The second poem in Shira Erlichman’s debut full-length poetry collection, “Odes to Lithium,” out now from Alice James Books, is called “Side Effects.” It is written almost entirely inside a set of parentheses, a self-contained train of thought that begins, “The side effect of Lithium (is dehydration and peeing more frequently,” and winds its way into more existential territory. “The side effect of a stone that is not a stone is throwing the stone and watching it fly. The side effect of/ flight) is a poem,” writes Erlichman. It’s a powerful punch of verse that asks the reader to consider what a litany of side effects can really mean. In the collection’s first poem, “Snakes in Your Arms,” Erlichman relates her experience of seeing a neurologist to tingling in her arms, and his cold, dismissive reaction to learning of her bipolar disorder diagnosis.
These two opening poems set the stage for a journey of observation and reconciliation as Erlichman winds through the process of learning and relearning her sense of self — the self that lives with a diagnosis and a medication that are not only shrouded in stigma, but can rattle one’s sense of control and identity. Along the way, she navigates memory, relationships with family, friends and lovers, and, as the title suggests, she writes letters in awe-like praise of the element, medication and strange alchemy that is lithium.
In poems like “Unwished For,” Erlichman renders the ubiquitous, casual stigma attached to mental illness. In an ice cream shop, the poem’s narrator sees a flyer soliciting the services of a surrogate mother with “no history of mental illness.”
“What they don’t want in me lives,” Erlichman writes. “It sees through my eyes that they would prefer it/ dead. It knows better than to whimper, or show defeat. What they don’t want of me/ breathes.”
These lines convey a stark juxtaposition between shadowy death and dynamic life, reminding the reader which one is more often associated with mental illness. But Erlichman’s poems endeavor to take us beyond these simplistic associations into beauty and chemistry, reverence and fear, astonishment and love.
Erlichman accomplishes this with her examination of color throughout the collection. A visual artist as well as a poet, her art is interspersed throughout the text, conveying a sense of saturation, of being “shellacked in beauty.” In “Portrait of a Release,” Erlichman writes:
“Red leaves falter/ like prayer flags on the branch. Yellow leaves grin/ their good yellow teeth…. I practice a Cognitive Behavioral Exercise/ the Group Therapist taught us./ It’s simple and it works:/ notice the colors around you./ In ROYGBIV order./ This will reroute your brain/ away from the emotional center, where mother happens,/ toward the logical center, where math happens… Red: leaves, stoplight… Yellow, slutty tree,/ oh cerebellum, oh Lithium,/ do your job.”
Color also appears as a coping mechanism. In “Aftertaste,” it’s the white glass of milk that washes down the pill in the narrator’s revelation: “It’s true:/ everything/ on this brutal blue/ dot is constructed of elemental attraction… in a distant laboratory, you/ are being mixed with aluminum, copper,/ manganese, cadmium to make/ planes strong yet featherweight/ they need you… It’s because of you/ something heavy should fly.”
Along with depicting side effects and adjustments required to use the compound, Erlichman demonstrates a sort of fealty to lithium. This is perhaps clearest in “The Watchman”:
“How this, sparkler in the night’s black field, lighting up my brain/ with love How did they do it before you — survive. Your elegance/ of salt, rock & sleep, who invented How can such a small watchman/ keep safe all my hills & homes… What do my organs think of your soft arrival each day Who unlocks/ the door to let you in… How do you/ pollinate my blood so exactly with sanity Does my brain’s infinite/ heart burden you… Who do you speak to in my body that listens.”
The complexity of Erlichman’s relationship with mental illness, and with lithium, is not always rainbows and gratitude, but it is always stunningly written. “I’m Sitting with Björk in My Bathtub,” for example, grounds us in the painful reality of a bad day in the line, “she can tell I am reliving the neon isolation/ of my mind-jail.”
As the collection progresses, Erlichman also explores brain chemistry, the label of “patient,” and the connection between both of these concepts and a person’s identity. In “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Phineas Gage,” she writes a series of interactions with a real-life “famous patient” who lived in the mid-1800s. Gage, a railroad foreman who suffered a traumatic brain injury then exhibited drastic behavioral changes, is credited as being modern medicine’s catalyst for correlating brain injury with personality change.
The poems in “Odes to Lithium” document the tumultuous weather systems of treating an illness with medication. Sometimes medications work, sometimes they stop working, and Erlichman even calls into question the very concept of a pill being successful: What does it mean that a medication is “working?” How can one really tell? What side effects are worth it, and which are even real? And when someone’s brain chemistry is harmful to them in its untreated state, and then altered by medication, who are they — really — at their core?
There are no easy answers but Erlichman conveys a satisfying mosaic of these complex questions. She uses childhood memory to great effect, rooting the reader in a younger, more innocent self that predates her diagnosis. She muses on an odd teacher who loved cockroaches and on a girl she fell in love with at camp. And among the uncertain footing of managing mental illness, there are the first small repairs to familial relationships. “On This End ” is made up of lines from two letters — one that Erlichman’s mother wrote to her and also Erlichman’s response. They are written in reverse order, last line first, and spread across pages with gaps all over. It’s a visual manifestation of reading between the lines to find the shattered pieces of an inherently complicated relationship; in any mother-daughter relationship, you must choose your drama. If it’s not mental illness, it will be something else.
Aside from family ties, many of the poems in the collection portray friends who provide emotional and physical shelter. There are kisses in the sunshine and shared cups of tea. Importantly, the queerness in this collection is palpable to those attuned to it. Western society omits queerness as often as it omits mental illness from its cultural narratives. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, “Odes to Lithium“ embodies a queer-informed existence. It is rooted in the sense of wonder that can permeate even the darkest moments — how surprising that we find ourselves here, alive and breathing, unerased.
“Odes to Lithium” by Shira Erlichman, Alice James Books, 100 pp., $17.95
Author appearance: Shira Erlichman will discuss “Odes to Lithium” with Tara Hardy at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 16, at Gay City, 517 Pike St., Seattle, officialshira.com/events.