The publication of a revised edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is always a curious event. When I was in college forever ago, we studied the fourth edition. The fact that there is now a fifth edition was brought to my attention some months ago by my friend. We were engaged in casual conversation while we sat in a dark place drinking alcohol. I asked him, my friend, what had been changed from the previous edition. He sort of frowned a little bit and said, “I wouldn’t know. Why would I know? What does it matter?”
Yet it matters. Of course it matters. Why else would the APA release revised editions if it didn’t matter? I can only imagine large groups of psychiatrists attending conferences in terribly hot places like Phoenix, all sweating in their impressively starched and ironed white lab coats, their thick black glasses perpetually sliding down their noses, reading from their recent work and arguing wildly afterward, liquored-up in quiet bars, raising their voices over one another, reaffirming that the term “mental retardation” simply must have been changed to “intellectual disability.”
It matters because these alterations in language, in the way we classify the ways in which we talk about what’s wrong with ourselves, with others, with everything, eventually these alterations permeate beyond the small group of people who generate them, who create new language and understandings of that language, and spread it through civilization as we know it. This is how science and scientific findings work—they change the way we think by changing the way we use and comprehend language.
Enter Anhvu Buchanan’s slippery book of poetry, The Disordered, a collection that blends the “clinical voice of assessment” with the chaotic ramblings of mental process and the intense, rapid-fire imagery of madness. It’s a fun book. It’s a serious book. It’s wacky at times, sad at others. Occasionally it’s baffling. When it’s lucid—its lucidity is its strongest quality—it is positively haunting.
Take, for example, the following excerpt, which closes out a poem: “I didn’t want to lose my father. The blood we never shared. The oceans you crossed that brought us back together. It is water that reminds me most of you. I am scared that they will see me urinate, remembering you.”
This fear of the loss of a parent is a revelation stemming from the poem’s opening two lines, which in lesser poetry, could otherwise be seen as humorous or slight: “I am afraid. Scared I will urinate in public.” Skip to the back of the book and you’ll find an appendix of titles, none of which appear on the same page as the poems themselves. The title of the poem from which this particular excerpt was taken is “Daily Intake,” which could be understood as any number of things: the administration of medication, a hospital accepting patients into care, the inescapable perceptions of being alive from day to day.
Throughout The Disordered, Buchanan’s poems deftly shift in tone to create a wide spectrum of emotions, confusions and moments of clarity. There are traces of paranoia and delusion, such as in the following lines, which refer to a nosy neighbor: “She steams open my mail and places thumbtacks in the hallway at night so I can’t sneak away. If I adjust the blinds to let in light, I am trying to send messages.” There are “sketches of schizophrenia,” such as “There is a tape recorder taped to your back pocket. A snapped finger is only a dead end. The joker is in the walls laughing at you.” There is something called “Pain Theory,” which gives way to lines like “That pain is a slaughtered gate swinging slowly: that opens and closes and closes and opens and opens and opens and close and closes …”
These are fertile, adventurous poems that are as surprising as they are penetrating. The Disordered is an inversion of the way science affects our thinking: it is a book whose language will change the way we think about the science of our “mind mountains.”
The Disordered, by Anhvu Buchanan. Buffalo, New York: sunnyoutside. 68 pages. $13.00, paper.
David Peak’s most recent book, Glowing in the Dark, was released by Aqueous Books in October, 2012. He is co-founder of Blue Square Press, and lives in Chicago.