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 Marie Lecrivain reviews Underwater Hospital by Jan Steckel


© 2006 Zeitgiest Press



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If I open the door, the dead will rush in

Like a thousand tons of water, filling me up,

And I will never be able to shut that hatch again.

 -The Underwater Hospital


Anyone who chooses to become a poet - consciously or not - instinctively takes herself out of step with the ordinary world, and thereby renders herself anachronistic. Jan M. Steckel's chapbook, The Underwater Hospital, chronicles the hard-won successes and narrow misses of her journey.


Steckel, a Pushcart Prize nominee, bi-sexual activist and pediatrician who (according to her bio) eventually left the medical profession to pursue writing full time, adeptly transforms her varied experiences into twelve prose poems that lead the reader into an eerie hallway full of melancholy and mystery, much like the corridor of a hospital. The poems in Underwater are difficult to ingest, like an unpleasant dose of medicine you don't want to swallow, but ultimately know you need. In the opening "Dios le bendiga," Steckel subtly employs a spiritual greeting as a scalpel to open the pustulating psychic wounds of a wife and mother mired in the unfortunate, but still entrenched role of "a woman's lot:"


"Dios le bendiga, Doctora

God bless you, Doctor,

for curing my baby of syphilis.

Can you cure me too?

I am broken and need to be fixed.

When I was twelve I pretended to be sick

and stayed home from church.

In my vanity I plaited my hair like shiny black snakes

and put on my sister's hibiscus-flowered dress.

My uncle came by drunk from a lost cockfight.

He raped me in the kitchen

where I had made cactus candy with my mother and sisters.

Blood ran down my leg like prickly pair juice.

Because of that, I do not enjoy the act of sex.

I lie like a stone beneath my husband,

so that he has to go to prostitutes,

which is how my baby got this disease from me.

So you see that this is all my fault.

I want to be cured of my coldness,

To be a good wife to my husband,

And not cause all this misery.

Thank you for the telephone number, Doctora,

Dios le bendiga."


In Underwater, then Steckel turns the poetic scalpel on herself as she examines and probes her own memories, chiefly in her overly complicated (Daddy's Little Girl"), but illuminating ("Fourteen Crossings") relationships with women. Steckel's bi-sexuality is an asset, principally in the poetic sense. In "Harder," Steckel reveals the combined experience of exquisite discomfort and graphic detail that only someone blessed with her sensitivity can convey:


We lay together in the rain,

but we lay mainly in Jamaica Plain,

or sometimes in Brookline.

As we staggered giggling through my building's foyer,

the big black butch-dyke concierge would wink at us

and greet my birdlike girlfriend and me by name.


When my little love lay under me, she became

a vixen fouler-mouthed than any stevedore.

"Fuck me harder!

Make me your whore!"

She was trying to talk to the man in me,

a rapist who wasn't there.

I didn't understand talking dirty.

It left me merely bewildered.


But I would thrust my whole hand in

and pound her as hard as she wanted it.

I would push her further, harder,

until she screamed with pleasure,

and ordered me to do it deeper, more.

Once or twice her paper-thin tissues tore,

terrifying me when my hand came out bloody.


Sometimes I lie awake

trying to remember how I loved her,

but I never try hard enough.

I hear her gravelly, coal-town voice urging me,

"Harder. Harder."


The frustrations and limitations of working as a healer in a system run by uncaring corporate entities with bureaucratic overtones figures largely in Underwater; specifically in the poem "Three Little Sisters," as Steckel lays bare the subversive methods she utilized in the name of her profession to help save the lives of three little girls who were born on two different sides of the global fence:


The three little Salazar sisters from Salinas

come crestfallen into my bedroom some nights,

all crying with rotted teeth and gum abscesses.

The younger two are California-born.

I give them antibiotics and sent them to a Medicaid dentist

so the infections won't spread to their jaw or brain.

For the eldest, eight years old, I can do nothing,

because she was born in Mexico

so doesn't qualify for Medicaid.

I prescribe extra medicine,

knowing the mother will split it

between all three girls.

I send them out crying.

Night after night, I ask myself,

what kind of country

denies an eight-year-old girl

relief from pain like that

because she was born

on the wrong side of the border

from her sisters?


In spite of frequent usage of medical and anatomical references, there are reasons to enjoy Underwater Hospital; the absence of antiseptic academia, and the singular lyrical tone fused with the pure strength of Steckel's poetry makes this book one I'd recommend to purchase, keep around, and put in the hands of a friend. And after reading Underwater, I know I'll do my best to remember not to write off every doctor or medical professional doing her best to work within a health care system that cares more about dollars than its patients.






- review by Marie Lecrivain, executive editor of poeticdiversity







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