Jennifer Richter says a pair of “obsessions” — chronic illness and motherhood — are at the heart of her new book of poems, “No Acute Distress.”
With two teenagers still at home, it’s likely that she’ll return at some point to that motherhood theme. (“My poems haven’t said this straight out, but what’s behind a lot of them is that you never stop being a mom.”)
But Richter hopes that “No Acute Distress,” published this month, marks the end of her writing about illness and chronic pain.
“I’m pretty happy to say that this is the end of that story,” Richter, a Corvallis poet who teaches in Oregon State University’s master of fine art program, said in a recent interview with The E.
Years ago, about the time that Richter moved to Corvallis from the Bay Area, she came down with what one set of doctors diagnosed as “intractable migraines.” (The phrase “intractable migraines,” which almost hurts just to write, shows up in one of the poems in “No Acute Distress.”)
Richter has a blunter diagnosis: “It was a really severe headache that started one day and didn’t stop for about five or six years.”
The illness shaped many of the poems in her first book, “Threshold,” and in some ways, Richter thought “Threshold” was the end of the story.
“But then I realized there was more I needed to tell and so this book feels to me like the rest of the story. ‘Threshold’ ends on a note of hope, but it’s pretty temporary, not especially confident or solid. And this book feels like it’s really standing confidently in health and happiness.”
“No Acute Distress” draws inspiration from unlikely sources: Some of the poems, such as the opener, draw from the notes doctors and others made on her own medical charts. And Richter has structured the book so that each section begins with a poem modeled in part on a classic joke form: One poem, for example, starts by asking “How many doctors does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
Those poems have flashes of dark humor — in fact, much of “No Acute Distress” is leavened with generous servings of humor — but Richter’s darker days and frustration with traditional Western medicine also come through. “Many days felt like a really thin line between comedy and tragedy,” she said. The poems also walk that line.
“What happened with me is that the doctors just kept throwing drugs at me, piling them on,” she said. (One part of the long poem “Eighteen Seconds,” in some ways the centerpiece of the book, lists many of the drugs in a brutal kiss-off.) She had some success with nontraditional treatments — one of the poems, “Imagine,” outlines some of that work and pays tribute to a healer with vivid imagery.
“One of the tricky things” with her condition, Richter said, “was what happens when (the pain) is invisible? If somebody’s walking around with a broken leg on crutches, it’s pretty clear this person needs help. But a lot of chronic pain is really invisible. I had to learn how to ask for help. I had to navigate the world.”
The pain had no triggering event, Richter said, and, after years, eventually faded. Richter is moving on, and some of the other poems in “No Acute Distress” tackle other topics — that business of motherhood, for example.
Other poems are inspired by Richter’s work with some of the girls at Albany’s Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility: “That work feels to me incredibly essential and rewarding and I’m sure I do feel sort of motherly toward them. … I ask them to write poems, and there’s no dancing around, they write exactly what they’re thinking and what’s upsetting them and what happened. You learn pretty fast.”
And Richter can’t help but compare the lives of those girls with the life of her 15-year-old daughter: The Oak Creek girls, she said, at times are “very incredibly innocent and very young-seeming and they have their teddy bears and they write their names with hearts. … And then I realize, compared to what my 15-year-old knows, the lives they’ve led, they know too much about the world.”
Richter, 46, is at work on new poems, but she’s not a quick writer: “I revise a lot. I’ll try to knock out a first draft, basically something to work with, and then I just go back. I don’t work on more than one poem at a time.”
She is pleased to be moving onto different topics: “I’m sure I’ll continue to write about my family,” she said, but the illness poems in “No Acute Distress” are meant to be “the last word on that. Which feels really good. It feels good to be done living it, certainly, and it feels good to be done writing it.”
Or, as Richter puts it in the final few lines of the book’s last poem, “No Joke”:
“At times I thought I might not make it back. Even the quality of light is new, I’ve come so far.”