Two years ago, Houston poet Erica Lehrer was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy—ataxia—a rare, incurable, and untreatable neurodegenerative disease that left her unable to speak clearly or for very long. The disease had not affected her poetic voice, thankfully, just her physical one, so at readings, festivals, and workshops where we were both in attendance, I often volunteered to read her poems for her; our joke was that I had become her “poetry bitch.” That she maintained a sense of humor about this devastating disease gives a clue to her audacious spirit, and one of her poems that most captures this spirit is the opening poem from Dancing with Ataxia, “Perfect Pitch.”
“Perfect Pitch” is a short poem, only fourteen lines, that is filled with ironic twists and turns:
Give me back my voice, the one I hear
in my head, the one that still greets you
on my answering machine: clear, nuanced,
cultivated, as reliable as Monday following Sunday,
able to surge at will from pianissimo to fortissimo,
unique as a signature, recognizable as a face.
It’s the singing I miss most. Breathing deeply,
emitting melody, I sang on pitch—now,
not even close, my voice a casualty of my disease.
When I try to sing, the cats run from the room.
“I can’t sing!” I tell my husband, my voice
slurring and cracking from the stress.
“Welcome to the club,” he says in his habitual
off-key baritone, then, silently folds me in his arms.
Imagine losing your mobility, your dexterity, your voice—and never knowing from day to day what little piece of yourself you might lose next. As Christopher Bakken writes in “The Ironic Structure” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, “the ironic structure imitates or enacts a sense of uncertainty about the world.” Erica Lehrer shows this uncertainty in clear terms. If you knew nothing about the poet or her disease, you might read the first stanza as if the narrator has a cold or a sudden case of laryngitis, a temporary loss of her “perfect pitch.” She hears the “clear, nuanced, cultivated” voice only in her head or on her answering machine, longs again to “surge at will from pianissimo to fortissimo” like some operatic diva.
But as she moves into the second stanza, it becomes apparent to the reader that this loss of voice is permanent—“a casualty of my disease”—and getting worse. Her voice, once “unique as a signature,” mocks her when she hears it on the answering machine; even “the cats run from the room.” In this way, to quote Christopher Bakken again, “what is first proclaimed is suddenly or systematically undermined by what follows.” Everything announced in the first stanza turns in the second stanza by the new information: “my disease.” The voice, once “reliable as Monday following Sunday,” is now “slurring and cracking from the stress” of neurological degeneration.
A lesser poet would end the poem here, wallowing in self-pity and expecting the audience of the poem to feel sorry for her, but Lehrer has one more ironic surprise. She complains to her husband, “I can’t sing!” In his “habitual off-key baritone,” her husband replies mischievously, “Welcome to the club.” Beyond the look at a loving relationship, what becomes obvious is that, before this point, the narrator never realized that her perfect pitch was extraordinary, that her disease has, in some ways, made her one of “the club,” the majority, who have never had and will never have perfect pitch. In at least one way, ataxia has made her a little more like the rest of us. The ending is humorous and lovely in its playful wordplay, but it is the ironic structure that makes this poem sing.
Scott Wiggerman is the author of two books of poetry, Presence and Vegetables and Other Relationships. Recent poems have appeared in Spillway, Assaracus, Naugatuck River Review, Contemporary Sonnet, and Hobble Creek Review, which nominated “The Egret Sonnet” for a Pushcart. A frequent workshop instructor, including workshops on poetic structure, he is also an editor for Dos Gatos Press, publisher of the annual Texas Poetry Calendar, now in its fifteenth year, and the recent collection of poetry exercises, Wingbeats: Exercises and Practice in Poetry. His website is http://swig.tripod.com
Erica Lehrer, “Perfect Pitch,” from Dancing with Ataxia. Copyright © 2011 by Erica Lehrer. Reprinted with permission of the author. unique as a signature, recognizable as a face.–