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Vital Signs:
Dartmouth poet explores illness and self

The scattered scar tissue that blurs Cynthia Huntington's MRI reveals one thing to a radiologist but quite another to Huntington herself. A professor of English at Dartmouth, she describes the sclerosis—in a poem called "A Picture of My Brain" —as "where something that is not me / remakes me from within." The poem appears in her newest collection, The Radiant, which contains poems about multiple sclerosis (MS) as well as about the dissolution of a long marriage. Both subjects, says Huntington, address feelings of inadequacy and crisis of identity: "What do you do when all the things you consider to be your identity are stripped from you?"

Photo by Mark Corliss
Cynthia Huntington is New Hampshire's newly named poet laureate.

Huntington, who was named New Hampshire's poet laureate a few months ago, has had relapsing-remitting MS for 15 years. During relapses, new symptoms appear or existing symptoms become more severe. But the disease can also be inactive for months or years. This unpredictability often leads her to distrust her own perceptions.

In her poems, however, she has been able to "get past the angle of the personal problem" with her disease and instead explore the question of self—a universal concern. Huntington says people with an illness want to know not just "'What do I have?' [or] 'What can we do?' but 'What does it mean?'"

Poetry is more about asking such questions than answering them for Huntington. She is fond of a comment made by critic John Berger, who observed that poems "bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been." When she writes or teaches, Huntington explains, she considers "how language can work best to give that shelter to experience, to tend the wounded, as Berger later says, through presence of awareness and the transformation of form." She plans during her five-year term as poet laureate to hold readings and workshops in and out of the state. G.C.C.

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