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Not The Picture of Saintly Acceptance:
Therese Estacion's Phantompains

Therese Estacion, Phantompains
Toronto: Book*hug Press, 2021.

Many writers have tried to write about pain, or the difficulty of writing about pain. Phantompains, while not a meta-text that directly addresses these difficulties, nevertheless creates frameworks to talk and write about this sensory experience.

In disability writing, given pain is so hard to write about and explain, writers often explore the experience through comparison, using “like” to liken the feeling to a more comprehensible sensory image. In the poem, “Report on Phantompains,” the speaker says, “For 3 days my ankles felt like they were being nailed to a cross.” Describing the feeling as such implies it is excruciating and the reader can more clearly understand the very real feeling of phantom pains. Furthermore, this image also conjures the image of Jesus Christ on the cross, a martyr, an idea Estacion complicates throughout the book. Her speaker is sometimes a martyr, sometimes an angry woman, and often a complicated disabled person, not the picture of saintly acceptance nor the stereotype of the brave disabled person. The speaker even declares, “everyone is mad that I am mad,” in “ICU I.” Throughout the collection, she also portrays pain very accurately and sensorily by using cesuras and repetition to mirror the confusion and fogginess experienced by someone in pain and hospitalized. In “Pee,” she thinks:


“You came back a week later       I wanted to ask
                        I didn’t know what to ask        I
couldn’t ask         I was intubated        catheterized
               attached to many
                                    lines      machines     and
                        loopy.”

Like many other disabled and/or sick writers, Estacion also uses humour in her work to dispel some of the heaviness in her poems. In “EF V (Eunuched Female 5,)” the narrator almost sings, “when she feels like mould    she drives onto the frozen lake/takes her dead uterus and places her in the passenger seat.” The phrase “feel like mould” seems to reference the lyrics of “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. This Wheatus reference, in combination with the absurd situation of taking a dead uterus for a drive on a frozen lake, renders the scene comical, despite the speaker’s sadness and trauma caused by her emergency hysterectomy. In “EF II,” when Eunuched Female’s sister asks her how she is after a surgery, she says, “I can’t talk right now I’m on drugs,” a sweet moment of relief, right after the speaker discusses the pain of training her “stumps,” a word she writes in bold to emphasize her hatred of it. In another funny moment later in the poem, she dreams, wanting “to grow up     get out of here      be sexy again with skinny stumps […] The sooner she complies and smiles the sooner she can give everyone a boner again.” This comedy comes from the speaker’s confidence. It’s a fun reversal, where the desirability of a disabled person is not questioned for once.

All in all, Estacion writes playful and visceral poems that really showcase the range of experience of someone in pain. There are moments at the beginning of Phantompains that fall short: the language overused, the metaphors easy, ideas stated too plainly, like “Everything is so hard / My mind, my memory, my life.” Nevertheless, the second half of the book helps strengthen and balance out the collection. Ultimately, Phantompains is a funny and sensory book and an excellent addition to a growing list of excellent books by disabled writers in Canada.

 
 
Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch is a queer Arab poet living in Tio’tia:ke, unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory (Montreal). Their work has appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry 2018 anthology, GUTS, the Shade Journal, Arc Poetry Magazine, Room Magazine, and elsewhere. They were longlisted for the CBC poetry prize in 2019. They are an editor at the literary trans journal, smoke and mold. knot body, a collection of creative non-fiction and poetry was published in Fall 2020 by Metatron Press, and The Good Arabs, a poetry collection, will be published in Fall 2021 with Metonymy Press. You can find them on Instagram and Twitter @theonlyelitareq.

 

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