404: Identity Not Found

Daniel E. Pritchard in The Critical Flame:

9780984475292 (1)In March 2008, a month shy of his forty-fifth birthday, the critic and poet Reginald Shepherd was battling an aggressive form of colon cancer. The disease had already metastisized to his liver. He was in a tremendous amount of pain, with complications related to a series of other illnesses. As he underwent chemotherapy Shepherd wrote about his ordeal at the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet:

Cancer came as a highly unpleasant surprise […] but psychologically it just confirmed my sense of my body as frail and vulnerable at best, or set on betraying me yet again at worst. I’ve never really identified with my body, have always seen it as distinct and separate from, even in opposition to, my “self.” It has felt more like a burden than anything else. Perhaps all these illnesses are my body’s revenge, its way of reminding me that I am it and it is mine, that it is me. What, after all, would I be without a body, however frail and ailing?

A few weeks later, the poet Linh Dinh juxtaposed this confession with Kenneth Goldmsith’s conceptualist assertion that “Now is the time of possibility we can be everyone and no one at all.” A person in pain, Dinh argued, could not possibly assent to the idea of an ultimately mutable self. Neither technology nor any poetic practice could actually disperse the stability at the center of lived experience. As Franz Kafka wrote, “people are sewn into their skins for life and cannot alter any of the seams.”

Displaying a typical largesse of intellect, Shepherd acknowledged in his response that “the most decentered self still has boundaries,” but wrote that “it is exactly the fact that I have other identities besides ‘a person with HIV’ or ‘a person with cancer’ that enable me to make it through my physical trials and travails.” The lack of stable identity was as a series of possibilities to be explored rather than a conflict to be resolved. Unfortunately, his illness placed boundaries before Shepherd that could not be overcome. By September of that year, he was gone.

More here.