Review of Clinic Day
From Tanis MacDonald , Malahat Review - Issue 154, Spring 2006

Clinic Day by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden’s singularly arresting Clinic Day opens with “Open Letter,” a pantoum spoken in the voice of the secretary who becomes the book’s poetic protagonist, and whose voice is never heard again. But the formal beauty of the pantoum’s sonorous repetition, and the singular use of the poetic  first-person address, introduces the peripatetic urban ecstasy that energizes this book. The first three stanzas announce an auspicious commencement to the book’s lyrical narrative.

The early car’s mine.
I leave before the day
puts hardware on:
ride east all the way

I leave before the day
abandons slow calm.
Ride east all the way,
and now a storm

abandons slow calm.
We pass the bridge
and now a storm
has torn the sky’s edge.

That torn edge of sky indicates where the map of the city begins. The secretary works in a hospital, a place with a “useful glow” and “rows and banks of light, behind/which breath circulates or, in/squeaking, burning rooms, runs out” (“Current”). As she maps the secretary’s walk through the city, Bryden reveals her as a woman with the intense watchfulness of a flâneur, but the soul of an anchorite. Her relationship with the homeless Blake, the mystic and poetic conscience of Clinic Day, is predicated first upon their shared urban space.

Strung on a series of poems that turn upon the visual apprehension of the urban street as public space, the book works and reworks the definitions of work, value, faith, healing, and care. Bryden never slips into easy moral judgements in her clear-eyed vision of street life, of the pink-collar ghetto, of the medical man as Messiah, of the hospital as Holy of Holies. She brings a sweet irony to the triangulated action of the piece that creates a communion between the characters that is never forced. Each character seems acutely aware of the awkwardness and presumption of her or his social position; each feels blessed and cursed by an unshakeable pair of attributes–the secretary’s middle-class values and compassion, Blake’s madness and genius, the surgeon’s learned practicality and his buried idealism. In the last case, the forced intimacy of surgery combined with a profound and personal sense of privacy–Bryden’s surgeon is “inspired to dig;uncoil/the body’s deepest histories” with his curative skills (“New Math”)–makes him a healer at the cost of remaining forever estranged from a communion of souls. Often glimpsed but rarely understood, the surgeon becomes a melancholic figure in Clinic Day, a figure regarded for his mystery as much as for his powers of healing.

It is the secretary and the derelict Blake who command attention. In the beginning, they share only their mutual knowledge of the street as a space: she passes through this space regularly, at first quickly and eventually lingeringly, while he occupies it totally and constantly. Their work (hers practical, his ecstatic and mystical) is defined by how private people occupy public spaces. The book’s title poem gestures to the idea of a “clinic day” for the homeless of the city, and it is difficult not to read this poem as an adjunct to Foucault’s Birth of The Clinic, as, first, the secretary moves back and forth beneath the panoptic gaze of the patients, and then the patients, in their turn, come beneath the impersonal but possibly curative gaze of the hospital as institution. How Blake and the secretary regard each other, in their adjoining worlds, is the core concern of the book. He acts as a prophet figure to the secretary’s urban, sometimes erotic, adventurer.

Like Woody Allen’s use of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the beginning of Manhattan, the sweet certainty of these poems sings of an unsentimental but loving portrait of a city, inclusive of dirt, foulness, homelessness, poverty, and mental illness, each detail finely burnished by Bryden’s attention. Dirt in Clinic Day is not a metaphor for evil; as Yeats wrote, “love has built her palace in a place of excrement.” The excremental is neither gratuitous nor grotesque, but that which is “already rent,” in Yeats’ terms, becomes, in Bryden’s view, the “brief surrender” that is “almost sweet-/smelling–green and innocent.” Bryden does not efface the differences in class, power, race, and worldview of each of the characters: street people, hospital workers, Holocaust survivors, surgeons, and patients. She allows for the despair of the secretary’s silent scream in “The Bear,” the luminous dreams of Blake’s “angel for an imaginary window” as an “electrifying magnolia tree” in “Dictation,” and the wry twist of the surgeon’s knowledge that “fatigue does often mimic sorrow” in “Evening.”

Bryden has written a rare contemporary book of poetry that maintains a narrative while each individual lyric is polished enough to be a tile in the gritty and glorious mosaic of the imagined city. The subtle music of these poems, almost all of which are written in tercets, retains the resonant appeal of song while firmly grounded in the ecstatic attention of poetry. Bryden’s sublime and seamless weave of three perspectives–social, medical, and mystical–on the work of a downtown hospital makes this book not so much a collection than a unified vision.

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