Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods by Emily Paige Wilson,
Glass Poetry Press, 2020.
Review by Emily Mohn-Slate
What if hypochondria is not about fear but rather love? In her chapbook, Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods (Glass Poetry Press, 2020), Emily Paige Wilson observes in harrowing yet loving detail the secret truths a body can hold. Wilson’s chapbook investigates illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondria, which is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. This chapbook also explores language, power, and empathy in poems that exhibit a range of formal and sonic play. As someone who has suffered from chronic migraines for most of my life, I found myself nodding and underlining while I read as Wilson articulates the weight of invisible pain—mental, emotional, and physical—and its ability to fray not only one’s sense of self, but also one’s relationships with others.
Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods is framed by a series of concise poems titled “A Treatise of Hypochondria.” These poems use archaic spelling and capitalization (i.e. “Vapours”), which roots the reader in a time when doctors relied on the outdated theory of the “four humours.” The first of these poems, “A Treatise of Hypochondria (i),” serves as a prologue poem, and ends, “our Ancestors / rising / to make Complaints.” These lines ground us in the stereotypical image of the hypochondriac as merely a world-class complainer, while they also nod to how we are all bound by our ancestors’ genes. This framing begs the question: how far have we really come over the last few centuries in our understanding of women’s illnesses in particular? The next poem, “I Am Constantly Seeking Reassurance,” is a first-person lyric that introduces the anxiety of the speaker and considers the limits of others’ support in the face of her illness:
can only xxxxxxxxxxreassure me
so many times before trees grow
in his ears,
xxxxxxxxxxxtheir roots forming his red
One of Wilson’s poetic gifts is an uncanny ability to render emotional complexities via imagery. Here, the leap from narrative into image evokes a visceral, physical limit to the boyfriend’s empathy; the trees, trunk, and roots seal his ears against the speaker’s legitimate complaints. We begin to understand the isolation and loneliness felt by the speaker—a double insult to contend with—the way even those who love her most are closed off to her reality.
“Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods” is the first poem of a series that serves as a second layer of nesting dolls, which situate the human speaker’s concerns in a larger mythological framework. Wilson’s tacking back and forth between humans and the gods draws out tensions around ideas of power and agency in the world. One would think that the god-figures would be able to exercise more authority than the human speakers, but that is not always the case. In “Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods (i),” we see Hypochondria from a distance as the poem is narrated from a third person point of view. In these poems, Wilson gives us the god adapted for our modern time with sharply funny lines like, “Hypochondria once had lunch duty with Hades and he told her, ‘That’s some thorough grief you have.’” She is a complex, human-esque version of a god whose favorite color is beige: “She lets the other gods think it’s because she’s boring, but she loves it—this, the first color clouds turn when they finally let the light in.” Wilson’s speakers are always fighting to turn toward the light, toward connection, even in the midst of impossible odds.
One of the specters haunting this collection is the legacy of women’s pain being seen as insidious or dismissed as mere hysteria. In the second poem of the series, we see the risks of being a woman, even as a god: “Hypochondria was once called a slut by a satyr because she wears barely-there dresses drawn from river water and weeds, but she needs to see her body clearly.” She wears thin dresses in order to see her body clearly for a purpose that is her own, not to entice men; but again, her intentions and her body are misinterpreted. Hypochondria “wishes she could treat pain like a coin purse—something spare, sparse, to be exchanged for something else,” but instead she has to bear it again and again. Gender also shapes our understanding of pain and our acknowledgement of it as real. We see this in the poem, “Hypochondria and Her Estranged Half-Brother Sisyphus,” in which “Hypochondria knows he’s never taken her / symptoms seriously, the panic she’s attracted, / aches born less in the bones than the brain.” Sisyphus responds, “I hold my pain in a way others can believe. / See how it fits neatly in my hands. So visible and clean.” Boyfriends, family members, and doctors minimize and ignore her pain, as in “My Doctor Told Me There was Nothing There.” The speaker says, “They didn’t know how practiced I’d become / in distraction—deeming every discomfort / unworthy of concern.” Here, her secret pains are articulated against the forces that would silence her. And, we experience the way pain is subjective, shifting, and unknowable for others. It takes a new doctor who had to “hold me / down while she checked the wreckage of the cysts / on my Bartholin glands,” apologized while she “milked blood / and pus from the thin skin of my labia, /gentle yet firm as if she had mouths to feed.” In the world of this book, and we are to understand, in the larger world, it is rare for the hypochondriac to be believed. What if the girl who cried wolf is telling the truth? Who will help her then?
In this collection, Wilson often lifts up the curative powers of language itself. Language is crucial to our ability to connect with others, to rise out of the murk of loneliness. But especially for the hypochondriac, language is also the locus of deep misunderstanding and damage. One of the most compelling aspects of this chapbook is the tension between the limitations of language that the speaker faces within each poem, while the language of the poem on the page is lush, precise, and exhibits transformative properties of observation and sonic beauty. In “On the Wall,” Wilson pursues a fuller understanding of language and reality: “In ancient Egypt, /only scribes were allowed to write—the belief that putting a word on paper was to summon the thing itself.” This is an argument for language’s power to create something real in the world beyond expressing an idea; this tangible power names why many fear sharing certain truths, and would prefer silence. The poem ends: “I’m not interested / in the etymology of a word, but the entire / music behind it. Not the origins, / but the tambourine.” It matters that the speaker is not interested in parsing the word; she wants to experience it—to hold it up to her ear and play each word, through the tidal waves of loss and silence.
The collection’s first epigraph, by Fleetwood Mac, is “I have no fear; I have only love.” These poems stare fear directly in the face with the gaze of love. The second epigraph, “I did not fear them until I wanted to be afraid,” by Sabrina Orah Mark, frames hypochondria in terms of wanting; the speaker has agency and has decided to feel fear. This agency is no small thing; combined with love, it amounts to the exact opposite force needed to dispel the silencing and pain caused by the dismissal of the speakers’ own pains throughout the collection. The final poem, “A Treatise of Hypochondria (iii),” lays out a bridge to another place from where we have come: “persist in all that / Pain and / Patience.” We trust that the speaker will continue carving a path forward, with god-like strength in her vulnerability, through mythology, music, and the force of her own will and love.
Emily Paige Wilson is the author of the forthcoming full-length collection Jalubí (Unsolicited Press, 2022) and two chapbooks: Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods (Glass Poetry Press, 2020) and I’ll Build Us a Home (Finishing Line Press, 2018). Her work has been nominated for Best New Poets, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart Prize. Connect with her at www.emilypaigewilson.com and @Emmy_Golightly.
Emily Mohn-Slate is the author of THE FALLS, winner of the 2019 New American Poetry Prize (New American Press), and FEED, winner of the 2018 Keystone Chapbook Prize (Seven Kitchens Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, New Ohio Review, Muzzle Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches high school English by day and poetry workshops by night for the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online