Migraine: Aura and Aftermath

First, part of the world disappears. Something
is missing from everything: the cat’s eye,
ear, the left side of its face; two fingers
from my right hand; the words from the end
of a sentence. The absence is at first
more absolute than whatever darkness
I imagine the blind perceive. Perfect,
without color or motion, nothing replaces

what is gone. The senses do not contradict. My arm
goes numb, my leg. Though I have felt the cold air
of this disappearance before, each time the aura
deceives me to believe reality itself
has failed. I fear this more than what it warns
because I cannot remember I will survive it.

The other half of me will shine all night,
defined by the eclipse.
Then, in the relieved
wake of the day that follows it, I will
find my hand, count my fingers, and beginning
to see again, will recognize myself
restored to the evening of a righted room.

 

In thinking about the poetic turn, that transformation or surprise, I began to wonder about subject matter with its major turn already embedded and titles that announce that subject matter and, therefore, the obvious turn. In other words, some poems, because of their content, give their turn away, almost before the poem has begun.

This kind of poem can be honest and straightforward but, therefore, risks boredom and challenges our assumptions about the short lyric. We see a lyric and think, Oh, what will the turn be? Where will I find the volta? The poem that gives the turn away in its title (as a movie trailer that perhaps reveals too much about a film) tells us, Now that you know the turn, pay more attention to everything else. The preempted turn offers a new way to read and experience the short lyric.

Claudia Emerson’s “Migraine: Aura and Aftermath,” from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Late Wife, is such a poem. The title announces the subject matter as migraine and its stages, or turns, namely the aura that precedes (or sometimes is) migraine and the aftermath that follows. As a migraine sufferer myself, I understand the condition’s turns, but that doesn’t alleviate its pain or distract me from its power. Knowing that aura leads to headache leads to aftermath doesn’t erase the meaning as one works one’s way through an iteration in real life or in this poem.

Emerson’s poem begins with the following lines:

First, part of the world disappears. Something
is missing from everything: the cat’s eye,
ear, the left side of its face; two fingers
from my right hand; the words from the end
of the sentence. The absence is at first

I’ve deliberately excerpted a section of the poem beginning and ending with the word “first,” which in its initial position is part of giving the turn away. “First” sets up “next”; “first” plus “next,” especially if the “next” is an epiphany, equals a poetic turn. Once we get “first,” no surprise in “next.” The repetition here of the word “first” also reveals the repetitive nature of migraine, the ways in which it folds back upon itself even as it progresses, the ways in which patterns—and poems—emerge from chaos, the way migraine returns days or weeks later.

Because we know the larger volta (aura becomes aftermath), the line breaks function like small turns as well, something we might miss if we were searching for bigger turns. Reflecting the muddled thinking of a person enmeshed in her migraine, the sentences are fragmented and random body parts of the cat and the speaker are juxtaposed. The surprise is in the running together of eye, ear, face, fingers and the body halved. The enjambed lines, to use James Longenbach’s definition in The Art of the Poetic Line, “cut against them [grammatical units], annotating the syntax with emphasis that the syntax itself would not otherwise provide.” The form embodies the content here. “The world disappears” and “Something / is missing from everything.” Andrew Levy, in his book A Brain Wider than the Sky, writes, “Maybe the language of migraine is a run-on sentence, in part because you can’t ever find the right words, in part because the migraine is also a compound of too many interlocking features.” Emerson’s line breaks and images capture the migraine’s run-on nature, its stumbling over words, its interlocking features. Turning involves tripping up. But Levy writes, too, “Maybe the language of migraine isn’t really language at all. It’s language just disappearing.” The words from the end of Emerson’s sentence disappear, at least temporarily, because of the line break.

Two-thirds of the way through the poem, more than a sonnet’s length down the page, we get to “The other half of me” or to the obvious poetic turn. First, this disappearing half, then this “other half” that “will shine all night, / defined by the eclipse.” The initial focus of the poem is overshadowed, overtaken by something else, just as we knew it would be. And we are relieved, satisfied by the shift to the more positive brightness in the dark.

The poem, though, does not end there, just as migraines don’t really end when the pain subsides. The poems bends into the aftermath announced in the title:

                               Then, in the relieved
wake of the day that follows it, I will
find my hand, count my fingers, and beginning
to see again, will recognize myself
restored to the evening of a righted room.

A “wake” means several things here, most obviously a waking up from migraine (and nighttime) and also the ripple that extends out from an experience, as when a boat passes through water in a particular direction, but also, perhaps, the vigil over the body before burial, for surviving migraine is vigilance. The words at the ends of the lines resonate with the shift the poem has made: “relieved,” “will,” “beginning,” “myself,” “room.” The reader grasps the aftermath that the title promised, just as the migraine sufferer lasts through it to something else.

Gail Mazur’s “Dear Migraine,” on the other hand, is a poem I believe. Like Emerson (and myself in an essay in The Pinch called “Half-Skull Days”), Mazur points to the split—half-life—to the fragmentation, and to the ways in which the migraine changes the way we see the world we know. She gives a nod to Dickinson, our fellow sufferer, with the line “you, little death I won’t stop for, little death[.]” (“Little death” is also a term for orgasm.) This poem echoes, too, Emerson’s view of the migraine’s aftermath, the awareness of abandonment and abundance (perhaps like orgasm, that expected, welcome surprise):

Soon—I can’t know where or when—

we’ll dance ache to ache again on my life’s fragments,
one part abandoned, the other abundance—

Mazur’s poem ends with a dash, the other side of which holds the next migraine, sooner or later.

As awful as the migraine experience is, that very awfulness holds a promise. Joan Didion, in her essay “In Bed,” describes her own aftermath as follows: “For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties. The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria.” This end—of a real migraine and of Emerson’s and Mazur’s poems—embodies a conundrum or twist that I don’t know whether readers who don’t suffer migraines will understand.

In “Migraine: Aura and Aftermath,” migraine inevitably turns to euphoria that allows us migraneurs “to see again” and, therefore, at least temporarily, to see anew what we know well and take for granted. This seeing anew is, of course, what the best poetic turns do, whether we see them coming or not. When we perceive “a righted room,” we know deeply other versions of that reality. If, as Mark Doty states in The Art of Description, “Perhaps the dream of lyric poetry is not just to represent states of mind, but to actually provoke them in the reader,” the end of Emerson’s poem encourages us to count our own fingers and look around the room in which we are reading. We are “restored” and can recognize that we’ve been brought back whole or that the world has been made whole again, even as we understand its fragmented parts, too. The aftermath makes it sound as if the migraine’s benefits outweigh its drawbacks, a dangerous claim to make. The aftermath is a surprise of sorts because aura and headache don’t merely end, instead they are transformed into a new state of being that could not be created without the disturbing aura and headache.

The aftermath, too, holds a promise, at least for the reader who knows migraines: the next migraine, the turn—the return—beyond the end of Emerson’s poem.

 

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Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize, and of the chapbooks Turns about a Point and Hagioscope. Her poems and creative nonfiction appear in literary journals, including Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Pinch, and The Southern Review and in anthologies such as A Face to Meet the Faces, City of Big Shoulders, and Women on Poetry. She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom and publishes widely on pedagogy and the profession. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where she directs Tabula Poetica, including its annual reading series and forthcoming literary journal. With Douglas Dechow, Anna Leahy blogs at Lofty Ambitions (http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com).

Claudia Emerson, “Migraine: Aura and Aftermath” from Late Wife. Copyright © 2005 by Claudia Emerson. Reprinted with permission of Louisiana State University Press.

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