Nervous Itch

I’m doing several production runs this week at the press. This morning I was folding a collated set of 95 manuscripts of a lovely poetry chapbook, Curie, by Jessica Cuello. After many reviews of the manuscript and conversations with the author, handling the physical book brings a particular pleasure, some hybrid between the satisfaction of physical craft—hammering together a bookcase—and finishing a poem, when you feel that last line both snap shut and open wide.

I’m distracted and then annoyed, as I work, by the back of my left shoulder, a waxing and waning sensation that my brain starts to name “itchy” till it veers somewhere closer to pain. Neural damage is like that, slippery, hard to categorize. Usually mine is no more than a mild intermittent distraction. A year ago, I stopped a medication that had pushed the neuropathy on the soles of my feet to the point of, if not precisely pain, a level of distraction which prevented sleep or clear thinking.

These defects are remnants of my survival. We go through stuff. If we persist, there’s usually residual scarring. It’s an interesting metaphor for our inner lives, where we also carry scars, and broken places that can’t fully be restored or properly healed. We go on, sometimes quite well and happily, but the broken places are there, reminding us every so often of where we’ve been.

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a thesis defense of a wonderful poet. Jocelyn Adams is a high school senior, and had put together a manuscript of poems for which I was the outside advisor. A very adroit teacher who runs the senior thesis program commented on what he called a certain itchy quality, in her poems. This made me smile, not least because I was so grateful to see a talented writer understood and supported in school–it’s not always like that. Mr. Harris put his finger on the poetic parallel to physical nerve twinges, and it is indeed one of the quiet, persistent qualities which infuses and energizes Jocelyn’s work.

Nerves grow back when they are cut. Not always fully or even correctly, but they do try to knit their torn ends back to wholeness—not unlike the way we sometimes stumble around a poem seeking a sign of healing. I first learned the patient and slightly miraculous ways of the nerve after slicing open my finger. Cleaning up my studio one day, tired from painting and from work before that, I took a single edged razor blade to a glass pallet onto which had hardened several layers of oil paint. This seems impressively stupid in retrospect. I did not even own a holder, an Exacto knife type of handle for the razor blades. As I forced the blade against the hardened paint glops, it slipped and I opened the pad of my left index finger nearly to the bone.

So what did I do? I washed it and wrapped it in a clean paper towel. It continued to bleed off and on for a day or two. I must have nicked a tiny artery. I just kept washing it off and tightening a fresh Bandaid around it. If it would not stop bleeding, I held my hand over my head for a few minutes, and that did the trick. Health insurance, or the lack thereof for working artists, is a whole other discussion. This was on the order of 30 years ago. The scar is barely visible anymore, but as I write this I feel a ghost throb where the nerve was cut.

For the first handful of years after the accident, I had no sensation at all on that finger pad, distal to the cut. It’s surprising how often this comes up in everyday life. I’d have thought the index finger of my non-dominant hand wasn’t utilized for all that much sensory exploration. Avoiding that fingertip as point man in any activity became habit. I assumed it would always be that way, but after the acute pain of the injury had subsided and the surface had closed well and was less angry at the scar—on the order of a decade later—I felt twinges of what I would come to know as the particular pain of nerve healing.

So now, when the back of my shoulder intrudes on my thoughts with unpleasant sensations, part of me is annoyed. But I also have to smile, because despite expectation, it seems the cut nerves there are making their way home to one another. Knitting back together what was traumatically severed in the rush to save me from worse fates.

Life seems to revolve this way, large and small traumatic interruptions and damages dancing with some kind of healing process, however kattywompus. Little intimations of mortality, little flashes of redemption.

It’s time to print out some covers, and get back to folding manuscripts. Watch for a book from Jocelyn, too, soon. We intend to take that thesis into book form, and it’ll be a short distance.


With love,