"My son's illness is eight years old and has no name. It started when he was fourteen. He is now twenty-two. It is taking away his ability to walk and to reason. It is getting worse, some years more rapidly than others." These words begin the first section of Blue Peninsula, a narrative of a son's degenerative illness in thirty-three parts focused around poems that have provided companionship and sustenance to the author. When multiple diagnostic avenues delivered no explanation for the worsening disabilities ...
"My son's illness is eight years old and has no name. It started when he was fourteen. He is now twenty-two. It is taking away his ability to walk and to reason. It is getting worse, some years more rapidly than others."
These words begin the first section of Blue Peninsula, a narrative of a son's degenerative illness in thirty-three parts focused around poems that have provided companionship and sustenance to the author. When multiple diagnostic avenues delivered no explanation for the worsening disabilities of her older son, Ike, Madge McKeithen "became a poetry addict--collecting, consuming, ripping poems out of magazines, buying slender volumes that would fit in my pocket or pocketbook, stashing them in loose-leaf notebooks, on shelves, stacking them on the floor. In the midst of all this grief, I had fallen in love. With words. Poems, especially. And just in time."
McKeithen draws on a wonderfully wide ranging group of of poets and lyricists--including Emily Dickinson, the Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Bruce Springsteen, Marie Howe, Walt Whitman, and many others--to illuminate, comfort, and help to express her sorrow. Some chapters are reflections on friendships and family relationships in the context of a chronic and worsening illness. Some consider making peace with what life has dealt, and others value intentionally reworking it.
Not written to suggest easy solace, this powerful work aims to keep company, as would any individual whose loved one is on a course in which the only way out is through.
The stiffening of McKeithen's eldest son Ike's legs was the first symptom of an undiagnosable disease that would gradually debilitate the 14-year-old with ever-worsening maladies: brain atrophy, dementia and blood abnormalities (though he's still alive). McKeithen, a former teacher, researcher and editor, renders the first eight years of her life strained by Ike's illness; she watches Ike's physical pains increase and social abilities decline, worries over her other son's reaction, loses connections with friends and alters plans for Ike's future (her husband isn't mentioned much). More significantly, the book chronicles McKeithen's love affair with poetry. Each chapter opens with a poem from an eclectic range of bards to whom the author looks for answers: Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, George McDonald, Walt Whitman. Some put words to emotions that feel indescribable; some provide guidance unattainable elsewhere; some propose hope in the most dire moments. Dissecting the poems as meticulously as she does her son's disease, McKeithen finds the multiplicity in poetry enables her to shift her perspective and approach reality from different angles. For instance, poetry's permission to elude a singular meaning comforts her anxiety over Ike's fate and excuses the lack of explanation for his illness. Readers will come away reminded of poetry's powerful ability to enlighten personal struggles. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
As her son literally falls apart over eight years from a mysterious illness no one can identify, McKeithen finds a special source of comfort: the beauty of language and, particularly, poetry. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Madge McKeithen was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and attended the College of William and Mary and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She has been a teacher, and a researcher and editor for a U.S. congressman and the World Bank. She lives in New York City. Blue Peninsula is her first book.
ABOUT THIS GUIDEThe questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Madge McKeithen's Blue Peninsula. We hope they will enrich your experience as you explore McKeithen's moving story and the poems that give her clarity in the face of her son's degenerative illness.INTRODUCTIONMadge McKeithen's son Ike was fourteen years old when he began to have symptoms that seemed outside the parameters of typical growing pains. The medical community was at a loss to give him a definitive diagnosis, but the prognosis was undeniably a challenging one: over the next eight years, McKeithen watched Ike lose his ability to walk, to think clearly, and to live without continual care. A teacher and editor, she found new power in the antidote of poetry -- not so much for comfort but for understanding, a way to distill particular truths through words that were by turns unflinching and soothing. In more than thirty succinct, wise chapters, Blue Peninsula collects dozens of illuminating poems, accompanied by McKeithen's candid recollections of Ike's unfolding illness. McKeithen draws on wonderfully wide-ranging poets and lyricists, including Emily Dickinson, Paul Celan, Elizabeth Bishop, Bruce Springsteen, Marie Howe, Walt Whitman, and many others. Some chapters are reflections on friendships and family relationships in the context of a chronic and worsening illness. Some consider making peace with what life has dealt, and others value intentionally reworking it. McKeithen writes that her book "is not about resolution, but about connection." In that spirit, Blue Peninsula is a unique work that does not provide easy solace, but aims to keep company.QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION1. In her preface to Blue Peninsula, the author reminds us that illness and disability can marginalize people. To what extent are the ill and disabled marginalized in your own community? What makes poetry a good answer to this? 2. What does the book's initial poem, "A Mathematics of Breathing," express about risk and security? 3. Discuss the notion of loss captured by Elizabeth Bishop's poem in the chapter titled "Acquiring Losses." What everyday losses and monumental losses have you experienced? In a typical life, do the gains outnumber the losses?4. One of the defining traits of Ike's illness is its lack of definition. What are the challenges and advantages of facing an illness that has neither a precise diagnosis nor a clear prognosis? What does McKeithen observe about this uncertainty in the chapter titled "Along with a Life"? In what way do the quotations from the poet and doctor William Carlos Williams underscore the lines of poetry that open this chapter?5. The author recommends reading her chapters in any order that suits you. Which sections were you drawn to initially? Which poems made you pause the longest? If you read the chapters in sequence, how were you affected by the book's unusual timeline, which mirrors the way memories often emerge?6. How did your previous perceptions of poetry compare to the approaches described by Billy Collins in the chapter titled "Sensory Illness"? How would you characterize McKeithen's observations and reactions to poetry? In what way does her experience with Ike's illness drift from the realm of logical interpretation?7. What aspects of Blue Peninsula are unique to mothers and motherhood? How might these memories have unfolded if Ike's father or brother had recounted them? Do the book's female poets differ significantly from their male counterparts in terms of voice and imagery?8. In what way did the author's love of etymology enhance the book? What ironies and surprises did she bring to light in the history of certain words? What makes poetry the ideal medium for illuminating this approach to language? 9. "Looking Again" includes anecdotes about needing bleakness; Nick and his friend Meghan experience catharsis through broken glass, and McKeithen seeks the melancholy weather of a Scottish winter. What is the role of gestures like these, and what makes them more effective than the optimism of well-wishers? What aspects of this experience are captured in C. K. Williams's poem "Tantrum," in the chapter titled "Vividly Inarticulate"? 10. How did the author's years as a teacher shape this book? What have the poets featured in Blue Peninsula taught her during those eight years? What wisdom did they hold for you?11. "Lines to Cross" describes the November day in 1997 that marked the undeniable realization of Ike's illness. From that point forward, how did McKeithen mark the subtle changes in Ike's symptoms? How did her interpretations compare to those of people outside the family, from high school through his courageous weeks at college and afterward? In the preceding chapter, what does the poem "Early Darkness" say about this process? 12. What does McKeithen suggest about the language of poetry in the final paragraph of "Making Light," which reads, "I want the doctors, the teachers, to know the words of Heaney and Yeats and Machado, to know how vital are words often easier left unsaid, how the hard truth can be something you stand on to see a little light"? 13. McKeithen deals directly with the indirect aura of religion, particularly in "Sifting Questions" and "Slanted." How does she reconcile the concepts of a loving God and human suffering? How do you reconcile them? How do the poetic lines of scripture address such contradictions?14. The poem from which this book takes its title, Emily Dickinson's #405, appears in the last chapter, followed by McKeithen's recollections of her lengthy aversion to the final stanza. Why does humanity sometimes resist the blue peninsula, choosing instead "To fail -- with Land in Sight"?15. What makes Blue Peninsula distinct from other books you have read about illness and loss? Do any of the book's prose sections read in some ways like poetry?16. Blue Peninsula spans centuries of poetry, from ancient lines to very contemporary ones. Did you find yourself drawn to the works of a particular time period, or to a particular format (structured rhyme scheme or rhythm versus free verse)?17. What poem can you remember speaking directly to you at an important moment or juncture in your life? Do you think there's a kind of communication poetry achieves better than any other form? Why?PRAISE FOR BLUE PENINSULA"Madge McKeithen treats poetry as what Kenneth Burke calls 'equipment for living.' Poems become her abiding companions as she lives through and confronts her son's devastating unnamed illness. Blue Peninsula is a deeply moving book that, like good poetry itself, disturbs and consoles." --Edward Hirsch, author of Poet's Choice"Blue Peninsula is a sequence of meditations on poems not by a literary critic but by a mother who is fighting despair over her young son's bewildering and protracted sickness. Madge McKeithen tries on these poems -- ranging from John Clare to Diane Ackerman-like garments to fit the changing shape of her sorrows, and she holds on to each one to keep herself from falling into the well of grief. Here -- let there be no doubt -- poetry makes something happen." --Billy Collins "A mother with a passion for poetry, Madge McKeithen shows us by example how to find comfort in verse as she lives with the agonizing burden of her son's mysterious illness. In her words and those of others, she reveals a creative way to bear the pain of unresolved loss and grief. Poignantly, she finds strength and resiliency as poetry offers the solace of some truth when the ambiguities of life cannot." --Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss and Loss, Trauma, and Resilience" 'After great pain,' Emily Dickinson wrote, 'a formal feeling comes.' And after the great pain of her son's grievous illness invaded Madge McKeithen's life, the formal grace of poetry came to her -- or she to it. In that turning to poetry she has given us an extraordinary document of human solidarity and uncommon courage. We are always glad of a great poet in our midst. But it may be rarer still to find a great reader of it, to see embodied in a life the reason poetry matters at all. In her modest, steadfast encounter with individual poems set against the harrowing downward spiral of her son's life, McKeithen becomes what every writer longs for -- the dreamed-of 'dear reader' that literature lives for. Out of such pain to have fashioned such a heartening book-a remarkable achievement." --Patricia Hampl, author of I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory FURTHER READINGHeaven's Coast: A Memoir by Mark Doty; If I Get to Five: What Children Can Teach Us about Courage and Character by Fred Epstein, M.D., and Joshua Horwitz; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman; Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande; A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, Czeslaw Milosz (editor); Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life by Abigail ThomasABOUT THE AUTHORMadge McKeithen was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and attended the College of William and Mary and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She has been a teacher, and a researcher and editor for a U.S. congressman and the World Bank. She lives in New York City. Blue Peninsula is her first book.