Kelsey Bryan-Zwick’s chapbook Bone Water is an exploration of chronic pain and the need for love from a poet who is dealing with the long-term effects of extreme scoliosis and the emotional fallout of the pain associated with it. She has the kind of directness that might be found in the work of Daniel McGinn or Tamara Hattis. It is a physical and direct poetry that goes to the center of what it means to be in pain and the physicality of those who have been operated upon again and again. It is an important book because it does not come to any pat answers to something that is complicated. In a world where people without disability make assumptions and speak for those with disability, I was thrilled to see this book that did not pity the readers but asked us to go with her and understand the world through eyes that had been through a pain others could not understand.
What first drew me into the collection was its physicality. In ‘Idiopathic Curvature,’ she writes about surgeries meant to straighten her spine.
Twelve separate bones
must become one—
a shock, a suspension
cut, must absorb all
this feeling in my guts
. . .
When I wake up, I am
two inches taller than
when I got to the hospital,
only I don’t know it yet—
I can’t get out of bed.
The body is described in its physicality as her spine is fused. She is dealing with just the body as a physical object and we come to see that it is an object to her. She is something that lives within it, but she has to some degree disassociated herself from it. In Kintsugi, she continues with this idea, “rapid hands shine, / they pour in rare metals, trying to keep me whole / enough to hold my own water, my own blood.” Here and elsewhere, the body is described as a vessel for the person who tries to watch as objectively as she can. Perhaps this is best seen in ‘Self-Portrait -after an Epidural’ where she describes her body as shell:
Days like these and
I channel my tortoise shell spirit.
Skin an ancient leatheriness.
My eyes watch through body crevice,
mask, and bouffant cap.
She is the being watching from within, not the body itself.
This collection is not, however, simply a description of pain; it also deals with the emotions of the person who is living with that pain. The first poem is ‘Letter to Ansel,’ where she writes an epistle to the photographer of the American West, Ansel Adams.
I walk with hobbled
step, toward an imagined ridge, see myself not
here stuck at home for yet another month
of the year, another year of my life, elsewhere
instead, among the tall pines of Yellowstone
staring down the granite faces of Yosemite.
After all, chronic pain is not merely a physical sensation. With it comes emotional pain. She is cut off from what she sees as a large part of the human experience, especially as she dwells in the American West herself, not far from these places that Adams photographed so well. It gives her emotional perspective as well. As someone who knows the pain, she understands how limited and tenuous life is. She writes about that in ‘Love Doesn’t Always Glimmer Like a Horse.’ Here she writes that love sometimes ‘dies young / leaves children behind / love doesn’t always last.’ She is bringing wisdom from the perspective of someone who has earned it. If life is as tenuous as she knows that it is, she is telling us to love while we can.
The dedication of her book reads as follows ‘To my scoliosis, chronic pain, and spoonie family— this book is for us.’ I feel honored to be given a glimpse into a world that I do not yet occupy and to understand just a little better the point of view of pain. She honors the reader with directness and truth. A truth that not a lot of people understand.
John Brantingham 15th December 2021