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Trauma Head by Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Reviewed by Margo LaPierre

Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s immersive second collection of poetry, Trauma Head, documents her experience of suffering a mini-stroke, and in the aftermath, discovering a tear in the lining of an artery in the neck, supplying blood to the brain. This tear in the tunica intima (Latin for “inner coat”) is known clinically as vertebral artery dissection. Kraljii Gardiner’s long-poem memoir, shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, dissembles familiar words, questions clinical language, commands and disrupts syntactical flow, and employs typographical elements to plunge readers into the unfolding of her brain trauma. The author’s careful eye to language heightens the meaning even of fragmented words, creating a vivid, enveloping tension.

“Petals of the many-sided tree and inside corners arise from tears that occur in the broken layer, allowing blood under flatline pressure to enter the wall of the vessel and form a tinted glass.”

The collection is divided into three chapters: The first, Tunica Intima, contains the long poem memoir. It begins with the stroke itself, the ambulance ride, the hospital, then the return home, which is only the beginning of a season of neurologists and their studies. The poet then relearns her relation to language, her brain, her body, and her identity as mother, lover, and citizen as she slowly recovers. At 112 pages, the first chapter spans most of the book. The second chapter, "Trauma Head File," nestles tiny poems into Kraljii’s actual medical files. In the short third chapter, Prognosis, Kraljii turns to prose poetry to reflect on her healing.

In Tunica Intima, halved, unfinished words create the sense that what is happening to language was also happening to the poet. Some words are mirrored. Some split by a forward slash. As pain accumulates, entire lines abrade each other, physically colliding on the page. The poems make full use of the page to establish sensory mood: they dilate and constrict and sometimes seem to move as though suspended in fluid. In some cases, the poems seem to borrow coding elements, treating the language within the poems as a functional (or dysfunctional) system. It’s worth reading in print.

“; unflex tingled hand | fiddle / crab | lifted from sand, grasping air | I / run / the tongue / | touch / parts of my body | with its correspondent”

The natural and everyday world enters into the poems’ peripheries, as though Kraljii Gardiner’s environment seeks to impress upon her, but her perspective is occupied with the disordering of her own brain and body. As the collection advances further into recovery, those outside realities start to resemble a more coherent narrative. However, it’s the treatment of incoherence, of isolating and expanding meaning through disruption, that makes Trauma Head unforgettable.

“vocabulary hauls antenna higher | verbs n / either serve | n / or appreciate my hard work | selecting them”

Writers and poets are likely to relate to the careful consideration of word choice and sensitivity to intimations of meaning and embedded connections. It is something we should all be doing when writing: bringing a sense of curiosity and humility when we attend to language. Kraljii Gardiner brings the same attention to her illness as she does to language, to “learn causes or roots / learn patience — wait.”

“complicated names are better than none”

One of the beautiful things about Trauma Head is that it takes a complex medical issue, with invisible symptoms occurring within the mind (perception, language, panic) and body (pain), and makes it accessible: the poet and readers learn simultaneously. The poet’s voice speaks directly from each event. We follow Kraljii Gardiner through her ordeal chronologically. As she learns complicated terms in treatment, she takes a lens to those unusual Latinate names for things. I enjoyed her use of lumen as both measurement of light and the hollow structure of a cell.

“the distance between | myselves | a typography of— | a kerning between— | rive, riven: | such hurried and violent rush”

Recurrent images of the splitting of self appear not only in the content of the poems, “bifurcated woman, halved, seamed, I am studied,” but also in the formatting, built into the structure, and even in the way poems sound, sometimes stuttering forward or repeating. Every aspect of this collection seems to have been weighed: a sign of mastery. The collection is so exquisitely ordered and whole it resembles a living organism itself.

“crop: | haircutter knows something | happened, measures 3 months”

I thought it especially interesting that the focus wasn’t fixed on the initial trauma and clinical studies. In the second half of the book, we see the poet going to yoga or to the beach, “all dogs catch oceanspritz in their coats.” We see how it is to heal in collision with the social world.

“how swiftly we / are al / tered | all of us re / novated | by exposure to pain and | what we cannot control”

“by my shoulder is a shadow even on brightest solstice | an always | some noonday dot ready to dilate”

As the narrative closes its arc, Kraljii reminds us that such trauma brings about a more enduring suspicion: of having to look over one’s shoulder for it to happen again. Such trauma never leaves us unchanged. This poetry memoir is a reminder that illness and disability are contained within each of us at a cellular level. For some that may be scary to envision, for some that’s everyday life. In Trauma Head, Kraljii Gardiner took this harrowing encounter with mortality and created a thoughtful account of perception and resilience.

Trauma Head is published by Anvil Press.

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