Written by Vanessa Simerskey
For many, poetry has become an ideal medium for expressing the emotions behind both physical and mental illness; poetry allows writers to be vulnerable and honest in a way that some other literary forms may restrict. One striking example of this expression of raw emotional honesty that instantly comes to mind is ire’ne lara silva’s poetry chap-book, Blood Sugar Canto. In this collection, silva uses her poetry to explore what it means to live a diabetic lifestyle and the impacts it has on the self but also on close family members. As a diabetic herself, silva vividly captures a beautifully harsh and complex realm that she is clearly very familiar with. And I’m not the only one who is moved by her poetry. In fact, Blood Sugar Canto was a finalist in the International Latino Book Award in Poetry and her poetry has been featured in many journals and anthologies such as Acentos Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Beat Texas Poetry Anthology, Improbable Worlds Anthology, and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. silva herself will even become an official member of the Texas Institute of Letters later on this year.
The poet dives into the relationships diabetics like herself have with their bodies, especially when the body is betraying the self in illness. silva shows how diabetics can love themselves even – no, most especially – when the internal, the blood, is rebelling against the love diabetics are trying to cultivate.
ire’ne lara silva is not just a prolific writer but, in the words of Demetria Martinez, she is a “poet-curandera.” A curandero/a/x stems from indigenous Mexican culture and is essentially a spiritual healer. Martinez uses this word to describe lara in a blurb for her poetry chap-book, Blood Sugar Canto. Throughout the book, silva fully embodies the ideas behind the spiritual healing that is curanderismo, as her poems express the highs and lows of living with diabetes and the processes of healing that she provides not just for herself, but for her diabetic readers. The poet dives into the relationships diabetics like herself have with their bodies, especially when the body is betraying the self in illness. silva shows how diabetics can love themselves even – no, most especially – when the internal, the blood, is rebelling against the love diabetics are trying to cultivate. The journey of self-love is even more so disrupted when diabetics face racial discrimination from their health care providers. The care diabetics, and really any patients, receive from their doctors and nurses is crucial for the physical and emotional healing process. So when a patient experiences discrimination from their care provider, it further enhances the trauma, they’re already experiencing and obstructs a patient’s healing process. silva gracefully and lyrically tears into a world where diabetics must deal with, spar with, and learn to co-exist with an illness and all the pain, shame, fear, depression, love, anger, and hope that accompanies it. What really makes silva the most remarkable what can be summed up in two things: silva’s song-like language and her focus on discrimination within the health care system.
As the title of chap-book hints, Blood Sugar Canto integrates the qualities of song into quite a few of the poems. The titles of various poems reference musical forms, for example “love song for my organs,” “lullaby,” “song for fear,” “blood sugar canto,” and “ode to syringe.” With each of these poems, she embodies the song-form established in the title. In “lullaby,” the narrator wants to teach and warn the next generation, the children, to protect their bodies and dreams from the pain and destruction diabetes can bring. Before starting the poem, silva states “for my nieces and nephews,” setting the scene for a lullaby, which are normally sung to children. Next, she breaks her poem into three-line stanzas compiled of repetitive words and phrases like “how do i tell you this gently how do i tell you this so that you hear it //…how do i tell you i want to offer these words.” In the following stanzas, silva repeats other phrases that embody the idea of a lullaby: “i thought // I had taken enough…i thought the odds were on my side i thought i thought.” The repetitive phrases follow the pattern most lullabies follow. I mean, just think about “Little Bo Peep.” This classic lullaby starts each stanza with “Little Bo Peep” (“Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep…Little Bo Peep she searched for her sheep…Little Bo Peep began to weep). Although the poem doesn’t have a rhyme scheme often found in traditional lullabies like Little Bo Peep, “lullaby” uses repetition to remain true to this well-known form.
The poem itself is surprisingly honest and startling for a lullaby. silva uses this harshness to teach a lesson in this poem: “you believe someone telling you that with this family // history you are extremely at risk for cancer, heart disease, and yes, // diabetes and all its complications.” However, the structure of a lullaby is designed to be soothing – after all, we use it to ease children into sleep. The harsh honesty silva implements is thus juxtaposed with the expectation of soothing language in a lullaby, creating contradiction but also allowing silva to speak to her readers without directly acknowledging them. Deliberately starting the poem by naming who the author’s intended audience is (“for my nieces and nephews”) allows silva to show the audience the dark lessons parents must teach their children at a young age. Because the poem she wrote is a lesson for the next generation in her family, the audience can understand how harsh and transparent silva must be to save the children from a fate filled with syringes and pricked fingers.
As the saying goes, music is the universal language. silva makes use of that fact and employs the beauty of song to speak to multiple different audiences in an understandable way. Songs are used to tell a story and that’s exactly what silva does. By writing poetry that specifically references a musical form, a form many can resonate with and recognize, silva is able to access and speak to a larger audience that will be more receptive to her voice as a Latinx person with diabetes.
Many relationships go through hardships; silva simply depicts these hardships when they’re shadowed by illness and how it makes a diabetic romantic relationship unique.
One common theme in poetry and song is love. So, what better way to reach an audience than to write a love song? silva gives us the poem called “diabetic love song,” wherein she explains to her unnamed lover what their relationship will look like because the narrator is diabetic. A love song might describe a conflict that emerges between a couple, and silva gives us a similar situation, but under different circumstances. “diabetic love song” reveals the authentic and quite a bitter insight to conflicts that would arise in a diabetic’s love life. The poem itself is broken into stanzas that visually follow the form of a song. Each stanza describes a relationship with someone who has diabetes. The first stanza stresses all the experiences she won’t be able to share with her partner: “ i will never go to the beach with you in the summer // i will never share a stack of pancakes with you // i will never stay up all night // tossing back tequila shots or beer”. The second stanza lists the physical things that will litter her partner’s life if they stay with the narrator, like “pills in the morning and … at night,” “one syringe,” “alcohol pads,” “lancets,” and “testing strips.” The beginning of this poem specifically lists and lists all the aspects of what will make their relationship different from non-diabetic relationships.
But silva goes beyond the physicality of diabetes. In the middle of the “diabetic love song,” our narrator explores the overwhelming emotions of despair from the disease (“and sometimes i will rail against all of it // howl and gnash my teeth and throw things about”), followed by a softer look at the ways she sometimes has to save her energy for “creating and passion and love and beauty and quiet.” Like most love songs, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: our narrator is still hopeful. By the end of this poem, the narrator makes a promise directly to her lover that she will “love you always // love you fiercely // love you as if you were the only one i ever loved.” These last stanzas serve to remind the audience that these ubiquitous, passionate feelings of love are present in all types of relationships. Many relationships go through hardships; silva simply depicts these hardships when they’re shadowed by illness and how it makes a diabetic romantic relationship unique. Not all love songs end hopefully, but it seems fitting in silva’s poem because of its ability to provide a relatable feeling that encourages the audience to root for our narrator to have someone who is dedicated, resilient, and supportive of them.
The one thing I appreciate the most about ire’ne lara silva’s poetry is her critiques of the health-care system –especially its effect on people of color. silva doesn’t shy away from these hot button issues, instead using her poetry as a space where she can grapple with her frustration towards systemic oppression in the health care system. The racial disparities in health care becomes most clear in the poem “‘we don’t give morphine for heartburn.’” This heartbreaking poem tells the story of the narrator’s brother, who goes to see “doctor dossantos” with the hopes that the doctors will alleviate the extreme pain he is enduring. The title of the poem is a direct quotation from the words of “doctor dossantos,” who initially examines the narrator’s brother, and the doctor states rather harshly,“we don’t give morphine for heartburn” — despite the fact that her brother is “writhing in pain.” As silva depicts it, doctor dossantos is responsible for setting the precedent for the treatment of the narrator’s brother from future doctors; after dossantos dismisses the brother’s claims of excruciating pain, all the following doctors who examine him take a look at his file with dossantos’ notes, and send him away without another thought. Although this may seem like the narrator’s brother was unlucky to be assigned an incompetent health care provider, this poem goes much deeper than that. It’s the little details in this poem that clue us into the racial inequality silva and her brother are facing. For example, the narrator and her brother went to “the only hospital that took patients without insurance,” where they endured “hours-long wait to see a doctor” who still “wouldn’t listen though I pleaded and pleaded.” We see this is specifically a racial issue when the narrator describes how doctor dossantos saw the narrator’s brother as a “young brown-skinned man with scars and tattoos” and allowed him to continue suffering. This poem reveals the harsh image of people of color’s experience with racist and incompetent health care providers.
silva opened a window into a world that I didn’t know needed opening. She shows us a diabetic world where injustice, heartache, and pain coexist with love, hope, and adoration.
The intense response we get from silva in “‘we don’t give morphine for heartburn’” expresses her extreme frustration along with an appreciation for being persistent in the face of adversity: “i am grateful that we went back and went back and insisted and insisted // but doctor dossantos, I curse your name, every time I pass that hospital.” The way this poem is written reads like a polite hate letter to the doctor who failed to help silva’s brother. Admittedly, a hate letter often creates an assumption that the writer is rash and over exaggerating the actions of ‘the perpetrator.’ However, using poetry as a medium to convey pent up frustrations urges the reader to stand with silva because the reasoning behind her hatred towards this doctor is extremely valid under the circumstances she describes. As the poem comes to a close and the narrator curses the doctor repeatedly, silva forces us to directly confront our own biases through the use of second person. By using the second person “you,” the reader feels as if the narrator is talking to them directly and as if they are the stand-in of doctor dossantos, who was responsible for the fate of this “young brown-skinned man with scars and tattoos.” Rereading this poem again has revealed to me that her anger isn’t solely meant for doctor dossantos, but for every entity and individual who could have helped her brother somewhere along the chain — the other doctors and nurses, political officials, the medical establishment, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies. silva allows us to reflect on the way health care providers treat people of color and, in the process, cultivates frustration within the audience to encourage us to do something about the discrimination against people of color in said system.
By the time I finished reading this chap-book, I was unsure if I should cry into a pillow, kick over a trash can, give a hug to all my loved ones, or simply look into the mirror and appreciate the physical-ness of my body, inside and out. silva opened a window into a world that I didn’t know needed opening. She shows us a diabetic world where injustice, heartache, and pain coexist with love, hope, and adoration. ire’ne lara silva truly is the embodiment of a ”poet-curandera”: both an extraordinary poet and an empowering healer.