it
from each muscle that day post-
falling into pieces she in sameness
arched and keyed in begun again
to eat the silk of eggs falling sensory
and annex being a hard thing into
a soft thing into //////////////////////////
The “(342)” here refers to an index provided earlier in the book, which, like the many page numbers that strew Wave Archive, is drawn from Owsei Temkin’s The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginnings of Modern Neurology. This parenthetical reference to an absent text is a metonym for the passage as a whole: by employing citations and indexical references for purposes that are not strictly referential — by placing “sensorimotor gamma” on the same level as “lined quilt” — the index, or archive, becomes a ground for the very fluidity such forms attempt to preclude.
“Post- / falling in pieces” and “to eat the silk of eggs falling sensory” use anatomical and technical language alongside non-technical, metaphoric imagery; even a single word, “E-being,” which has come to stand for the author, integrates individual identity and uniformity. Finally, a long bridge of slashes makes the grammatical and mathematical into a form of art. A “hard thing” and a “soft thing” dissolve into a series of lines that is both hard (in its structure) and soft (in its meaning). No body or mind, no illness or health, can be extracted without bringing the opposite term along with it.
In setting aside discursive elaboration, Russo risks an application of false narratives to her and to her seizures. But we need this risk. It is what makes these poems and sentences at once so thrilling and so moving: they are generous in what they allow us. Wave Archive is a pillow on the beach, photographed and pasted to the outside of a box. It is a soft and hard thing, an embodiment and an image, a thing that can hold our betweenness. Until the waves — the flooding heart of the book, its refusal to be contained even within its own structure — rise once again to wipe the archive away.
Dennis James Sweeney is the author of the chapbook Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted, as well as three other chapbooks of poetry and prose. His first full-length book, In the Antarctic Circle, won the 2020 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize and is forthcoming from Autumn House Press in 2021.