Rheuma, William Gee
Bad Betty Press, 2020 £6.00
A body of pain
The title of this pamphlet Rheuma can be seen to allude to many kinds of pain. William Gee unpicks the way pain impacts on the body — and the work reveals, often very poignantly, different aspects.
In ‘mother, like me’, he explores the borders between pain and love, with the double meaning of ‘sponge’, a cake baked by the mother, but also an image for something that absorbs pain:
I am the wringing out of pain
I am always
In the poem ‘nonrestorative sleep’, he finds a way to deal with pain by reframing it:
if it hurts name it
pain flowers in my back
It is unusual, I feel, to have a whole pamphlet dedicated so overtly to pain, but it’s done in a highly sensitive and thought-provoking way. Gee doesn’t let his poems wallow in any way; rather they bring pain into sharp relief (forgive the pun!).
In ‘oh soul’, the body is changed by the experience of loss:
I baby my body into this
when you leave I am one
sad question mark
The poem ‘literally it’s all the fingers’, about a sexual experience, also harks back to a boyhood lack of confidence in the body. The compression of the last two lines expresses the pain of this:
However, he also uses long lines of unpunctuated text in many of the poems — which adds to the sense of drawn-out suffering. In ‘tomorrow my brother died’, this suggests a disturbance in time and a disturbed sense of cause and effect.
And the use of this form in the poem ‘young man,’ suggests the difficult uncertainty of youth: ‘your body lacking in the confidence of your bedroom’. The poem ends with a painful image:
come back […] when you’ve died
at all the punctured versions of yourself
I loved this description in ‘please my pain’:
and it’s painful when a promise goes on breaking in the long unbeautiful
William Gee takes us into a convoluted world of pain. His ability to write honestly about the associated feelings is impressive.
After the crisis of the ventilator and the drugs comes the fatigue — according to those who survive coronavirus. Other varieties of trauma, both physical and psychic, gift their own sticky suffering. In his debut pamphlet Rheuma, William Gee introduces the reader to life with fibromyalgia, a condition of chronic pain affecting both body and mind.
The sound of the title summons the ache of rheumatism and rumination, the chewing of an undigested thought. The opening poem, ‘tomorrow my brother died’, captures an obsessive state in which a worrier feels to blame for the event before it even happens: ‘he dies when i sleep in till eleven when i turn on my xbox and when i think of him / he is dying when i forget to brush my teeth.’ The lines of worry stream so long they’ve had to be printed in landscape orientation.
Gee scatters contemporary markers of consumerism throughout these otherwise interior poems, reminding the reader of the exterior world that has both created the speaker’s pain and promises its cure. These objects — E45 moisturising lotion, an Xbox, a Motorola Razr — economically evoke a particular class and era.
A disillusioned speaker (in the poem titled ‘young man,’) urges the young man to ‘take all / your beauty out from your natwest student account.’ The abstract of beauty is rendered tangible by the branded bank account, one open to members of society who haven’t yet profited from the trade of their own commodities. In this case, the commodity is flesh, a body ‘incapable of sending its meats / to the right places.’
The theme of the digested and digesting body is highlighted by the cover image (created by Bad Betty Press editor Amy Acre): it’s a ribeye sliced from the part of a cow’s body that cradles its rumen, a massive sac that ferments food before sending it back into the mouth to be chewed again. Written images (‘my broken oesophageal valve all fat all acid’) are reinforced by a triad of poems titled ‘something manageable.’ They shrink from four, to two, to a single line — as if, with each regurgitation, the speaker comes closer to digesting the thing that pains.