The Way a Wound Becomes a Scar
Kelsay Books/ 2021/ 80pp/ $16.50
Reviewed by Lynette Lamp
The Way a Wound Becomes a Scar, by Emily Schulten, engages us in the story of a renal transplantation: the speaker is the giver, her brother the receiver. But this melodic poetry collection also explores other wounds, emotional as well as physical, and the scars they make: a romantic love and the loss that follows; the too-soon death of a father and the aftermath; even a simple wall, damaged then repaired. Schulten covers an incredible amount of ground, and she accomplishes this with a lyric grace that transcends clinical facts.
Schulten divides her cohesive book into five sections, flowing loosely from before wounds are inflicted to the aftermath. In earlier poems, the speaker explores the process of becoming a kidney donor for her brother through family narratives. We see this drama through the perspectives of the speaker, her brother, his small daughters, and the brother’s wife. Especially poignant is the speaker’s small gift of Mayan worry dolls to a troubled niece in the poem “Sydney.”
. . . I tell her the legend, to tell
her troubles to her dolls, slip the bodies
under her head when she sleeps, and dread
will lift by morning. In a small voice
to her mother, this is what I needed.
We are enlightened regarding the medical aspects of a transplant: a nerve-wracking hospital check-in, intubation, necessary scans. But we are also encouraged to think about this transition in other ways. A priest visits the patient to prepare for “health or God.” The speaker practices magical thinking, willing to do spells to save her brother. These poems consider the impact such health problems have on the patient as well as the family in a myriad of ways, before a transplant is even a possibility.
Dialysis is a grim reality for many pre-transplant patients and their families. Schulten documents this beautifully in her poem “Dialysis,” where we are shown practical acceptance from the smallest of those affected.
His two little blonde girls weren’t fazed
by the jugs of urine in the fridge,
the vials in the butter dish
when they came in from playing,
opened the door for apple juice.
These poems also take us inside the mind of the donor who fears the kidney will not be enough, won’t do what it is supposed to do. Schulten devotes an entire later section of her book to the topic of rejection, a constant fear of both the donor and the recipient. She demonstrates this fear musically in the poem “Rejection Episode No. 2” “. . . his blood tries / to rid itself of what’s / been sown inside / and left like a candle / at a roadside shrine.”
This book reads like a play with varied characters. The family members and the speaker’s lovers are characters, of course, but the workings of the brother’s body are characters in this play as well: blood vessels strategize, an immune system schemes before the speaker is born, yet all the fully fleshed characters are unaware of what comes next. The brother anxiously awaits his sister, who will someday be his donor. “The infant incubates while mother explains—/ they have to wait, but it’s only a matter of time.” A matter of time before the brother greets his new sibling and a matter of time before the brother’s body betrays him.
In “Choosing a Stone,” we are again taken to a time before this great wound, before any of Schulten’s characters know what will happen. She compares rubbings from gravestones, the resulting images transferred onto paper, to the future physical scars of the speaker and her brother:
We weren’t aware then, finding each other
between mausoleums, peering into the stained-
glass windows of the tomb, our story
was already written.
This theme of unpredictable decay occurring before one is aware of it is a theme to which Schulten continues to return. The author emphasizes this decay with frequent references to Egyptian mythology. In the title poem:
Ancient Egyptians pulled the organs through
a small cut at the groin of the bodies of the dead,
somehow knowing that all these years later,
people would unwrap, inspect the mummy, find
the incision, still evident.
And in “The Myth of the Ib”:
Egyptian myth tells us the heart is made
From a single drop of mother’s blood during conception.
You told me it would be okay, laughed about dying,
And we agreed the blood in our hearts had been tainted.
That we’d have to live broken. . .
The Ib is the Egyptian word for the heart, which embodies love but also bravery, sadness, thought, intelligence, memory, and wisdom. The heart was left in place, like the kidneys, in the Egyptian process of embalming; the heart was the key to the afterlife.
Other Egyptian motifs permeate these poems. The speaker’s brother makes lists of things he will need in the afterlife. A lover wraps the speaker in “strip over strip” of bedding. The speaker compares scar tissue around a donated kidney to bandages, snipped fabric “. . . I gather / whatever might make a mummy of his new body part. . .” Eventually, “My brother’s body began to cape his new kidney, fibrous tissue / like the knotted linen of the Egyptian dead, safe-keeping in a new life.”
Some of Schulten’s poems veer more toward the realm of emotional wounds and the scars they form. In “Modern Ruins,” a couple in a still-intact relationship ponders an old fort. “Could we be more beautiful this way— / torn open in places, our brick and mortar / falling to the ground. . .” and in “Stone Fruit,” the biblical Adam and Eve sharing an apple are compared to the speaker and a lover sharing a peach. “When we tasted / the nectar that clung to the stone-center / there was nothing sweeter than / the last tastes of not knowing.” This poem harkens back to the children making stone rubbings, where another story of relationship was already being written, yet unknown.
Schulten’s insightful collection of lyric depth does indeed tell us how wounds become scars. Our bodies can heal after being wounded from disease, perhaps after a surgeon’s careful refitting. Our hearts can heal from the wounds of a past relationship. We cannot predict which wounds will occur or how and when they will come, but as Schulten shows us in these poems, the scars they leave can be something of beauty.
Lynette Lamp, MD, is a practicing family physician in St. Charles, Minnesota. Lynette’s poems have been published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), Annals of Internal Medicine, and The Pharos. She is a recent graduate of Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program.