Book Review of "Intention Tremor" by TK Sellman
There is so much to admire about Tamara Kaye Sellman’s reflections on her life with multiple sclerosis. At a mere 58 pages, this deceptively thin book of poetry and prose is deeper and richer than it is long. Hers is the first disease memoir I have read that uses metaphor and imagery so extensively and effectively to mine deeper truths about living with MS. One of the strongest of these images appears before you even open the book.
Illustrating an intention tremor
The drawing of a hand on the cover first made me think of those hand turkeys we drew in school for Thanksgiving. But there will be no roasting this bird; a longer, more unpredictable future lies in store. For the hand really depicts the involuntary shaking of an intention tremor, and like many other MS symptoms, it can recur over a lifetime. It is produced by purposeful movement towards a target such as reaching for a water glass. Sellman experienced this while attempting to stow her bag in the overhead compartment of an airplane, which she describes in a short narrative titled "Intention Tremor." However tremulous her hand might have been while writing these pieces, the author nails her expressions of wonder, loss, and healing with laser-beam precision.
How the author lays out the science of MS
One thing I really enjoy about Sellman’s approach is how she lays out the science of MS in “With Alexia Without Agraphia" and “John Cunningham Lives." The former contains fragments of a scholarly article describing alexia without agraphia in multiple sclerosis, a kind of brain damage that caused the author temporary inability to understand what she was reading. It is presented as redacted text, with most of the narrative blacked out as though requiring a higher security clearance than the patient has. Or perhaps it blocks out distracting technical language to better focus on the main points. I can also imagine it looking close to what Sellman might have seen as she struggled to decipher words on a page during this episode. For me there is much one can read into this small piece; perhaps others will see something entirely different.
"John Cunningham Lives"
In the latter work “John Cunningham Lives," the author writes a tribute to John Cunningham, a patient whose donated brain tissue revealed a new virus — now called JCV in his memory — that makes us susceptible to PML, an often-fatal brain infection that can afflict a small percentage of MS patients who test positive for JCV. In it, she muses about whether Cunningham the hapless patient might have mixed feelings about his contribution to the growing litany of infectious diseases. Alas, the questions she raises in her second-person appeal to him are met with silence, proving once again that dead men tell no tales.
Life with MS through the lenses of science and art
These two pieces as well as those in the rest of the book show us that Sellman perceives her life with MS through the lenses of both science and art. Her interest in camping and astronomy also find their way into her work, notably in “Coals,” “Uhthoff's Phenomena” and “Fallen Stars.” Celestial bodies swirl outside and inside her head. Sun, stars, fire, and ash populate these verses. It is the first lines of “Uhthoff's Phenomena” (aka pseudo-exacerbation) that strike me as the best metaphor EVER for what this syndrome feels like: “There is a sun in my head. A dark star sun.” I suffer from pseudo-exacerbations myself from time to time, and these verses describe what it feels like in ways I have never read in a medical text.
“Group Admin, Illness Forum"
I could not leave out mentioning my favorite of the lot, “Group Admin, Illness Forum.” The title tells us what role Sellman has taken on and in what setting. But it also belies the mood, atmosphere, and tenderness of a story about alienation, shame, and redeeming love within a subterranean enclave we know as the virtual MS community. The sheer beauty of the telling brings me to tears.
One of my favorite storytelling devices
There is so much more I want to say about this book. But I will leave you with a final tip of the hat to one of my favorite storytelling devices, a McGuffin, which dwells mostly in the background and very prominently in two narratives. To briefly review: a McGuffin is an elusive thing or idea the characters pursue that they think will make them happy but is ultimately unattainable and irrelevant to the story. In this book and in the world, the desired thing that eludes MS patient and medical researcher alike is a CURE.
Getting a deeper sense of how we feel
A cure for MS irrelevant and unattainable? Yes, for us, for now. Our lives are shaped by managing MS in any way we can. Mural artist Lydia Emily paints her MS life. Tamara Kaye Sellman awake-dreams her life with MS in this hybrid collection, showing us her brain and mind stuff in forms that defy labels. As a writer myself, laying out narratives helps me clarify what I think and feel. As a reader, I gained a richer sense of how I feel my MS by reading how Sellman feels hers.
Do you ever swear you smell smoke or cigarettes but there's nothing there?