[Switchback Books; 2023]
Olivia Muenz’s debut poetry collection, I Feel Fine, takes readers beyond memoir’s often constraining quest for legibility and into a stranger, more lyrical account of disability, chronic illness, and neurodivergence. Written in tight prose blocks with a frequent, interruptive use of periods, Muenz creates her own grammar to convey experiences that often fall victim to “a poverty of language,” as Virginia Woolf once wrote in her landmark essay “On Being Ill.” For Muenz, that poverty becomes a challenge rather than a limitation. The result is a breathtaking work of dis/embodied intelligence, wry humor, and off-kilter vulnerability.
A disabled writer, Muenz began writing I Feel Fine toward the end of a months-long period of being bedridden. This experience suffuses the book, though the word “bed” doesn’t show up once in its pages. Instead, each page becomes a bed, its text a marooned body in its middle:
Here is the world. We are in this together. The body pulls. In
toward itself and toward all of us. That is all we need. Am I
doing this right. Where was I again.
Here is the body. Of water. That you were looking for. Take a
drink. Kiss the mirror. It will last longer. Don’t forget. To call
the pharmacy again.
Here is the state. Of things. We are in this together and the room
is moving with us. How nice. How orderly. How together we are.
I love you for being here with me. We think about hopscotch
and that’s fine enough for now. I offer us a cold beverage. We
love cold beverages especially when it’s hot out. How nice.
Muenz’s associative fragments emerge from the bed, but save for a few brief mentions of a pharmacy, the usual hallmarks of illness are primarily seen via refraction. There are no straightforward accounts of doctors’ visits, no embodied descriptions of headaches or other physical ailments, no canceled plans and sick days. “The world is not outside. The world is throwing up blue,” she writes, sickness becoming constitutive of the world rather than the speaker’s individual body. A line about the tedium of a drive thru—“I am in. No hurry. I will sit here. For years. Waiting. For my order. If that’s what it takes.”—in retrospect becomes a sly joke about the patience that patients are obligated to perform: “I am the best patient in town. I am a trained professional.”
Muenz balances a careful negotiation of what to reveal, and how. When a traumatic, or at least unpleasant memory resurfaces, Muenz writes,
Here is that memory I wasn’t looking for. You brought it back
all of a sudden in a little tote bag. I had forgotten all about it
and now here it is. What a surprise. Did you bring a gift receipt.
Just as the speaker doesn’t supply the reader with her diagnosis and its specific corporeal manifestations, we aren’t privy to this memory, either. Instead, we receive the speaker’s associations, a sense of the ongoing aftermath of this happening. It’s a different kind of vulnerability, one that provides a radically intimate look into the speaker’s interior world, despite her periodic reticence to reveal: “We have to tunnel within ourselves. Into the center. Of the earth. Oh god. Are you sure.” When disabled writers are often expected to display the most personal aspects of their bodies for the consumption of able-bodied readers, Muenz rejects self-objectification in favor of a deeper form of seeing and being seen.
Throughout the book, Muenz employs cliches and colloquial phrases, recycling them into newness. Sometimes they pile on top of each other (“I am down for the count. I am rained. Out.”), sometimes they are given new life in the context of disability (“Here is my brain on drugs”), sometimes they rely on homophonic play (“From head to tow”). Overused language is often described as “tired,” what one relies on when one doesn’t have the energy for innovation. Yet, this is exactly the material that Muenz uses to innovate. She begs the question, perhaps the ableist underpinnings of this frequent literary complaint is what is truly tired. It’s a move that belies both the fatigue of chronic illness and the speaker’s resourcefulness: the necessity to use what she has, even if all she has is a word like “fine.”
Part of what renders these cliches so unfamiliar is Muenz’s use of punctuation. Periods appear in the middle of would-be sentences, making separate entities out of what another writer would consider a single whole. Though Muenz does not lineate these poems, the periods provide the surprise of enjambment while retaining their dense form. Early on, she writes,
Here is the fire. Place. It’s warming us up. We needed it. We feel
safe now. We breathe it in. The smoke that’s good. We’re saw
dust. We love this stuff. We’re so happy we’re here. Did you see
the moon. Landing.
With each period, expectations are subverted and the meanings multiply. A line like, “Here is my urine. Sample” morphs from bizarre offering to an ordinary exchange at a doctor’s office in the space of a single beat. Even the Table of Contents nods to the fact that this is not a book of single-minded truths: The sections are aptly titled “I’m here,” “But not,” “Or am I,” “Let’s see,” respectively. Moreover, the punctuation gives the poems a staccato, syncopated rhythm, rejecting the seamless melodies of the well. The syntax skillfully enacts the speaker’s neurodivergence and the disabling “interruptions” of chronic illness.
With I Feel Fine, Muenz adds a bold new voice to the canons of disability studies and experimental poetics alike. Equally playful and intellectual, the book exposes the depth of the superficial and the superficiality of what can attempt to be passed off as depth. She deftly engages both audience and self in ways that might be especially gratifying for disabled readers as well as anyone whose identity has been co-opted by trope and stereotype. The speaker has no need to concede, “Stop me. If you’ve heard this one. Already.” I promise, we haven’t.
Milo R. Muise is a trans writer with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Idaho. An alum of the Tin House Summer Workshop and recipient of a 2018 Oregon Literary Fellowship in poetry, their work has appeared in Brink Literary, Hobart/HAD, Prelude, Tinderbox, and elsewhere. Milo’s debut chapbook, TL;DR, was selected as the winner of the 2021 Newfound Prose Prize by Hanif Abdurraqib and is out now with Newfound Press. They live and teach in Portland, Oregon.
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