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Book Review: Reclamation Song by Jhilmil Breckenridge

Reclaiming the Power of the Feminine

Reviewed by Soni Somarajan

Reclamation Song cover

Title: Reclamation Song
Author: Jhilmil Breckenridge
Publisher: Red River
Pages: (Paperback) 100
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Holding Reclamation Song in my hands is sheer joy – here, at last, is a book of poetry made beautifully, an object of art in itself. Much thought is given to the cover design, the choice of paper, and the font – in this case, a Fell Type. The publisher, Red River, seems to have insight into how poets would love their books to be designed, evocative of the content as well as the fine delicateness of poetry itself. Thanks to Jhilmil Breckenridge, the poet who is also a painter, the illustrations in the book complement a poetic landscape that refuses to wear off days after.

The 55 poems in Reclamation Song are anything but ‘let it be light, it should float’ kind that Jhilmil aspires to, because the personal tragedy and anguish – the crux anchoring this collection – is of an enormous scale. The verse may be light but the effect is anything but floating, the weight of angst becoming our own – threatening to undo the objectivity of a review. For a debut collection, it has everything going for it – including a glowing introduction by the Master himself, Keki Daruwalla, who terms it ‘solid poetry grounded in pain’. Also, add a cluster of luminous blurbs from the who’s who in the world of letters.

Divided into three sections, we can easily say the first, “Overtures” hinges on the autobiographical – a diverse terrain: separation from children, graveyards, being born dusky, the mother’s influence, a lost childhood, abuse, longing, meeting expectations, and relationship dynamics. One begins to picture a comfortable couch, each poem a session of opening up – the release of the memories, vulnerability subject to public gaze, the poetry an attempt in and becoming the catharsis.

In “Letter to Liam”, notice the contrast between ‘I feared for your life and I let go’ and the delicateness of ‘grass and the daisies’. We focus on the poet’s earnest efforts for control over the turn of events as recalled from memory, the loss of her children. In the light of past events, note the second stanza’s ‘I love you more than words can express’ escalating into a superlative trope, ‘like an endless daisy chain’ – the mother’s love rendered in an unusually higher register, disguising a scream of helplessness. In “Love and Other Stories”, love of another kind, bruised by life’s experiences, comes full circle, inwards: ‘So now the safest place for my heart/ is with me. It beats a triumphant song…’

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Essay: Let’s Go Beyond the Blues by Dr Suhas Chandran

The antonym of depression is more realistically a sense of normalcy rather than elation or happiness, but the bridge is most definitively enablement.

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When I was in medical school I had a fall and I broke my arm. I missed an important exam and had to wear a fracture cast for a long duration. When I returned to college, people rushed to me – friends, acquaintances, and even strangers who saw the cast. It was a symbol of pain and disability. People offered to write notes, carry my bag, drop me home and pick me up. People came up to write messages on the cast. Some would write a positive greeting, some an uplifting quote; there were a few jokes, a batman cartoon in between. There was a lot of warmth, but what I remember most fondly is the transformation in these individuals. Ordinary people like you and me with everyday problems pushing so hard so to make a difference. They were a team – doctors, family, friends and strangers. They identified with that simple image of a cast and stepped up for their mate. It made me feel more comfortable with the disability and confident that I would pull through. Today I wonder. What if it wasn’t a fracture? What if it was a mental illness like depression? Would people still react the same way? Neither do most people with the problem want to open up about it nor do the people around them recognize it without something as colossal and substantial as a cast.

The stigma surrounding mental illness including depression remains a barrier to people seeking help throughout the world. Talking about depression whether with your family member, friend or a medical professional in multiple settings like schools, work place, and social media helps break down this stigma. One person talking about depression gives courage to a thousand to come forward and seek help. This is the core of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) campaign for World Mental Health Day observed on 10 October every year, with the objective of raising awareness of and mobilizing efforts in support of better mental health. Last year the campaign theme was ‘Mental health in the workplace’ and it focused upon people working together, people from different walks of life, from different countries coming forward, talking about depression and seeking help as a vital component of recovery.

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9 hopeful books about schizophrenia

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The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a deeply considered and gorgeously rendered work, part memoir and part clear-eyed assessment of the past, present and future of genetic study. Mukherjee, both a physician and gifted writer, begins by describing the several members of his family whose lives have been devastated by schizophrenia. In order to better understand schizophrenia, he explains all of genetics generally, unraveling the fascinating story of how researchers have come to know what they do about genes. Arriving in the present day about halfway through the book, he then shifts into exploring the ramifications of genetic knowledge today. He discusses such matters as race and gender and identity and intergenerational trauma and psychiatric diagnoses like schizophrenia. I think the world would be a better place if everybody read The Gene.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

This 1964 novel fictionalizes the author’s self-described descent into and recovery from schizophrenia right before the dawn of psychopharmaceuticals in the late forties and early fifties. The book rivetingly animates the protagonist’s elaborate inner world, and the devoted efforts of her psychiatrist — who is based on a real-life doctor, Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Rose Garden was initially published under a penname at the behest of Greenberg’s mother. It resonated with a surprising number of readers, becoming an unexpected bestseller and inspiring many adaptations. Today Rose Gardenremains something all too rare: a widely read story about schizophrenia written by someone who had herself been diagnosed. It’s a very powerful and formally daring work, one that remains as necessary as ever.

Agnes’s Jacket by Dr. Gail Hornstein

In this memoir, an academic psychologist traces her own journey toward a more scientific and historically grounded understanding of madness. I recommend this book particularly for mental health care professionals seeking to better understand schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, and to those partaking in the debates about how to best treat people diagnosed. For those interested in psychiatry, I also recommend Dr. Hornstein’s thorough biography of Dr. Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (of Rose Garden fame), To Redeem One Person is to Redeem the World.

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