The wait was worth it. Wardlife, Steinmetz’s 1999 debut, was one of those jack-in-the-box surprises every reader hopes for when opening a book. Based on Steinmetz’s experiences working a ward clerk beat at a major hospital, Wardlife serves up the real goods on the medical system in a unique voice that’s part Elmore Leonard, part Oliver Sacks. Steinmetz’s prose is always limber enough to make room for the mordant wisecrack, yet no matter how lightly it carries its concerns the writing is also schooled by a staunch reverence for life and, when the time comes, is never chary about squaring its shoulders and clearing its throat for the Big Statement.
Wardlife, in other words, displayed all the promissory touches of an abundantly gifted young writer – although Steinmetz would rather unboastfully see himself as “a butterfly catcher.”
“I don’t write with a deliberate sense of what I’m going to write about, or how I’m going to write. I just don’t have this urge to write,” he said in an interview in his apartment in Mile End where he lives with wife Jill Tarasuk and their two young children. “It happened that I could write Wardlife, so I wrote Wardlife. And I did it almost in a detached way, never thinking, “Will I like reading this?’ or ‘Is this my ideal of good writing?’ I simply begin by hearing something – it always starts with a voice floating in my head, with someone speaking – and then try to capture it. I don’t really bring things up to a conceptual level. I work at an intuitive level, with the subject hiding behind every word I come upon.”
While Wardlife continues to pick up plaudits and generate buzz (most recently it’s been shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize for Creative Non-Fiction) Steinmetz’s newly published poetry debut, Histories, also poaches on matters medical. The book takes its title from the opening section, a series of short, trim poems which adopt the procedural matter-of-fact jottings of a physical examination, each piece affectlessly recording the symptoms of different ailing patients.
“It struck me when I was working in the hospital that the technical form of a medical history could give me a structure to write a poem in. I’ve never mastered a strict poetic form, so to speak, and the medical history just seemed to be something I understood. So I tried to use everything I knew about it – its quickness and immediacy of execution, its terse cadences – to turn the form on its head.”
Which is exactly what he does. The clinical jargon of Steinmetz’s “medical histories” yields effects that are waggishly eccentric and sometimes quite moving.
“I tried to follow the form closely. You start with a family history, then you go to diagnostic tests, and then you come up with a differential diagnosis. But while the actual differential diagnosis involves pointing to illnesses, my own diagnosis involves gesturing towards, say, the sad humour of the situation.”
“I wanted to be a witness – a civilian witness who could bring the event out of the medial perspective and suggest something else about it, something that escaped everybody, or something that the doctors themselves were trying to escape by using such shorthand.”
With their alien terminology the poems skirt so close to what Donald Hall once mischievously called “not-poetry” (making them very reminiscent of poems by the lat immunologist Miroslav Holub) that, in reading them, one can’t help but wonder what it was about the form, initially, that made Steinmetz feel he could so successfully redeploy into verse.
“I just felt I heard it. This language has a specific goal, of course: to relay information quickly and accurately from staff to staff. But to my ears it was fascinating and I thought, well, why not anyone else’s ears? Doctors and nurses are so used to talking about life and people in thses stark terms, but what if we take it out of the hospital context and let other people listen to this way of speaking?”
Steinmetz’s dependence on terms like “hearing” and “ear” and “listening” when discussing his poems becomes interesting when one factors in his musical background as a songwriter. (“I should warn you that many people consider me a better songwriter than a poet.”) Steinmetz, however, who now plays in a band called Good Cookies, is quick to curb the comparison.
“Both are part of my reactions to living, I guess, but songwriting was very personal, while writing, at least for me, is very impersonal. When I began to write in 1985, I never felt that the voice I was writing in was my voice. I tended to be more intimate in a song – I was writing about relationships and stuff like that – but the poems are founded instead on a sort of negative capability, on borrowing other voices and experimenting with them. It’s only recently that I’ve started writing about me, and this is the section called ‘Casting for a Part.” In fact what I like most about the collection are the things I’ve been able to capture about my home life and family. I feel those are the most honest poems. But it’s taken me a while to get around to that.
Those “honest poems” help make Histories more than an obvious extension of Wardlife: they turn the collection into an independent deepening of Steinmetz’s sensibility, an attempt, as he puts it in “Armchair Barbarism,” to “ambush some reasonable form of happiness.” Interestingly, for all his claims about writing by feel and instinct, Steinmetz is acutely aware of the principles that gird his doctor-impersonating and medical-wordplay poems, as well as his more autobiographical efforts.
“There are poets that I really like – Thomas Lynch, Yehuda Amichai, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds – and I enjoy how they express themselves, be it in a tight language or a loose language. But I still don’t have a model for myself. If there’s one rule that guided the writing of Histories, however, it’s the belief that poetry is a very specific language. I like Shelley’s notion that the only thing you should say through poetry is that which can only be said through poetry. It’s a language that should lead to ideas you could never have arrived at any other way. And so often when I’m onto a voice and trying, nose to the ground, to follow that voice to its natural conclusion, I’m really trying to get at those special ideas. I don’t know what they’re going to be, but I have a lot of faith that by working at my craft I’m going to find them.” mRb